by Prasad Ganti
In a recent gathering of friends and family, this topic came up. There are some conspiracy theorists who believe that NASA faked the moon landings. The reasoning is that the enormous pressure during the cold war to keep up President Kennedy’s challenge of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade (1960s). And secondly we did not go back to moon ever since the program ended in early 1970s. They sound like plausible arguments. My take is that they were not fake and they were as real as any other human achievement like the manned conquest of the North and the South poles and the scaling of Mount Everest.
The manned moon program started in early 1960s with the Mercury program which put a man in Earth’s orbit. It was followed by the Gemini program which produced a bigger spacecraft or more than one person. It proved the concept of space walks and also rendezvous of two spacecraft in space. Apollo program followed. This program was meant to shoot the spacecraft from the Earth’s orbit to the trans lunar trajectory, basically catapulting it towards the moon. All of these programs involved the design and implementation of life support systems. These systems make the design more complex. A human habitat needs to be established in the spacecraft. The cabins need to be pressurized using a mix of oxygen and nitrogen, thus simulating the Earth’s atmosphere. The exhaled carbon dioxide needs to be scrubbed and converted back to oxygen. Drinking water was generated as a byproduct of the fuel cells which used hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity.
The Apollo spacecraft consisted of the command and the lunar modules. And the service module too. But the command and lunar modules were for human habitation and had the life support systems. Command module was used by the astronauts to travel to the moon. Then the lunar module detached itself from the command module, carrying the astronauts to the surface of the moon. While the command module pilot kept it in the lunar orbit, waiting for rendezvous for return back to the Earth. It is like a big ship docked offshore at a distance while a small boat carried the crew to the land (some crew are needed to stay back in the ship to take care of it).
The life support systems on the Apollo missions came in handy for the design of the space shuttle, which had very limited budget, as opposed to the seemingly unlimited budgets during the Apollo times. Space shuttle life support systems could not have been designed within its budget if it did not inherit the system from the Apollo program.
Media is like a hawk. The New York Times exposed the Pentagon papers which was a cover up of the losses occurring in the Vietnam war. The Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal which sent the Republican President Nixon home before his term was complete. These events happened roughly during the manned moon landings. Media scrutiny would have been intense. Yet, no findings on a fake moon landing.
There could have been a whistle blower to expose the fake. Tens of thousands of people worked for NASA and its contractors. Many of them lost their jobs in the aftermath of post-Apollo budget cuts. There could have been at least one disgruntled person who could have blown the lid. But it did not happen.
Then we have the cold war competitor Soviet Union who was watching the American developments very closely. So much Apollo footage is out there. It would have been put under the microscope and every pixel examined. And there was no Photoshop or any of the sophisticated digital manipulating tools in those days ! Even if all these sources were evaded, statistically you cannot fake six moon landings without any detection. Even one may not be doable, but certainly not six. What about the moon dust and the rocks which were brought back ? They could not have come from any place on the Earth. Again, these artifacts have been examined to death too.
I recently took an MIT course on “Engineering the Space Shuttle”. Most of the lecturers were from NASA. Most of them were original Apollo designers and managers, who used their expertise to design the space shuttle and its life support systems. I could see the passion and pride in their eyes. Passion with which they pursued their work and proud of their accomplishments. It looked very genuine to me. They could not have faked it.
The manned moon landings stopped as the space race was won during the cold war, which itself ended a couple of decades later. There was no appetite for spending huge sums of taxpayer money on manned missions when unmanned missions advanced the technology as well as provided more bang for the buck. The economics may be changing in the future. Till then, manned moon landings are for real !