OK, so maybe NASA didn't fake that image

By Phil Plait | January 29, 2009 10:45 am

What you are about to read here is something you will never, ever, ever see on a conspiracy theory site: an admission that the theory is wrong.

Now, my last blog post was obviously tongue-in-cheek (though I expect some wacko website will quote it like it’s real, even saying it came from a real astronomer and everything!), but at its core it’s correct; the image was faked. My arguments are basically sound; the bright Earth, interior lights, and internal reflections would make it impossible to see stars out the window.

So what’s the deal with the picture then? I did something no conspiracy theorist ever actually does: I asked someone who might actually know what’s going on. I sent an email to the gallery curator for the NASA pictures (the email is at the bottom of the images page), and got a nice reply back from Mary Wilkerson, the Still Imagery Repository Supervisor. Basically, the cockpit had been redesigned on the Shuttle, and they wanted a promo shot of the new configuration. It made its premier flight on STS-101, so they wanted to get a slick shot of it. They composited in the Earth and stars to make the picture spacier-looking. Incidentally, the image is also on Wikipedia, with a caption that does note it was composited.

So the image was faked, and probably should be labeled that way, but there’s no harm and no foul. Obviously, there’s no evil or malicious intent here…


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Humor, NASA

Comments (51)

  1. Tomas

    Although I think that anyone who rationally about the image even for a second immediately knew it must have been either fake or composite, it should have been clearly stated on the STS-101 gallery page, esp. since one expects images there to be taken during the mission.

  2. Dave Hall

    Good thing it wasn’t on Marketplace.

    My first thought when I saw it, was it was some sort of mockup/PR picture.
    Go to a car dealer and you will see tons of “enhanced” and/or “simulated” photos.

    The only conspiracy that may exist will be if NASA denies having a Public Relations Department.

  3. Mena

    This one is faked. About the quality: hey, I was learning…
    Shhhhh….. ;^)

  4. I did something no conspiracy theorist ever actually does: I asked someone who might actually know what’s going on.

    If the conspiracy theorists *ever* take anything you say at face value, I hope it’s this. I heart you Phil. (In a purely platonic manner of course.)

  5. John Keller

    I figured that was what NASA did. Several of the ISS Expedition crew photographs have backgrounds like that.

  6. Adrian Lopez

    Wait. I’m confused. Are you saying NASA *does* exist?

    Come on, Phil… confess… who paid you off to change your mind?

  7. Na

    Hilarious! I saw the heading and the image and immediately thought – yep, that’s fake (the cockpit just looked so… CGI). And then I started reading the blog post and couldn’t help but laugh. Best spoof of moon-hoaxers ever!

  8. And yet you still don’t believe the moon landings were faked? If they have one faked photograph, how do you know that they all weren’t faked?

    I just had to try out my creationist/moon landing conspiracy “logic.” And I wanted to say it before one of them does so, hoping to blunt the effect on the naive.

    I think it does get to the problem of pseudoscientists, which is that they’ll distrust their favorite enemies based on the flimsiest of ideas, while being quite incapable of addressing any real problems on the side of science, let alone the colossal beams in their own ideologies.

    NASA shouldn’t have gone with the fake, just because it will throw some off (a disclaimer isn’t worth the trouble of keeping the faked stars, and would inevitably be missed by many people). But it was done innocently enough, and even if it had been faked on the order and to the effect that Piltdown Man was, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the fact that we can’t really fake moon rocks, or even the Apollo photos (inevitably problems would appear, such as if all of the shadows actually did appear parallel–the fact that some are not indicates their authenticity).

    No biggie, but I hope they leave the stars out of any similar images in the future.

    Glen D

  9. Obviously THEY got to you. Are you really Phil or just the agent who’s taken his place? No doubt THEY’ll come after me as well for saying that. It’s a good thing my bunker is well-fortified.

  10. Sweet, I totally called it with the Wiki page.

    Great spoof, Phil! Excellent lesson for all the paranoid loons out there.

  11. AnthonyK

    Nice try, astronomy boy. NASA’s been faking pictures for years. Galileo’s telescope had a cutout moon over the end – withches, I say – while the conspiracy even extends to my backyard. I know that almost everytime I open my curtains “they” put up little lights that look like distant stars and galaxies. But I’m not fooled, unlike you “astronomy” conspiracists and NASA shills. Some evenings, when I look out, the lights don’t even show up…

  12. Michelle

    I don’t care if it’s fake! It reminds me of that old ATARI game called Halley Project… Made me long for a new version of that game with updated graphics. :O


  13. Peptron

    So, Phil comes to tell us the truth, to then turn around completely. We now know how it works at NASA. Either Phil was making a satire of conspiracy theorists, or the much more plausible explanation that his last blog post was made by the hyperdimensional ether-clone of Phil under the order of the intergalactic ninja-kitten squad under the command of the squirrel overlords in his backyard that have Phil under mind-control.

  14. Eric

    Even the scale is off. Would the shuttle even be that far away from the Earth?

  15. Atticus05

    Sooo… this whole thing is some kind of social experiment where you explored the mind of a conspiracy wacko? So how did it feel to be on the other side Phil? When you looked long and hard into the abyss did you loose your mind?

  16. NASA – Please don’t fake any more images. You’re obviously not very good at it, and it gives ammo to those loons that say you never went to the Moon and faked those pics.

    Well, regarding those loons – looks like guys like Buzz Aldrin have a solution for that (famous vid link on my name). Dude is five times my age but you couldn’t pay me to step into a ring with that guy.

    Proposed amendment to our laws – violence is NEVER acceptable – unless you risked your life to fly to the moon and some twit accosts you right up in your grill saying you are a liar and a shame. Then you get a free punch. Just one. Make it count. Can I get some Yeas on that or what?

  17. It was faked to continue the lie that humans have been in space. This is to backup the false claims that humans ever set foot on the moon.

  18. Alright, that’s it. I’m putting you into my Fallout 3 game modification as a crazy astronomer wandering, holding a squishy brain toy and randomly denoting the world is going to end (click on blog link attached to my name)


  19. ROFLOL! I love you, Phil!

    @Cheyenne– YEA!!!

  20. Joe

    I could tell you weren’t serious in your last post because you didn’t accuse anyone of violating our human rights or say that you had contacted the office of Congressman Ron Paul (R-Crazytown) and they said Paul would immediately ask Congress for an investigation into this serious breach of our liberty.

  21. Swift

    Oh sure, that’s what they want you to believe. :rolleyes”

  22. Roger Wilco

    I know it’s a joke so please excuse this geekery but you can also tell it’s faked because the ADI (artificial horizon) instruments in front of each driver’s seat don’t match the real horizon through the window.

  23. @ Jason Thibeault, I’ll go right out and say it: I have a man-crush on Dr. Plait!

    @ Chyenne: YEA!

  24. ShaneC

    Your blog rocks, dude. There are very few that combine entertaining style with solid substance. I know it’s not easy, either. Great stuff.

  25. Mchl

    Fake or not, I see holy persons in the clouds.

  26. KN stocker

    Still……it could have been the stars in Karen’s eyes.

  27. Dave

    I could tell right away it was shopped. I can tell from the pixels and from having seen quite a few ‘shops.

  28. Ben

    Phil I believe the reply you got is not correct. I remember when this photo was released, and I have it in a Boeing poster issued before STS-101; this glass cockpit photo was taken before STS-101 launched. It was taken on the ground, and the Earth was added in to make it look good. It was almost certainly photographed in Palmdale, California during the Orbiter Maintained Down Period between STS-86 and STS-101.

  29. Ben

    Here, you can see the image was dated for release in March 2000, before STS-101:


  30. IVAN3MAN

    Phil Plait, you did a SNAFU on the link via the “OR IS THERE???” text — there is a missing “>” after the “font size” tag.

    This is how to do it: OR IS THERE???

  31. Parker

    I love how everyone is now confident that it’s fake and knew all along it was fake because of this that and the other. Oh, humans.

  32. Needz moar Comic Sans!!!1

    No one is ever going to believe your hoax hoax if you don’t use Comic Sans.

  33. Sabin

    What would they have done if we couldn’t have made it on time? Considering the current economic situation, why would we believe anything anyone told us about anything?

  34. IVAN3MAN

    @ mandydax,

    “Comic Sans” font style does not work on this blog — I’ve tried it myself, but without success. 😐

  35. Grand Lunar

    I knew from the start that had to be a promo shot of the glass cockpit of the shuttle.

    I’ve seen it before, in a book entitled “Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years”.

    Technically, you could still say the image is faked, since it’s composited between a real photo of the cockpit and the simulated images of the Earth and stars.
    It’s just the good kind of fake; the one without an “evil” motive behind it.

    Sort of like “Space: 1999”, right?

  36. Scott

    I think everyone’s focusing on the faked image too much.

    In other matters: how cool does the shuttle cockpit look. I wants.

  37. DLC

    Heh. I’m still chuckling over the previous post on this topic.

    Scott: in a few years you can have a whole orbiter. you just have to have a few tens of millions of dollars.

  38. Grammar Geek

    Phil said: “but at it’s core it’s correct”

    I felt a sharp pain in the grammar part of my brain when I read that line. I know you know this Phil, but I’m gonna say it anyway for those in the audience:

    its = possessive pronoun
    it’s = contraction of “it is”

    Just had to get that off my chest.

    As for the shuttle cockpit, clearly it was built by aliens from the Planet Awesome.

  39. Fleegman

    What are all those blue stickers over everything? Do they hide sensitive control information like “deploy brain scan antenna?”

  40. Gary Ansorge

    The space shuttle has WINDOWS???
    How cool is that?
    ,,,as in, “Oh, look at the pretty, super heated gas swirling around our plummeting craft,,,”.

    I think I’ll build a full sized shuttle mockup in my back yard, sit in it and ignore the world. Much more fun that arguing with conspiracy nutz,,,

    Gary 7

  41. “Comic Sans” font style does not work on this blog — I’ve tried it myself, but without success.

    It’s a feature of the anti-woo force field… Also, if you try to put a blink tag in, your monitor explodes.

  42. Derek

    This is obviously a cover up by our Reptilian Illuminati overlords who live within our hollow earth. ALL SHALL BE REVEALED ON 1995-ESQUE GEOCITIES WEBSITES WITH LOW RES GIF ANIMATIONS OF THE TRUTH!

    Conspiracy theories are dumb.

  43. D. Oliver

    @Cheyenne YEA,Indeed!!

    @Roger Wilco, Way Cool you noticed that!!

  44. grmcdorman

    @Fleegman: If you look closely at the largest version, the “blue stickers” are raised and fuzzy: they’re Velcro patches.

    Or they’re evil patches HIDING the DEATH RAYS.

  45. nichole

    You noes, guys, I was going to come say “gee Phil, if you want any conspiracy nutter to take you seriously, you needs you some comic sans!” but I was utterly and totally beaten to the punch and now I am feeling pretty less-than-original.


  46. Old Muley

    Whoa… It’s getting so that I can’t tell if Phil’s wearing his tin-foil beanie or not!

  47. Not Bob

    I want to thank you for the Wikipedia link.

    It is now my desktop background.

    Finally, a question for Mr. Plait:
    I fully intend to apply for the astronaut corps (Canadian) after I graduate (B.Sc. Aerospace Engineering). Do you happen to know any astronauts I could get in contact with for advice on how to improve my chances of getting to space?
    [dreamer] I really want to go to the moon. [/dreamer]

  48. Tom Moore

    Could it be that a photo like this could be done successfully using a technique called “high dynamic range” photography? http://www.stuckincustoms.com Using current hardware, this involves merging multiple exposures of widely differing duration, to extend the normal dynamic range of images (8 bits depth per color).

    Just a thought…

  49. Geez, Phil. I would think you would have figured this out right away. The caption is dated 2000 and says that the installation would be 2002 or 2005. So, obviously it is a mock up!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar