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Episode 160 - Apollo Hoax: The US Flag Waving, and the Moon of No Return

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Recap: A return to a tried-and-true subject of skepticism: the Apollo Moon Hoax. In this shorter episode, I discuss two of the most common claims that you may hear: Why does the US flag appear to be waving in photographs, and if we went to the moon, why haven't we been back?

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Episode Summary

Opening Monologue: I haven't talked about the Apollo moon landings as a hoax for over 100 episodes, but I was recently asked to address more claims on the Facebook page for the podcast, and pretty much all pages on my blog still get comments, almost a decade later, from people claiming that we never went to the moon. They really offer not much new, but I did want to address at least two more claims in this episode. The first has to do with the US flag, and the second has to do with something a very annoying radio host keeps bringing up, regardless of how many times it's addressed -- why we haven't gone back.

Claim 1: The first claim is simply stated as, in some photos, the United States flag is waving. Of course, if what THEY say is true and there is no air on the moon, the flag can't possibly be waving, therefore it was filmed on Earth in a soundstage or in Utah or wherever.

Photos Can't Show Motion

First off, the most annoying thing to me about this claim is that the wording itself shows that the person repeating it does not know about what they speak: A still photograph cannot show motion. It shows (usually) a tiny fraction of a second in time. If something is moving during that time, it will be blurry.

In no photograph that any hoax proponent has ever presented does the flag show motion blur. It's always nice and crisp and sharp, demonstrating zero movement.

Still Waves

What's going on is that the flag shows ripples. Hoax proponents claim those are waves from motion. Before getting into anything else whatsoever, I invite you to go to your bedroom, or dirty clothes bin. Are the sheets or clothes perfectly flat and laid out nice and straight? Or, do they have creases and folds and undulations in them?

Unless you're Martha Stewart, I suspect the latter.

And, I suspect that unless you work in a hospital or hotel, when YOU make your bed, there will still be some small ripples in the sheets. And yet, the sheets aren't moving!

Even if you hang your clothes up, which is a better analogy for the flag on the moon, I can practically guarantee you that there will be small ripples and undulations and other synonyms for your clothes not being perfectly straight, perfectly flat. And yet, they don't move.

That's what's going on with the flag.

When the astronauts took the flag from the lunar excursion module (LEM), it wasn't ironed and starched and pressed flat. It was a fairly normal flag. When the astronauts assembled the flag pole, the pole actually had an arm that was supposed to stretch the flag tight to minimize ripples and make it appear as flat as possible.

On the first mission, they couldn't get it to work correctly, and left it. All things considered, of stuff that could have gone wrong, that's fairly minor. The outcome was that the flag was not pulled tight and when the astronauts physically manipulated the pole to stick in the lunar surface, and then physically manipulated the flag to make sure it was attached to the pole, all those wrinkles and creases and undulations were still there.

Without air and breezes to slowly dampen out the undulations, they stayed put. The result was a flag that looked a bit like it was frozen in a moment in time after it had been waving in the breeze.

Because all of our experience is on Earth, the astronauts thought that it looked more natural that way and so on future missions, they kept it like that when they hung their own flags. They didn't try to straighten it out, didn't try to keep it flat and smooth out the waves, just left it as though it was frozen in time.

Independent Ways to Show the Flag's Not Waving

But, if the moon hoax proponents are correct, something else MUST happen, even though it doesn't: In video, it would have to move.

Remember, the hoax proponents claim that the flag is physically moving around due to wind wherever the Apollo landings were filmed. While they offer still pictures which can't show movement, they never offer video that does. You can watch hours and hours of video from the Apollo moon landings of astronauts moving around on the moon and the flag being in view. Unless the astronauts are physically manipulating the flag or pole, the flag stays put. All those ripples stay put. They don't move. At all.

As they would have to if, well, it were moving!

I think this is where I can say "checkmate."

Claim 2: The second claim for this episode is that because we've not gone back, we never went. An alternative of this is that we haven't gone back because we did go but the aliens there told us not to go back. And another alternative is that we have been going back with the secret space program (SSP) but because it's secret, you don't know about it. As this is an episode about the hoax idea, I'm only going to talk about that first version.


The reason I haven't really addressed any of the technological nor political claims of the Apollo moon hoax family of claims is that it's not easy. Politics is complicated, and technology is complicated. It's not as simple as, for example, the "no stars" claim where I can explain how dynamic range works and that literally proves that the hoax claim is wrong. With politics and technology, things are fuzzier. Also, I wasn't alive at the time so I have to go based more on what I read than experienced. But I'm going to try.

The moon landings took place during the Cold War, when the First World was not-battling with the Second World, primarily the United States versus the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and then their proxies.

In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, we saw the space race, which was an ostensibly non-military application of technology and race to get things done "first." It was a source of national pride and bragging rights and, perhaps to a lesser extent, a way to show the world whether democracy or socialism could get things done better or first.

Politically, the US Congress worked from that political goal, and the US Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon worked from that political goal and the money allocated by Congress. NASA's budget was as high as 4.41%, as a fraction of the total US budget. But, that peak was in 1966, which was three years BEFORE Apollo 11 landed on the moon. In 1969, when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, NASA's budget had already been halved, it was down to 2.31% of the federal budget, though that's slightly shifted because of when the fiscal year starts and ends. By 1972, when Apollo 17 lifted off, NASA's budget was 1.48% of the federal budget.

To me, what that shows is a significant decline in political will to do anything with the space program.

And, from the argument I presented of beating the Soviets, we'd done it. There was no reason to even do anything after Apollo 11, and yet we sent six more missions, five successfully.

From a science standpoint, there was plenty of reason to continue to go. There still is now. There are a lot of questions left after the Apollo era, and the advancement in technology for designing instrument packages to take measurements of different things on the surface and return material to Earth for analysis has advanced considerably.

But, there's politics. We're no longer racing against the USSR. We don't have an electorate clamoring to go to the moon to do science. If I can get snarky and complain, I would say that we barely have a majority of the electorate, if that, that is clamoring for much of any science these days, much less for science that many would likely perceive as a huge amount of money for relatively little gain.

Why spend a few $billion to go to the moon when we could spend that repairing bridges and infrastructure -- to use something that's relatively politically neutral. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given America's infrastructure a D+ score. Rail is the only thing that gets a B. Transit in general gets a D-. Things like aviation, dams, drinking water, inland waterways, levees, and roads all get a D. Where I live in Colorado, 5.7%, or 497 of 8682 bridges, are structurally deficient. Heck -- even I think we should be spending some money on infrastructure before we send people to the moon.

IF this were an either-or choice. And often in politics, things are couched as an either-or. Either, we go to the moon, or grandma gets heat for the winter. What's it going to be?

Too Harsh?

Some of you listening might think I'm being too harsh. Let me know in feedback.

But I suspect many people these days view things similarly when it relates to spending. People want things NOW, and they see a problem and they want that fixed. Sending people to the moon - when we've already been there, no less! - just so some scientists can get some rocks seems kinda ridiculous if you live in a neighborhood where you're afraid to go outside -- that money would be better spent on urban development and neighborhood watches or police or courts.

And right now, most Americans view issues that are internal as more important, except perhaps as the external ones may seem to relate to terrorism. But the nameless, faceless terrorists aren't trying to send scientists to the moon, so we're not trying to beat them.

The political will, I argue, just is not there to go back to the moon, and that's what's needed. The Apollo program cost $20B in its time. In 2010 money, that's about $100B. The Orion program, which has never gotten off the ground but which is slowly being build, has so far had about $12.5B spent in 2016 dollars. I suspect it needs quite a bit more to get off the ground.

That's Why

And that's why we haven't gone back. It has nothing to do with us not having been able to get there in the first place. It's that to get anything that costs any federal dollars done in America, you have to convince politicians that it's worth it. A majority of the members of Congress have to fund it, and then the President has to carry it out. Given the politics of today, I don't see that happening any time soon.

It also has to be sustained for longer than any single politician's election cycle. In other words, these things take time. And, each time a new administration gets into power, they change the direction and priorities of NASA. We went from Bush wanting to go to the moon to Obama wanting to go to Mars and an asteroid and now Trump saying he wants to go to the moon. As I'm sure anyone listening to this podcast knows, starting and stopping and restarting wastes time, energy, and resources. It's also somewhat disenfranchising.

To end on a slightly lighter note, I would point out that Congress, in general, has seemed to be a bit more friendly to and consistent to the space program, in general. While the President can set priorities of any non-legislative and non-judicial agency within the federal government - including NASA, it is Congress that holds the power of the purse. Congress for the last several years has consistently given more money to NASA than the President has requested. But, that does tend to be more towards the basic research arm, which is from what I'm funded. Human spaceflight is different. If you want to go back to the moon, it's your congressional representative to whom you should speak.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 1. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

Daniel   Warsaw, Poland

1:59am on Tuesday, April 18th, 2017 

Cool episode. While not as informative in regard to astronomy it was still a great source of facts. For instance, I had no idea neither about legislature nor state of infrastructure in the US.

By the way, I listen to those segments in the end. ;)

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