PopSci does the Moon Hoax

By Phil Plait | September 30, 2008 7:07 pm

The magazine Popular Science has an article online that pretty much mocks the Moon Hoaxers. Yay!

They interviewed me for the article a few weeks ago, and that part starts on the second page. I say the usual stuff you’d expect from me. A few relatively small things in the article stand out to me which need correcting:

1) Sibrel didn’t work on the Fox TV show. Some of his footage was used, but last I heard he said they didn’t have the right to use it. He was interviewed for it and appeared in it, though.

2) I don’t know if my Fox debunking spawned other sites, but a lot did crop up. That’s the web for ya! A good idea is generally thought of by more than one person.

3) The author misspelled Penn Jillette’s name. Heh.

But I am a little ticked the way the article ends. In what looks like yet another attempt at journalistic "balance" he equivocated about the hoax:

Though the hoaxers claims usually disappear when held up to the light, there is one question that sticks in one’s craw: what happened to the official videotapes of the Apollo 11 landing? [...]

But those priceless historical images weren’t put in a vault at the Smithsonian like they should have been. According to NASA records, the official video images of the moon landing were stored in 2,612 boxes at a government warehouse. Between 1975 and 1979, the Goddard Space Center requested all but two boxes of tapes and never returned them to the National Archives. Now, the 13,000 reels of data are nowhere to be found. In 2006, NASA began a dedicated agency-wide hunt, but to date, the images haven’t shown up. “Despite the challenges of the search,” a NASA release states, “NASA does not consider the tapes to be lost.” But the hoaxers and moon doubters do.

I don’t think "that sticks in one’s craw", and it’s hardly evidence of hoaxery. How could it be, with all the other evidence we have, including tapes from other missions? Also, I’ve worked at a government facility, and to me it’s amazing they were able to keep track of everything they did! It’s too bad the tapes were lost, of all things, but it doesn’t surprise me that some things were lost, stolen, or just plain disappeared. So I wish the author had phrased that better.

All in all though, despite that, it’s a pretty good article. It’s moving up Digg, too.

Comments (59)

Links to this Post

  1. News From Around The Blogosphere 9.30.08 « Skepacabra | September 30, 2008
  1. So are the hoaxers now claiming that Apollo 11 was faked, but the other 5 landings were real?

  2. Davidlpf

    The boxes of missing film are in Jay Windley’s basement.:-)

  3. I’ve had a suspicion for a long time now that they teach journalists to do that, lest they find themselves unable to interview a similar person later on. I’m frankly amazed than any politician will still sit down and speak to John Stossel!

  4. I have the moon tapes. I’ll trade them for a complete copy of ‘power of the daleks’.

  5. IVAN3MAN

    I challenged a Moon Hoax believer with the question: What makes you think that the Russians, with all their space tracking equipment for the Luna/Lunokhod programme, would have failed to spot a hoax and miss a great propaganda opportunity against the Americans, especially at the height of the Vietnam war and several years’ after the Russians were forced to back down over the Cuban missile crisis?

    The silly bugger replied: “The Russians were bought off with grain shipments to keep them silent!”

  6. Davidlpf

    @Lab Lemming
    Some think the first one was faked and the others were real or all were faked.

  7. I’ll have to buy the magazine and give it to a friend of mine who actually believes this stuff. I’ve tried to talk to him about the issue, but he says stuff like “Oh Mr. Astronomer! Here he goes again!” and shuts down. Very frustrating. He likes Mythbusters, so I might link to the episode when it gets to YouTube and send that to him too.

    I agree with the guys at Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, who have touched on this subject as well, when they say (or was it the luscious Swoopy…) that Moon hoax belief does show that the believer has a skeptical underpinning to the belief. They are skeptical of the government in general. Now we only need to turn that to our way of seeing things. If they could just be skeptical of all claims that are made, not just the ones the government makes, then we’d be halfway there. Just add a goodly dose of reality check and they just might come around…
    Rich

  8. IVAN3MAN

    It’s also “very frustrating” waiting for one’s comment to get moderated!

  9. IVAN3MAN

    Richard Drumm, nice blog you have there.

  10. The notion that the Apollo moonlandings were a hoax is so stupid its really hard to believe this is still being discussed. But then again, we have a vice presidential candidate who believes the earth is only 6,000 years old. Man is that wacky or what? How could anyone believe that? Well guess what I’ve worked in the national lab system for several years and have met multiple people who believe such nonsense. So people will believe anything, even those folks who are responsible for making sure our bloated inventory of aging nuclear weapons doesn’t blow up on its own. Well interestingly, China recently faked a space walk….Wonder if NASA helped them!

  11. Funny that missing tapes are grist for the mill for conspiracy types. Lost tapes is nothing new. Look how many episodes of Doctor Who went missing in the 60s and 70s. The BBC recorded over many of them.

  12. China recently faked a space walk….Wonder if NASA helped them!
    Did you notice how the Chinese flag flapped in the breeze in supposedly airless space?

  13. Cam

    Hey, this really isn’t a comment on the blogg, but more like a thank you note to you.

    Thank you so much for taking time to debunk all the fear mongering and lies that are so easily posted online that naive who don’t know any better stumble upon. People like me.

    I have problem with anxiety. Ever since I was a child, I would get scared of things that I really should be afraid of. There was a time when I was 8, when I heard about the AIDs virus that that it was fatal and there was no cure. I was scared to death that I might have it, because no one taught me how you can contract it.

    Yeah, that’s how phobic I am.

    I just want to say that you have helped me a lot by debunking the scary nonesense and hyped up stories. Especially about my lastest scare, the LHC, which I am no longer afraid of because people like you and educated others showed me that there is nothing to be afraid of and that the people who are doing the fear mongering are cherry picking information that support their claims.

    You didn’t have fear mongering like this when I was a kid, before the internet. It’s good that information can be so easily spread to the world, but the down side that the wrong information can just as easily be spread.

    I know there is a lot of stupidity out there in the world and there will always be people who exploit and get off fear mongering with lies and twisted truths. But it makes me feel better that there are people like you who are ready slaps these lies away and soothe fears and concerns with truth.

    I just want you to know to never give up spread the truth. You are really helping people and you are a good person for doing that.

  14. Spot on Cam.
    My sister recently called me to get me to speak to her 9 year old son about alien abductions. He’d watched one of those cable “documentaries” about UFOs and alien abductions. He was absolutely terrified. Couldn’t sleep and had nightmares when he did. You can allay a kids fears but it takes a bit of talking and time and the child will have to trust that person implicitly. You talk about how some people see things that aren’t there. You talk about fantasies and special effects. You try and explains why some people lie. So what happens to the kids who don’t have a big sceptical uncle?

  15. Daniel

    They lost…WHAT?! Great way of taking care of historical documents…grrrr. Was this the entire Apollo collection?

  16. ND

    Chew,

    I’ve noticed those too but afterwords I found them in shadows as well. They could be radiation hitting the film. They were outside Earth’s protection after all.

  17. ND

    Apollo 11 was faked but the others were real? That’s new. Talk about being nuanced.

  18. Jeeves

    From the article:

    “In ten years I think this conspiracy theory will be gone,” says Plait, who points out that in 2009 NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will give us clear photos of the moon landing sites.

    Yeah, sure. Wanna bet? They’ll just say that NASA has had 40 years (40! years!) to plant the evidence with unmanned missions. True Believers can bend any facts to their theories.

  19. Togan

    Jeeves, why go so far? After all, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is fake as well! Just look at what kind of images computers can make today!

  20. jole

    @shane
    Missing tapes? I hope you’re not suggesting that Doctor Who is all studio trickery and bathroom plungers?

  21. bassmanpete

    They lost a few tapes, so what? They lost the Ark of the Covenant in that warehouse, it was HUGE!

    Cam said “You didn’t have fear mongering like this when I was a kid, before the internet.”

    With the Cold War and the MAD policy, we didn’t NEED any other fear mongering.

  22. bassmanpete said: “With the Cold War and the MAD policy, we didn’t NEED any other fear mongering.”
    Too right. As a kid growing up in the 70s we knew were going to be fried in a nuclear holocaust. If that didn’t kill us the nuns told us 8 year olds that when the commies came we’d be the first ones put up against the wall. Geeze, the kids today have no problems.

  23. Radwaste

    Umm… video tape… in 1969?

  24. Chew

    ND,

    curses! There’s even a “star” in the soil in 5455. And they are not consistant between pictures. Oh, well. Thanks.

    The “Apollo 11 was faked but the others were real” is just too bizarre. Everybody knows the names Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. How many people know the names Conrad and Bean? I don’t think those two would have allowed Armstrong and Aldrin to go down in histroy as two of the most famous people who ever lived while their names are practically footnotes.

  25. Chew

    I guess that’s why they “silenced” Pete Conrad by making him crash his motorcycle… Al Bean’s next! “They” will probably poison his paints.

  26. Radwaste said: “Umm… video tape… in 1969?”
    Yep, videotape was introduced into the UK in 1958.

  27. Buzz Parsec

    Radwaste, absolutely. (We’re not talking VHS or Beta. 1″ open reel video tape was common in the 1960′s.)

    Some time in the spring or early summer of 1974, a box of tapes “fell off the back” of an Emery Air Freight (IIRC) truck heading for the Houston airport. (7-track 200 BPI 1/2″ computer tapes on 2400 ft reels.) A few weeks later someone tried to sell some of them in a bar in New Orleans. They were cool looking, had NASA labels and stuff. A few days later the FBI showed up at the Harvard College Observatory asking about them. They were quick look data from the Harvard/SAO EUV Spectroheliometer on Skylab. We hadn’t really noticed they were missing because they tended to show up randomly and in no particular order. Usually the microfiche came separately and was more immediately interesting since you could tell at a glance if there were any active regions, coronal loops, flares, etc. The tapes were actually all duplicates, all the original data was still at JSC (or maybe the tracking stations that received it.) So no big deal, but still…. I was a little surprised the FBI didn’t interview me about it, because I was the guy who actually opened the boxes, hung the tapes on the storage racks, filed the fiche (and usually looked at it first), and cataloged everything (handwritten observation logs then entered on an IBM 026 card punch). I was part time and not there when the feds showed up, but I guess they were satisfied with the explanations of the DP people as to what the tapes were all about.

    The Apollo tapes are probably in some warehouse somewhere, but might not be readable without heroic efforts after all these years. (Sometimes the oxide comes off old tape when you unwind it.)

  28. quasidog

    Mocking these people only gives them power in the form of more attention. What is the point. Is it not better to just ignore them? They are wrong. All their evidence is flawed. Case closed, move on.

  29. quasidog, ignoring these people just signals acquiescence. They have the media and a good chunk of the legislature. The day we shut up is the day they get carte blanche.

  30. quasidog

    Yeah I know that line of reasoning shane, I just don’t buy it. I feel the majority of the general public now know its bunk and there is no need to argue it anymore. Unless they can come up with hard, multiple lines of evidence, irrefutable evidence (which they never seem to be able to do) I feel the subject is over. When that happens I reckon ignore them and let them say whatever they want. How long will we keep debunking their stupid reasoning? Nobody argues with ‘flat earthers’. Waste of time. This is now the same thing. It is like arguing with a kid that won’t reason with you; after a while you just give up.

    Some may get off of the to and fro of it, and feeling big by taking the piss out of morons, but I haven’t got time for it.

  31. That must be why the Saturn V plans are missing, too. We never actually designed it.

  32. redxavier

    I’m generally a bit confused by these hoaxers and what exactly their hypothesis is. Were the non-moon landing missions (Apollo 8 and Apollo 10) also faked?

    And yeah, in a couple of months it will be the 40th anniversary of Apollo 8 reaching the moon!

  33. @IVAN3MAN:
    Thanks! You’ve helped me prove that the counter there isn’t working!
    I’ll be adding some more stuff there soon!
    You also helped me get started with HTML, which was a -BIG- help with my club’s website!
    Thanks 10^6!
    Rich

  34. ND

    chew,

    When I first saw them I figured without the atmosphere reducing the brightness of start by about a magnitude some of the brighter ones might have made it on to the film but then I saw the same spots in the shadows. But, without the atmosphere, sunlight would be brighter too and thus shorter exposure than on earth.

  35. Joe Meils

    This is exactly why we’ll never find the Roswell wreckage, either. It’s probably been put at the bottom of some government junkyard out in the middle of White Sands… LOL

    Never underestimate the power of the US Government to be inefficient, butterfingered or otherwise incompetent.

  36. Ray

    Phil,

    “Also, I’ve worked at a government facility, and to me it’s amazing they were able to keep track of everything they did! It’s too bad the tapes were lost, of all things, but it doesn’t surprise me that some things were lost, stolen, or just plain disappeared.”

    Been there, done that. Government agencies all have rules and regulations governing how long they are required to keep records and things. Not too big a stretch to imagine that some lower-level guy (intern, apprentice, new guy) comes upon a bunch of boxes of tapes and stuff that are 15 or 20 years old and asks his super what to do with “a bunch of old junk”. Super says “if its more than a year old, the reg says we get rid of it”.

    I can remember destroying all kinds of classified files in the old days that weren’t particularly interesting or important, but it was incredibly easy to just open the file cabinet and shred everything that was more than 3 years old.

  37. Journalists are supposed to present an objective look at a story subject. That’s NOT the same thing as setting two things equal in a story, which is what it appears this person did. Why is it so hard to learn what “objective” means in a journalistic context?

    *sigh*

  38. @ND:

    Regarding the stars… Sure, they may be brighter by a magnitude, but the sun is also brighter by the same amount, so (assuming you set the camera to record the moon), you have to reduce your exposure time or aperture by one stop.

    That’s my canned response to people who think no stars in the Apollo photos means they were fake: Set your camera on manual, adjust it to get a good photo of a parking lot on the brightest cloudless summer day you can find. Then, without changing the settings, take it out at night and click off some shots of the stars. By my quick estimate, there’s at least 18 stops difference between a star field and the midtones of the illuminated surface of the moon. Good luck finding film with that kind of latitude, even today!

    So I think it’s safe to say any star-like things you see are cosmic ray hits or lens flare. (Except in photos specifically set to just show stars, if there are any.)

  39. Gary Ansorge

    Moon hoaxers, flat earthers and creationists are all of a kind,,,skeptical of anything that disagrees with their point of view,,,which is why we have the Scientific Method. Every time I think of the marvelous simplicity of this method and the power it gives us to discern truth from fiction, I thank that early Sufi philosopher who developed it(and yes, I know the Greeks came up with the method first, but it didn’t catch on and become a dominant force for reason). Just think, had the Greeks been able to solidly incorporate this method in their culture, we’d be colonizing Tau Ceti by now,,,

    Skepticism is only part of the formula for reason. The other part is being able to discern lies and make progress toward some aspect of truth.

    Remember, Satan is the Great Liar,,,or maybe that was George Bush,,,

    GAry 7

  40. Peter B

    Daniel asked: “They lost…WHAT?! Great way of taking care of historical documents…grrrr. Was this the entire Apollo collection?”

    Daniel

    Accidents happen in the storage of data. It wasn’t the entire Apollo collection. What was lost was *some* data from Apollo 11. It was high quality video, and spacecraft data tapes. For most people, the data tapes are pretty much irrelevant. The video would be good to have, not because it shows anything we don’t already have, but because it would be of a higher quality than we currently have.

  41. Charles Boyer

    As a kid, I saw every single launch of the Apollo Program.

    Every single one.

    They were not faked. You think the Shuttle is awesome in person, you should have seen the Saturn C-5 (Saturn V) from about 4.5 nm — which is where I viewed Apollo 11′s liftoff.

    Earth shaking, deafening, thunderous vibrations as it shattered the air on it lumbering way upward. The Shuttle just hurls itself. The Saturn V was brute force in comparison, muscling its way into the sky, in a defiant wrestling match with Earth. Each one was determined. Her thrust tails were far longer than the 365-foot rocket and you could clearly see the stagings as they happened with the naked eye.

    But Saturns were graceful all the same, believe it or not.

    Best part for me: Dad and my Grandfather would come home. In the week leading up to a moonshot, they were at work 24×7. They always had stories too, after some sleep and a hot shower.

    Yeah, we went. I saw it.

  42. Peter B

    Quasidog said: “Mocking these people only gives them power in the form of more attention. What is the point. Is it not better to just ignore them? They are wrong. All their evidence is flawed. Case closed, move on.”

    In my experience there are several reasons to respond.

    1. As Shane said, Moon Hoax Believers claim that official silence means they’re onto something (of course, they make the same claim if NASA responds).

    2. Some people (both enthusiasts and those who actually worked on Apollo) don’t like it when people distort this particular part of the historical record, and want to set it straight.

    3. Explaining to people *how we know Apollo happened* helps people learn more generally how we tell the real from the fake. It’s part of the process of teaching people critical thinking skills, which, hopefully, they’ll employ in other aspects of their lives (and stop seeing psychics or believing in creationism).

  43. I forgot NASA was supposed to be celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Happy Birthday NASA and here is a depressing article from the Sydney Morning Herald to “celebrate”… “The question eating astronauts – why bother?”

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/specials/science/this-is-the-question-eating-astronauts/2008/10/01/1222651169232.html

  44. I forgot NASA was supposed to be celebrating its 50th birthday this year. Happy Birthday NASA and here is a depressing article from the Sydney Morning Herald to “celebrate”… “The question eating astronauts – why bother?”

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/specials/science/this-is-the-question-eating-astronauts/2008/10/01/1222651169232.html

  45. Thanks for the link and for the notes! I fixed the typo and the Sibrel misattribution.

  46. IVAN3MAN

    Radwaste: “Umm… video tape… in 1969?”

    In 1956, the American company Ampex introduced the Ampex VRX-1000, the first commercially successful videotape recorder, which used the 2 inch Quadruplex videotape, but due to its then US$50,000 price tag, the Ampex VRX-1000 could only be afforded by the television networks or the largest independent stations.

    A typical 4800 foot (1463 metres) reel of 2 inch Quad videotape had the capacity of approximately 1 hour of video material recorded at 15 inches/sec (381 mm/s).

  47. Vorn

    Tangentially: Charels Boyer, when I saw you use “nm” I was like “wait, how do you stand 4.5 nanometers from a rocket?”

    And then I realized that SI doesn’t have a monopoly on that unit abbreviation. Stupid nautical miles.

  48. Radwaste

    Ok, guys – the reason I asked is simple. Not only have I seen every Apollo launch – being from Merritt Island – I went to school with the kids of NASA and contractor personnel. You saw Tom Hanks point in the White Room and say, “Yah. Gunter! Gunter Wendt!” in the movie “Apollo 13″? I went to school with Mr. Wendt’s two lovely daughters.

    One of my friends happened to be the son of a sound man for Technicolor, who had the contract to film all pad activity. We were treated several times to behind-the-scenes footage of assorted unmanned disasters, as well as the uncut edition of the “Lighthouse Launch” featured on CBS News.

    So my skepticism is based on the use of videotape for the recording of action. Film of the day provided spectacularly fine detail. If someone from Technicolor or another contractor wants to explain the supersession of film by digital media, please go ahead, but I’m sure film was the medium of record in 1969.

    Segue to the Challenger explosion: based on my experience, there should be detailed pictures of the death of Challenger somewhere. I wonder where.

  49. Daniel

    @Peter B
    Im glad to hear it was not all the Apollo missions…but sad to hear about Apollo 11 video…MAN! I really shouldn’t be surprised, as you said, storage mistakes happen all the time.

  50. ND

    Radwaste,

    Just to be nitpicky, I think you meant “analog” instead of “digital”, no?

  51. ND

    Johnny Vector,

    Thanks for pointing out the sun would be brighter too, but I did reference that in my post :)

    As for astrophotography from the moon, that would have been really cool. Anyone know of any such pics? Doesn’t any photography on the moon automatically fall under astrophotography? :)

  52. Nigel Depledge

    ND said:

    Doesn’t any photography on the moon automatically fall under astrophotography?

    Not so, my initial-sharing friend. If you are on the moon, then the moon is no longer a celestial object from your frame of reference. Besides, astrophotography generally requires large apertures and long exposures to collect enough light, and all of the photos taken on the moon’s surface were exposed for bright sunshine, i.e. small apertures and short exposures.

  53. Charles Boyer

    Radwaste has a very good point about the Challenger disaster.

    We’ve never seen the highest resolution film/video that there is.

    Nor, out of respect to the families, have we heard the post-breakup audio. It exists and I know it exists because an immediate family member has heard it. It is not like that faked transcript that circulated and is on snopes.com, and that is all he will tell me — again, out of respect and also because of his oaths of secrecy.

  54. Charles Boyer

    Oh, an radwaste: we lived in Cocoa Beach, then just off of River Road. I went to St. Mary’s school between Cocoa and Rockledge.

  55. ND

    Nigel Depledge

    I’ve done my share of astrophotography. I was joking :) They would indeed need to setup the camera on a tripod of sorts to take any long exposure shots. It would have been cool tho, no atmospheric turbulence.

    But they did take pictures of earth. That’s astrophotography no? :)

    As for taking pictures of the moon from earth, the exposures can be quite short. If using a decent telephoto lens, a fraction of a second say 1/125 for 200 speed film should show some surface details. Similarly shots of the planets could be short exposures as well.

  56. @Radwaste,

    “Segue to the Challenger explosion: based on my experience, there should be detailed pictures of the death of Challenger somewhere. I wonder where.”

    Are you talking about the 1986 Challenger that exploded during launch? Because there are numerous photos and videos of the launch, explosion, and debris. Click my name for details.

    @Charles,

    Same question. Also, what do you mean, “oath of secrecy?”

    8)

  57. Avgas

    Why is the Earth so small in the pic? should it be bigger..

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