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.
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.
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.
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