By David Chandler and Don Davis
The belief that the Apollo landings were a hoax seems to increase with each new generation to emerge since the Moon landings took place. We are half way from the time of Apollo 11 to the time when no one with living memories of that event will remain. By that time it is possible that the majority of people will not believe it happened. There is an anemically funded program to return human explorers to the Moon, and it is possible this too will be considered, by some, to be a current ongoing ’hoax’ made more possible with the progress in digital image effects.
Many objections have been raised to the authenticity of the Apollo program, ranging from claims about the lethality of the Van Allen belts, to various photographic issues, to supposed odd behavior of the returned astronauts. None of these issues is definitive proof of fakery, but the onslaught of one objection after another makes the proposition more seductive and attempted refutation a daunting prospect.
Our approach here will not be to go down the list of supposed anomalies and debunk them all one at a time. There will always be more, and every explanation will immediately lead to quibbling. Suffice it to say that an anomaly is not a proof of fakery. It is a puzzle to be solved. There are excellent discussions of all the usual objections but they have had little impact on those who are already convinced that people are out to deceive them. We will leave you to search these out on YouTube, and elsewhere, for yourself.
What our goal is here is to present the affirmative case for the authenticity of the Apollo program. If it is established that the moon landings had to have happened, then the anomalies (effects of exposure to Van Allen radiation, diffuse lighting in the lunar shadows, lack of stars in astronaut photographs, etc.) become a list of puzzles to be investigated and solved. There is no way to “prove” anything to determined disbelievers. For them, the assumption that all contrary evidence is faked becomes the default “retreat zone” in any discussion of the evidence. But these people are not really our target audience. Our intention is to set what we believe is the strongest affirmative evidence on the table so that a reasonable person trying to makes sense of the debate would find it hard to brush it aside and simply say “Fake News.”
There are several strong lines of evidence that all six of the moon landings did in fact take place. We believe these range from very persuasive to conclusive.
1. Returned lunar samples and the transformative effect they have had on solar system research.
2. Multiple high resolution photographs from lunar orbiters of all of the Apollo landing sites.
3. Lunar ranging experiments.
1. Lunar samples
All six Apollo landings, as well as Russian and Chinese robotic landers, returned samples of rock and lunar regolith (i.e. lunar “soil,” that is not really soil by terrestrial standards, but simply lunar rock that has been pulverized by billions of years of meteoric impacts and chipped and cratered by a constant rain of high speed micrometeorites).
Samples have been returned by three unmanned Russian landers,
Luna 16–101 grams
Luna 20–30 grams
Luna 24–170 grams
and a Chinese lander in 2020,
Chang’e 5–1.731 kg
By contrast, the Apollo landers returned,
Apollo 11–21.55 kg
Apollo 12–34.3 kg
Apollo 14–42.8 kg
Apollo 15–76.7 kg
Apollo 16–95.2 kg
Apollo 17–110.4 kg
(1 kg = 1000 grams)
What sets the Apollo samples apart are quantity and variety. The unmanned landers reached down and took a scoop of whatever was there. The Apollo astronauts roamed around and searched for rocks based on various criteria in an effort to further the understanding of lunar geology, discovering some interesting unexpected finds along the way. The last three missions included a Lunar Rover, which allowed sampling over a much wider area. Dr. Harrison Schmitt, a PhD geologist, was recruited specifically for his geological expertise to be one of the astronauts on Apollo 17. A talk in 2020 by Brian Day, Deputy Staff Scientist at NASA, at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, CA, documents the discovery of several specific lunar rocks that were later studied in the lab upon return.
Various properties of the lunar rocks and regolith, make them distinct from terrestrial samples. For instance, the mineral anorthite is rare on earth but common on the moon. Lunar rocks are depleted of volatile materials, most notably water. Water, in the form of hydrated minerals at the molecular level, is entirely absent in most lunar rocks. An estimated 20% of the surface material consists of glass beads, rock that was melted, “sprayed up,” in volcanic events, and solidified before they returned to the surface. Recent research has revealed the presence of microscopic quantities of water in some of the glass beads (a result of studying the lunar samples, by the way. Science evolves.). Radioactive dating of lunar rock samples shows that the oldest lunar rocks are older than the oldest terrestrial rocks. The earth’s surface is heavily eroded and reprocessed by tectonic forces, whereas the lunar highlands, which have not been flooded by basaltic lava flows that cover the basins, preserve rocks that date back to the end of the initial period of heavy meteoric bombardment. Weathering by atmosphere or water are not present on the moon. The only forms of “weathering” are bombardment by micrometeorites, traveling up to 160,000 mi/hr (for head-on collisions with particles from the Oort Cloud), and direct impact of cosmic rays and the solar wind on the surface, unlike the earth, which is protected by an atmosphere and magnetic field. Even small lunar rocks show evidence of cratering by micrometeorites. The lunar samples returned from the Apollo missions are some of the greatest scientific legacies of the Apollo program which continue to be studied by scientists all over the world.
Direct study of the lunar samples has transformed our understanding of the early earth and the planetary system as a whole. It may be hard to grasp the magnitude of the sample return project, but the Lunar Sample and Photo Catalog makes browsing the lunar samples accessible online. It correlates multiple photographs of the samples with links to the published research on each sample. Take the time to browse this catalog and associated research and you can clearly see this is not a sham activity.
Figure 3 is a partial illustration of the extensive photographic record for a single rock from the Apollo 11 mission. Listed with it are the scientific studies based on that particular sample.
In summary, the project of gathering and returning lunar rock and regolith samples was a massive undertaking, which can in no way be likened to a PR stunt or “photo op” to bolster national prestige, as some have described these missions. The extensive sample collection laid the basis for ongoing science which has revised our views of processes in the early solar system. The physical evidence provided by the returned samples is not compatible with a theory that says the mission was faked.
2. Lunar Orbiter Photographs of the Apollo Landing Sites
The lunar descent modules and the various artifacts left behind on the moon are too small to be detected by earth-based telescopes. The largest earth-based telescopes have a resolution at the surface of the moon on the order of 100 meters. However a number of lunar orbital missions have brought cameras very close to the moon, enabling mapping of the surface to very high resolution. Being closer makes all the difference. Photos from these orbiters have documented all of the Apollo landing sites, showing the descent modules, the rovers, scientific packages left behind on the lunar surface, shadows of the flags planted on the surface (with the exception of the Apollo 11 flag, which Buzz Aldrin noted was blown over by the rockets during ascent), and the trails of disturbed surface material kicked up by the feet of the astronauts and the parallel tire tracks of the lunar rovers, which correspond with the video taped astronaut activity. Lunar orbiters have been launched by the U.S., India, and China. We have numerous photographs of the landing sites from the U.S. and Indian orbiters. We have statements from the Chinese that they have photographed the Apollo landing sites, but they have not made their images public. Note that India and China are not under the control of NASA, and it would be unlikely for China to affirm the presence of nonexistent Apollo landing sites.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) website has images of all of the Apollo landing sites photographed from its original 2009 orbital altitude, in comparison with significantly more detailed views taken in 2019 by the same spacecraft when it was moved to a lower orbit. Figure 4 shows the Apollo 17 landing site imaged in 2019. The photograph annotates several of the places the astronauts are shown visiting in their video coverage of the event.
Another page on the same site shows all of the other Apollo landing sites. Here is Apollo 11:
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is the national space agency of India, which is independent of NASA. The agency’s Chandrayaan-2 mission consisted of an orbiter and a lander. The lander crashed, but the orbiter took high resolution photographs of the lunar surface, including the Apollo 11 and 12 landing sites.
Many images of the Apollo 11 descent stage have been obtained in varying lighting conditions by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in recent years with its high resolution camera:
These orbiters were not sent to the moon to photograph the Apollo landing sites. The LRO is a long term survey mission that has been mapping the entire lunar surface to this kind of resolution. The Apollo landing sites are at this point just part of the landscape.
3. Lunar ranging experiments
Modern surveyors commonly use laser ranging to measure distances, at construction sites and elsewhere, quickly and accurately. The main instrument contains a laser and a retroreflector is mounted on the target pole, held by the assistant. A built-in computer calculates the distance based on the round trip travel time of a pulse of laser light.
The principle of a retroreflector is three mutually perpendicular reflecting surfaces, forming the corner of a cube. If light enters the reflector from any angle it will be reflected, typically three times, and then be sent directly back along a line parallel to the incoming ray.
The same principle is used for bicycle reflectors that are designed to shine headlights back to the driver of the oncoming car.
Three of the Apollo lunar landers (11, 14, and 15) carried arrays of retroreflectors to the moon. Lunar ranging data for the moon is desired for a number of applications, including refining our knowledge of the changes in the motions of the moon and earth (it turns out the moon is receding from the earth by a few centimeters per year), measurement of continental drift on the earth, high precision testing of the theoretical predictions of general relativity, etc.
The Apollo retroreflectors are tangible artifacts of these missions that were placed by human hands, remain to this day, and have been interacted with from earth on an ongoing basis over decades, starting with an initial verification run from Lick Observatory as soon as the Apollo 11 retroreflectors were put in place, while the astronauts were still on the moon. (That initial measurement, by itself, improved on the precision of all previous measurements by a factor of 100!) The presence of these reflectors, coupled with ongoing interaction that verifies their existence and location is proof that the missions that enabled them actually happened. The landings were not simulations.
At this point my initial inclination would be to say Q.E.D. (or in a British context, “Bob’s your uncle”) and do a mic drop. However I have found that some Apollo hoax proponents argue that the panels are not needed because laser ranging to the lunar surface itself was carried out prior to the Apollo missions. A brief history of Lunar laser ranging, on the MacDonald Observatory web site, confirms this claim, on one level, but it adds important nuance:
The concept of receiving laser light echoes from the lunar surface proceeded more or less in parallel with the artificial satellite experiments. However, the spreading of a beam of outgoing laser light as it interacted with, and was reflected by, the moon’s rough topography made ultra-precise distance determinations, as was done with artificial satellites, an impossibility. A number of such lunar experiments had been performed in the early 1960’s, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in the former Soviet Union, but with little success. A later, more refined concept recommended the deployment of a corner retroreflector package on the lunar surface as a part of one of the unmanned, soft-landing Surveyor missions. This was never brought to fruition, however. It was only in the late 1960’s, with the birth of the NASA Apollo project for landing an astronaut safely on the moon, that the concept of laser ranging to a lunar surface corner retroreflector package became a reality. The first deployment of such a package on the lunar surface took place during the Apollo 11 mission in the summer of 1969 and lunar laser ranging (LLR) became a reality. Additional retroreflector packages were landed on the lunar surface by NASA during the Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 missions. Two French-built retroreflector packages were soft-landed on the lunar surface by Soviet landers.
Lunar laser ranging from the moon’s rough surface cannot account for the high precision lunar ranging program that is ongoing to this day, and in fact has been significantly upgraded in recent years.
The McDonald Observatory in Texas has been using a laser with nanosecond precision pulses that routinely measure the distance to each of the five lunar retroreflector arrays to a precision of approximately 1 cm.
As of 2005 we have entered a new era of lunar ranging with the APOLLO program, an acronym for “Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation,” in New Mexico. It uses a dedicated 3.5 m telescope.
APOLLO measures the round-trip travel time of laser pulses bounced off the lunar retroreflectors to a precision of a few picoseconds [trillionths of a second] corresponding to about one millimeter of precision in range to the moon.
That’s measuring the distance to the moon to within the thickness of a dime.
For those of you who don’t understand the top data plot, the horizontal axis is the duration of a measurement run, during which many laser pings are sent to the moon and back. Each return photon received is indicated as a data point. The scattered data points are due to reflections from the rough lunar surface. The line of precisely timed return pulses are due to hits on the reflector panel.
Bringing the purpose of this discussion back into focus, the only way measurements to the lunar surface can possibly achieve millimeter precision, or even the earlier centimeter precision, is to have stable target points on the moon. The laser beam itself diverges, on the order of miles at the distance to the moon, and the lunar terrain is rough, so there is no possibility of the reflected beam giving a meaningful distance on the scale of millimeters. It would be as nonsensical as trying to measure the diameter of a cotton ball with a micrometer. (A cotton ball is not spherical at that resolution.) The fact that these measurement programs are successful and funded, with decades of results to show for them, is evidence of the reality of the retroreflector arrays placed on the moon. That fact, in turn, is evidence of the reality of the Apollo missions that placed them there.
Any one of the three lines of evidence we have presented should be adequate to assure any wavering person of the seriousness and authenticity of the program of manned space exploration. The three lines of evidence reinforce each other and validate the rest of the photographic and video record. (Whether, moving into the future, manned or robotic missions are more practical, economical, and scientifically productive is a question for a different discussion.) The arguments that the lunar landing missions were faked are hollow, regardless of how seductive these arguments may seem. Once we recognize, with clarity, that
- the missions returned large quantities of lunar material, qualitatively and quantitatively beyond the scope of the robotic sampling accomplished by the Russians in the 1970’s and even the Chinese robotic mission in 2020.
- the authenticity of the returned material has been documented through countless scientific studies over decades, leading to new knowledge about the geology of the earth-moon system.
- the missions left tangible artifacts, reflector panels (as well as seismometers and other scientific apparatus), which have been authenticated by ongoing interaction over decades, enabled continuing scientific investigations that have advanced our knowledge of orbital dynamics and fundamental physics
- Lunar orbital missions, both by NASA and foreign entities not controlled by NASA have confirmed through their regular mapping operations, the hardware left at the landing sites, the trails in the lunar dust left by astronauts and the lunar rovers that correspond with live video footage at the time
…we can use these specific lines of affirmative evidence to “calibrate” the authenticity of these events.
This allows us to admit all the rest of the evidence into consideration. We can leave our cynical assumptions of fraud behind and approach the outstanding questions with a more constructive attitude. Instead of saying, “Aha, the astronauts could not possibly have passed through the Van Allen radiation belts, gotcha!” we can ask, “How indeed did the astronauts negotiate the hazard of the Van Allen radiation belts.” Any surviving scientists who grappled with and solved these issues, and younger colleagues who have had first-hand knowledge of their work, could be drawn into a meaningful conversation about this puzzle. The same is true for lighting issues in photographs on the lunar surface. The same is true for the visibility of stars from the lunar surface, etc. All of those “anomalies” constitute puzzles to be pondered and answered. Many of them already have. A mindset that the missions were fraudulent leads us to reject everything about the Apollo program. A mindset that the missions were authentic opens the door to consider each event and each anomaly on its merits. Perhaps we can learn something by actually engaging them as problems to be solved. But, as far as we, the authors, are concerned, none of those questions come close to invalidating what was in fact “a giant leap for mankind.”
David Chandler (lead author): I have taught physics, mathematics, and astronomy from 1972 to 2012, apart from some time in the middle working as a software engineer. In the 1980’s and 90’s I wrote an astronomy package that did, among other things, star mapping and celestial mechanics. On the side I have been an avid amateur astronomer.
Don Davis is a long time friend and world class space artist and illustrator who has worked closely with scientists at the USGS and NASA illustrating their concepts. I describe him as someone to turn to if you want a photograph from some place in space or time that you can’t reach. For instance, working closely with planetary science experts, he did a series of illustrations, of the Moon at different stages of its evolution, from early accretion, through different eras of volcanism and cratering, to the present day. He won an Emmy for his work on the episode of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” about Mars: Blues for a Red Planet. He is an expert on planetary surfaces and a deep thinker about space exploration and its implications for humanity. I sought out his collaboration on this piece because of his extensive background knowledge and his deep concern and involvement with this issue.
A concern that Don and I share is that our culture appears to be descending into a new “dark ages.” If we cannot use good discernment to judge between our authentic history and a scam, we are at the mercy of those who would destroy our intellectual heritage.