Credit: Dimension Films
Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions
Sept. 2, 2011 --
In the movie "Apollo 18," lost footage taken from what was the canceled Apollo 18 mission to the moon reveals a coverup. NASA buried the mission after astronauts encountered hostile life forms on the moon. The Apollo missions captured the imagination of a generation, so it's no small wonder that fictional accounts -- such as that of "Apollo 18" -- of what happened during NASA's golden age still find new angles on a rich history. Although the Apollo program is a technological and historical legend, as with most stories of heroes and triumph, there have been some embellishments and distortions along the way. Explore the myths, misconceptions and urban legends that color the history of the Apollo missions. (And good news for space enthusiasts: We're not even mentioning the delusion that the moon landing was a hoax.)
We begin with a myth of the Apollo era that was soon squashed after astronauts returned home. Prior to the first successful landing of astronauts on the lunar surface, NASA scientists theorized that their astronauts may have been contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms to which humans would have no resistance. The space agency even enforced a 21-day quarantine for astronauts returning from space. In this photo, Aldrin greets his visiting family via telephone while still constrained in the Mobile Quarantine Facility in Houston, Texas. Biomedical studies conducted following the quarantine period determined that neither the astronauts nor any of the living species that brought along on the mission, including plants and animals, suffered any adverse health effects as a direct result of exposure to lunar material.
"Apollo 18" hinges on the premise that the cancelled Apollo 18 mission was in fact carried out, but covered up after the space agency discovered the presence of hostile alien life on the lunar surface. We all know that in reality Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon never stumbled onto any lunar life. But did Buzz Aldrin, as he appears to claim in this interview for a documentary, spot a UFO while en route to the moon? As Aldrin would later go on to explain following the airing of these comments, not even close. What he actually saw, which he and his fellow astronauts immediately confirmed, was "one of the panels from the separation of the spacecraft from the upper stage."
Image: This is not the original space pen. It
The Million Dollar... Pen?
To paraphrase an old joke: When presented with the challenge of writing in a zero-gravity environment, the United States and the Soviet Union approached the same problem in two different ways. NASA spent millions of dollars developing and testing the space pen. The Russians, on the other hand, used a pencil. In reality, the space pen wasn't developed by NASA, but rather a private company that later sold its invention to both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. A kernel of truth is hidden in this story, however. NASA originally used mechanical pencils and hired a private contractor to supply "34 units" at a price of $4,382.50 in 1965 (around $30,000 today). The public outcry against this purchase led NASA to the cheaper alternative designed by Fisher Space.
Why Was Armstrong First?
Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, followed closely by Buzz Aldrin. But how many people know the reason why Armstrong was first? In one version of events, Armstrong was selected as the first man to set foot on the moon so that NASA could symbolically convey the message that civilians would be leading the charge with space exploration rather than the military. Aldrin had a long career with the Air Force prior to becoming an astronaut. This account, however, is a myth. For his part, Armstrong had spent time in the military before joining the public sector as a civilian. So why was he chosen first? The answer is much less complicated: It was his turn to be commander after rotating through as backup commander during Apollo 8.
Americans these days look back on the legacy of the space program with pride and admiration. This singular technological achievement is unrivaled to the day. Although Americans may look back fondly at that glorious era, their 1960s counterparts weren't quite as supportive. The Apollo program is widely believed to have been popular during its time, but polling data taken from the era suggest that simply wasn't the case. Throughout the entire era, surveys consisted showed that less than 50 percent of the American public favored the program. Even after Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in 1969, only 53 percent of American surveyed said the accomplishment was worth the cost, according to a report by Space.com.
Could the real reason astronauts haven't returned to the moon be because NASA has simply forgotten how? According to this rumor, propagated by writers including Terry Bisson and astronomer John Lewis in his book "Mining the Sky" in 1996, NASA simply lost its blueprints to the Saturn V rockets. NASA was quick to point out that microfilm of the blueprints is still in storage at Marshall Space Center. So why can't NASA rebuild the Saturn rockets? As explained in 2009 by NASA Lunar Science Institute director David Morrison, many of the companies that manufacture the parts that made up the Saturn V have since gone out of business and the parts are no longer available. Besides, rocket technology has advanced somewhat since the Apollo era.
Credit: U.S. Department of State
As much as we'd all like to believe it's true, NASA did not invent Tang during the Apollo missions. In fact, the instant drink mix had been invented during the 1950s by General Foods Corporation. When NASA adopted it during John Glenn's initial venture into space and for subsequent journeys, the missions popularized the product. Given the kinds of innovations NASA dreamed up during the Apollo years, these misconceptions have become common. Other developments around the same era, such as Teflon and Velcro, are also falsely attributed to the space agency.
Space Pen Savior?
Would you believe the space pen was responsible for preventing Aldrin and Armstrong from being stranded on the moon? The Fisher Space Pen folks would like you to think that's the case, but that's not exactly how it happened. When Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the lunar lander after their historic space walks, the astronauts discovered the "the ascent engine's arming circuit breaker was broken off on the panel," according to Aldrin. In other words, a circuit needed to power the engines to get the Apollo 11 astronauts off the moon simply wasn't working. To complete the circuit, the astronauts didn't use a space pen but rather an ordinary felt-tip marker.
For the Soviet crew of Voshod 2, their landing back on Earth in an isolated, very snowy forest marked a harrowing start to a new mission: survival. Getting through the ordeal would end up requiring a gun to ward off wild bears, some tricks to staying warm in below zero temperatures and cross country skiing.
Long before they had returned Earth, Alexei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev had secured spots for themselves in history. While in orbit in their Voskhod 2 spacecraft on March 18, 1965, Leonov became the first man to perform an Extravehicular Activity or EVA.
It hadn’t been easy. In a vacuum his suit had become rigid and unwieldy, making his reentry into the spacecraft a slightly harrowing experience. But the drama of the mission was only just beginning.
The crew was coming up on the end of their 26-hour mission when things started going wrong. Just five minutes before their scheduled reentry, the cosmonauts noticed a problem with their automatic guidance system. It wasn’t working. The computer couldn’t orient the spacecraft.
They hastily shut off the Vostok’s landing program and began an additional orbit when they should have been reentering the atmosphere. They needed the extra time to deal with the emergency.
As the mission’s navigator, it fell to Leonov to pick a landing spot; he chose a sparsely populated area near to the city of Perm just west of the Ural Mountains where they were certain to land on Soviet soil. As the pilot, Belyayev had to stretch across both seats to look through the spacecraft’s porthole to visually orient the spacecraft before the retrofire burn then scramble back into his seat for reentry.
The timing was tight but everything worked. The crew felt the engine behind them roar to life and felt the beginnings of gravity pulling them down as they started falling to Earth. But something was wrong. The cosmonauts felt conflicting gravitational forces, first pulling them one way then the other. Hard. Their instruments told them they were pulling up 10gs in alternating directions, enough force to burst blood vessels in their eyes.
It was a familiar problem, one that had affected a number of Vostok missions. The spacecraft’s landing module was designed to separate from their orbital module 10 seconds after retro-fire, but it hadn’t. A single communication cable connected the two, and they started spinning.
Not until the landing module was 62 miles from the Earth surface did the cord finally give, burned away by the heat of reentry. The spinning stopped abruptly and the cosmonauts felt a sharp jolt. The small stabilizing drogue chute deployed. The capsule started swaying gently underneath the parachute.
The calm inside the cabin was at odds with the ominous darkness outside. The cosmonauts were falling through heavy cloud cover. The landing rockets fired and they hit the ground with a jolt.
According to the spacecraft’s orientation system they landed deep in the Siberian forest almost 1,250 miles from their target. The crew needed to assess their situation to figure out how long it might take recovery crews to find them. The full seriousness of the situation hit them when they wrestled the hatch opened to find themselves nearly chin deep in snow.
Snowbanks six and a half feet tall surrounded them as did thick birch trees. The sun was hidden behind the clouds. It started to snow, forcing the men back into their spacecraft.
Neither man was too concerned. Belyayev’s childhood dream had been to become a hunter while Leonov had sought the beautiful isolation of the forest as an artistic outlet. It was the wildlife that worried them. The forest, they knew, was home to bears and wolves, unusually aggressive in the spring mating season. Between themselves the cosmonauts had one pistol but ample ammunition.
It was lucky they had the gun. Around the time they returned to the safety of their capsule Moscow had no idea that they had even landed. Only men working at a listening post near Bonn, Germany and a nearby cargo plane did; by chance they’d both picked up a transmission from the crew and called for a search party.
Recovery crews did arrive in late afternoon, signaled by the unmistakable sound of helicopter. Leonov and Belyayev plowed through chest-deep snow into a clearing where they waved their arms frantically. Luckily the pilot spotted them, but unfortunately it was a civilian helicopter whose crew lacked the knowledge and equipment to effect a rescue. A rope ladder appeared in the clearing, but the cosmonauts had no hope of climbing it in their bulky pressure suits and boots.
Other aircraft arrived and dropped what they hoped would be helpful items: a bottle of cognac that broke when it hit the ground, a blunt axe, and wolfskin boots and warm winter clothes that snagged on branches as they fell.
Civilian rescue efforts continued in vain as daylight faded. By then the cosmonauts were facing a different threat. They’d sweat so much climbing around in the snow that now, soaked, they were at risk of frost bite. Leonov and Belyayev clambered back into the capsule, stripped naked, and wrung as much moisture out of their underwear as possible.
They poured the liquid out of their rigid spacesuits and put the softer, less rigid lining back on for warmth. With their boots and gloves back on they were relatively comfortable and mobile. As the night cooled to 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit they tried to stay warm in their capsule in spite of the gaping hole where the hatch had been.
They woke the next morning to the sound of an airplane circling overhead and voices just barely audible above the engines’ roar. Leonov fired a flare gun to guide the small rescue team — a group of men on skis followed by a fellow cosmonaut and an eager videographer — to their landing site.
With supplies on site the second night in the forest was much more pleasant. The men chopped trees to build a fire and make a makeshift log cabin, clearing a spot for a helicopter at the same time. They also brought a generous supper of cheese, sausage and bread.
The crew and their rescue team skied five and a half miles to the helicopter landing site the next morning. The crew was moved to Perm then flown back to their launch site at Baikonur where they were greeted by a smiling Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev.
The next day Leonov and Belyayev stood before a government committee in Leninsk to answer questions about their flight. Leonov’s only comment on the flight was about his historic space walk: “Provided with a special suit, man can survive and work in open space.”
After their harrowing night in the forest, it was back to business for the cosmonauts.
Photo: Alexei Leonov in 1965. Voskhod 2 was Leonov’s first spaceflight. Credit: NASA