I Want to Believe: Mythbusting Apollo 11

Did you hear? Astronauts never landed on the moon! Also, the sky is green and our entire existence is an illusion. I’m being sarcastic, people (although the latter point could be argued).

In case you’ve been living under a rock for fifty years or so, there’s been a little rumor going around about the first moon landing. As modern history books will tell us, on July 20th, 1969, the lunar module Eagle landed on the moon carrying United States astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin. On July 21st, Neil Armstrong was the first to step on the lunar surface, joined later by Aldrin. They placed an American flag in the soil, effectively “winning” the Space Race against the Soviet Union. All’s well that ends well. Except- some conspiracy theorists claim that we never landed on the moon at all. To them, it was just an elaborate hoax.

There is plenty of so-called “evidence,” to support this theory; claims range from the lack of stars in the dark background to the infamous picture of the fluttering American flag in an airless environment. When it comes to conspiracy theorists, the possibilities are endless; but for once, my dear reader, we’re not agreeing with them. Before you, you’ll find six arguments debunking popular Apollo 11 theories- so go crazy. I present to you, Mythbusting Apollo 11 Criticisms™.

The first and most popular argument regarding the “fake moon landing” involves the flag in this photo:

You may not notice it at first, because the flag doesn’t look unusual- until you remember that in outer space, there is no air. And yet, the flag is rippling as if blown by some unseen wind.

“How is this possible, O nerdy one, in an airless environment?” You may ask. “Wouldn’t this prove that the moon landing was, in fact, faked?”

Well, my answer to you, my friend, is no. No, this rogue flag does not prove anything, because according to spaceflight historian Roger Launius, “the video you see where the flag is moving is because the astronaut just placed it there, and the inertia from when they let go kept it moving.” Launius, of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., everyone. Trust his word.

To all of you Apollo conspiracy supporters out there: don’t worry, there’s still plenty for you to doubt, and for me to debunk. That said, popular piece of “proof,” number two:

The black backgrounds in the photos of Apollo 11 are curiously devoid of stars.

National Geographic (ironically, as they also worked to debunk the Apollo 11 “hoax”).

Contrary to Arthur C. Clarke’s (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, among others) famous exclamation in regards to the vastness of space, “My God, it’s full of stars!”, Apollo 11 seems to be less than extraordinary. In the background of most photos taken during the lunar landing, there is only inky blackness in the sky and beyond; why is that? Isn’t there supposed to be a Vincent Van Gogh-esque Starry Night?

The answer: not necessarily. A middle school science course can teach you that the moon’s surface reflects sunlight; this is well-known, basic astronomy. That glare from the sun would have made smaller points of light, like stars, nearly impossible to see. This fact directly applies to the lunar images. The astronauts photographed their experiences using fast exposure settings- most amateur photographers could tell you that such a thing would have limited incoming background light. As a result: a sky without stars, or so it appeared.

Ah, but theorists never rest, because they’ll hit me with “YEAH, WELL WHAT ABOUT THIS?”, or something akin to that. So, I’ll shoot them down before they begin. According to many supporters of the Apollo hoax, the proof is in the shadows. Literally.

Above, we see the one and only Buzz Aldrin in the shadow of the lunar lander. The problem? He is completely visible. I guess their point is that, from this vantage point, he shouldn’t be. The idea is that several shadows on the “surface of the moon” appear unusual in the photos that were released by NASA. Here and there, some shadows aren’t parallel with each other, and a few objects in shadow appear well lit… Do you catch their drift? They’re suggesting that there was light coming from other sources, sources that may be suspiciously similar to lamps or studio cameras, hint hint, nudge nudge.

Newsflash: the Apollo 11 photos were certainly not captured in a warehouse on some obscure Hollywood set. However, I guess we have to be candid here: There were multiple light sources… But not studio cameras. According to Launius, “You’ve got the sun, the Earth’s reflected light, light reflecting off the lunar module, the spacesuits, and also the lunar surface.”

Hoax believers were right in assuming light didn’t hit the astronauts at one single angle. The different sources resulted in shadows in strange places- and on a related note, Launius also reminds us that the moon’s surface is not exactly even: “It’s also important to note that the lunar surface is not flat. If an object is in a dip, you’re going to get a different shadow compared to an object next to it that is on a level surface.”

Is it really so hard to believe that NASA didn’t fake the lunar landing? Yes? In that case…

The next theory, and by far my favorite, just because of how laughable it is: this boot print is too clear for the moon landing to have been real.

Well, that’s not exactly what believers say, but it’s the basic idea. The theory: these prints left by the astronauts are “a bit too clear for being made on a bone-dry world.” (quoth National Geographic) Supposedly, “prints that well-defined could only have been made in wet sand.”

Unfortunately, that is completely and utterly incorrect. As a matter of fact, according to Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait, “it’s nonsense.” Regolith, or better known by its less technical term: moon sand, is “like a finely ground powder. When you look at it under a microscope, it almost looks like volcanic ash. So when you step on it, it can compress very easily into the shape of a boot.” The particles are held in their place because of the friction between them. Although this revelation may be soul-crushing for die-hard conspirators, those boot prints could last for a long time, thanks to the “airless vacuum” on the moon. So, that’s that.

But wait, there’s more!

We haven’t quite touched on the elusive lunar lander- here, we see it resting on fairly flat, undisturbed soil. A peaceful creature in its natural habitat. Apparently, this picture isn’t so innocent though, because skeptics have thrown in their two cents; they claim that the module’s descent should have been a little rougher. That is to say, it “should have been accompanied by a large dust cloud and would have formed a noticeable crater.”

Sorry to continuously burst your bubble, but Launius has something to say about that, too. “The lander’s engines were throttled back just before landing, and it did not hover long enough to form a crater or kick up much dust.”

Launius says that science fiction movies dramatize the actual landing of spacecraft; they may be depicted with huge flaming jets when landing, but this is not the case, and “that’s not how they did it on the moon. That’s not the way they would do it now or anytime in the future.”

Roger Launius, here to shut the skeptics down.

We’ll reign in one last theory. This one is super fun.

We’re going to be talking about the Van Allen radiation belt, so here’s a little science lesson: according to Dictionary.com, “A radiation belt is a zone of energetic charged particles, most of which originate from the solar wind that is captured by and held around a planet by that planet’s magnetic field.” These “belts” shield Earth from high-energy particles.

According to NASA, “This image shows how particles move through Earth’s radiation belts. A cloud of colder material known as the plasmasphere sits in the middle of the donut-shaped belts and acts as a barrier to keep fast-moving electrons away from Earth.”

The claim in question is that if the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 had left the safety of the Van Allen belt, they would have been killed by radiation.

Don’t you just love science?

Now, Earth’s magnetic field created the Van Allen belts. These belts protect Earth from solar radiation, and they collect and trap it in a layer surrounding the planet. Unfortunately for hoax believers (and fortunately for the astronaut trio), the exposure to this level of radiation is “well below dangerous levels.” Phil Plait says that “unless you deliberately caused your spaceship to hover within this layer, for many hours or days, it’s not much more serious than a chest x-ray.” Given that the Apollo team passed through the belts in less than four hours, total, for the trip, they really had nothing to worry about. So fret not.

Hey, since you made it this far, I promise I won’t bombard you with any more theories. In fact, I’ll leave this open-ended, for anyone who wants to challenge me in the comments or via email: come to me, I’ll have an answer for you.

Consider yourself debunked, Apollo 11 conspiracy. We won the Space Race fair and square, without any elaborate Hollywood sets or diabolical national secrets. @ the doubters:

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Resources, as always, being the hip young scholar that I am:

  • “PHOTOS: 8 Moon-Landing Hoax Myths — Busted.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.
  • “Top 10 Apollo Hoax Theories.” Space.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.
  • History.com Staff. “Apollo 11.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.
  • Dunbar, Brian. “The First Person on the Moon.” NASA. NASA, 01 Feb. 2008. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.
  • History.com Staff. “The Space Race.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 07 Feb. 2017.

*Most photographs courtesy of NASA unless otherwise cited.

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