Last Page: Moonstruck

You can’t believe everything you think

I went to a party a while ago. In the course of otherwise reasonable conversation, one of the guests said, "Oh, everybody knows the moon landings were faked."

I started laughing at what I assumed was sarcasm—maybe a riff on NASA's recent announcement that it had lost some high-quality videotape of the first one. Then I saw from the expression on his face that he was serious. And a number of other guests were nodding in agreement.

Both my parents are scientists—analytical chemistry and molecular biology. I have a physicist uncle, and I am a chemist. The notion of faked moon landings was an affront to the family crest.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"The pictures are all perfect," he said.

"Because there is no air," I replied. "Which means no dust, so that distant objects on the moon still appear crisp."

"But they're perfectly focused."

"The published ones are perfectly focused, sure. Nobody wants to see the astronaut's thumb."

His eyes narrowed. "The flag is flapping. How is that possible when there's no wind?"

"It's not flapping," I said. "It's unfurling. Well, not unfurling, but that's the point—it was folded during the flight, and it didn't unfold fully even after they hung from the flagpole."

"OK, maybe. But those supposed moon rocks"—he did that annoying curly-finger quote thing—"could have easily been faked in a lab somewhere on earth."

"There's no water in them," I said. "Nor do they have compositions that are commonly found on earth."

"But you could make them," he insisted. "In a lab."

I clenched my teeth. "It would take less research to just go get them from the actual moon!"

His nostrils flared. He was coming in for the kill now. "What about...radiation! People can't go through the Van Halen belts. They’d be fried."

"Van Allen belts."


"The Apollo traveled through the Van Allen belts in less than an hour. It would take far longer than that for the exposure to affect them."

I launched into a lecture on relative dosage,  my area of expertise. But I didn't stop there. In my fury, my three semesters of college physics resurfaced. I shoved the snack plates out of the way and positioned an olive centrally in the cleared space.

"This is earth," I growled. I snatched four cheese puffs,  to represent the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts, then grabbed some Twizzlers and modeled the solar wind and the earth's magnetosphere and the bow shock region.

I started spewing mathematical formulas, not because it was crucial to my argument but to intimidate. "Do you understand?" I finally demanded.

He shrugged. "I'm a biologist."

Finally, my coup de grâce: "The Russians."

He knit his brow.

"They had the first satellite, the first man in space, the first spacewalk," I said. "Then America gets the first man on the moon? That's like getting tripped by the other team's mascot. But have the Russians ever said the moon landing was a hoax?"

From now on I will start with this question. He backed away, admitting that perhaps—just maybe—I had a point.

The moral? There are several. 1. Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean it isn't true. 2. Don't believe everything you think. 3. Biology majors should be made to suffer through physics along with the rest of us. And 4. If you make solar models out of food, don't expect to be invited to many parties.

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