I was very fortunate to have been asked to write and present a four-part podcast on the Space Race to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic landing on July 20, 1969.
Early in the process, as I was writing the outlines for the four segments, I realized that four hours gave me time to do much more than chronicle the flight of Apollo 11. Four hours gave me enough time to cover the entire Space Age, from Sputnik 1 to Falcon 9 Heavy. And it was somewhere around this time that I also realized why ever-growing numbers of people have come to believe that the lunar landing didn’t happen — in fact, it could not have happened, due to a number of damning facts heroically uncovered by the small handful of valiant souls too intelligent and too fearless to be duped like the rest of the Sheeple.
The reason the moon landings seem impossible to young people today comes down to one, simple thing, and that is incrementalism. To people born after the Apollo Program, the moon landing is presented to them as if it was something that parachuted into our living rooms one evening as we were watching the Carol Burnett Show: Our top story this evening: Man has apparently walked on the moon! Film at eleven.
If you are asked to look at the flight Apollo 11 like this, then it truly is such a miracle that it simply cannot be true. But if you look at Apollo 11 compared to Apollo 10, which two months earlier had flown to the moon, began the descent, and then aborted to lunar orbit, as planned, after dropping to 50,000 feet… then all of a sudden Apollo 11 doesn’t seem quite as miraculous. Now Apollo 10 seems miraculous!
Of course, Apollo 10 was a test of the Apollo Lunar and Command/Service modules in lunar orbit. Incredible! But Apollo 9 was pretty much the same mission, only in earth orbit: a full-scale shakedown of the Lunar Module: extraction from the Saturn 5 third stage, docking, rendezvous, engine tests of both spacecraft — all of it — only in earth orbit instead of being tested at the moon. Miraculous!
Actually Apollo 9 was pretty mundane compared to Apollo 8. With the Apollo mission schedule thrown into chaos by the Lunar Module not being ready on schedule, NASA faced a choice: wait three months doing nothing, or… realize that right at that moment, you had a Saturn V ready to go; you had a thoroughly tested command and service module ready to go; you had a flight crew with a lot of experience ready to go; and you had the moon. Why not just improvise? We were going to have to go to the moon on Apollo 10 to prep for Apollo 11, so why not send Apollo 8 to the moon without a lunar module just so we’re not looking out the window at a Saturn V, capsule and crew getting rusty while waiting for Grumman to deliver the LEM? So they sent Apollo 8 to the moon for ten orbits, then brought them home. Miraculous!
Of course, the Command/Service modules had been wrung out over what turned out to be nearly 11 miserable days by the crew of Apollo 7…
I was determined to show that there is no point between a Fourth of July bottle rocket and a footprint in the Sea of Tranquility where you had to insert “and now a miracle occurs.” For those of you not as familiar with the incrementalism of the Space Race, perhaps this example from Episode 3 of What We Saw will make things a bit easier to relate to:
When the Wright Brothers set out to build a flying machine, they did not start with blueprints for an F-22 Raptor, with advanced stealth capabilities, retractable landing gear, over-the-horizon radars and air-to-air missiles, with a range of 1,839 miles, a service ceiling of 65,000 feet at speeds up to 1,500 miles per hour, and controlled by advanced, fly-by-wire avionics where computers interpret the pilots control inputs and then 30 times a second makes minute corrections to all of the hydraulically powered control surfaces, and a minimum service life of 8,000 hour of flight time. That was a little beyond their reach.
What they did build was a lightweight wooden skeleton, fabric covered wings, a home-built, 12 horsepower engine, controlled by simple levers and wires to deform the wings and simple rods to raise and lower the elevator. It didn’t fly to 65,000 feet; it got to perhaps 30 feet. It didn’t fly at fifteen hundred miles an hour but at twenty; it’s maximum range was not almost 2,000 miles but rather 850 feet — less than two tenths of a mile — and it’s total service life was not 8,000 hours but a hair over two minutes. It was badly damaged by a gust of wind on the first day it flew and it never flew again.
You will never understand how we landed on the moon if you do not understand the difference between the Wright Flyer and an F-22. Building an F-22 from scratch is utterly impossible. But a rickety test vehicle called the Wright Flyer is not too far from a fabric-winged WW1 fighter, like the Sopwith Camel which is not too far short of a wooden-skinned monoplane, like the Hawker Hurricane, which naturally leads to a steel and aluminum turbocharged P-51 Mustang. Sometimes, breakthroughs like the jet engine occur, giving you the F-86 Saber just a couple of years later. From the Saber you go to supersonic flight in the F-100 and the F-4 Phantom, fly-by-wire appears with the F-16 Viper, and stealth with the boxy-looking F-117. Throw in advanced radars on the F-15 Eagle, state-of-the-art weapons and engines on the F-18 Hornet, and then with a little elbow grease you can look up and see a sixth-generation F-22 Raptor.
Now while I don’t deal specifically with the “moon landing hoax” hoax, I am amazed at how shockingly thin and how easily explainable the so-called “impossibilities” turn out to be. Just as a notable example, you will hear conspiracy theorists say that traversing the Van Allen radiation belts “would fry the astronauts like they were in a microwave oven.”
As it turns out, both the Van Allen belts and microwave ovens do in fact exist. Since microwave ovens do not cook with radiation but rather with (spoiler alert!) electromagnetic microwaves, there is no way to compare the two. There is, however, a way to measure the radiation levels in the Van Allen Belts. Most of the radiation intensity is in the inner belt. Both inner and outer belts surround the earth at the equator. But the Earth’s equator is tilted 23.4 decrees to the plane of the solar system — which is what gives us the seasons, parenthetically — and the orbit of the moon can be tilted by about 5 degrees beyond that. The short form is that during one lunar orbit — about 28 days more or less — there are narrow time windows when you have to fly right through both belts to get to the moon. Most of the time, however, a direct path to the tilted orbit of the moon will take you well over or well under the inner belt, and you end up just nicking the outer one simply because it is so large.
Now that shrewd, can-do, rocket-science decision to fly either over the belts or under them, rather than choose those narrow launch windows that would take them right through the Van Allen belts, nevertheless did end up giving the crews of Apollo 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 some additional radiation dose, and since, as I mentioned, the Van Allen belts really do exist, we can calculate what that additional dose came to. The answer is that they took, on average, 1.5 REM (roentgen equivalent man) more on the moon missions than they would have taken at a Starbucks in Santa Monica. And the government has strict limits on just how much radiation certain workers (nuclear plant engineers, medical imaging technicians, airline flight crews, etc.) can receive each year without danger to their long term health.
That limit is 5 REM per year. In other words, the passage through the Van Allen belts gave them roughly one-third of the maximum allowable dose for one year. That’s why they didn’t all die of Space Cancer.
So, on one hand, we have 13 launches of the Saturn V rocket, each televised live and witnessed in person by millions of people, myself included, and on the other hand we have some guy saying that the radiation would fry the astronauts as if placed in a device that does not emit any radiation at all.
In Post-Truth America, simply stating these things is a political statement unto itself. When I wrote What We Saw, I was determined to insert no domestic political commentary whatsoever. What we ended up with was an epic story of human beings living and dying to do the hardest thing ever attempted, not because it was easy, but because it was hard.