*Edited/updated post from 2014.
When you share space news as much as I do (and use a laptop with a giant NASA sticker on the cover) you’re inevitably going to be asked the question did we really land on the Moon? And with this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I thought I’d re-share a (now pretty exhaustively-amended) list of a few oft-mentioned “proofs” of some impossibly complex, grand-scale, global Moon landing hoax… and then describe why they’re all completely wrong.
Buckle in, folks, this is gonna be a fun ride.
1. The flag is waving.
This is one of the biggest claims waved around (yes, pun intended) by Moon-conspiracy fanatics to “prove” that the whole thing was a hoax. When the U.S. flag was placed by Armstrong and Aldrin and recorded by the TV camera they’d previously set up, it kinda sorta appears to be waving in a lunar breeze. But there’s no atmosphere on the Moon, how can there be any wind to blow a flag around? Fake news?
No, it isn’t evidence of filming on location at a Disney sound stage in Burbank, California. The flag isn’t “waving,” it’s swinging.
The U.S. flag brought along by the Apollo 11 crew was suspended from a telescoping rod inserted into a pocket sewn along the top to keep it extended, but during deployment the rod wouldn’t extend all the way. And when planting the flagpole the astronauts had a difficult time getting very far into the lunar surface… after a few inches they hit solid material. The struggle to keep it upright for a good photo-op meant that it got some pretty vigorous shaking, and this resulted in a lot of swaying movement. The Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere (aside from some sparsely-scattered ions and dust) but it does have gravity (about one-sixth of Earth’s) and a well-shaken banner will still yet wave—just due to inertia, not wind. Once they were done fussing with the flagpole, it stayed still for the remainder of their historic lunar Extravehicular Activity (EVA).
In this TV camera footage, you can see Buzz demonstrating how hopping is the best way to move around in the low lunar gravity. Note how still the flag is throughout, even though it’s slightly rumpled.
“During a pause in experiments, Neil suggested we proceed with the flag. It took both of us to set it up and it was nearly a disaster.”
– Buzz Aldrin
Unfortunately as soon as the ascent stage of the Lunar Module launched, returning Neil and Buzz to lunar orbit to meet up with Michael Collins in the Command Module, the entire flag assembly was blown over according to later visual accounts by Aldrin—but from the sheer force of the ascent engine, not wind. With the flag planted so close to the LM the downward thrust from the rocket was strong enough to push the shallowly-planted flag over. (Luckily Newtonian physics work very well in space otherwise we’d never get anywhere!) Later missions were sure to put their flags a bit farther away from the LM to avoid blasting them down at liftoff.
Fun fact: the Apollo 11 flag was (anecdotally) purchased at Sears but NASA didn’t acknowledge a manufacturer or retailer because they didn’t want “another Tang.” (Tang was not invented by NASA but it was associated with NASA in Tang advertisements in the 60s, and as a government agency they cannot endorse commercial products.)
Note: the original TV broadcast of the Moon landing was blurry, no doubt, but there’s a reason for that; the “oddball” slow-scan signal developed by Westinghouse that was received and converted by the Australian Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek radio dishes was much clearer. (See page 25 of this PDF document.) But those versions will unfortunately never be seen again and here’s why. See my note at the bottom of this post for more info too. Learn more about the Apollo TV cameras and broadcast here.
2. If there’s no atmosphere on the Moon, where are the stars in the photos?
This is quite literally Photography 101. The Apollo astronauts were using several types of cameras to record their lunar adventures, one being modified medium-format Hasselblad 500 EL cameras mounted to their spacesuits. (This was the one Neil used.) These were great film cameras but had to be set just right to get pictures to expose correctly—not unlike today’s digital cameras, but without the convenience of auto mode! All the astronauts went through training on how to shoot with the cameras, so when they got to the Moon they were able to take some really nice shots (but also some not-so-awesome ones) of the surface in beautiful 70mm detail. Check out the Project Apollo Archive for hi-res scans of the color and black-and-white film they shot.
Daytime on the Moon is about two Earth weeks long. (A full solar “synodic” day there takes 29.5 Earth days.) All the Apollo surface EVAs took place on the side facing Earth during the lunar daytime. This means that the Sun was in the sky, illuminating the surface and everything the astronauts were doing… including taking pictures. So even though there was no bright blue sky above them, the astronauts still had to expose their cameras to account for a very bright lunar landscape (and in some instances with a very big white light called the Sun in the sky.)
They were there to explore the Moon, not the stars, and so they didn’t waste any precious film taking astrophotos.
Long story short, in order to capture stars in their photos they would have had to expose for them in-camera, which would have resulted in a very blown-out, blurry lunar surface. (They didn’t bring along tripods for long exposures.)
Think about it—if you take a picture outside at night, and let your camera (or phone) adjust for a brightly-lit object or scene, even if there was a sky full of stars above you at the time they wouldn’t be visible in your picture. It’s just how cameras work. They simply can’t adjust like your eyes do.
SCIENCE NOTE: Actually there was one tripod-mounted camera used on the Moon: the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph brought on Apollo 16. That instrument did take astrophotos, but in ultraviolet wavelengths. Not only did it capture LOTS of stars but also Earth, the aurorae, and distant galaxies…from the Moon! Learn about that here.
3. You can still see things in the shadows. They should be completely black with no air to scatter light.
Well, yes and no. It’s true that light on Earth is scattered by the atmosphere and so we can see things even where sunlight isn’t directly illuminating a scene. And in space, shadows can be incredibly dark because of the lack of this effect. But there is still always reflected light, and the lunar surface is very reflective.
When Neil photographed Buzz descending the ladder onto the Moon’s surface, you can still see him well even though he’s clearly in the shadow of the LM. This is the result of reflected light from the Sun hitting the lunar regolith (that’s the fancy word for Moon soil) and bouncing back up into the shadows, not “another source of artificial illumination” claimed by some conspiracists. Again, no atmosphere doesn’t negate the physics of how light works—after all, the Moon is actually pretty dark in color yet we see it as a very bright object in the night sky—especially when full, due to an effect called opposition surge. This is a testament to its reflectivity (and even then it’s still only reflecting 12% of the sunlight it receives.)
Don’t forget that in addition to the Sun the Earth was in the sky above the Apollo sites—and it was also reflecting sunlight onto the Moon just like the Moon does onto Earth. (And the Earth is bigger.)
Added 7/14/19: Watch Truth Behind the Moon Landing on Science Channel for more detail on reflected light in the lunar footage.
4. The shadows in the photos were uneven.
Therefore alternate lighting sources? Electric stage lights?
No, therefore uneven terrain.
Single-source lighting on a perfectly flat plane will result in perfectly perspective-aligned shadows, but on an uneven surface the shadows will “appear” to slant off at different angles as they are projected across the ground. The Moon pretty much has no perfectly flat planes—it’s cratered and hilly down to the smallest scales. Shadows cast by the Sun will be skewed all over the place as they follow the curves of the landscape.
Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke got to drive a Boeing-made Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) on the Moon, one of three sent up during the Apollo program. Note how the dust is kicked up in nice, slow billowing arcs by the LRV’s wheels… that’s certainly not Earth gravity in action!
5. Radiation would have killed the astronauts en route to the Moon.
Radiation in space is very dangerous. Nobody’s contesting that. Even a thickly-hulled spacecraft can allow enough cosmic radiation in to damage human DNA over long durations, and outside of Earth’s protective magnetosphere it becomes an even bigger danger. This in fact is still a major obstacle to overcome if we’re to send humans to Mars or beyond. But the Apollo astronauts weren’t on a year-long voyage to Mars, they were on week-long trips to the Moon. Even the Van Allen belts, which concentrate energetic particles from the Sun into donut-shaped rings surrounding Earth, were passed through pretty quickly by the Apollo spacecraft on their way Moonward. (And they were sure to aim for less-dense sections too.)
A pretty clear explanation is given by astronomer Phil Plait in his 2001 Bad Astronomy article:
“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.”
My friend Fraser Cain of Universe Today talks about the van Allen belts and how they work:
(If you really want to get into the hard math of how the radiation environment of the Van Allen Belts were quite survivable by astronauts, even with 1960s technology, click here.)
Some studies have linked cardiovascular disease later in life for Apollo astronauts with the radiation they received en route to the Moon, but with such a small sample size of humans who have actually done so it’s hard to confirm the correlation.
Now had the Apollo astronauts been in the way of a strong solar flare event while on the lunar surface it would have been a different story. Protected only by their space suits, they could have received a lethal dose of solar radiation very quickly if a huge cloud of charged solar particles swept past the Earth and Moon. Luckily that didn’t happen, but it was an occupational hazard. (Although compared to the countless other dangers they faced in order to achieve their goals that was somewhat low on the list.)
When it all comes down to it the Apollo astronauts did receive radiation from space during their voyages, but it wasn’t of lethal amounts. All in all they got the equivalent of a few medical x-rays’ worth of radiation, lower than the annual level allowable for atomic energy workers in the U.S. It was a danger, certainly, but not prohibitive to the missions.
6. We didn’t have the technology in the 60s to go to the Moon.
This is a total cop-out argument. Yes, 1960s technology was far inferior to what we have today; even our cell phones contain vastly more computing power than what was aboard the Apollo spacecraft. But the Apollo spacecraft only had to know how to do one thing: get living, breathing astronauts to the Moon and back. This was achieved through complex engineering and the dedicated efforts of many thousands of the most talented and brightest minds in the country, not to mention a few fearless astronauts who knew a thing or two about flying experimental aircraft. (There’s a reason NASA wanted test pilots.) Getting to the Moon was a case of pure physics, dedication, and guts… the required innovations just came as a direct result. Read more here on Clavius.org.
“We had to find a way and we did. Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers.”
– Margaret Hamilton, MIT software engineer for Apollo (source)
Watch the video below on how the Apollo Guidance Computers—despite their comparative primitiveness to handheld devices today—were successful because of how they were hard-wired and crash-proof.
Also as a technical note, the circuitry and components of Apollo spacecraft were relatively enormous by today’s standards—they literally were big enough to avoid getting knocked offline by stray atomic particles. These days we have to take much more care shielding sensitive electronics from space radiation. (Thanks to spacecraft software engineer Emory Stagmer for the info!)
In fact, the Apollo computer software was actually hardware; programs were woven into wires threaded into the machines themselves. This was called rope memory, and it was breakthrough for the time (not to mention painstaking to assemble.)
As far as NASA having created all the footage of the landings in a studio, it actually would have been easier at the time to just go to the Moon…
(And before you claim that Stanley Kubrick confessed to filming the whole Moon landing in a “documentary”…um, NO.)
7. Myth: nobody has ever seen the landing sites on the Moon. Fact: we’ve imaged ALL the Apollo landing sites from lunar orbit.
NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been surveying the Moon for over a decade now and during that time has imaged all of the Apollo landing sites from its position in lunar orbit. Several times, in fact, and under many different lighting angles. So while we can’t visually resolve the remains of the Apollo sites from Earth (simply due to the angular resolution limitations of telescopes) LRO can see them very nicely… LM descent stages, ALSEPs. LRVs, and astronaut tracks all as they were left over 40 years ago.
Don’t want to believe anything NASA has to say regarding the landing sites? That’s OK—China said it was able to see the remains of the Apollo 11 site with the Chang’e-2 orbiter back in 2012 and Japan’s Kaguya orbiter was able to discern the bright “halo” on the lunar surface from Apollo 15’s July 30, 1971 landing in 2008 (although it lacked the resolution to discern actual hardware.)
8. Okay…so if they REALLY went to the Moon, how come we never went back?
This, unfortunately, has more to do with the nature of politics and public interest than space technology, although the latter often becomes a casualty of the former. There’s a lot involved with the answer to this (and you can read about some of it in this article on Scientific American featuring space historian David S.F. Portree) but suffice to say after the Apollo program was closed down, the technology to send humans to the Moon was retired. The Saturn V rockets were either dismantled, put in museums or, in the case of Skylab, used in other programs, and eventually all of the special components created by contractors and sub-contractors that allowed the success of Saturn and Apollo were no longer available or in production. We didn’t lose the technology, as some have claimed, we just stopped making it—at least for those specific uses. As times changed, priorities (and thus budgets) changed, and NASA’s manned spaceflight program of the 60s and early 70s became a thing of the past, in some cases replaced by newer, better goals… but in some cases still not replaced at all.
Is it a shame that the last bootprints on the Moon are still those of Gene Cernan from December 1972? Heck yes. Does it mean he never went at all? Hell no.
The Apollo missions are still one of the crowning achievements (in my opinion, at least) of both our country and of humanity as a whole. Yes, the reasons behind the race to the Moon in the 60s were very political, that’s surely no secret. But in just eight years we went from sending the first American on a brief suborbital flight to safely landing astronauts on the surface of another world and bringing them home again, an incredible feat accomplished only through the talent and hard work of literally hundreds of thousands of people—over 400,000, in fact (source)—and the support and financial backing of an entire nation. Reasons aside, the summer of 1969 changed both the global political landscape and our perspective of our place in the Universe, and that’s not something to be dismissed lightly… or with wanton disregard for all those who made it happen.
9. Myth: the Moon is fake. Fact: the Moon ROCKS!
Let’s not forget the undeniable hard evidence of the 842 pounds of Moon rocks* that the Apollo astronauts brought back to Earth with them—rocks that are still standing up to microscopic scrutiny even today by geologists and geoscientists worldwide.
Dr. Joe Hanson explains why the Apollo Moon rocks are so important to science in this edition of PBS Studios’ It’s Okay to be Smart:
How can we know the rocks returned actually came from the Moon? Find out here.
“Any geoscientist (and there have been thousands from all over the world) who has studied lunar samples knows that anyone who thinks the Apollo lunar samples were created on Earth as part of government conspiracy doesn’t know much about rocks. The Apollo samples are just too good.”
— Randy Korotev, Lunar Geochemist, Washington University in St. Louis (source)
Aaaaaand then there are the LRRR laser ranging reflectors that were left by Apollo 11, 14, and 15 (not to mention the Soviet Lunokhod 1 and 2 rovers) and still being used to measure distances to the Moon today.
“The body of physical evidence that humans did walk on the Moon is simply overwhelming.”
– Dr. Robert Park, Director of the Washington office of the American Physical Society
Want to dive even deeper into the debunking of any Moon landing hoax? Check out the links below:
“Bad Astronomer” Phil Plait’s de-hoaxing article (which specifically attacks a 2001 “documentary” on Fox TV)
Added 7/18/14: Here’s a video by spaceflight historian and fellow Discovery News blogger Amy Shira Teitel regarding the whole “flapping flags” topic (because that one never seems to get put to rest.) nice job, Amy!
Added 7/20/15 (Happy Moon Day!): Here’s well-known physicist Michio Kaku talking about some of the popular hoax myths above, as well as the lunar rocks that were brought back to Earth and a claim that the astronauts’ cooling suits wouldn’t work in a vacuum:
Added 7/21/15: Professor Brian Cox and none other than Buzz Aldrin himself had a few things to say to Moon landing disbelievers on Twitter on the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 EVA – read those on Huffington Post UK here. (Thanks Gabby Laine-Peters!)
Added 7/27/15: Find out what happened to the “lost” Apollo 11 telemetry tapes (a cautionary tale of poor foresight).
Added 9/15/15: On the Moon Landing Hoax and Anomaly Hunting
Added 10/14/15: Why do People Persist in Denying the Moon Landings? Article from Smithsonian Air and Space which includes the video below, a Q&A series with space history curator Dr. Roger Launius:
“If people decide they’re going to deny the facts of history and the facts of science and technology, there’s not much you can do with them. For most of them, I just feel sorry that we failed in their education.”
– Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut
Added 11/10/15: Check out Paul White’s unabashedly anti-hoaxer site “One Big Monkey” and Robert Walker’s analysis of the Apollo rock samples that “are just too good” to have been manufactured.
Also, in regards to the supposed “same background” seen in some Apollo footage: according to an interview of SwRI geophysicist Stuart Robbins by a Japanese documentary film crew, “According to our research, the “identical background” video clips were taken from the NASA-sponsored documentary video, “Nothing so Hidden.” And the documentary is produced by other production company outside of NASA. Therefore, our understanding is that it’s an error on editing stage of production: the production company took wrong clips and audio and used in the documentary.“ This erroneous claim has been debunked many times but is still often brought up by Moon landing deniers who are more than happy to cite misedited footage as credible evidence. (Source)
Added 1/26/16: An Oxford professor has calculated the length of time a conspiracy involving over 400,000 participants could possibly be kept secret: less than four years. If the Moon landings were faked somehow, based on his numbers it’d have become widely-known by 1973. Read more here.
Added 6/13/16: The Apollo spacecraft en route to the Moon were observed by amateur astronomers and professional observatories all around the world (and not affiliated with NASA either.) Thanks to Bill Keel for the info and site.
Added 6/17/16: Read what Apollo 11 LM pilot Michael Collins recently had to say about Moon landing hoaxers (including Bart Sibrel) in this Air & Space Magazine article.
Added 11/20/17: A recent Fox News online article (YES I KNOW…and I’m not linking to it either) is for whatever misled reason highlighting a claim by a conspiracy theorist that a “stagehand” is seen reflected in an Apollo astronaut’s visor. The photograph in question is below, and it literally took me under two minutes to determine that it’s the reflection of LM Pilot and geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt reflected in Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan’s visor during mission EVA #3 on Dec. 13, 1972. Jack took the photo, which is why he’s reflected in the visor. He very clearly has a suit and helmet on, and isn’t some “long-haired stagehand” as erroneously accused.
Two minutes, people. Two. It’s really not hard to find answers to your questions if you know where to look (and who NOT to listen to, e.g. YouTubers like “Streetcap1.”)
Added 7/22/18: Apollo 15 CM Pilot Al Worden recollects a sky “awash with stars” visible from the unlit night half of the far side of the Moon in this article on Medium.com.
“[T]here was a little space around the far side of the Moon where I was shadowed from both the Earth and the Sun and that was pretty amazing. I could see more stars than I could possibly imagine.”
Added 7/12/19: this 2017 article for CNET shows a demonstration by NVIDIA of their Turing graphics processing card that “prove” how the illumination scenarios seen in the Apollo 11 photographs were most definitely real and possible—and not created in a studio, either.
Added 7/12/19: The radio communication between the Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon could be picked up by amateur radio operators if they aimed their antennas precisely at the right spot on the Moon. One radio hobbyist, Larry Baysinger, was featured in a story in the July 23, 1969 issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal—read more about that here. (Thanks Bruce Veidt for the link.)
Added 7/12/19: While it’s true that the live feed most people saw on their television sets during the Moon landing in July 1969 was of not-so-great quality, there’s a reason for that—it’s how the first live video signals were received at the Parkes and Honeysuckle Creek dishes in Australia and then converted to formats that TV broadcasters in the U.S. could display (the first U.S.-received signals were upside-down so Houston quickly switched to the Australian feed.) Cameras were good in the late 60s but live satellite TV technology was still pretty new (although without it there would have been no live TV from the Moon.) Read more about that here (and see how some of the first uncompressed images from the Moon looked on the monitors at the Australia stations!)
Also watch the movie The Dish. It’s not 100% historically accurate but you’ll love it.
Added 7/14/19: There’s an interesting-looking series of programs called Truth Behind the Moon Landing airing on Science Channel in the US and Discovery in the UK that appears to take a “balanced” and scientific approach to debunking many of the conspiracy claims mentioned above and more… I haven’t yet seen it, but they’re airing now in summer 2019 so check them out online or on TV. (Thanks @BodDamnIt on Twitter, via a lovely retweet by Prof. Brian Cox.)
Added 7/19/19: Learn how the live TV signal from the Moon was picked up on Earth by radio astronomy dishes and broadcast around the world in this NRAO blog post by Brian Koberlein.
…and after all this, if you still must believe that the Apollo missions were all just an elaborate global scam, I’m afraid I really can’t help you (like Jack Schmitt said in the quote above.). The world you choose to live in is much, much more dark, tangled, and subversive than I care to ever venture into…I’m sorry that you have so little faith in what humans can achieve.
*One last note: a Facebook acquaintance of mine once made a very lucid point: this was the Nixon administration – they couldn’t even keep the secret of a few hired goons breaking into a hotel room. Just sayin’.