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Australasian ScienceWhere were you 40 years ago?

During July it was hard to miss the hype about the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing.

40 years onIn July 1969 I was in the army stationed at Holsworthy, west of Sydney, and on the day in question most of the battalion were somewhere else, with only a skeleton crew left behind. My job that day was to man the boom gate at the entrance to the camp in case the Viet Cong advanced down Heathcote Road. Suddenly the word went round the camp that we were all invited to the Sergeants' Mess to watch something on television. It had to be something very special, because there is strict segregation of social activities in the army and this was a building exclusively for the use of non-commissioned officers. We were a bit out of touch with world news at the time and I imagine that some of us would have secretly hoped that we were going to see the Prime Minister announce that the war and conscription were over and we could all go home.

What we saw instead was something so amazing that it I can't imagine how anybody could forget where they were when they saw it. We saw incredibly brave men do what no human had done before - stand on the surface of some place in the universe other than Earth.

But were we being told the truth? Was what we saw on television real? Was it just another clever piece of science fiction presented as truth by the media, like Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio play, The War of the Worlds? Could it have even been something more sinister – a government plot to deceive the Russians and to raise the spirits of the American population by letting them know that John Kennedy’s 1962 promise to do the hard things had been fulfilled?

Almost as soon as those blurry images appeared on television there were those who claimed that the whole thing was a hoax, a conspiracy maintained until this very day to deceive everyone. It was a very good conspiracy, too, because it required the continued silence of approximately half a million people who worked on the Apollo project in some capacity. Presidents Nixon and Clinton must have wished that they had been as successful in keeping secrets, but as every conspiracy theorist knows there are some secrets protected by levels of security beyond even those available to the President of the United States.

The most commonly proposed location for filming the hoax television show is the famous Area 51 in Nevada. I have my own theory which involves large subterranean chambers carved as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, but discussion of that option can be left for another day. As I am drinking coffee from an Area 51 mug even as I type I will stick with the conventional theory.

So what arguments have been offered to counteract the hoax theory? Let’s look at three anomalies pointed out by the moon landing skeptics and see what the scientists have to say.

The first one is the waving flag. Everyone knows that there is no air on the moon, so what makes the flag flap after it is positioned? The flapping must have been caused by a breeze, so the flag planting must have happened on Earth. Well, say the scientists, with no air to damp the inertia of the flag material it would keep moving for a while even in a vacuum.

You can see the footprints from space

The next two have to do with photography, and both are illustrated by the famous photograph of a suited Neil Armstrong taken by Buzz Aldrin. Where are the stars in the dark sky behind Armstrong? If they are in space there should be stars. Scientists offer some weak explanation about exposure times and taking photographs in bright light. Then there’s how Armstrong’s suit is brightly lit but there is no shadow of the photographer. The scientists ramble on about "infill" and something about how the surface of the moon is so reflective that you can read by the reflected light 350,000 kilometres away.

In the latest attempt to refute the skeptics, NASA has released some photographs allegedly taken from something called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and supposedly showing the remains of the Apollo lunar lander on the Moon, plus some photographs of footprints.

The immediate reaction of the skeptical community was to point out the capabilities of the software program PhotoShop, but this is a case where the skeptics are definitely wrong. I have it on good authority that budget cuts at NASA have rendered PhotoShop too expensive, so these pictures were made using Corel PaintShop Pro. You can trust me on this because I read it on the Internet. And I have this Area 51 coffee mug ...

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the September 2009 edition of Australasian Science
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