The truth behind the Moon landing conspiracy

This week Jeff Bezos fished an F-1 motor from an Apollo mission out of the Atlantic. The biggest rocket engine ever used. That’s seriously awesome.

There is a reader of this blog whose Dad was pad safety officer for Apollo 11 – who was brought up in the middle of the whole project. Ultra cool (I am sooooo jealous!).

I still recall sitting in front of TV aged seven, while a shadowy, black-and-white Neil Armstrong descended to the lunar surface. It was an unforgettable moment. Armstrong – along with Aldrin, Collins and the other Apollo astronauts – were heroes in the truest sense.

Neil Armstrong in the LM, tired but elated after the first moon walk, 20 July 1969. Photo: NASA
Neil Armstrong in the LM, after the first moon walk, 20 July 1969. His face says it all. Photo: NASA

That was the real space age. Even New Zealand was seized by the dream; we had Apollo hardware kits in our cornflake packs, there were moon ice-creams. Humanity was doing what it does best -stretching the limits, pushing the unknown. Publicly, spectacularly. It was an exciting time to grow up.

Not that any of this has stopped lunatic claims that the whole lot was faked by NASA. The argument rests on a trawl for supposed consistency errors and gaffes perpetrated by the top scientific minds in the US, yet easily discoverable by enthusiasts. What’s more, the whole deception has, we are told, been kept secret for decades by tens of thousands of government and private-sector employees, officials, and others involved in the lunar programme, including international scientists such as New Zealand’s Sir William Pickering, who ran JPL at the time.

Quite. Needless to say, most of the pro-hoax arguments pivot on flat ignorance of the science involved. The claims are trivial to debunk – check out here and here.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith. Photo:NASA.
Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969.Photo: NASA, public domain.

I can show you a disproof myself. Check out Armstrong’s photo of Buzz Aldrin descending to the Moon. Notice how he’s lit on the shadowed side of the Lunar Module? That, hoax-advocates insist, is the smoking gun. Dumb old NASA had to add a second light to get around the fact that they’d lit the wrong side of the LM on their sound stage.

The reality?  The ladder was in shadow because Armstrong and Aldrin landed with the sun behind them soon after lunar dawn. No second light is needed in this photo; Aldrin is lit by reflected light from the regolith behind Armstrong, the photographer. You can see this principle for yourself. Here’s a photo I took of the Tom Parker fountain in Napier, New Zealand.

A photo I took of the Tom Parker Fountain, Napier, January 2013.
A photo I took of the Tom Parker Fountain, Napier, January 2013.

The shadow side of the fountain (facing the camera) should be as dark as the shadows under the topiary. Actually, it’s as bright as the sunlit side.  Yet the sole illumination is the sun, from top left. Sunlight reflected from the water on the side of the fountain to the right is illuminating the shadow side. The atmosphere makes little difference – it scatters the light, but not enough, evidenced by density of other shadows. Here’s how it works:

I made this myself...
I made this myself. Oh man, I love being a geek!

What I’m showing here is the principle. Water reflects light in specular fashion, and at this angle it’s reflecting 90-95% – rendering the fountain’s shadow side over-exposed. By contrast, lunar regolith reflects about 2% light. And if you check out the moon photo, you’ll see not much light is reflected on Aldrin; Armstrong has set the camera to expose on that shadow. The regolith beyond (as bright as what’s illuminating Aldrin, from the other direction) is grossly over-exposed. That nails the point. Aldrin looks well lit. Actually, he isn’t – and that’s as you’d expect from lunar dirt reflectivity.

I have often wondered why something as stupid as the moon hoax claim could gain traction. Part of it is that we never went back – Apollo ended 40 years ago. Today it seems like a dream. But it also occurs to me that the hoax idea proxies one of the key aspects of the human condition. Humanity, it seems, likes to see patterns where none exist and attribute meaning without reference to context – or by referring to a context that isn’t the one shared by others.

The hoax traction is also, I think, derived at least partly from powerlessness – wanting to find explanations within bound of what the individual knows, as a way of asserting control over a huge and frightening world around. If we assert what we think we know, over what we don’t know, we regain a sense of control. It’s how conspiracies work – the detail of the hoax claim itself is merely symptomatic at this level.

It’s impossible to argue against such people, because what they assert is tied into their sense of self-worth.

What are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: the real moon-landing hoax – Moscow style. And coming up, more how-to posts on writing, more fun stuff, and – well, you’ll see!

23 thoughts on “The truth behind the Moon landing conspiracy

  1. It is similar with the 9/11 conspiracy. A few years back I got into an online discussion with some 9/11 ‘truthers’ (as the conspiracists call themselves), and it was the most frustrating discussion ever. Whenever I pointed them at the logical/scientific.debunking explanations for any so-called ‘inconsistency’ they brought up, they would ignore it and throw another ‘inconsistency’ in instead.

    The clincher for me was when they said that as I was arguing with them, I must be in on it too! That was the point I left the discussion, no doubt with them rubbing their hands with glee that my departure proved that they had uncovered one of the conspiracy members …


    1. Oh yes, ‘If you deny it, you’re part of it’. Wonderful stuff. How can you argue against that? I find the commonalities between all these conspiracies intriguing – virtually the whole lot is based on the notion of ‘government/establishment/scientists/historians’ (name your profession) are ‘deceiving us’.

      I’ve run into it in my historical work more than once – the notion that ‘establishment/ academic/ government’ historians are ‘decieving’ everyday Kiwis about the ‘truth’ of the past. To me that underscores the idiocy of conspiracy thinking. There is no such community! On my own experience of our top historians and the way they behave towards each other, and to people such as myself who have the temerity to invade their personal territories, I can state categorically that the chance of this dysfunctional, hate-filled group of angry ‘intellectuals’ actually conspiring to deceive the public is absolutely zero.


  2. There’s a great (circa 2000) film called “The Dish” (starring Sam Neil) that told a somewhat fictionalized story of the (Australian) Parkes Observatory’s role in relaying live television of man’s first steps on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Somewhat off topic, but I’m mentioning it because it’s a fun movie. Definitely worth a watch, if you haven’t already seen it. 😉


    1. I’ve seen the film – wonderful, wonderful story! Classically quirky – a lot of Aussie stuff is, actually, a genre NZ has never been able to master. The weird thing is, back in 1969, NZ didn’t have direct satellite link to the world. To get the Moon pictures, we had to get them recorded in Sydney – which did – and then whipped across to New Zealand in time for the evening news. The RNZAF did it with one of their high-speed bombers.


      1. Oh, my! With today’s instantaneous satellite communication, that seems silly. But I remember, computers weren’t that advanced back then, and rotary dial phones were still a common phenomenon (all plugged into walls, no less)! Bomber-net trumps sneaker-net any day!

        By the way, my uncle was one of the helicopter pilots who retrieved the astronauts from the Apollo 12 mission after they landed. That must have been awesome!


  3. Great post. I love hearing about conspiracy theories… but not as much as I love hearing them de-bunked. The best answer to most of the moon landing nuts is that the technology didn’t exist 1969 to produce what most of them claim was done.

    I’d heartily recommend Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch as a cracking read on the subject of conspiracy theories.


    1. Exactly! What’s more, the stupid mistakes the conspirators allege in the photography weren’t even being made by the SF special-effects bods of the day. I’m thinking explicitly “Space Odyssey” followed by UFO, Gerry Anderson’s live-action TV series. The moon-base model work in the latter (by Derek Meddings) was stunning – holds up today, even in this age of CGI. No, it didn’t exactly look like the real moon – no studio setting then or since ever has (as you say, the tech wasn’t there to do this level of fakery). But equally, these special effects didn’t have any of the “errors” that the moon hoaxers claim NASA perpetrated. And if you’re spending millions to fake a moon landing…uh…wouldn’t you also know to hire the right guys?

      I’ll check out the Voodoo Histores book for sure.


  4. I think you hit the nail on the head when you point out how “truthers” wrap their ego up in conspiracy theory. You can bury them in facts and they will shrug it all off and keep coming with someone else. Do this long enough and they will come back to already disproven arguments.

    I find such things disturbing. Events such as the Moon landings are important for the advancement of human beings. It’s a shame we’ve stopped. I wish we would get back to it with a vengeance. These truthers place doubt in the minds of people (hopefully not too many), and make it seem like it is not worth venturing into space (since they claim it would be lies anyway). I want to see more visits to the Moon and even a Lunar Colony. Manufacturing facilities could locate water and metals, critical for building larger ships in orbit and powering them to Mars. These truthers place doubts on such important possibilities. I find them deleterious to important human advances.


    1. I agree – it’s extremely worrisome that people like to deny our greatest achievements. And the moon landing was utterly, utterly great. For the first time in the history of our planet, we left the bounds of Earth and landed…somewhere else.

      What’s more, there were a LOT of spinoffs that we take for granted today – everything from fly-by-wire control systems to memory foam mattresses to teflon frypans to… well, modern computing.

      All of which the conspirators would wish to deny. And, indeed, it’s put the damper on re-kindling that excitement. Who knows what advances – and advantages – we might get from a similar project to land us on Mars, or exploit the Moon’s resources? Serendipity is a wonderful thing. All lost to us without proper buy-in at popular level. And I agree, the moon hoax conspiracy is very much a damper. What worries me is that an awfuil lot of rank-and-file everyday people (who are not, themselves, conspiracy theorists) seem to take it as read. A pity. Those of us with sense do what we can to counter these things, but it’s difficult…


  5. Of all conspiracy theories, the moon landing is probably the most plausible one, because it is one of the few CTs which has a clear and consistent motive for the so-called conspirators: busting the USSR. However, most lunatics do not grasp that faking a moonlanding might be more difficult than actually gping the Moon.

    The reason why this CT is quite popular is the fact that there have not been any moonlanding in the last thirty years (my mother was six when the last manned moon landing happened). Some people might wonder why there were no more moonlandings after 1972. Unable to understand that the Moon is not a very interseting place for humans to be (scientific mission are better off with robotic exploration); this might cause some people to believe that the moon landings are fake.


    1. There’s no question in my mind that the truncation of Apollo and the cancellation of all but Skylab out of the post-Apollo applications programme did a good deal to fuel the notion that the six landings might not have happened at all.. The decisions were made even before the moon landing – Apollos 18-20 were cancelled. It underscored the fact that, for all the adventure and heroic exploration aspect, the fundamental motive was political. And that was reflected, too, in the public response; once the first landing had happened the ‘space race’ was won, and the world turned off the idea pretty quickly.

      If all plans had come to fruition there’d have been 10 initial Apollo lunar landings, multiple Skylabs, possibly including one orbiting the Moon, then a return to the Moon with potential long-term stays, and perhap even a manned Venus fly-by, all during the 1970s. The tech was there – they had the hardware and the means. All that was missing was the political desire to fund it, though this in turn was a reflection of public mood. However, such a programme would, I think, have also meant there was no chance anybody might call ‘fake’, afterwards.


  6. Don’t deny your inner geek. Embrace it!

    I’ve seen the theories and take it that some people just like to try and disprove everything.

    The thing that I’m disappointed in is that we landed on the moon a year or so before I was born so WHERE IS THE MOON BASE? I should be able to save up and have a holiday on the Moon.

    We’ve gone backwards in many regards and in all seriousness, I’m sure a permanent base on the Moon would have many good applications to benefit humankind.

    I just hope this Mars One project takes off when planned and we at least go to Mars. 🙂


    1. The 1960s were a trremendously optimistic decade in some senses, and I think it’s fairly certain that had spending gone on the way it was then, we’d be on Mars by now – and have that permanent lunar base. There were plans for long-stay visits amidst the post-Apollo programme – all cancelled in 1968, before the first lunar landing, even. The cause was the rising cost of Vietnam and the realisation that the moon landing race was, at heart, political – not scientific or altruistic. And as you say, we have indeed gone backwards as a result. I have some optimism, though, that some of the private ventures today will pay off. Hopefully.


  7. I’ve had discussions with some of these conspiracy theorists and I’ve come to the conclusion that the comedian Ron White said best. “You can’t fix stupid!”

    You are also correct that the US Government could not keep a secret that long. Too many people involved. If it were a hoax, the media would have jumped on it and would still be reporting it to this day.Exceptional bravery, character, and success are often targets for those who have none of these.


    1. I agree entirely… What’s more, thinking about it, if NASA hadn’t actually put men on the Moon, the Russians would have certainly known about it and screamed long and hard, particularly given that they lost the race. I’ve got a post coming up on their adventures next week – their denial that they’d even been trying, after they’d spent billions of roubles on their own moon programme and killed far too many people in a launch explosion. That was the “real” moon hoax.


  8. It’s taken me awhile to catch up on my blog post reading (and yours is always top of the list) so I didn’t see your call-out of me until just this morning! 🙂 (Really made my day!) As far as the conspiracy theory, my father was so amused by it that he actually carried a card in his wallet years later (that some wag had given him) giving him full membership in the “Flat Earth Society.” (I’m not sure this ding-bat organization still exists but it goes in the same category with those nut jobbers who still don’t believe we walked on the moon.) GREAT post, Matthew!


    1. A wonderful story! Your Dad sounds like he had a wicked sense of humour! I have to say it again, it’s SO COOL that you had Apollo unfolding on your doorstep and your Dad was right there in the middle of it,

      I’m sure the Flat Earthers are around, somewhere – along with any other weird thinking you care to name. Patrick Moore wrote a very funny take on the whole ‘independent thought’ movement, many years ago, ‘So You Speak Venusian?’


  9. Why was the sky black when they landed on the moon? Shouldn’t it have been full of sunshine?


    1. The sky is black, as seen by someone standing on the Moon, even in daylight, The stars are invisible because the glare from the Sun – reflected off the regolith and surrounds – washes them out. This is true for the human eye and for cameras alike. On Earth, the sky appears blue because of a phenomenon known as Rayleigh Scattering, by which the atmosphere – dust and gases – scatter certain wavelengths of light. The Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere and so this doesn’t happen.


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