Conspiracy theorists have concocted some incredibly creative stories to explain why NASA has not returned to the moon since Apollo 17’s splashdown in 1972. Some suggest that aliens on the moon prevented or scared astronauts from ever returning while others claim that there were undocumented missions to the moon. The other end of the spectrum sees moon hoax theorists claiming we never went to the moon, but the ‘evidence’ of these claims is so great it really deserves its own post. (Left, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan was the last man to leave a boot print on the moon. December 1972.)
Last week, Dimension Films released Apollo 18. Conspiracy theorists are coming out of the internet’s virtual woodwork in droves, lauding the film for finally admitting to the decades-old cover up. The real story of Apollo 18 is interesting but much less exciting.
Beating the Soviet Union to the moon was always the main goal of the Apollo program – national prestige and assertion of technological dominance over a powerful and frightening enemy was paramount. But it was never the only goal. Sending men to the moon is costly; the research and development leading up to a launch for a purely political program yields a poor return on investment. Apollo included a strong science component, one that anticipated the program lasting far longer than it did.
The cosmic relationship between the Earth and the moon has been known with certainty since the late 17th century when Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica – it was the first time gravity as we understand it today was used as to explain the mechanics of the solar system. In the early 1960s, the mutual gravitational pull between the two bodies was the known cause of the Earth’s regular tides, and a better understanding of both bodies’ orbits confirmed that the moon is receding from the Earth and lengthening the lunar month a little at a time. (The moon rise as seen by the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.)
The genesis of the moon, however, was still a mystery. Some thought that the moon was created in the early solar system and captured by the Earth’s comparatively larger gravitational pull when it was still a protoplanet. Others suggested that the strong relationship between the moon and the Earth was evidence that the two bodies were actually made of the same stuff – the moon was thought to be the aggregation of material extracted from the young Earth following a collision with a large object. To prove the theory that the moon is the result of such an impact scientists would need moon rocks. Getting samples was a geologist’s dream with the potential to open a new chapter in man’s understanding of himself.
The potential scientific return of a manned lunar program was recognized and added to the lunar program with Kennedy’s administration in the early 1961. The young president’s science advisors urged that he publicize programs beyond Mercury as a means to make people appreciate the cultural, public service, and military importance of space activities.
From the start of the lunar program scientific exploration was a central goal, but the power of a manned program in generating public interest and support was never forgotten. The human exploration of the moon was anticipated to be one of the greatest inspirational ventures in which the whole world could share. It would appeal to the fundamental philosophical and spiritual values tied up in man’s questing spirit while also providing great scientific return. (A crowd gathers at the Manned Spacecraft Centre for President Kennedy’s ceremony honouring John Glenn after his historic orbital mission. 1962.)
The official program goals for Apollo were fourfold: to establish the technology to meet other national interests in space, to achieve preeminence in space for the United States, to carry out a program of scientific exploration of the moon, and to develop man’s capability to work in the lunar environment. Realizing these goals called for a progressive program with the capability for increasingly long stays on the moon with development of the necessary technology and methods the central part of the Gemini program.
The Apollo missions progressed alphabetically. ‘A’ missions tested the command and service module – CSM – in Earth orbit (Apollo 4 and 6). ‘B’ missions tested the lunar module – LM – in Earth orbit (Apollo 5). Manned missions began with the ‘C’ mission to test the CSM in Earth orbit (Apollo 7). Apollo 8 snuck into the lineup with a circumlunar flight with only the CSM. The ‘D’ mission took the CSM and LM into Earth orbit (Apollo 9), the ‘F’ mission was a dry run that tested the LM in lunar orbit and the all-important lunar orbital rendezvous (Apollo 10), and the ‘G’ mission was the first landing (Apollo 11).
After the first manned landing, nine missions were planned to meet two primary objectives. ‘H’ missions perfected precision landings (Apollo 12, 13, 14, and 15). ‘J’ missions featured extended lunar stays and incorporated ‘I’ mission goals of extended observation from the CSM in lunar orbit (Apollo 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20). In 1968, the expectation was that these ‘J’ missions would photograph and map structural features of interest and collect representative samples, establish a network of geophysical instruments for long-term monitoring of the moon, and carry out long-range traverses to link local and regional studies together. After Apollo 20 the next phase of lunar exploration would begin with a permanent human outpost as the ultimate goal. NASA’s funding for the lunar program was expected to peak in 1972 to $1.3 billion. (‘J’ missions were the first to use the Lunar Rover to increase the reach of EVAs. Pictured, Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott driving the Lunar Rover. 1971.)
The funding never materialized, and Apollo began the suffer. The first mission to go was Apollo 20 early in 1970. Production of the Saturn V launch vehicle and the electronic components of lunar hardware were halted as a means to save money. In September, two more missions were cut – the third ‘H’ mission Apollo 15 and the now final Apollo 19. With three missions gone, the program would end with Apollo 17 with the remaining missions changed to reflect the shortened program. Apollo 15, 16, and 17 became ‘J’ missions with scientific return at the centre.
There were other concerns beyond the budget of continued manned missions. The near-loss of Apollo 13 brought the potential cost of human life to the forefront. Called the successful failure, the mission stands as a wonderful example of ingenuity and problem solving at its best, but it also reinforced the statistical likelihood that a crew would eventually face an unrecoverable situation in space. There was some doubt, too, about Apollo’s capability to sustain the longer duration missions; the LM was small with limited space for vital supplies and the capacity for life support. Another factor was the change in administration. Nixon was far less supportive of a prolonged lunar exploration program than Kennedy, and felt that with the goal accomplished there was no need to continue the program. (Unflown Lunar Modules are in museums across the country. A backup for the unmanned Apollo 5 resides in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, pictured.)
The revised program made NASA the target of great criticism; the cancelled missions saved NASA less than 0.25 percent of the total investment in Apollo. Even with the formal decision made to shorten the overall program, many within NASA fought for additional missions. A successful manned landing on the far side of the moon where the astronauts would be completely cut off from mission control would demonstrate the need for men directly involved in space exploration.
The continuation of science-based lunar missions would support the original goal of scientific return; the absence of scientists on lunar missions also drew criticism. Deke Slayton, head of the astronaut office in charge of crew assignments, rationalized that both men on the moon needed the skills of a pilot to provide a measure of redundancy – if the commander became somehow incapacitated, the LM pilot would need to confidently get the two men home. Not until the last mission did NASA send a scientist to the moon. Astronaut Jack Schmitt worked hard develop piloting skills to match his geology skills. (Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module pilot – and trained geologist – Jack Schmitt. 1972.)
Even with strong support within NASA for continued lunar missions, there was simply no money. The bootprints showing Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan’s path back to the LM were left in 1972 and remain the freshest prints on the surface.
There was one Apollo mission after the last lunar flight. In 1975, NASA and the Soviet Space Program undertook the first joint nation mission in space – the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). The US half of the mission was designated Apollo 18 and docked with the Soviet Soyuz 19 in Earth orbit in July 1975. The name Apollo 18, however, was rarely if ever used; the mission was designated by its full name. The US crew – Deke Slayton, Tom Stafford, and Vance Brand – responded the call sign of Apollo. Their Soviet counterparts were Alexei Leonov and Valeri Kubasov. (Deke Slayton (upside-down) and Alexei Leonov during the ASTP mission, 1975.)
Perhaps the uncommon but official designation of the Apollo half of ASTP as Apollo 18 is why most of the ‘evidence’ for covered-up Apollo missions relate stories of Apollo 19 and 20. Italian freelance journalist Luca Scantamburlo holds the ‘rare distinction’ of ‘speaking’ with two ‘astronauts’, one from each ‘mission’, never formally recognized by NASA.
There are not enough air quotes to convey my scepticism.
From his interviews conducted primarily through YouTube comments, Scantamburlo relates that both Apollo 19 and 20 launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, which is why neither launch was seen. The unnamed commander of Apollo 19 tells that his mission quickly ran into unexplained telemetry problems and was lost. Somehow, the commander alone survived to tell the tale. (The last Saturn V launch put the unmanned Skylab into orbit in 1973. None went to the moon. The manned Skylab missions as well as the ASTP launched on the smaller Saturn IB.)
Apollo 20 commander William Rutledge recently surfaced in Rwanda, determined to bring his story to the world – Apollo 20 was for all mankind and a part of our shared history. From interviews conducted through online means, Scantamburlo reports that Apollo 20 launched in 1976 as a lunar version of the ASTP. Astronauts William Rutledge and Leona Snyder were joined by cosmonaut Alexei Leonov to investigate an alien ship found on the far side of the moon by the Apollo 17 crew. ‘Found footage’ of the mission takes care to show an Apollo 20 patch taped to the inside of the LM and a very waxed figure-looking ‘alien’ body Rutledge and Leonov recovered from inside the ship. (The mission patch for Rutledge’s ‘Apollo 20’ depicts the CSM and the LM lifting an alien ship off the moon…)
Dimension Film’s Apollo 18 follows the similar mold of presenting ‘found footage’ of a secret lunar mission edited to draw out the mission events. Ostensibly using found footage leaked and posted online at www.lunartruth.org – the site was flooded and failed to load all weekend, adding to the apparent mystery – the film sees an Apollo crew sent to the moon on a secret DOD mission. The two astronauts on the surface discover a dead cosmonaut and an abandoned Soviet lander, facts the DOD deliberately left out of the pre-mission briefing.
What could have been at least an entertaining “what if” quickly descends into insanity as we discover that the rocks on the moon can turn into spiders-like creatures. The rock-spiders contaminate and infect the crew who are left to die in lunar orbit.
Despite the nonsensical action of the film, the days since its opening have seen a flood of reviews that laud its producers for reopening a dialogue about the true secret missions to the moon. Most people are willing to write off the rock-spiders as Hollywood flair and few believe the footage is actual ‘found’ footage, but there seems to be a widespread belief that the movie fictionalizes a real mission to the moon that failed and was subsequently covered up. Hoi poloi are quick to cite Rutledge’s Apollo 20 as the inspiration for the film. (Left, a possible patch for Apollo 20. Stu Roosa, Jack Lousma, and Don Lind were in line to serve as the prime crew for Apollo 20 when the mission was cancelled.)
The climate may be right for a resurgence in conspiracy theorist’s ‘certain claims’ that there is a reason we haven’t gone back to the moon other than a shrinking budget and limiting technology, particularly as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program. Personally, I plan to stick to researching lesser-known aspects of missions that actually happened. I find it much more satisfying.
Suggested Reading/Selected Sources
Kathleen McErlain. Apollo 19/20: 35 Years of Secrecy (pdf).
Ralph Rene. NASA Mooned America! (pdf)
An Interview with Apollo 19 Commander by Luca Scantamburlo.
New Evidence Provided by William Rutledge by Luca Scantamburlo.
Rutledge’s evidence of an Alien Spaceship on the Far Side of the Moon.
Real Books by the Men Who Were There:
Deke! Donald K. Slayton and Michael Cassautt. Forge: New York. 1994.
Moon Shot. Donald K. Slayton and Alan Shepard. Turner: Atlanta. 1994.
Failure is Not an Option. Gene Kranz. Plume: New York. 2001.
Flight. Kris Kraft. Berkley: New York. 2001.