During the Extra-Vehicular Activity on the Apollo 17 mission, the astronauts had difficulty with lunar dust been thrown up by the wheels of the Lunar Rover. One of the dust guards which should have prevented it was broken, and the astronauts had to improvise a repair using maps and sticky tape (Fig. 1). The Public Affairs Officer at the Johnson Space Centre, Houston, remarked, “As you can see, it’s only a paper fender, but the Moon is real.”1
However, there’s an oft-repeated documentary entitled Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?, made in 2001 by Nash Entertainment and also shown in the USA, purporting to show that the Project Apollo astronauts might never have gone to the Moon. I haven’t met anyone who was completely swayed by it, but a lot of people have asked me about it and most of them said they’d found the arguments convincing. For people who don’t know the facts about Apollo, I dare say they might be; there are many people now who weren’t even born when the Moon landings took place and may find those arguments difficult to answer. One counter-approach is the one taken by the NASA spokesman in the programme, who simply refused to discuss the specific arguments, but that can easily backfire – critics say that NASA doesn’t answer because it has no answers. In response to the US screening, the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston took the line of answering other questions about the Moon instead.2 But the allegations can be answered in detail, and I’m going to address them all, though in logical order which isn’t always that of the programme.
“NASA could have faked it.”
In the opening titles, I was surprised to hear that statement from my old friend Brian O’Leary, who was credited as a former astronaut “unafraid to speak out”. Technically Brian was never an astronaut, because he never flew above fifty miles’ altitude, but he was a trainee in the scientist astronaut programme. He resigned partly because the prolonged training in the engineering aspects of the programme was beginning to harm his scientific career, and he felt (rightly, as it turned out) that he had little chance of eventually flying in space. Only one of the scientist astronauts ever went to the Moon, though a few more had extended missions on Skylab.
But in 1971 he was quite sure that the astronauts were going to the Moon, and in his book about his experiences he was critical about the lack of scientific knowledge which they sometimes showed in their commentaries.3 He felt that opportunities were being wasted, but he never doubted that they were up there, and I imagine that his more recent remarks have been taken out of context. When I last met Brian, he was still a committed advocate of the Space Station programme and of manned missions to Mars.
In any case, it has since been convincingly shown that even the relatively brief Apollo 11 EVA could not have been faked on video with the technology available in 1969 – let alone the much longer ones of Apollo 15, 16 and 17, which were also televised live in full.4
Many would-be astronauts died in training – was it because they knew too much?
The astronauts were required to put in long flying hours on top of their other training. Commonly they flew themselves around the country in T-38 trainers (Fig. 2), to cut out the delays of commercial flights and also to keep their hours up. When Brian O’Leary joined the programme, four of the first fifty astronaut trainees had been killed in flying accidents. He investigated the statistics of fatalities in non-combatant US military jets, particularly the T-38, and concluded that the chances of a skilled pilot being killed in astronaut training were as high as one in six: for a beginner like himself, more like one in four or one in five. As a married man he felt the risk was unacceptable and resigned with the famous quotation, “Flying just isn’t my cup of tea”. But in his 1971 book he specifically stated, “it comes as no surprise that during nearly 100,000 hours flown collectively by all the astronauts, while in the programme, there have been four deaths. Therefore, I became gravely concerned that the statistics on the astronauts are not anomalously grim but are to be expected.”
The Apollo 1 fire was staged to kill Virgil Grissom because he knew they weren’t going to the Moon.
Apollo 1 was a ‘Block 1’ spacecraft of a design which had been severely criticised by experts and by the astronauts.5 In particular Walter Schirra was urging that manned flights should be suspended until the Block 2 version was ready. NASA’s Malfunctions Investigation section was running spot checks on the spacecraft and was well aware that the fire hazard was acute, but NASA management insisted on trusting the contractors. In retrospect, many of the decisions taken with regard to the fatal test seem extraordinary, but more realistically they can be related to the idea, which hadn’t yet been abandoned, that the Moon landing could be achieved as early as the end of 1967. A Soviet spectacular was expected for the 50th anniversary of the Revolution in October, and in the event, it was the first landing of a probe on Venus.
Repeated comparisons were made in the programme with the 1978 movie Capricorn One. But in the film, it’s the astronauts who faked the mission who are the targets for assassination. If NASA was rubbing out people who refused to go along with the supposed Apollo deception, it’s remarkable that many of the lunar astronauts were then still alive – some still are, Buzz Aldrin for one – and those who weren’t had died of natural causes.
The spacecraft never left orbit around the Earth.
If so, at least two objects would have appeared in Earth orbit each time: the Command and Service Module combination (Fig. 3), which stayed together until just before re-entry, and the S-IVB stage which had performed orbital insertion and was to perform Trans-Lunar Injection (Fig. 4). The Lunar Module (Ascent and Descent stages combined) was stored in an adaptor on the forward end of the S-IVB, and the CSM mounted forward of that. The S-IVB with CSM attached would have been brighter than a first magnitude star (the Skylab space station was a converted S-IVB, and I saw that many times from Scotland in 1973 and after), so it would have been necessary to separate them as soon as possible. In theory, the S-IVBs could have been deorbited over the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, but the risk of someone seeing them would be very high, given that it would have happened nine times, for Apollos 8, 10 and 13 as well as the six landings.
But even the CSMs would be the brightest things in Low Earth Orbit, for up to a fortnight at a time, and would have been reported by both amateur and professional observers. At that range, radio traffic with the ground could be picked up by amateur groups such as the famous one at Kettering Grammar School, which located the secret Soviet launch complex at Plesetsk. And the Soviets had a large seagoing fleet of tracking ships (Fig. 5), which would have located the spacecraft and had no reason at all to keep the finding quiet.
Most conclusively, the Apollo missions were tracked on the way to the Moon by both amateur and professional observers, because they knew where the spacecraft were supposed to be (Fig. 6).6 The spacecraft themselves rapidly passed out of optical range, but several course correction burns were observed within the Earth’s shadow (see comments on rocket flames below). In particular the gas cloud from the Apollo 13 explosion, and other such events, were captured by multiple observers (Fig. 7).7 Returns to Earth were also monitored and again Apollo 13 came in for particular attention (Fig. 8), because the plutonium powerplant for the Apollo Lunar Scientific Experiment Package was still in its storage cylinder on the Descent Stage of the Lunar Module, and the Pacific nations were very concerned about contamination. All the evidence (and lack of contamination) indicated that the capsule had reached the seabed unbroken; but it was definitely on return-to-Earth trajectory from the Moon, a full two miles per second faster than descent from orbit (Fig. 9).
Then again, there are people who say that Project Apollo was never cancelled: after spending all that money on it, of course the USA wouldn’t abandon it. You could hear a Saturn V launch fifty miles away, and see a night launch from hundreds of miles, so I’d love to know where they’ve supposedly been firing them in secret for the last thirty years.
The Apollo 1 fire proves that the spacecraft was too dangerous to fly to the Moon.
In that case, it would have been too dangerous to use in orbit either. But it was the Block 2 spacecraft, and later models, which actually performed the lunar missions.
Why weren’t the astronauts killed by the Van Allen radiation belts? All other space missions have stayed below them.
Untrue. The inner Van Allen Belt extends towards the Earth in a region called the South Atlantic Anomaly (Fig. 10), which was flown through by Skylab and is often penetrated by the Internation Space Station. As the name implies, it’s not over the Earth’s magnetic equator, where the radiation belt is most intense (Fig. 11); and neither is Kennedy Space Centre. The nearer a launch site is to the true equator, the more boost the spacecraft gets from the Earth’s rotation, but KSC is at the furthest north from which you can launch to the Moon without making an orbital plane change, which uses a great deal of fuel unless you do it at the Moon itself (see below). From there, Apollo missions could skim through the less intense regions of the inner Van Allen Belt; but it has left US commercial launchers at a disadvantage compared with ESA’s Kourou, which is much nearer the equator. The view of the Earth taken by Apollo 10 shows that the spacecraft was north of the equator (Fig. 12), and the first view of the full Earth disc by Apollo 17 in December 1972 shows the whole of Antarctica in sunlight, while the equator passing through Lake Victoria is well north of centre (Fig. 13). The outer Van Allen Belt consists of trapped electrons, which are far less penetrating than the protons of the inner one.
The Russians abandoned the Moon race because they knew they couldn’t get to the Moon.
The Soviet launch site at Baikonur is still further north than KSC, requiring more powerful boosters for direct launch to the Moon, but plane change manoeuvres had been performed around the Moon by Soviet lunar probes since Luna III in 1959. The Van Allen radiation belts would however have been even less of a problem. Variants of the Soyuz spacecraft designated Zond had been flown round the Moon many times and late in 1968 that the Soviets were preparing for a manned lunar flyby. The call-sign ‘Diamond’ was assigned to the mission, and cosmonauts Belyayev and Bykovsky were the intended crew.8 The Apollo Lunar Module was not ready for testing and NASA took the decision to put the CSM alone into lunar orbit as Apollo 8. This was an extremely risky mission, as there had been no previous manned flights on Saturn V, and if the CSM had failed as it did on Apollo 13, the astronauts would not have survived. In the event it proved to be a serious mistake, because if the Soviets had put a man round the Moon then they could not have claimed later that they never intended to go there; western scientists like Sir Bernard Lovell would not have backed them; there would have been no congressional attempt to imprison the NASA Director and the Apollo programme might not have been cancelled.
However the Soviets did not immediately abandon the competition after Apollo 8. Their N-1 ‘Lenin’ booster and a manned Zond spacecraft on a Proton booster were on pads on July 4th,1969. Cosmonauts Filipchenko, Kubason and Shonin were in the Zond and the Lenin was carrying a lunar lander.8 But it exploded immediately after launch, damaging a second one which was also preparing for launch (Fig. 14), and ending the remote chance of beating Apollo 11 to the Moon.
Even then, there was a Soviet spacecraft in orbit around the Moon with Apollo 11. Luna 15 went into orbit ahead of Apollo 11, and John Braithwaite and I debated what its purpose might be. The media were full of speculation that it was a last-ditch attempt to get a lunar sample ahead of the Americans, and one of the surviving elements of ASTRA’s 1979 exhibition, ‘The High Frontier, a Decade of Space Research’, was a mounted front and back page from The Sunday Express, immediately before the landing, headed ‘Has the Red Robot Won by a Short Head?’(Fig 15). (The second headline on the same page reads “Edward Kennedy in Death Crash’, and we all know what that was.) But a last-minute sample grab seemed both petty and pointless, so we thought it just might be a rescue vehicle. Whatever it was, it was deorbited two hours before the Apollo 11 liftoff and crashed into Mare Crisium. The sample return explanation is still officially accepted, but in 1990 it was revealed that the ‘Luna 15’ designation had been applied, at least temporarily, to a one-man lunar landing module which was to be placed in lunar orbit ahead of a manned Zond (Fig. 16);9 and the lander on the Lenin booster was lifted clear of the explosion by an escape tower.5 That doesn’t guarantee that the Luna 15 we know was the same craft, but if it was a rescue vehicle, the history of lunar exploration might have taken a very different course (Fig. 17).
The crash of the lunar trainer flown by Neil Armstrong proves that the astronauts couldn’t do a landing even on Earth, in atmosphere.
The lunar landing trainer in question was a ‘flying bedstead’ vehicle, held up by a downward-pointing jet engine (Fig. 18). The first vehicle of that type was built in the UK in the 1950’s and led to the development of the Short SC-1 vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. That proved so difficult to control that it could only be flown tethered in a cage until a fly-by-wire control system was developed. The Soviets developed a similar VTOL aircraft for submarine and carrier use, but the vectored thrust system of the Harrier is more controllable and effective than separate downward-pointing engines, and after Britain’s success with it Soviet designers also moved on to the vectored thrust principle. But even the Harrier is hard to fly vertically, which is why carrier pilots prefer to operate off a ‘ski-ramp’ on the bows of the ship. As for James Bond style jet-packs, notwithstanding Paul Merton’s enthusiasm for them on Have I Got News for You, they’re not in use with any armed forces in the world.
But the bedstead used for lunar landing practise was even harder to control, because the idea was to throttle back the jet until it was cancelling only five-sixth of the vehicle’s weight. The rest of its weight had to be supported by the rocket engine, which was then throttled in turn (see below), to try to achieve a controlled descent. A little thought will reveal how hard it was to get both thrust vectors balanced around the vehicle’s centre of mass, and when it tipped on its side, as Neil Armstrong’s did (Fig. 19), recovery was almost impossible. No mechanical failure was found and the most likely explanations are pilot error, or just a gust of wind. Either way, in true one-sixth gravity, with no air to confuse matters, the Lunar Module was much easier to control and the intended period of hover above the landing site was eliminated – Armstrong actually flew the Eagle in like a helicopter.
(To be continued)
1. Richard S. Lewis, The Voyages of Apollo, New York Times Book Co., 1974.
2. (Anon), ‘Mysteries of the Moon’, Lunar & Planetary Information Bulletin, 90, 1-3 (Spring 2001).
3. Brian O’Leary, The Making of an Ex-Astronaut, Michael Joseph, 1971.
4. S. G. Collins, ‘Moon Hoax NOT’, Postwar Media, October 9th 2028, available online.
5. Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Moon Shot, Virgin Books, 1994.
6. NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, Analysis of Apollo 8 Photography and Visual Observations, NASA SP-201, US Government Printing Office, 1969.
7. J.O. Capellari Jr., W.I. McLaughlin, ‘Telescopic Observations of Lunar Missions’, Spaceflight, 13, 10, 363-9 (October 1971).
8. Peter Pesavento, ‘The Russians Were Coming’, Griffith Observer, 49, 7, 2-19 (July 1978).
9. Daniel James Gauthier, ‘A Bold Plan that Was Not to Be’, Ad Astra, 2, 2, 20-21 (February 1990).