Is Russia stirring up the moon landing loon conspiracies?

It seems this week that Russia’s ‘Investigating Committee’ wants an investigation into the US moon landings of 1969-72 – not so much to reveal them as fake, but to find out where missing moon rocks have gone.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment - a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in July 1969 with the Solar Wind Experiment – a device to measure the wind from the sun. Public domain, NASA.

I know where one is – a scrap weighing less than 1 gm, which is in the Carter Observatory in Wellington, New Zealand. (‘We don’ want your moonrock, silly English k’nigget. We already got one. It’s ver’ nice.’) However, apparently other small fragments – such as the one in the Netherlands Rijksmuseum – have been tested and found to be fake. NASA, it seems, lost track of some of its gifts.

I expect this will fire up the conspiracy camp. You know, the loons who pore over pictures of the lunar expeditions looking to ‘prove’ that NASA and the 400,000 expert professional engineers, scientists, and everybody else in the US who were directly involved in the Apollo project spent billions faking the landings, yet were so incompetent they made kiddie-grade mistakes. For instance, getting the studio lighting wrong or forgetting to put jet-blast spall under the landing motor, none of which were noticed noticed at the time – including by the Soviets – but which are somehow blatantly obvious to the conspiracy theorists.

I mention the Soviets because they lost the moon landing race, big time. And the Cold War was in full swing – prestige was at stake and the whole reason for the race in the first place was to fight that war by abstraction and proxy. If there had been the slightest hint that the Americans had faked anything – well, the ‘gotcha’ from Moscow would have been audible around the world.

Apollo 12 lifting off. The SIV stage is the one just clear of the tower. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg
Apollo 12 lifting off. The Saturn SIV stage is the one just clear of the tower. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg

As I’ve mentioned before, there WAS a lunar landing conspiracy at the time – but it wasn’t American. It was Soviet. The problem was that, although John F Kennedy threw down the gauntlet in 1961, there was no commitment to respond, at first, in the Soviet hierarchy. When the Politburo did allow work towards a moon mission, it was late, underfunded, and the effort was split between rival design bureaux, all of whom had their own ideas. Still, it’s possible they might still have done it – perhaps, at least, been first to orbit the Moon, in 1968 – had Sergei Korolev not died in 1966.

To call Korolev a genius is an understatement. He was a brilliant, brilliant designer and a hands-on engineer, directly responsible for orbiting Sputnik in 1957 and then Vostok – with Yuri Gagarin aboard – in 1961, giving the Soviets an dramatic early lead in the ‘space race’ as a direct result of his personal attention to every bolt, wire, system and joint in the rockets and spacecraft developed by his bureau. Stuff worked because Korolev was tweaking it. And his fundamentals were sound: his Soyuz rocket (nee R7/A1) and Soyuz spacecraft remain in use today – updated, modified and developed, but still his basic design.

Without him, his bureau lost direction. They never did solve problems with their giant N-1 booster. But the pressure was on, and with the Apollo programme back on track by early 1968, the Soviets floated plans to put a manned mission into lunar orbit late that year. The CIA was aware of the plan, tipping off NASA – which prompted the daring Apollo 8 mission, only the second flight of Apollo, that put Americans into lunar orbit in December. The Soviet effort failed when the N-1 exploded on test launch.

F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Saturn first-stage F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In July 1969 the Soviets tried a last-ditch ploy, despatching a robot probe to return lunar soil to Earth before Apollo 11. It also failed – and once Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin were back on Earth, the Soviets denied they had ever been in the moon race at all. Never. Nix. Not ever.

In fact, they had all the hardware – including a huge lunar roving vehicle, Lunokhod, that they later sent for an unmanned mission. Today their lunar lander – which reached unmanned test-flight stage – is on display in Moscow.  The spacesuits used on the ISS today are descendants of the Kretchet design intended for lunar EVA.

And some of the motors built for the ill-fated N-1 programme have been used in (wait for it) American launch vehicles – stored for 30 years and then used. Some of them blew up, but that didn’t reduce the fact that they’d originally been built to take Soviets to the Moon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


7 thoughts on “Is Russia stirring up the moon landing loon conspiracies?

  1. But conspiracy theorists are so much fun! 😀 I was quite young during that time, yet I carry with me still the feeling of wonder and optimism NASA inspired in my impressionable mind. Even now I’m monitoring the current Mars mission, Ceres, and Pluto. The quest for knowledge, even when that knowledge is a bit over my head, is one I cherish.

    1. They are indeed an awful lot of fun – the world the conspiracists live in is so very different from ours, filled with hidden secrets that only they can see. There’s quite a good one here in NZ by which ancient Chinese people set up a civilisation here, apparently – the guy who ‘found’ it located ‘evidence’ in a lot of popular tourist spots and other areas such as the Dunedin Botanical Gardens (est. 1863) which to him were industrial ruins from this ancient world…

      I agree on that sense of optimism and wonder. The Moon landings – which happened when I was a kid – were exciting, wonderful, inspiring – all those things. Possibly the greatest miracle was the fact that they were happening for us all, through TV. I still remember the shadowy images of Armstrong stepping out on the Moon.

      1. Ah yes, the “ancient aliens” who came to earth, built countless grand structures, and taught us stupid humans everything except how to clearly record their visit. Those aliens then departed, but forgot the roadmap that’d enable their return. Yeah, I love those guys!

        As I recall the moon landing occurred around midnight my time (I lived on the east coast then). I still remember staying up late with other family members to watch on a B&W television. It’s one of those treasured and, thankfully, ingrained memories.

  2. The old conspiracy theories were the best. (Like everything, I suppose: television, chocolate bars, comic books.) They were like magic tricks and I’ve always had a begrudging respect for people who toiled away to prove the pyramids were built by aliens, or figure out who Kaspar Hauser might have been.

    Today’s conspiracy nuts are obsessed with black flag operations and shady government departments trying to kill us all. Give me a good moon landing hoax any day. I even have my own conspiracy theory on that one: they did land on the moon, but Neil Armstrong left the lens cap on the camera, so they had to fake the photos when they all got back. It’s easily done!

    As for the Russians, Putin seems to be going on some kind of supermarket dash of weird provocations. Threatening the Swedes if they join Nato, welcoming Greece if they leave the EU, insisting there’s nothing corrupt about FIFA. The man’s obviously mad. But he likes a good conspiracy theory, so he at least has a sense of humour.


    1. I definitely miss those old conspiracy theories – they were a lot of fun, and everybody had a good laugh before going home. The funny thing about the Apollo 11 photography is that NASA has since published ALL the raw shots taken by the astronauts – who had the near-impossible job of trying to work a Hassleblad strapped to their chest, in a Moon suit, while wearing EVA gloves… And yeah, there’s the due crop of stupid angles, mis-focussed and mis-shot pix. Though in other ways they were lucky – 8-10 out of 100 STILL made it to the pages of National Geographic. Whereas I’ve heard horror stories about photographers here on Earth submitting 1000 pix and having 999 of them rejected… 🙂

  3. Ah yes, conspiracy theorists. What do you call them? The “woo-woo crowd?” That movie, “Capricorn One” imagined the moon landings as all faked. It was a fun and entertaining movie, but that’s all it really was. It seems some folks took it it entirely too seriously. The immense effort it would take to fake the moon landings rival just landing on the moon for real. And it’s pretty clear to me that Putin has completely lost his mind. His actions are making less and less sense as the years go on. If he’s pushing conspiracy theories, I can only hope some brave Russians out there keep him as far from the nuclear football as possible.

    1. I never saw that movie but it’s interesting how the whole conspiracy loon apparatus really only took off after it was released. As you say, it was a movie for entertainment, not a treatise. To me it suggests that even the moon conspiracy notion wasn’t really original to its main advocates…

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