Recently, in the interests of fair play and open discussion of views, I agreed to watch a presentation of an opinion with which I disagreed. The friend with whom I was talking chose 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon' by Bart Sibrel, which proposes that the Apollo moon landings were faked.
I had a few hopes that it would provide some food for thought. As food goes, this is cotton candy, and possibly cabbage flavored. It did send me to the net for something more substantial, though. Let's begin.
The video opens with assorted quotations and a long rambling monologue, eventually getting around to the subject of space exploration. About six minutes in we move over to a montage of rocketry disasters which brings us to 8:20. About ten minutes into the video we finally see an Apollo liftoff, and at 12:25 it finally makes a verifiable claim.
Thirteen minutes in the film finally starts making factual claims. Here are three claims:
1) Traversing the Van Allen belt would take 90 minutes: true.
2) Solid lead shielding would been needed to let humans survive: plausible but not supported by available information. A quick google turns up the radiation exposure numbers; Apollo 11 had the second from lowest radiation dose average at .18 rads, the highest being the Apollo 14 crew at 1.14 rads. (Apollo 9 never left Earth orbit and avoided the van Allen belts entirely, but still averaged .2 rads, slightly more than the Apollo 11 crew.) As a comparison, nuclear industry workers are allowed a maximum of five rads per year by the AEC. Too, cosmic background radiation seems to be agreed to have contributed more than the brief Van Allen belt pass. The radiation exposure wasn't good for them, but it was quite survivable.
3) The Saturn V was 35 stories tall and weighed as much as a battleship: Mixed truth. The listed height is 363ft, so the height claim can be called true. Fueled it weighed 6,699,000lbs, 3349.5 tons vs 10,288 tons for the USS Oregon (BB-3), a particularly wimpy battleship, or HMS Dreadnought at 18,120 tons; the weight claim is false.
So far we're batting .500; enjoy it while you can, because that's as good as it gets.
It goes on to talk about the Van Allen belts and make vague claims about their intensity. (Whoever did the CGI did their research; you can see the inner and outer bands. That's not hard to do, but there's much wrong here that I think it's worth pointing out when something is gotten right.) The narrator talks about radiation induced visual effects, which is true. (I've heard this is from nervous tissue impacts not retina interaction - verification, anyone?). The narrator only talks about shuttle reports, but the effect was reported as far back as the Apollo missions. Saying that would be harmful to their premise, however. Also, someone should have clarified the use of 'electrons' as a generic synonym for 'charged particles.'
Then it wanders away into conspiracy theory stuff - we still have Kennedy assassination theories, so therefore...um, something. In passing it mentions that the Soviets were first to put an animal in space but shows a monkey rather than Laika, which shouldn't have been done once much less twice.
At 21 minutes in we get back on track and it claims a satellite called Tetra (perhaps?) was launched in 1968 to test and train ground crew. I hadn't remembered this, but sounds practical. However, goggling doesn't turn it up. (I'm not saying it didn't exist, just that google, wikipedia, and nasa.gov are silent about it.) This falls apart when they hint it could be used to fool the Soviets that radio signals were coming from orbit not the moon.
One quote caught my attention enough to transcribe. At 22:20 the narrator says, "Whatever pictures and sound were distributed were strictly controlled, and previewed by the federal government." Did the scriptwriter not remember that this was going out on live television? Is the audience not supposed to remember that? If you're going to contradict something widely believed and personally witnessed by hundreds of millions of people, you really shouldn't just throw out a dubious claim and move on.
Never mind; 23 minutes in it claims fewer than 20 pictures from the time Apollo 11 actually spent on the moon. This is incorrect; see http://history.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/images11.html
for a really huge collection. Many of them are not interesting - for example, film magazine #45 alone has 35 shots - but it was used in the Lunar Surface Closeup Camera and so has only pictures of rocks - but they exist and are available on the internet if you're into that.
At 23:45 it claims that there is only one full body picture of Neil Armstrong on the moon. It's unclear why a 'full body' photo would be particularly interesting, but it's true Armstrong did a lot of photography so we've got many pictures of Aldrin.
It goes on like that for a while.
Eventually they get around to pointing out features of the lunar photographs, most of which have been debunked so many times it annoys me that this still gets trotted out. The site badastonomy.com sends up science errors on TV, and you can read them ripping into the Fox network's moon hoax special at http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html
- that program and this repeat each other's errors; users of tvtropes.com would say You Fail Photography Forever.
There is a new thing that I hadn't seen debunked before this week, a rock that supposedly was seen with a letter C on it - and in other copies of the photo without the mark. A little googling turns up clearer images and the claim from actual photographers that the curl is a hair or fiber on the processing equipment. Sorry, moon hoaxers, you've got a good question there but the answer isn't convincing.
You can see the rock (without mysterious marks) at http://history.nasa.gov/alsj/a16/AS16-107-17445.jpg
- the antenna shadow ends at the rock in question. By the way, that shadow is explained as a cleft in the paper mache rock by some hoaxers; did they both not bother to look at the original photo and not think NASA could afford real rocks? Anyhow, the page at http://www.informantnews.org/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=27
examines the C rock issue in detail.
My notes read '31:00 If you're going to be making a big deal about flags 'waving in the wind' you should probably keep the footage with a flag clearly not moving at all farther away.' Yeah... The video made a great deal out of waving flags, while showing them in motion as astronauts fiddled with them. Only a few minutes later it was questioning the astronauts' style of walking on the moon but used footage showing a completely motionless flag in the background. Oops.
Things get interesting at 37:00. Some time is spent with the narrator saying things but showing a rather basic view of the Earth from space. This is supposedly faked...but it's unclear what fakery we're supposed to be seeing. The 'mistake' at 38:50 looks a lot like the edge of a window. I don't know what the 'crescent insert' at 39:26 is supposed to be, but something gets in the way of the camera at that point; nothing particularly shocking happens. The camera setting change around 39:40-39:47 is interesting; after the adjustment of the camera and return of interior illumination there's quite a lot of illumination seen briefly out the window. I'm not sure what that glare means, as the angle is wrong for sunlight; it might be reflection from the interior lights (we don't see it until the crew turns on the inside lights). The documentary claims it's Earth, much closer than it should be - and cuts away just as something interesting is seen. This is frustrating, but unfortunately typical.
That's the last meaningful claim of the video, although the narration goes on for a while.
The program's basic premise, that Apollo 11 never left orbit, is unfortunately the least plausible model for faking a lunar mission. The Soviets were tracking it on radar. Various nations, some not friendly to us, listened to the Apollo radio signals. Individual amateur astronomers worldwide watched and tracked the spacecraft visually (cf 'Optical Observations of Apollo 8,' Sky & Telescope magazine, March 1969). The retro-reflectors set up by Apollo are still in use.
As an aside, it's occasionally brought up that the Soviets didn't have good deep-space radar to observe things going on near the moon until the 1970s, after the Apollo missions ended. This is technically true, but in the 1960s they were very interested in tracking satellites and rockets. They had no intention of letting a rocket leave American territory without them knowing about it, and many systems useful for tracking ICBMs work well on satellites too. Their Luna 15 probe is never mentioned in this film and would only complicate matters - it orbited the moon at the same time Apollo 11 did, was designed for sample return, and might well have actually beaten them back to Earth had it not crashed in Mare Crisium.
It's unclear whether the audience is supposed to believe that the Soviets thought a manned mission to the moon was impossible to survive due to radiation, or if the Apollo missions were faked to make the Soviets think we'd done it; the video makes both claims several times, apparently without noticing that they contradict each other.
If one wishes to argue for a faked moon landing, I think there are only two plausible models for astronaut location during the mission. Either they were aboard and circled the moon without landing (as Apollo 8 and 10 did), or they never left Earth at all. After considering the logistical problems of getting them back into a command module to be picked up by the Navy on time, I think actually sending them around the moon would be easier. However, advocating this would require hoaxers to back off from the Van Allen belt radiation story, and this seems unlikely.
All in all, this is not a very good presentation of a claim. (It can't really be called a theory, or even a hypothesis.) When offering a view contrary to expectations, you should carefully craft your arguments, and have information supporting your model; asking vague questions and making vague appeals to paranoia are not useful tactics in an intellectual debate. Bart Sibrel failed to support his claims in this piece, and moreover left me confused about why he believed them.
I'll finish this by leaving you with two quotes:
"Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not 'Every man for himself.' And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto! I looked them up!" — Wanda, A Fish Called Wanda
"Other people have watched it so you don't have to." - Guy Letourneau
References and useful readinghttp://history.nasa.gov/alsj/
Apollo Lunar Surface Journalhttp://www.apolloarchive.com/apollo_gallery.html
Even more photoshttp://lsda.jsc.nasa.gov/books/apollo/S2ch3.htm
Biomedical Results of Apollo - Radiation Protection and Instrumentation (just as dry a read as the title suggests, but informative)http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Van_Allen_radiation_belt
More readable than the above, and addressing the physics anglehttp://www.astr.ua.edu/keel/space/apollo.html
Visual tracking of space vehicleshttp://www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html
The Fox special "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" taken apart with a blunt axe.http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/apollohoax.html
A list of websites addressing the issuehttp://www.clavius.org/
A website with even more debunkinghttp://www.madsci.org/posts/archives/may2000/959341359.As.r.html
Radiation addressed yet again, only interesting because the author says he personally observed Apollo 8's Trans-Lunar Injection burn.http://www.jaxa.jp/press/2008/05/20080520_kaguya_e.html
Views of Apollo sites used to check accuracy of Japanese lunar mappinghttp://www.newschannel5.com/story/10799169/inside-story-apollo-conspiracy-theorist-arrested-after-tirade?nav=menu374_2_11&redirected=true
Irrelevant to the debate, but includes a photo of Bart Sibrelhttp://www.informantnews.org/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=27
The 'Letter C' rock, mysteries solved with a little footworkhttp://www.amazon.com/Funny-Thing-Happened-Moon-moonmovie-com/dp/B000059MCV/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1291449183&sr=8-1
The amazon.com page for this video; many of the reviewers are less charitable about it than I am
Mythbusters episode S6E10
A vastly better researched program than what I watched tonight - and they got to play with toyshttp://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SpaceDoesNotWorkThatWay
Not in any way connected to the moon hoaxers - but an entertaining collection of goofs just as bad as in this video