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.
NASA knew full well that the Apollo lunar landing missions were risky, and it took steps to minimize the chances of losing astronauts in space.
Redundancies were built into the spacecraft, and astronauts and technicians alike spent hours simulating missions. Mission planners also used simulations to anticipate as many aspects of a lunar mission as possible, going so far, in 1967, as recreating the moon in northern Arizona.
The Arizonian landscaping was part of the Astrogeology Research Program, a joint undertaking between NASA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Beginning in 1963, the idea was to give Apollo astronauts as realistic a training ground as possible for their eventual EVAs on the lunar surface.
The program’s main site was a place called Cinder Field, an area where basaltic cinders covered the natural clay landscape following the Sunset Volcanic Crater’s eruption around 1064. To make it more moon-like, NASA added craters to the site with dynamite. To make each crater, a site was excavated and filled with a mixture of dynamite and ammonium nitrates. After some test explosions, a necessary step to calibrate how much power was needed to make a crater of a certain size, the real blasting began.
The first phase of “construction” ran from July 28 to 31, 1967. Forty-seven craters were made over those four days, varying in depth between 5 and 40 feet in a 500 square foot area. The finished product was a full scale reproduction of an area at the Sea of Tranquility that NASA had settled on as a potential landing site for Apollo 11.
The site was expanded between Oct. 8 and 12 of that year. Ninety-six craters were added for a total of 143 in an 800 square foot field. In all, 312.5 pounds of dynamite and 13,492 pounds of a mixture of agricultural fertilizer and fuel oil were used in those first two phases of construction.
A second, larger field was eventually built after the first, also in an area where basaltic cinders were deposited on top the clay by the Sunset Volcanic Crater. This created a some realistic effects as the light colored clay was excavated in the blast, a feature the site’s creators used to their advantage. Several sets of explosions in sequence created craters with overlapping ejecta blankets to mimic different ages, just like exist on the moon.
The first round took 182 blasts and mimicked the oldest craters on the moon’s surface. A second blast added the intermediate age craters with 61 blasts. A final round to simulate the youngest lunar craters comprised 111 blasts. In all, it took 1,153 pounds of dynamite, 28,650 pounds of nitro-Carbo nitrate, and 40,000 feet of Primacord to build this second field.
With their faux moon in place, the astronauts moved in. A simulated Lunar Module was placed on top of a ramp to give them a preview of what they would see out the small triangular coming in for a landing over certain landmarks. They practiced using specially designed tools in their bulky spacesuits and deploying scientific experiments like ALSEP. It gave them a place to test lunar rovers, first the “Explorer” and then “Grover,” the Apollo prime and backup crews’ main training vehicle.
It was also a hands-on classroom. With the exception of Apollo 17’s Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt, none of the Apollo astronauts was a trained geologist. They all had to learn to identify features, rock types, and most importantly they had to learn the right terminology so they could tell the scientists at NASA exactly what they were seeing up there. The Cinder Lake crater field gave them a chance to practice describing crater morphologies and the stratigraphic relationships of unconsolidated materials.
The real Sea of Tranquility on the moon hasn’t changed since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left in 1969, but the man-made analogue didn’t survive. The site has been resurfaced by wind, rain, and people. It’s a shame, too. A virtual Sea of Tranquility would be a fantastic destination for space-nuts the world over.
Image: Two Apollo 15 crew members, riding a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) simulator, participate in geology training at the Cinder Lake crater field in Arizona in 1970. Astronaut David R. Scott, Apollo 15 commander, seated on the left; and to Scott’s right is astronaut James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot. They have stopped at the rim of a 30-feet deep crater to look over the terrain. The simulator, called “Grover”, was built by the United States Geological Survey. Credit: NASA