Date: SUN 11/17/02
Page: 37 MetFront
Edition: 4 STAR
Between a rock and hard place /NASA dogged by skeptics claiming Apollo 11 hoax
By PATTY REINERT, Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - If there's no breeze on the moon, how come the U.S. flag that astronauts allegedly planted there was waving? Where are all the stars in the photos that NASA supposedly snapped from the lunar surface? How did Neil Armstrong make that first footprint when the moon dust would have been blown away as the lander descended?
More than three decades since Americans landed on the moon, these questions still trouble Ralph Rene. The answer, he says, is simple: It never happened.
"They're liars - L-I-A-R-S," insisted Rene, 69. "We did not, could not and cannot put a man on the moon."
Rene, a retired New Jersey carpenter and self-published author of NASA Mooned America, is among a handful of vocal moon-landing nonbelievers demanding more Apollo proof from NASA, pestering aging astronauts and confusing millions of TV viewers and Internet surfers.
Independent scientists have tried to debunk the conspiracy theorists. Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, 72, finally punched one in the face. But NASA has mostly ignored them - until recently.
This fall, the space agency agreed to pay Texas aerospace engineer and author James Oberg $15,000 to write a book to set the record straight. But when news of that mission resulted in ridicule for NASA, the book launch was scrubbed.
"This is a tough position to be in," said NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs. "Conspiracy theories have been around for a long while, but how does NASA engage in debunking something that shouldn't have to be debunked? Every time people come across something on the Internet or see something on TV, we start getting calls."
The phone traffic spiked early last year when Fox television aired a program called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? Moon-hoax proponents on the show argued that NASA's 1960s technology was inadequate to accomplish a moon landing, and that the U.S. government, determined to beat Russia in the space race, faked the whole thing.
"These were bad conclusions based on bad science, but they were presented in a form that was recognizable as a documentary," Jacobs said. "There was never any attempt to show a fair examination of the facts, and that just kind of created a new swell of interest in the conspiracy theories."
NASA responded on the Web.
But not everyone has access to a computer, Jacobs said, and increasingly, people seem to be more skeptical, especially younger people who grew up in an era when government was less likely to be trusted.
To assist teachers trying to refute moon-hoax theories, NASA finally gave the nod to Oberg, who for years had lobbied the space agency to tap into the public's fascination with conspiracy theories to teach people about the Apollo program, which included six moon landings from 1969 to 1972.
"NASA has always taken the position that it is beneath NASA's dignity to respond to these crackpot ideas," said Oberg, a 22-year veteran of Mission Control who lives in Dickinson. "My view is that there's no such thing as a stupid question, and if these questions are going to persist out there, why not use them as an opportunity for education?"
Oberg and Jacobs said the intent of the book project was never to directly engage those who believe that moon landings were staged in the desert outside some secret military bunker or filmed in a Hollywood studio.
"I was just going to bring out more of the amazing truths about our space activities, talk to the people involved, and show the public how they can think for themselves and check these things that they hear," said Oberg, 56.
"NASA said the publicity had just gotten too distracting," Oberg said, "and I also suspect they are afraid that Congress would get on their case about spending the money or paying attention to silliness like this. I was dismayed and I was disappointed."
Jacobs last week denied that the space agency was pressured to kill the project, but he said the media attention in recent weeks has distracted from more important things, not the least of which are this week's scheduled shuttle launch and NASA's annual budget scramble before Congress.
Oberg, who has published a dozen books explaining space exploration to laypeople, is finishing the book on his own. More than just debunking conspiracy theories, he said, the book will teach people how to "differentiate real crackpot conspiracy theories from unusual heresies that could be true."
Philip Plait, 38, an astronomer at California's Sonoma State University, is all for that. He is a leading debunker of moon-landing conspiracy theories, and NASA's Web site links to his, www.badastronomy.com.
"I've known about this moon-hoax stuff for years, but it was such a ridiculous, tiny thing that at first I didn't worry about it," Plait said. "But conspiracy theories fester on the Web, and for this particular conspiracy theory, which relies very heavily on misinterpretation of pictures, the Web is a petri dish."
Plait jumped into the fight several years ago, countering bad science and biased journalism with scientific explanations to defend what he considers "one of humanity's greatest achievements."
"The claims they are making are wrong, period," Plait said of the skeptics. "Some of their questions, I think, `What are you thinking, saying stuff like this?' That's just dumb. Other things are interesting claims, not so easily dismissed, but with some thought and research, all of the anomalies can be explained."
Take the flag question, for example: If there's no air on the moon, why is the flag waving?
This is a favorite of moon-landing skeptics such as Rene and Bart Sibrel, a Tennessee videographer and conspiracy theorist who confronted Aldrin in Los Angeles in September, calling him a liar and challenging him to swear on a Bible that he walked on the moon. Aldrin, who said Sibrel poked him with the Bible, hit him in the face.
The answer to the flag question, Plait said, is that when astronauts twisted the flagpole into the lunar surface, the motion caused the flag to move. The banner stood out as if it were blowing because the top of the flag was braced to keep it unfurled.
The star question also is easily answered, he said. The stars were too faint to register on the film.
How could footprints be made in the dust when the rocket thrusters on the lander would have blown all the dust away?
"Several answers," Plait said. "The lander didn't come straight down, it came at an angle, moving along the ground as it was dropping. It wasn't hovering in one spot. The moon has no air, so the only thing to move the dust around is the gas itself from the rocket thrusters, but the thrusters were actually very low pressure, so they did blow some of the dust away directly below the lander, but there was still dust all around."
Why are the shadows in the pictures not parallel? "The same reason railroad tracks don't look parallel when you're standing on them - perspective," Plait said.
Rene is unsatisfied with those explanations. And he's exasperated by a more pressing concern: How did the astronauts survive the radiation poisoning on their journey to the moon?
Again, Plait has the answer: The astronauts wore insulated spacesuits inside an insulated capsule. And in fact, the astronauts did receive an elevated dose of radiation, Plait said.
"What we would get on the ground in a year, they got in a few hours, but it wasn't enough to kill them," he said.
"I used to believe, too," said Rene, who was a member of American Mensa, the society for super-smart people, for nine years before he stopped paying his dues, a fact the Chronicle confirmed with Mensa. "I believed even when they showed those Mickey Mouse people running around the lander, saying, `Did you check the frim-fram on the Ramistat?' and the other guy would say, `Yes, we better do that.'
"I was so naive . . . I thought that if you had absolute proof, people would believe you," he said. "But I gave them absolute proof (that the landing never happened). If they would just read my book."
Aron Ranen, 41, read the book. The San Francisco filmmaker spent a year interviewing astronauts and NASA engineers as well as conspiracy theorists as he tried to prove the moon landings were real. His work resulted in the film Moon Hoax: Did We Go?
Ranen interviewed Aldrin, who says on camera that he did indeed walk on the moon. He interviewed the guy who closed the hatch on the Apollo 11 astronauts before takeoff and the Navy frogman who opened it upon splashdown. Both confirmed they did what they did and they believe the moon landing happened.
"When I started this, I totally believed we landed on the moon," Ranen said. "I'm a smart guy. I'm not one of these hoaxers, so I thought this was going to be easy - bing, bing, bing and I'd be done."
But then he flew to Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington's suburbs, where he was told that the telemetry tapes from the Apollo 11 mission were missing. He spent a week at the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis trying to send a laser beam to the moon in an attempt to bounce it off the reflector that Apollo astronauts left there. The test succeeded, he said, but he later found out the Soviets landed several unmanned probes with laser reflectors on the moon.
Now the true believer is no longer 100 percent certain. Maybe Rene - who believes the World Trade Center was bombed from the inside ("and it wasn't the Arabs, sweetheart") - is a modern-day Galileo, Ranen said.
"After making this film, I'm not sure who to believe anymore," he said. "I still hope we landed on the moon. I want to believe like everyone else. But I set out to prove it, and after a year of searching, I just couldn't prove it. I think there is a possibility it could have been a hoax."
Ranen suggests that the U.S. government, overseen by independent scientists, could spin around a spy satellite to get a shot of the Apollo 11 landing area on the moon to see whether the base of the lander is still there.
"That's the best way to really prove we went," he said, "and then everybody will shut up."
Not likely, Oberg said. Satellites are too far away to get pictures of things that small, and even probes designed to orbit the moon can't see that detail. "You could see something the size of an oil tanker," he said, "but not something the size of the lander."
On the Web
JAMES OBERG: www.jamesoberg.com
RALPH RENE: www.rene-r.com
BART SIBREL: www.moonmovie.com
ARON RANEN: www.moonhoax .com
PHILIP PLAIT: www.badastronomy.com