5X5 Episode 29

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5X5 Episode 29
Moon landing hoax myths
20th July 2008

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5X5 28 5X5 30
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
PP: Phil Plait
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The SGU celebrates the 39th anniversary of Apollo 11 by debunking some moon landing hoax myths, and they are joined by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer

Moon landing hoax myths[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight's topic is: A celebration of the 39th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. And to celebrate that, we are going to debunk a few bits of the moon hoax landing claims and to help us do that, we have a special guest tonight, Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. Phil, thanks for joining us.

PP: Hey, thanks for having me on.

S: So, the claim that I wanted to talk about was one that Joe Rogan brought up when he was debating you on Penn Jillette's radio show.

J: (chuckles)

S: He mentioned that Wernher Von Braun went to Antarctica before the Apollo missions, allegedly to collect moon meteorites and throwing out the implication, without really fully developing this point, that there was something suspicious about that, as if NASA had to collect moon meteorites so that they could then pass them off as moon rocks that they never actually collected from the moon. I did a bit of digging and let me tell you what I found about this; you can tell me what you think. In the last 40 years, the total amount of moon meteorites that have been collected, and this is by multiple countries and expeditions, is about ten pounds. The six Apollo service excursions collected about 842 pounds of moon rock samples. Rogan would be basically claiming that in the year or two prior to the Apollo missions, NASA was able to collect hundreds of pounds of moon meteorites and then in the 40 years since then we've only managed to collect another 10 pounds or so. Does that sound about right to you?

PP: Well, none of that sounds right to me.


PP: You know, anything Joe Rogan said about the moon hoax is probably wrong. You know, if you want to say that Wernher Von Braun, who was basically the head of the space program for the United States back then, if you want to say he went to Antarctica, you can always phrase it so that it's suspicious, "He went to Antarctica, now why did he do that?" It's like, "well, why did Joe Rogan bring that up? That's suspicious too." You know, everything is—

B: Right.

PP: —suspicious if you phrase it that way and why would NASA send its chief rocket engineer, the guy who's running the program and is one of the public faces of the Apollo mission, to Antarctica to pick up rocks? You know what they would do is they would send two goons to go down there and why would they go to Antarctica? You know, it's like you can get these rocks in other places and if you're going to fake the rocks anyway, which is the claim, why are you going to Antarctica at all, unless you're just going to collect a few and use them as a model to fake them. But if you're going to go to Antarctica, you send a couple of goons, they pick up some rocks, they come back, you say, "Thank you for those rocks and that guy over there wants to talk to you behind that barn. Yeah, the guy with the gun—

B: (chuckles)

PP: That's right, just don't say anything, but head on over." So, this is a ridiculous claim from top to bottom.

R: Phil, you've been debunking this stuff for so long, is there anything new under the sun when it comes to the moon hoax?

E: Hmm.

PP: Well actually, when Rogan brought up the Von Braun thing, I had heard of that but I wasn't that familiar with it, so he had stumped me there for a second, until I thought around the problem and said, "Well, why would Von Braun go?" And it turns out he's interested in Antarctica. I'm interested in Antarctica; I want to go. Not terribly suspicious. But you do hear some crazy claims and the big ones—well, all of them have been debunked, basically. These claims of Nazis working for NASA and the radiation and all these ridiculous claims. And eventually you get to stuff that is so fringe that you just kind of shake your head and say, "Really, there are aliens on the moon and that's why NASA couldn't go." "All right, well, we'll run with that one too."

B: If these rocks aren't from the moon, then they've got 800 pounds of rocks that are fakes, so how could they make them realistic and if you look at these rocks, it's pretty clear to geologists that these are not from the earth, for many, many reasons. First off, I've got a list of a few here: that there's no water trapped in the crystal structure of the rocks samples that they supposedly brought back from the moon; the clay minerals that are all over the earth are completely absent in any of the moon rocks they brought back; there's other things, like glass particles were found in the lunar samples that they brought back and these lunar samples are caused by volcanism and impacts. Now on earth, they disappear in millions of years, but the rocks they brought back are clearly billions of years old and they still have these glass particles contained in them. Also, another good one is that the moon rocks have pits all over the rocks; they're these little microscopic pits caused by meteors that are not burning up in the moon atmosphere because there is no atmosphere, so they're making these pits all over the moon rocks. And the same goes for cosmic rays. You've got cosmic rays that are not being absorbed by the atmosphere, they're hitting the rocks and they're making isotopes that you don't generally see in any earth rocks. Now to fake that, sure you could fake that, but you'd have to build an accelerator bigger than the LHC to do that and that's clearly not going to happen. Some people have said that to fake rocks in this way you'd have to—it'd have to be like a Manhattan Project-sized thing and I think it would just be easier to go to the moon and get some.

PP: Yeah, that's really the problem with a lot of these hoax theories is that in the end, to make a convincing hoax, it would have cost more and been harder just to simply go to the moon. Everything you brought up is true. The big one is really these zap pits; these little tiny—they're like little craters in the rocks and they're caused by very tiny meteorites, called micrometeorites. they're dust grains. And when they hit the lunar surface, they're still moving at a pretty good clip, 20 miles per second or whatever. Those don't make it through the earth's atmosphere; they burn up, you know, way, way up in the earth's atmosphere. So you don't see those on rocks here on the earth. So, NASA had to have been smart enough to anticipate that rocks on the moon would have these zap pits. They would have to anticipate that these rocks would have funny isotopes in them from the cosmic rays hitting them. They'd have to anticipate that they'd have helium-3, which is an isotope of helium found in the solar wind, but is very rare on earth. All of this stuff. And then in the end, you got to realize too that NASA has been sending these samples out all over the world to qualified geologists to look at these things. And so, they have been sent to Russia, to China, to many countries that would consider themselves the enemy of America, at least at the time, and so they would have been yelling fairly loudly and clearly if they had figured out that these things were faked. So, the really Occam's razor—if you want to slice through all the garbage, in the end the simplest explanation is that somebody went to the moon and threw these things into a gunny suck and brought them back.

E: And Phil, one of the—something else you've talked about in the past and you've mentioned it's usually the first and strongest argument that the moon hoax believers use is that the pictures that came back that the Apollo astronauts took, that came back, there are no stars in the sky and how is that possible? Where did all the stars go? Perhaps it was—must have just been a movie set. That would be kind of be an Occam's razor, I guess.

B: Just an oversight, they forgot about the stars.

E: (chuckles) But actually this was—and even before I've read anything you've written, Phil, I kind of figured this one out of on my own and frankly, if I can figure it out, I think just about anyone can figure it out—is that conditions on the moon are obviously vastly different than they are on the earth and the conditions under which the lighting was happening, you've got the bright surface of the moon, you've got the bright ship, you've got the astronauts in their bright suits. If you were to open the exposure on your lens bright enough to actually be able to see the stars, everything else would get blown out; the pictures would be totally worthless of the things you're trying to capture, the scenes on the moon. So you have to turn down your aperture enough so you can get the detail of these bright objects on the moon and because the stars are in the background and they are so faint by comparison, they're gone; they're not going to appear on the picture.

PP: Yeah, that's basically it. They used slow film; they had their aperture stopped way down and the exposure times were roughly 1/150th of a second. And you just—you can't capture stars on film that quickly, it just doesn't happen and if you tried to, you'd overexpose everything else. And it's incredible to me that this claim is still being made; I was actually fooling—

B: Wow.

PP: —around on YouTube today and saw a video where this guy's making this same claim. He is actually saying, "you should see stars in the pictures." I couldn't believe it. He actually went and quoted Bill Casing, who is this guy who's been claiming this for years, that the moon landings were faked and he said, "You should see trillions of stars." And I thought, well—

B: (laughing) Trillions.

E: (laughing)

PP: —yeah, there are a hundred of billion stars in the galaxy; I don't think you're going to do so well to see trillions of stars.

B: (chuckles)

PP: And they still claim—and I love this—no Apollo mission got any pictures of any stars and it's like, well, two things: One is that we didn't go to the moon to take pictures of the stars. We can do that pretty well from the earth. And the second thing is that that's wrong. Apollo 16 went to the moon with an ultraviolet camera and a small telescope and they actually took ultraviolet pictures of the sky where you can see stars and if you go online you can find people who have actually matched these stars up to stars in the sky. So, they did in fact take pictures of the stars, but they had to use a special apparatus to do it. Otherwise, these pictures taken on the surface of the moon just don't show the stars.

S: Phil, one last question for you. This is kind of just a personal opinion thing: Why do you think it's been almost four decades since we've been back to the moon?

PP: Oh, lack of political will, basically. By the time we had gone to the moon and shown we had done it, the American public was—they were all for it for Apollo 11; Apollo 12 the ratings had dropped, right? And by Apollo 13 they were saying they were interrupting "I Love Lucy" reruns for this and people were getting upset. That's just the nature of the American public; they get tired of it. And the politicians were looking to the future; they started cutting back on Apollo; started funding basically the space shuttle, which launched in 1980 and you know it takes a long time to build these things up. So, by the time we'd landed on the moon, people were already looking to the next thing. So, instead of looking for something that was sustainable, they were doing what's called "flags and footprints": get there, put your foot on the ground there, plant your flag and get back. And so, they started looking to the space shuttle, started looking to other things and we just haven't gone back. And now NASA's starting to take it seriously and they're launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter this year, which will start mapping potential landing sites and I'll be very excited to see the data that comes back from that.

S: And you think the next time we go back, we'll go back to stay?

PP: I have no idea. NASA is a fickle organization and they are a cork in the current of political tides. I don't know how far I can push that analogy. The next president could cut that back; the next Congress could cut that back; there's no telling. I'm certainly hoping that we're going to go back to the moon and go there to stay. I think that is the right thing to do, but you never know with NASA.

S: Phil, thank you for joining us for 5x5.

PP: Hey, no problem. Thanks for having me on.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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