Friday, 1 April 2011

Moonage daydreams: lunacy, conspiracy and the Apollo moon landings

It's astonishing to think that in less than two weeks' time it will be half a century since Yuri Gargarin slipped the surly bonds of Earth in Vostock 1. Although a generation has grown up since the end of the Cold War, any study of early astronautics cannot exclude a major dollop of politics. This is particularly true of the Apollo moon landing programme and President Kennedy's commitment to achieve this goal by 1970. Now as much a part of history as a fading memory, a small but significant number of theorists doubt the veracity of the missions. But are they just the same crackpots/misguided types (delete as required) who claim to have been abducted by aliens, or is there anything more concrete to go on?

A wide range of conspiracy stories has been circulating since rocket engine company employee the (now late) Bill Kaysing self-published his 1974 opus We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. Of course conspiracy was very much in the American psyche during that period: the Watergate affair had occurred 6 months prior to the final moon landing mission in December 1972 whilst President Nixon's resignation followed the release of the crucial audio tape evidence in August 1974. In a sense, the world was ready for Kaysing's theories, but can an impartial assessment show how accurate they are? Much of his thesis can be dismissed with a little application of the scientific method: the alleged problems on photographs and movie footage such as disappearing cross-hairs or incorrect shadows and lighting are easy to resolve. In another vein, the waving of the US flag on the lunar surface, attributed to wind in an Earth-based moon simulator, is just foolish. Why would such amateur mistakes occur if an elaborate cover-up were true?

However, new evidence recently made public from former Soviet archives hints that the conspiracy theorists may be on to something after all. Telemetry tapes from the USSR's land- and ship-based deep space network suggest that there was an additional signal hidden, via frequency division multiplexing, underneath transmissions to the Apollo craft. This implies that what actually went to the moon were pairs of empty spacecraft: a robot version of the lander (or LM); and a command module (CSM) with an automated radio system. This latter set-up would isolate the hidden transmissions received from Earthbound astronauts and beam them back to fool the world into thinking the spacecraft was manned. The crew themselves would divide their time between Apollo mock-ups built inside a weightless training aircraft or 'vomit comet' (ironically also the technique used in the 1995 film Apollo 13) and a recreation of the lunar surface in the infamous Area 51 complex in Nevada. Of course the associated activities of sending robot sample-return missions to bring back massive quantities of moon rock (the same method used by the Soviet Luna missions from 1970 onwards) would presumably have eaten so deeply into NASA's budget as to be responsible for the cancellation of the last three moon-landing missions (or fake missions, as perhaps we should refer to them).

The obvious question is why go to all this length when the programme's fantastic achievements – the rockets, spacecraft, and their entire cutting-edge infrastructure - had already been built? Again, the USSR can add something to the picture. Fully six months before the Apollo 11 flight, the Soviet Union officially announced it was pulling out of the moon race and would not even attempt a manned flight to the moon. Then the month after Apollo 11's splashdown, the Soviets launched Zond 7, an unmanned variant of their Soyuz craft (a design still in use today to ferry crew to the International Space Station), on a circumlunar trajectory. What is interesting is that the craft carried 'special radiation protection'. Had they found a fundamental obstruction to a manned lunar landing mission? Less than one month prior to Apollo 11, when you would have thought NASA would have been completely focussed on that mission (and bearing in mind the massive amount of unpaid overtime required to maintain schedules), the US launched a pigtail monkey called Bonny into orbit aboard Biosat 3. This almost unknown mission was terminated more than twenty days early, with Bonny dying 8 hours after landing. What was so urgent it needed testing at this crucial time? In a word: radiation.

The Van Allen Belt consists of two tori (basically, doughnuts) of high-energy charged particles trapped by the Earth's magnetic field. After its existence was confirmed by the USA's first satellite, Explorer 1, continuous observation proved that the radiation intensity varies over time as well as space. Unfortunately, 1969-1970 was a peak period in the cycle, in addition to which it was accidentally augmented by artificially-induced radiation. In 1962 the USA detonated a 1.4 megaton atomic weapon at an altitude of 400 kilometres. Although by no means the largest bomb used during four years of high-altitude testing, Operation Starfish Prime generated far more radiation than any similar US or USSR experiment, quickly crippling a number of satellites, including some belonging to the Soviets.

The theory holds that this additional radiation belt would have had a profound effect on manned spacecraft travelling beyond low Earth orbit. An additional whammy would be the danger of deep-space radiation once away from the protection of the geomagnetic field. The BBC's 2004 docudrama series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets showed this quite nicely when the interplanetary Pegasus mission lost its doctor to cosmic radiation. There is also speculation that the impact of cosmic rays on the lunar surface generates a spray of secondary particles that would prove hazardous to astronauts. Although it's not clear if the Russians were sending animals into space during the late 1960s as per the Biosat series, Bill Kaysing claimed he had been given access to a Soviet study that recommended blanketing lunar surface astronauts in over a metre of lead!

The Apollo missions of course utilised what was then cutting edge technology, but even so the payload capacity of the Saturn V rocket did not allow for spacecraft with anything but the lightest of construction techniques. Indeed, the Apollo lunar module had outer coverings of Mylar-aluminium alloy – a substance that appears to be a high-tech version of baking foil. In this instance it seems rather apt, in the sense that it may well have lead to self-basting astronauts, had they actually been on board. In all seriousness, the heaviest of the fuelled-up CSM-LM configurations was around 40 tonnes (for Apollo 17), only five tonnes short of the maximum lunar transfer trajectory capacity. Since it took an 111-metre tall Saturn V to launch these craft, it is clear that lead shielding wasn't really an option.

Some conspiracy theorists have argued that Stanley Kubrick, coming directly from four years of making 2001: A Space Odyssey, was involved in the hoax filming, but this seems rather ridiculous (although another irony is that 2010: Odyssey Two director Peter Hyams had earlier made the Mars mission conspiracy film Capricorn One, the film's hardware consisting of Apollo craft...) A far more plausible candidate to my mind is Gene Roddenberry, the originator of Star Trek. The Apollo 8 circumlunar flight over Christmas 1968 (including a reading from Genesis, no less), the 'happy' (from a ratings point of view) accident of Apollo 13, even the use of America's first rocket-launched astronaut Alan Shepard as commander of Apollo 14, hint back to the homely yet patriotic heroics of Kirk and co. As for the photographic effects crew, my money would be on one 2001's effects supervisors, namely the engineering genius Douglas Trumbull. Today even amateurs like myself can attempt to replicate their brilliant work: here's my take of Armstrong and Aldrin, done many moons ago, courtesy of Messer Airfix and Photoshop (shame you can't see the cross-hairs at this size):

Apollo lunar lander
As for how all those involved have managed to maintain silence over the decades, Neil Armstrong's publicity shyness is about the only example I can think of that bolsters the argument. Except there is also the curious case of Britain's own "pretty far out" David Bowie, who somehow seems to have been in the know. It sounds bizarre, but if you examine his oeuvre from Space Oddity onwards ("your circuits dead, there's something wrong") to the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (complete with a cameo from Apollo 13 commander James Lovell as himself) you begin to find a subliminal thematic thread. For me, these culminate in the 1971 song Moonage Daydream, with the deeply conspiratorial lyrics "Keep your mouth shut, you're squawking like a pink monkey bird...Don't fake it baby, lay the real thing on me..."

Couldn't have put it any better myself!