Debunking the Moon Truthers, Part 3
The Scientific Proof that We Went to the Moon
This week we're going to wrap up our mega three-part Skeptoid episode debunking the conspiracy theory that claims we never went to the moon. Two weeks ago, we talked about the life and times of the conspiracy theory, its genesis and its evolution; and last week we covered some of the basic claims made by conspiracy theorists who analyze the Apollo photos and videos and conclude that it must have taken place on a sound stage. But this week, as a finale, we're going to go into the most interesting and educational part of the story: how we know for a fact that human beings from the Earth actually traveled to the moon, and walked around, and made it back safely.
Let's begin with a tidbit that's been among the most exciting in recent years:
Photographic Proof of the Apollo Landing Sites
For a long time, one of the most significant (and convincing) arguments that we never went to the moon was that there are no photos of the landing sites. If there really are six lunar landers sitting up there, oughtn't we be able to point any old telescope at the moon and see them? Scientists always said no, our telescopes aren't strong enough. But that seemed ridiculously hard to believe. Imagine our giant telescopes on top of Mauna Kea — or even the Hubble space telescope that photographs the most distant objects in the universe — or even the numerous spy satellites in orbit that are said to be able to read license plates. Even I will readily admit that it sounded absurd that telescopes like these couldn't easily resolve landing sites on something as close as the moon. That lack of proof, which seems like it should have been so easy for NASA to provide, was pretty worrisome for some who were on the fence about whether we actually ever went there.
But as we all now know, in 2009 when we launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to orbit the moon and photograph it close-up, we got the first pictures of the landing sites. They show all the hardware left behind, and even rover tire tracks and astronaut footprint tracks. In 2011 the LRO sent back much sharper pictures, and we now finally have great images of the sites. Two interesting things happened. The first interesting thing is that the 6-7% of Americans who doubted that we went to the moon before these images appeared continued to doubt that we went to the moon. Predictably, in this age of computer generated imagery, the pictures changed nobody's mind at all.
The second interesting thing is that we finally have an answer to the question of why we never had these pictures before, with all our giant, powerful telescopes. The LRO images are fairly good, but its camera is pretty small. Let's compare it to Hubble to see why it was able to see what Hubble couldn't. The LRO took its first set of pictures from a height of only 50 km above the moon's surface, and its second higher-resolution set from a low orbit of only 21 km. By contrast, at its closest, Hubble gets 362,546 km from the moon. That's more than 17,000 times farther away than the LRO was able to get. So just to get pictures of this LRO quality — which are decent but not great — we have to get 17,000 times closer to the object than Hubble is. That gives you some idea of the scope of why Earth telescopes couldn't see the landing sites. The moon seems close, but it's still pretty far; and those pieces of hardware and footprints are very, very small.
Worldwide Monitoring of the Apollo Flights
When the Apollo flights took place — especially the early missions — a lot of people paid very close attention, all around the world, with telescopes, radios, and radar. The Soviets, desperate for an American failure, watched every second of every flight and tracked every spacecraft on its way to and from the moon by telescope and by radar. They never found the doubt they were looking for.
Observatories worldwide, plus countless amateurs, reported sightings of most of the Apollo spacecraft. Sky and Telescope Magazine published an article listing sightings of Apollo in 1969. These sightings included clouds from the disastrous explosion of Apollo 13's #2 oxygen tank, and also of stage separations for most flights. Astronomer John Keel maintains a large web database of sightings from Apollo watchers worldwide. There is little doubt that Apollo spacecraft did go to the moon.
Correction: An earlier version of this called the #2 oxygen tank the "external" oxygen tank, which is how it is often named in many writings, but incorrectly. –BD
There is also another aspect to the monitoring. Had the Apollo spacecraft remained in Earth orbit, as many Moon Truthers claim, they would have been easy to spot with the naked eye, as they were at least as large as many of the satellites you can see in today's night sky. If this had been the case, there would have been many sightings during each Apollo mission. The fact that there were no sightings reported indicates that this probably isn't what happened.
About 382 kilograms of rocks were brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts. They are unequivocally from the moon, they would be impossible to fake on the Earth, and they didn't get here naturally as meteorites. Let's take a look at how we know these facts:
We wouldn't expect the Soviets to challenge them, because they know better. In the 1970s, three Soviet missions — Luna 16, Luna 20, and Luna 24 — landed on the moon and returned 326 grams of moon rocks to Earth. The Soviets knew exactly what moon rocks were made of, and the fact that they've never questioned the authenticity of the Apollo rocks should give the Moon Truthers pause — unless they say the Soviets were in on the Apollo conspiracy, which would be in direct contradiction with Moon Truthing's fundamental claim.
Any chance that both NASA and the Soviets lied about bringing their rocks back, and simply picked up a bunch of lunar meteorites they found right here on Earth? No, because all the NASA and Soviet moon rocks lack the exterior melting, called a fusion crust, that all meteors receive when entering the Earth's atmosphere. The only lunar meteorites that lack a fusion crust are those on which it has weathered away. Such weathering is equally obvious, and is absent on all the rocks brought back from the moon. Recall the unfakeable zap pits, for example.
There truly isn't any credible narrative other than that these 382 kg of rocks were brought to the Earth from the moon in some artificially protected manner.
These are panels with a surface mottled with little right-angled cubical mirrors that reflect light out at the same angle it came in, and are used in laser range finding. The Apollo astronauts placed retroreflectors at their landing sites, and these are all regularly detected by observatories worldwide. Some were detected from Earth the very same day they were set up; some were located within a few days. In addition, the uncrewed Russian landers Lunokhod 1 and Lunokhod 2 are both still sitting up there, and both have retroreflectors. No nation has ever reported being unable to detect and verify both American and Soviet retroreflectors.
Of course, this doesn't prove humans were aboard the spacecraft that carried these retroreflectors, but the acknowledgement from every country, both friendly and unfriendly, does prove — at least to the satisfaction of even our enemies — that the Apollo program successfully landed on the moon.
Surveyor 3 was an uncrewed American probe that landed on the moon in 1967. When Apollo 12 landed on the moon in 1969, they decided to land at the same place. Sure enough, they touched down within sight of Surveyor 3. The astronauts removed about 10 kg of parts from it and brought them back to Earth, including the camera which is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Examination of its glass shows tracks from high-energy solar particles, including heavy ions emitted by solar flares. These are blocked by the Earth's atmosphere, so this had to happen in space. This proves that the camera was in space, if not necessarily on the moon; and its removal from Surveyor 3 required careful manual work that couldn't have been done by a robot. So there's proof that a man was somewhere in space at some point to do the work.
I suppose it's possible to draw out some alternate scenario in which NASA could have accomplished all of these things via some narrative that differs from the historical one, but all the components of the story are proven and immovable. The alternate scenario would have to be absurdly more complex, Rube Goldberg style, and thus even riskier than simply using these components as intended, as all the evidence shows they did.
As I said two weeks ago in part 1, I doubt this series of episodes will change the minds of any hardcore Moon Truthers. But I do hope that, at a minimum, some of the science we've touched on will intrigue them enough to dig further on their own. What we know is less important than how we know it, and if we can develop a love for the learning process, eventually we'll all end up with a better understanding of our world.
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