Posted by: Ed Darrell | April 5, 2010

How do we know they really went to the Moon?

Every year at this time . . .

In a discussion of the Cold War, the Space Race, and the Race to the Moon, we get to a photo about Apollo 11’s landing on the Moon.

Like clockwork, a hand goes up:  “Mr. Darrell, wasn’t that landing a hoax?  They didn’t really go to the Moon then, did they?”

There are a lot of ways to know that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.  Among other things, students could talk to people alive at the time who have the slightest bit of technological savvy:  With lots of other people, I tracked part of the trip with my 6-inch reflecting telescope.  Ham radio operators listened in on the radio broadcasts.  And so on.

But I really like this chunk of evidence:  How about a photograph of the landing site?

Holy cow!  You can see the tracksof Neil Armstrong’s footprints to the lip of Little West crater (see arrow without label below).

Tranquility Base, from the LROC -- showing evidence of Apollo 11's  landing -
Tranquility Base, shot from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), showing the traces left by Apollo 11’s landing on the Moon. It really happened. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

According to the LROC website:

The astronaut path to the TV camera is visible, and you may even be able to see the camera stand (arrow). You can identify two parts of the Early Apollo Science Experiments Package (EASEP) – the Lunar Ranging Retro Reflector (LRRR) and the Passive Seismic Experiment (PSE). Neil Armstrong’s tracks to Little West crater (33 m diameter) are also discernable (unlabeled arrow). His quick jaunt provided scientists with their first view into a lunar crater.

Check out this video made from the photos, “High Noon at Tranquility Base”:

Fox News?  What’s your story now?


Tip of Herodotus’s hat to Collect Space forum, and the Carnival of Space #147 at Weird Sciences.  Thanks to ScienceBlips for telling us about Carnival of Space.  Post borrowed completely, with permission, from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub.


  1. what does the tv camera, little west and lrrr pse mean? how is all that even true.

  2. “TV camera” is where the television camera was set up to record the launch of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) back to rendezvous with the Apollo 11 capsule, to return the astronauts to Earth. It’s still there.

    “Little West” is the name of a crater, smaller than the “West Crater” a little farther away. LRRR is the Lunar Ranging Retro Reflector, a mirror placed on the Moon off of which Earth-bound scientists can bounce a laser beam, to measure the exact distance between the Moon and Earth (one more proof of the trip — no way to place such a mirror without actually going there to do it).

    PSE is the Passive Seismic Experiment. It’s an earthquake sensor. It would come into use later when the Atlas Agena IV rocket stage from Apollo 13 slammed into the Moon. The idea was to see how much force would show up on the seismometer.

    How is all that true? Because it is. Now we have photos, 40 years later, of the stuff left on the Moon by Apollo 11.

    Can we trust photos? Certainly we can, in this case.

  3. Sometime, years ago since they started the debate, I started shifting the question to “what did we achieve because we thought they reached the moon”.

    For most, the landing itself probably is not such a big deal other than to spark controversy. But does it inspire us to achieve something in history.
    And even if they failed, there are technology born in time of the space race.

    If just someone would tell us more about that side of the story that’s actually closer to our daily life.

  4. That’s a great question.

    But I don’t like to dance around the bush on the issue. There really is no doubt that Apollo 11 made it to the Moon.

    One of my physicist friends noted that, had it been faked, there would have been no reason to fake it six more times.

    And one of our paleontologist friends, a veteran at puzzling things out, pointed out that the Soviets would not have let us get away with faking a landing. Their exposing a fake would have been a huge propaganda coup, for them.

    There really is no reason not to ask “What did we achieve by reaching the Moon.”

    The best answer I know of, though, came from Charles Garfield, a performance psychologist (now retired from San Francisco U). In one of his books he related the story about working at Grumman Aircraft, the group that built the LEM. It was a pretty standard job, with average people making average screw ups.

    Until they started building the LEM. Of a sudden, average teams started turning in outstanding performances. Sluggards who lingered at the coffee pot and water fountain too long, and left early, frantically worked at their desks, and on the shop floor, and stayed late into the night to get things done, done right, done well.

    Garfield asked one of these people why things were so different. The guy dragged Garfield into the parking lot and pointed at the full moon (late at night, right?). “Do you see the Moon? Man has dreamed of putting someone there for a thousand years at least. We get to do it. We get to fulfill the dram for mankind.”

    Great meaning at work.

    Garfield noted that it was a great workplace, until July 21, 1969 — they had fulfilled their mission. Things went back to normal.

    Something to think about.

  5. It is very interesting to know it is possible man can walk on the moon with help with technology. It is also interesting to know that anyone in general can take a trip to outerspace! Even NASA in Houston is awesome, imagine the real thing in outerspace! :)

  6. No one acutally knows the truth but we have to go by what we know and what professionals know. Any average person can say its true but it takes a real professional that knows alot about space and the moon to tell you as much information as possible.

    • No one acutally knows the truth but we have to go by what we know and what professionals know. Any average person can say its true but it takes a real professional that knows alot about space and the moon to tell you as much information as possible.

      But if an average person can’t know for sure whether humans made it to the Moon, how can we know anything for certain?

      Our justice system is based on the idea that a small group of average people assembled in a jury can make the most important decisions imaginable, literally life and death.

      Can’t we know with at least equal certainty whether NASA told the truth?

      I think we have to look at the physical evidence. The stuff left on the Moon by Apollo 11 is proof enough for me — especially that mirror. It couldn’t possibly have been placed by a 1960s-era robot. Sending such a robot would have cost more than sending a human (you may enjoy reading about the original Mercury 7 astronauts complaining about being treated like trained monkeys, in Tom Wolfe’s great book, The Right Stuff).

      So, I know for certain something was launched. I know for certain I watched an object heading to the Moon. I know for certain that ham radio operators in my town intercepted the radio messages from the astronauts, and that it would have been nearly impossible to coordinate the messages with the delays inherent in sending signals a quarter-million miles. I’ve spoken with scientists who used the mirror to caclulate the distance to the Moon.

      And I trust an Eagle Scout like Neil Armstrong, and I think Buzz Aldrin is credible.

      Plus, I’m pretty sure the Russians wouldn’t have let us get away with a hoax — too much propaganda value in catching the U.S. fibbing (see the U-2 incident for example).

      I don’t think fiction writers would have a hoax done seven times. I don’t think fiction writers could dream up Neil Armstrong’s botched first words from the Moon. I don’t think fiction writers could dream up the mold found surviving in the camera brought back from the earlier photo mission (Apollo 14? I forget which one).

      Sometimes the truth just rings true, and I think the Moon landing for Apollo 11 is one of those times – vouched for by the six following missions that landed, and the one that just waved at the Moon and hoped to get back to Earth.

      And I hope we don’t need to be professional historians or psychologists to figure that stuff out.

    • P.S.: Be sure to see the earlier article:

  7. This was fun!!! :D

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