Moon Landing – Fact or Fiction

Photo Credit: NASA - Apollo 15

Photo Credit: NASA – Apollo 15

 Between 1969 and 1972, the Apollo program flew six successful missions, putting man on the moon in one of the greatest moments in American history and in the 20th century. Or, so the story goes. Did NASA and the United States stage the moon landing? Is there any way to prove beyond reasonable doubt man went to the moon? Or, was the ‘moon landing’ instead the greatest hoax of all time.

I will be strongly referencing this website for the anti moon landing claims, specifically the ‘documentary’ called “Moon Landing Hoax” aired by the Fox network in 2001 (you can watch it on that website). The website itself is long and hard to read, but you’re welcome to check it out.

For the record, I cannot possibly cover every claim out there. For the sake of brevity, l will only cover some of the more well-known claims. For further reading, please see the websites I have listed below.

Let us begin:

Test: surface reflection illuminates toy astronaut in shadow.  In second image, foreground reflection is reduced with black paper.

Image Credit: Ian Goddard

Claim #1: The pictures are backlit.

The sun is the only source of light so the shadows should be completely dark. You can clearly see objects in the shadow; this requires additional light.

Well, that is almost right. Yes, being able to see objects in shadows require additional light, but the sun isn’t the only light source on the moon. The lunar surface provides this backlight by reflecting the sunlight that hits it.

Ian Goddard set up a series of experiments to test this backlighting effect. In the top image, we see the iconic photograph of an Apollo astronaut descending the ladder onto the lunar surface, dramatically lit so the television audiences can see him preparing to take the first human steps on the moon.

Below it, are the experiments. The picture on the left uses a more reflective surface (I believe plain white paper. The astronaut is, as you can see, lit while the shadow remains in place. The picture on the right, however, has black paper concealing the surface, which prevents light from reflecting off the ground and lighting the astronaut’s suit.

Claim #2:

You cannot see the stars in pictures taken by Apollo astronauts. Without air, the stars should be more visible.

There are two things to consider with this. The atmosphere actually helps scatter the light from stars. This makes them more visible for Earth observers. In comparison to the objects close to us, the stars are dim. The Apollo missions are no different. If the astronauts had cameras on tripods set to have long exposure times, the stars would become visible. Instead, the cameras were set up to take pictures of the bright astronauts with the bright sun and the bright lunar surface. This means the shutter time was much faster and the stars didn’t have time to get exposed on the camera.


Image Credit: NASA
See more

As a proof of concept, this image was taken by an astronaut leaving the International Space Station on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. It shows the Space Shuttle Endeavour docked to the ISS during it’s final mission on May 23, 2011. This image is special in the sense that it’s one of the first images ever taken of a shuttle docked to the ISS. It too was taken with a low exposure rate making the background stars appear invisible.

Image Credit: Ben Coffman

Image Credit: Ben Coffman

In contrast, a host of astrophotographers take images known as “nightscapes.” These images are able to reveal brilliant color and texture of the sky that you can’t get with the unaided eye (because the long exposure allows the camera to record more than a fraction of a seconds worth of data). An example can be seen in this picture of the Mt. St Helen’s region in Washington, USA by Ben Coffman.

Claim #3:

The shadows in the moon pictures are cast in different directions. This means there must be at least two light sources.

Anyone who has ever walked outside at night under street lamps will notice multiple shadows cast from various street lamps. As a good rule of thumb, one light source equals one shadow. If there were multiple spotlights in use, we should see more than one shadow for each object. If you look at the pictures, you will see one shadow. The reason the shadows appear in different directions is an effect caused by the uneven lunar surface and the 2-dimensional nature of photographs.

Again, a mock-up of the lunar landing site was set up by Ian to see if there was any merit to this myth  His picture is surprisingly accurate, but almost does a better job at dispelling the myth. It so happens the the three cast shadows all point in different directions from one another in the recreation whereas there are only two directions seen in the Apollo picture. All created with a single light source.

Claim #4:

There is no blast crater under the Lunar Module. The Lunar Module should have created a blast crater as it landed.

When landing, the Lunar Module only exerted a pressure of about 1.5 pounds per square inch (that isn’t a lot).

Claim #5:

The Lunar Module should have kicked up dust as it landed, that dust should be visible on the feet of the Module.

Again, the Module did kick up a little dust, but not anywhere near that much. Why? Simply because there is no air on the moon. When, a rocket blasts off from Earth, air pressure helps kick everything around. On the moon, however, only dust that touched the exhaust was displaced.

Claim #6:

Flag Waving

Image via NASA

As the flag is deployed, it waves due to a rogue breeze.

Firstly, it depends on how you want to define ‘wave’. If a wave is defined by the astronauts planning the flag (which is held in place by both a horizontal and vertical bar) twisting the poll to get the flag to stand upright. Then yes, the flag waved. But, it wasn’t due to a breeze. The reason the flag has ripples in it is because the horizontal bar didn’t fully extend on the Apollo 11 landing. NASA thought it looked cool and designed the other flagpoles to follow suit.

Claim #7:

The Van Allen Belts (radiation belts above earth) would kill any astronaut passing through it.

I think Phil Plait at BadAstronomy puts it best: “The van Allen belts are regions above the Earth’s surface where the Earth’s magnetic field has trapped particles of the solar wind. An unprotected man would indeed get a lethal dose of radiation, if he stayed there long enough. Actually, the spaceship traveled through the belts pretty quickly, getting past them in an hour or so. There simply wasn’t enough time to get a lethal dose, and, as a matter of fact, the metal hull of the spaceship did indeed block most of the radiation.”

Claim #8:

The ‘moon rocks’ were meteorites from Antarctica or were manufactured in a lab.

Moon Rocks

Image via NASA

As for the manufactured approach, we have moon rocks from Antarctica that fell as meteorites. The samples from the moon were tested against the samples from Antarctica and proves they are from the moon. As for the claim that all of the moon rocks came from Antarctica, that’s also incorrect. As any meteorite falls through the atmosphere, it gets scorched and oxidized. The Apollo samples do not possess those same qualities.

Bonus Proof:

It’s important to remember the politics surrounding the moon landing. While the Apollo astronauts were talking to NASA, the Russians, radio astronomers, and ham radio operators from around the world were tuning in. Third party observatories, such as the Alfred Lovell, were able to confirm the authenticity of the moon landing. If the USA had faked the landings, the Russians would have been the first to call them on the bluff.

In conclusion: the moon landing was real.

In the end, many of the claims come from people not understanding the principles of photography or physics. That’s ok, some of these conspiracy claims had me scratching my head. Hopefully, I’ve managed to clear them up for y’all.

I will conclude this article with a quote from Stephen Hawking that I think sums up the whole mystery quite nicely (even though Hawking was talking about aliens, the same principle applies). “If the government is covering up knowledge of aliens, they are doing a better job of it than they do at anything else.”

Joshua Filmer

About Joshua Filmer

Joshua specializes in Mathematics and Physics at Portland State University.