It is true: at one point in scientific history, we had reason to believe the Earth is flat. We also once prescribed meth to cure headaches, assumed that atoms are identical in mass, and diagnosed female libido as a medical disorder. Sometimes, science gets it wrong, which why it’s important to “question everything,” as in the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson. But other times, we take it too far.
For two and a half hours on July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the lunar surface by foot while Michael Collins piloted the Apollo 11 orbiter around the Moon. That is the history we continue to celebrate today, nearly 50 years since the accomplishment. Many of us either remember watching the Moon landing ourselves, or have heard the memories from our parents and grandparents.
So what do you say when someone insists that the Moon landings never really happened?
1. 0% chance of wind.
One of the most popular “proofs” to support the conspiracy theories is the flag on the Moon. From photos and video, it appears to be flapping in the wind. But if there’s no air on the Moon, how can that be possible?
The truth is that the flag isn’t flapping. There is a horizontal rod projecting from the post at the top of the pole to hold the flag unfurled. The flag was disturbed as it was planted into the ground, and it kept this bent shape because of the lack of strong gravity on the Moon.
In video footage of the flag being planted into the Moon’s surface, it also appears to wave back and forth. This is because when the astronauts were planting it, they rotated it back and forth to better dig into the lunar soil, which of course made the flag ripple as it swung like a pendulum - without a breeze. There is a huge amount of footage in which the flag stayed in exactly the same position.
2. Space is dark.
Speaking of photographs, it’s often pointed out that there are no stars to be seen in the background! This is actually a common feature of photographs from space, where the contrast between light and dark is extreme. The surface of the Moon reflects the strong sunlight and appears very bright in photographs. This brightness drowns out the relatively dim light from stars in the dark sky, akin to how car headlights can drown out the fainter light from nearby objects. The human eye can adjust and pick out the stars, but unless it’s set to the right settings, a camera struggles with the contrast.
Astronauts on the International Space Station today regularly take photographs of the Earth that show a completely starless background, but it’s the same problem of contrasts at work.
3. Try this one at home.
If the Sun is the only source of light, why do some shadows appear to point in multiple directions? For example, the astronaut’s shadow matches up with the lander’s, but there seems to be another shadow from the lander foot pointing towards the astronaut. This must have been filmed in a studio, right? WRONG.
A rough, uneven surface can cause all sorts of shadows at different angles, even with a single light source like the Sun. This something that can be easily experimented with at home. The combination of the Moon’s rough surface and the long shadows from a Sun low in the sky can easily create complicated shadows.
You can watch the MythBusters gang try this out, and explore many other Moon landing myths, in their NASA Moon Landing episode.
4. ”C” for yourself.
Movie props are often numbered and lettered so that stagehands know where to place them. The theory goes that this rock is a prop that someone must have accidentally placed facing the wrong way.
But in fact, the label simply isn’t there. The image of the rock is taken from a much larger shot of the Moon’s surface, and if you look at the original image, the marking isn’t there. Either a small hair or piece of thread must have got caught in the machine while it was being copied.
5. Astronaut barbeque.
One of the most popular theories has to do with something called the Van Allen Radiation belts. These are two huge belts of radiation that surround the Earth, shaped by Earth’s magnetic field and pounded with high-energy particles from the Sun’s wind. It’s been claimed that humans couldn’t have passed through these belts without being fried with lethal doses of radiation.
In fact, the international scientific community was aware of the Van Allen belts thanks to the Explorer, Pioneer, and Luna missions in the 1950s. Luckily, the timings of the Apollo launches were such that the Van Allen belts were at their lowest intensity, which fluctuates with the Sun’s activity.
Radiation sickness occurs when you have been exposed to around 200 to 1000 ‘rads’ of radiation within a few hours. The Apollo 11 crew were within the belts for less than two hours during their journey to the Moon, and so would have only been exposed to an estimated 18 rads – well within the safe limit. There can still be some adverse effects from even this level of radiation, so NASA made sure that the Apollo 11 spacecraft was well-insulated such that the average dose of radiation over the 12-day mission was just 0.18 rads, or similar to the radiation dosage from a chest X-ray.
6. Rocks rock.
We have the proof in the form of Moon rocks - 382 kilograms of Moon rocks that were brought back by the Apollo crew.
Glass spherules are produced two key ways: in explosive volcanic activity and by high-speed meteorite impacts that melt and vaporize rock. In either case, the rock needs time to cool and crystallize slowly. On Earth, the elements quickly break down any volcanically-produced glass. But in space, glass spherules survive nearly pristine, and we’ve found them in both meteorites that have fallen to Earth and in the Moon rocks returned from the Apollo missions, proving that the Apollo crew were indeed space travelers.
When the first rocks were returned from the Apollo 11 mission, samples were given to 135 different countries around the world as a gesture of good will. These rocks have withstood every possible geology test from labs around the world, and these have confirmed they are indeed of lunar origin.
No other space mission, manned or unmanned, has been capable of returning such quantities of rock. The Soviet Union’s Luna unmanned program did bring back some rocks in the 1970s, but only a third of one kilogram. These rocks have been shared with international scientists and match the characteristics of the Apollo Moon rocks.
7. B-rated film.
The Moon landing film has been recreated in a studio, and they look fairly compelling - but these have been recent attempts, with modern technology. The truth is that it would've been harder to fake the landing on Earth than it would have been to actually go to the Moon. In fact, in 1969, it would have been impossible.
The only way to recreate this on Earth would be to light the scene with millions of super-bright lasers. Lasers were incredibly expensive in 1969, and the only color they came in was red. In modern times, we could just change the color with CG, but back then, altering images with computers simply wasn't possible.
8. There’s strength in numbers.
Even if NASA had secretly staged the Moon landing, forged Moon rocks, and funneled $25.4 billion USD - the organization would have had to keep 400,000 employees from spilling the beans. Rocket scientists aren’t exactly easy to “play dumb” with. So whether conspirists believe NASA had hundreds of thousands of scientists fooled, or that they knew and just didn’t care - either way would certainly be quite a stretch.
9. Grab a telescope!
We can actually see the footprints and spacecraft left behind by the Apollo astronauts.
We also have spacecraft, like NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit around the Moon since 2009, continuing the mission’s work. It has captured recent photographs of all the Apollo landing sites. These images show the Apollo spacecraft in exactly the right locations, and amazingly, you can even see the astronauts’ footprints as they explored their lunar home.
These landing sites have also been independently spotted by a variety of other spacecraft from China, India, and, as discussed above, Japan.
10. There was nothing to bust.
Even if NASA successfully staged the Moon landing, one must ask oneself - why? What would have been the purpose?
The obvious answer is to defeat Russia in the Space Race. The era of the Apollo mission was a turning point in aerospace technology, and many nations wanted to be “the first” in various accomplishments - several of which Russia won, and the US failed runner-up.
Russia beat the US when they sent the first-ever satellite, Sputnik-1, into space. Russia also beat the US when they sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, out of Earth’s atmosphere and into space. In order to compete, the US needed to go big or go home and saw landing on the Moon as a great opportunity. Knowing this, it makes sense to believe that in a dishonest world, NASA may have taken the easy way out and staged the Moon landing for bragging rights.
But this is where we come to what is arguably the most compelling proof of evidence against the conspiracy theories: Russia monitored the entire Apollo mission and confirms the Moon landing, and backs it up with their own evidence, using their own satellites and telescopes.
If we didn’t send a ship to the Moon, it would have been extremely easy for Russia to detect the missing ship and bust the US for their lies. In doing so, Russia would have maintained their championship title and put an end to the competition right then and there. Given that Russia supports the Apollo evidence, it makes no sense to believe NASA had any other motive to stage the Moon landing.
In spite of this evidence, people will continue to reject science and feed into a conspiracy theory that has no obvious beneficiary - apart from social points.
Research suggests that, under the right circumstances, many people are susceptible to their allure.
According to one study conducted in Germany, “Conspiracy theories supply a seductive ego boost. Believers often consider themselves part of a select in group that, unlike the ‘deluded masses,’ has figured out what's really going on,” as if they have been let in on some major secret. “Conspiracy theories were stronger among people who said they wanted to stand out from the crowd.”
It's tempting to dismiss conspiracy theorists as oddballs in tinfoil hats, but the theories should be taken seriously for their effects on political and social discourse. Making an impression on young children that “anti-science” is trendy steers future generations away from pursuing the field themselves. It sets back decades of hard work and progression, ironically at a time where we have more technological power at our hands than ever before. It also has the potential to cause direct harm - for example, the irreversible effects of climate change, or deadly illness not countered by vaccines.
Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that even in the heat of a dispute, conspiracy theorists and scientists alike share the common concern for the future of society. The best we could do is remain open-minded, whether it’s analyzing current studies, or working on the next mission that send humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
And ultimately, we don’t foresee much true evolution for the hard-core conspirists, anyway. As put by Uscinski, all pun intended: “they’re living in a different world.”
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Sources: Davis, Scott. "How Do We Know the Moon Landing Really Happened?" Space Centre UK. 15 June, 2017. Web article.
Superseded Scientific Theories. Wikipedia. Web encyclopedia. Accessed 7 Nov, 2018.
Svoboda, Elizabeth. "Why Do People Believe the Moon Landing Hoax or Other Conspiracy Theories?" Washington Post. 20 July, 2018.
Weiner, Sophie. "Faking the Moon Landing Was Impossible." Popular Mechanics. 27 Oct, 2017. Web article.
Citation: Rovira, Lia N. "10 Proofs the Moon Landing was Real, Debunking Conspiracy Theories." SkyFeed. 7 Nov, 2018. Web article.