Seeing Is Believing: Why the Apollo Photos Can’t Be Faked

Approximately one billion people on Earth watched as the first human set foot on the moon 50 years ago on July 20, 1969.

This will long be remembered as a crowning achievement not just of our nation, but a game-changer for human civilization. This was our first step toward becoming an extraterrestrial species that pursues space colonization, harvests the solar system’s resources, and ultimately sends robot emissaries to earthlike planets around other stars.

However, what has polluted pop culture to detract from this breathtaking accomplishment is the completely absurd notion that the six Apollo moon landings from 1969–72 were faked by NASA.

The allegation is that we really couldn’t get a human to the moon and back safely. Nevertheless, we would do anything to look like we beat the Soviets to the moon in a Cold War technological Olympics.

Ever since the Apollo missions ended, this idea has been popularized in books, TV documentaries, Hollywood movies, and innumerable YouTube clips by an eclectic group of government conspiracy buffs.

There is a long list of arguments why this entire allegation is simply inane. For starters, you’d have to believe that the 400,000 people who worked on the Apollo program have managed to keep a coverup secret for 50 years. Add to that the notion that scientists around the world have been fooled by analyzing “phony” moon rocks. The list goes on and on.

What’s flooded YouTube are videos by conspiracy buffs who scrutinize hundreds of Apollo “tourist snapshots” taken by the astronauts. The photos and videos are analyzed to death in looking for “evidence” of photographic chicanery.

In reality, these self-styled sleuths betray an abysmal lack of understanding of simple photography—as well as science illiteracy.

The rapid evolution of computer graphics and digital image processing blurs the line between reality and fantasy in Hollywood movies. Realistic-looking footage of dinosaurs, space aliens, superheroes, and bizarre creatures can be completely fabricated with perfectly precise control of lighting, motion choreography, and 3D computer graphics effects.

So why not moon-landing photos too? For starters, the approximately 5,000 Apollo photos, and hours of astronaut moonwalk video are far too complex to be faked with comparatively stone-age 1960s special effects technology.

For example, all the effects in the 1968 landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey required complex, time consuming, and cumbersome optical-printing techniques costing the equivalent of $40 million today. For that expense, each shot took an average of 10 film laboratory steps to complete. It’s estimated that 16,000 separate shots were taken to assemble 205 special effects images of outer space in the motion picture.

Top, craggy moonscape at 2001’s monolith excavation. Moon background was a front projection effect under carefully controlled lighting. Bottom, the real deal. Apollo 17 panorama of the Taurus=Littro valley.

Nevertheless, one favorite conspiracy theory is that 2001’s visionary filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, was contracted to secretly film the Apollo scenes. To disprove this theory, all one has to do is compare the 2001 moon-surface footage to Apollo’s real images. There is a huge difference. The mountains are all craggy (as popularized in 1950s space illustrations). In reality, billions of years of micrometeorite erosion have smoothed down the mountains to resemble piles of beach sand, as seen at the Apollo landing sites.

Kubrick made no attempt to try and simulate the moon’s 1/6 gravity, because it was impractical. When astronauts visit the black alien monolith excavation, they trudge along under the full pull of Earth’s gravity.

One joke is that Kubrick did indeed film the Apollo landings. But, being a purist, he insisted on filming on location!

Conspiracy theorists can’t dismiss hours and hours of Apollo footage that shows astronauts hopping around like kangaroos under the gentle tug of 1/6 gravity, not to mention lunar objects following simple ballistic motion in 1/6-g that is completely different than it would appear in Earth’s gravitational environment.

Left, Apollo 17 high jump in 1/6 g, right, 2001 scene of visit to monolith with actor-astronauts ambling along under the full pull of Earth’s gravity.

There are endless subtleties in the Apollo videos demonstration the 1/6 g of an alien world: the way dust flies along lengthy parabolic trajectories when it is kicked up, the foil blasted off the lander when the rover’s camera filmed the Apollo 16 ascent module lifting off, the golf ball hit by Alan Shepherd on Apollo 14, and the wonderful scene from Apollo 15 where David Scott drops a hammer and feather, which, in the vacuum, fall at exactly the same slow rate. The final tour de force is footage of the entire moon rover bouncing and kicking up dust, behaving exactly as it would in 1/6th g.

Note the big 1/6 g dust plumes from the lunar rover.

For all of this to be phony, the Apollo budget of billions of dollars would have had to have been spent on building an H.G. Wells-inspired time machine to bring an image-rendering supercomputer and powerful animation software back from the 21st century—not to mention kidnapping several computer-animation artists.

What’s more, if the moonwalks were filmed in the legendary Air Force Area 51 in Nevada, as some conspiracy folks assert, the shadows would have noticeably changed direction as the sun moved across the sky. (The moon’s rotation is too slow to measure any changes in sun angle during the moonwalks). And, somehow the blue desert sky would have had to been matted out to be black.

“Look ma, no cameraman or studio lighting reflected in my helmet!”

What’s more, NASA would have never chosen to use gold-mirrored helmet faceplates for the Apollo astronauts because they would have reflected everything on the soundstage: lights, cameras, and technicians (caution: cinematographer is closer than he appears). The film director would have used transparent helmets instead. And still, multiple floodlights would have been reflected in the glass, as is obvious in any 1950s space-adventure flick.

All the shadows in the panorama converge toward a single vanishing point on the horizon, as evidence of just one light source – the sun.

The long list of claims about “studio lighting” of the moonwalks only betrays the critics’ lack of understanding of fundamental photography. All the Apollo images are consistent with one single brilliant light source—the sun. A Hollywood lighting technician would have used the standard lighting contrast ratio (range of difference between brightest and darkest parts of the image) of 3:1. Moon-surface photos have a much bigger contrast ratio of at least 20:1. What is alleged to be studio fill-lighting in some of the shadowed photos, is simply sunlight reflecting off the lunar surface.

Left: Photo of moon taken with a DSLR, (1/180 sec, ISO 400). The exposure is too short to capture the faint glow of background stars.
Right: Stars artificially added to original exposure.

A highly publicized “gotcha” is that there are no stars in the lunar sky. It was lunar daytime during the moonwalks. Therefore, the cameras were set on the same exposure you would use on Earth for a sunny day at the beach. Try photographing stars at midnight with a simple discount-store camera pre-set for a daytime exposure and see what develops. If stars did appear in the Apollo images (as in the 2001 shots) it would have been proof the footage was faked.

Finally, all the Apollo images are archived for public viewing and downloading. NASA would have never been so unnecessarily exorbitant in crafting so many special effects shots. Staging one simple moon landing with a few dozen fake photos would have done the trick to win the Space Race.

Apollo 17 landing site descent stage, rover tracks,
as photographed by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has photographed all the Apollo landing sites, providing direct visual evidence of human artifacts left on the moon.

Though the Apollo conspiracy buffs are very noisy on the Internet, public opinion polls show that only seven percent of the American public think the Apollo moon landings were faked. Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, who arrived at this estimate in one study, said, “Most Americans reject the wackier ideas out there about fake moon landing and shape-shifting lizards.”

The irony is that Internet makes a wealth of science information available to the public. All the Apollo pictures can be accessed an downloaded at https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/.  However, the Internet has also facilitated the spread of misinformation that is progressively replacing expert advice.

My Hubble colleague, Zoltan Levay, had this insightful comment:  “As with any mythology, no amount of logic or evidence will convince the (hoax) believers. It’s not about the truth, it’s about having a tribe to belong to and provoking the establishment.” Therefore, chasing down moon-hoax theories is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. You knock down one crazy allegation and another one pops up.

So the Apollo hoax allegation are a mild distraction to most Americans. Nevertheless, its purveyors have the hubris and audacity to cast doubt on such a mind-boggling demonstration of the American pioneering spirit, as embodied in our scientific and technological prowess.

“Apollo certainly has to be among the greatest achievements in human history because it really stands on a level that is beyond the history of any one nation or the history of any one group on the Earth. It really is an achievement, a milestone on the level of the human species,” said space historian Andrew Chakin.

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