Given the fact that so many people engage in conspiracism, it falls to us as science teachers to teach students how to critically analyze claims. That’s why I created this resource/lesson plan. It involves asking the students what they heard, then going through a Mythbusters episode together. Then we go through several specific claims of moon-landing-deniers, slowly, logically.
This is something that takes a few classes to go through. Just dumping information to students in one class doesn’t work: they need time to talk, listen, think, and process.
In February 2001, a Fox Television broadcast claimed that scientists at NASA were involved in a conspiracy to fake a series of manned landings on the moon in the 1960s/70s. However, it is a fact that NASA did indeed send manned spaceships to the surface of the moon, and safely brought those astronauts back with lunar samples.
Thousands of scientists and engineers across the United States, both in NASA and private companies, collaborated on this project. Lunar soil samples were sent to scientists in nations across the world, who confirmed the results.
And consider this: Even China and the Soviet Union, communist nations who at that time were in a Cold War with the USA, did not dispute that this occurred.
Ask the students what they know about the moon itself, and how they think we learned about it. Ask them what they know about the Apollo moon landing missions. Ask then if they have seen any videos about it on social media or YouTube. If no one mentions the claim that the moon landings were faked, that might be a good sign – so if they don’t ask, then we ask them – “Have you ever heard the claim that the landings on the moon were faked?”
Ask students, if the moon landings were real, how would we know? Have them put their answers up on the board (or perhaps in an online shared document. Ask them, if the moon landings were faked, how would we know? Also have them write down answers. It is critical during this introductory stage to prevent students from attacking each other’s opinions (even and especially if some are obviously wrong!)
The entire point of this introduction is to create a safe safe for students to talk, in increasing detail, about something of great scientific importance.
You might want to show them a short video clip of a conspiracy theorist (keep it under 8 minutes!) When done, ask them if any of the arguments seemed reasonable, and if so, which ones? Then turn it around – ask them “If this person’s claims were true, what evidence would we expect to find? If this person’s claims were false, what evidence would we expect to find? “
At this point, we show them the beginning segments of the MythBusters episode on this topic! 🙂 An episode of MythBusters in August 2008 was dedicated to examining conspiracies about this topic. They tested many conspiracy theory claims.
Purchase a legal copy of the episode from Google, Amazon, Apple
At the end of this first class, assign some kind of project (I have offered one, below.) This will motivate them to research, think, and write.
Never begin with a video. Instead, randomly ask students to offer one thing they learned, or one question that they have, from yesterday’s class. Wake them up, keep them mentally engaged. After a few minutes of discussion, we get back into the rest of the MythBusters episode.
Important: Never run a show for 45 minutes straight. Too many students just tune out. Instead, run one short segment at a time, and then “popcorn” question students. The point is for them to actively listen and think about what they are seeing.
By the end of this second class we’ll have gotten through most of the episode.
Remind them of the homework project (assigned yesterday.)
This will be of great assistance to students who are struggling with the assignment. One idea at a time, go through the specific parts. Have students come up to the board/computer screen and show us what the claims are, and why at first glance someone might accept them. Then have another student explain the problem with the claim.
Example homework/research assignment
1.Introduction (1 paragraph): Describe the main idea, and why we are analyzing these claims.
2. In complete sentences, describe three of the tested claims from the MythBusters episode: How did they MythBusters test them? Include some details and observations. What were their results? Here are the key experiments:
a) shadows & parallel rays of light b) astronaut seen in shadow c) flag “flapping”
d) footprint in lunar soil f) laser reflectors
3. Claim: Astronauts were supposedly filmed skipping, on Earth, in front of a high frame-rate camera. The film was then said to have been slowed down, giving the illusion they were in 1/6th gravity on the Moon.
a) How did Jamie and Adam test this claim?
b) They were not fully happy with the results of their test. Why not?
c) They developed a new experiment: What was the new experiment, and what were the results?
4. Based on their results, what was their conclusion? Explain how their data led to their conclusion.
Grading rubric: Testing myths grading rubric
Third-party evidence for Apollo Moon landings:
There is plenty of evidence about the Moon landings that doesn’t come from NASA. It comes from other nations – including America’s cold war competitor’s, private citizens, and later satellite exploration of the moon from other nations. All of this is independent confirmation of NASA’s account of the Moon landings.
How do we use critical thinking to analyze claims?
Claim: NASA faked footage of men landing on the moon. We know this because:
Several photos from the Moon show objects on the lunar landscape, with long shadows. If the Sun were the only light source then the shadows must be parallel. Yet we see that the shadows are not parallel. Therefore we must conclude that there were multiple light sources, and the only possible explanation for that is that this all occurred in a movie studio, with multiple lights, here on Earth.
Skeptical analysis of this claim: To people unfamiliar with outdoor photography, it seems to make sense. But let’s think:
* is the moon perfectly flat?
* Does nothing on the moon reflect any light?
* If the conspiracy claim is true, and there was more than one TV studio light source, then wouldn’t there then be multiple shadows?
* Did the conspiracy theorists show that their claim is true through experimentation? Or did they merely assert it?
* Without using geometry to analyze the ground – are we really sure that the shadows are not parallel? Could it possibly be a distortion due to our viewing perspective? Do the conspiracy theorists show their math? (no)
* When the Sun is low and shadows are long, objects at different distance do indeed appear to cast non-parallel shadows, even here on Earth. See this set of photos:
and then here on Earth
We clearly see objects with non-parallel shadows, distorted by perspective.
If seen from above, shadows in the Apollo images, and in these images here on Earth, would indeed look parallel.
See for yourself; go outside on a clear day when the Sun is low in the sky and compare the direction of the shadows of near and far objects. You’ll see that they appear to diverge.
“Bad Astronomy” analysis of the conspiracy theory
I can’t strongly enough endorse Phil Plait’s” Bad Astronomy” website.
On Thursday, February 15th 2001 (and replayed on March 19), the Fox TV network aired a program called “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?”, hosted by X-Files actor Mitch Pileggi. The program was an hour long, and featured interviews with a series of people who believe that NASA faked the Apollo Moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s. The biggest voice in this is Bill Kaysing, who claims to have all sorts of hoax evidence, including pictures taken by the astronauts, engineering details, discussions of physics and even some testimony by astronauts themselves.
The program’s conclusion was that the whole thing was faked in the Nevada desert (in Area 51, of course!). According to them, NASA did not have the technical capability of going to the Moon, but pressure due to the Cold War with the Soviet Union forced them to fake it. ….So let’s take a look at the “evidence” brought out by the show. To make this easier, below is a table with links to the specific arguments.
Bad: The show claims that 20% of Americans have doubts that we went to the Moon.
Good: That number is a bit misleading. A 1999 Gallup poll showed it was more like 6%, a number which agrees with a poll taken in 1995 by Time/CNN. The Gallup website [note added Feb. 19, 2007: The Gallup site has been rearranged, and though I can no longer find this quotation, it still jibes with what is on the site now] also says:
Although, if taken literally, 6% translates into millions of individuals, it is not unusual to find about that many people in the typical poll agreeing with almost any question that is asked of them — so the best interpretation is that this particular conspiracy theory is not widespread.
It also depends on what you mean by “doubts”. Does that mean someone who truly doesn’t believe man ever went to the Moon, or just that it’s remotely possible that NASA faked it? Those are very different things. Not only does the program not say, but they don’t say where they found the statistic they quote either.
Bad: The program talks about the movie “Capricorn 1”, an entertaining if ultimately silly movie about how NASA must fake a manned Mars expedition. The program says “The Apollo footage [from the surface of the Moon] is strikingly similar to the scenes in “Capricorn 1”.
Good: Is it just an amazing coincidence that the actual Moon images look like the movie, or is it evidence of conspiracy? Neither! The movie was filmed in 1978, many years after the last man walked on the Moon. The movie was made to look like the real thing! This statement by the program is particularly ludicrous, and indicates just how far the producers were willing to go to make a sensational program.
Bad: The first bit of actual evidence brought up is the lack of stars in the pictures taken by the Apollo astronauts from the surface of the Moon. Without air, the sky is black, so where are the stars?
This is usually the first thing HBs talk about when discussing the Hoax. That amazes me, as it’s the silliest assertion they make. However, it appeals to our common sense: when the sky is black here on Earth, we see stars. Therefore we should see them from the Moon as well.
The Moon’s surface is airless. On Earth, our thick atmosphere scatters sunlight, spreading it out over the whole sky. That’s why the sky is bright during the day. Without sunlight, the air is dark at night, allowing us to see stars.
On the Moon, the lack of air means that the sky is dark. Even when the Sun is high off the horizon during full day, the sky near it will be black. If you were standing on the Moon, you would indeed see stars, even during the day.
So why aren’t they in the Apollo pictures? Pretend for a moment you are an astronaut on the surface of the Moon. You want to take a picture of your fellow space traveler. The Sun is low off the horizon, since all the lunar landings were done at local morning. How do you set your camera? The lunar landscape is brightly lit by the Sun, of course, and your friend is wearing a white spacesuit also brilliantly lit by the Sun. To take a picture of a bright object with a bright background, you need to set the exposure time to be fast, and close down the aperture setting too; that’s like the pupil in your eye constricting to let less light in when you walk outside on a sunny day.
So the picture you take is set for bright objects. Stars are faint objects! In the fast exposure, they simply do not have time to register on the film. It has nothing to do with the sky being black or the lack of air, it’s just a matter of exposure time. If you were to go outside here on Earth on the darkest night imaginable and take a picturewith the exact same camera settings the astronauts used, you won’t see any stars!
Bad: In the pictures taken of the lunar lander by the astronauts, the TV show continues, there is no blast crater. A rocket capable of landing on the Moon should have burned out a huge crater on the surface, yet there is nothing there.
Good: When someone driving a car pulls into a parking spot, do they do it at 100 kilometers per hour? Of course not. They slow down first, easing off the accelerator. The astronauts did the same thing. Sure, the rocket on the lander was capable of 10,000 pounds of thrust, but they had a throttle. They fired the rocket hard to deorbit and slow enough to land on the Moon, but they didn’t need to thrust that hard as they approached the lunar surface; they throttled down to about 3000 pounds of thrust.
Now here comes a little bit of math: the engine nozzle was about 54 inches across (from the Encyclopaedia Astronautica), which means it had an area of 2300 square inches. That in turn means that the thrust generated a pressure of only about 1.5 pounds per square inch! That’s not a lot of pressure. Moreover, in a vacuum, the exhaust from a rocket spreads out very rapidly. On Earth, the air in our atmosphere constrains the thrust of a rocket into a narrow column, which is why you get long flames and columns of smoke from the back of a rocket. In a vacuum, no air means the exhaust spreads out even more, lowering the pressure. That’s why there’s no blast crater! Three thousand pounds of thrust sounds like a lot, but it was so spread out it was actually rather gentle.
Bad: As the lander descended, we clearly see dust getting blown away by the rocket. The exhaust should have blown all the dust away, yet we can clearly see the astronauts’ footprints in the dust mere meters from the lander. Obviously, when NASA faked this they messed it up.
Good: Once again, the weird alien environment of the Moon comes to play. Imagine taking a bag of flour and dumping it onto your kitchen floor. Now bend over the pile, take a deep breath, and blow into it as hard as you can. Poof! Flour goes everywhere. Why? Because the momentum of your breath goes into the flour, which makes it move. But note that the flour goes up, and sideways, and aloft into the air. If you blow hard enough, you might see little curlicues of air lifting the flour farther than your breath alone could have, and doing so to dust well outside of where your breath actually blew.
That’s the heart of this problem. We are used to air helping us blow things around. The air itself is displaced by your breath, which pushed on more air, and so on. On the Earth, your breath might blow flour that was dozens of centimeters away, even though your actual breath didn’t reach that far. On the Moon, there is no air. The only dust that gets blown around by the exhaust of the rocket (which, remember, isn’t nearly as strong as the HBs claim) is the dust physically touched by the exhaust, or dust hit by other bits of flying dust. In the end, only the dust directly under or a bit around the rocket was blown out by the exhaust. The rest was left where it was. Ironically, the dust around the landing site was probably a bit thickerthan before, since the dust blown out would have piled up there.
Bad: In all the pictures taken by the astronauts, the shadows are not black. Objects in shadow can be seen, sometimes fairly clearly, including a plaque on the side of the lander that can be read easily. If the Sun is the only source of light on the Moon, the HBs say, and there is no air to scatter that light, shadows should be utterly black.
Good: This is one of my favorite HB claims. They give you the answer in the claim itself: “…if the Sun is the only source of light…”
It isn’t. Initially, I thought the Earth was bright enough to fill in the shadows, but subsequently realized that cannot be the case.
The Earth is a fraction of the brightness of the Sun, not nearly enough to fill in the shadows. So then what is that other light source? The answer is: The Moon itself. Surprise! The lunar dust has a peculiar property: it tends to reflect light back in the direction from where it came. So if you were to stand on the Moon and shine a flashlight at the surface, you would see a very bright spot where the light hits the ground, but, oddly, someone standing a bit to the side would hardly see it at all. The light is preferentially reflected back toward the flashlight (and therefore you), and not the person on the side.
Now think about the sunlight. Let’s say the sun is off to the right in a picture. It is illuminating the right side of the lander, and the left is in shadow. However, the sunlight falling beyond the lander on the left is being reflected back toward the Sun. That light hits the surface and reflects to the right and up, directly onto the shadowed part of the lander. In other words, the lunar surface is so bright that it easily lights up the shadows of vertical surfaces. This effect is called heiligenschein (the German word for halo)
Bad: Ralph Rene, a self-proclaimed physicist, claims that the astronauts shifting in the cabin would change the center of mass, throwing the lunar lander off balance. They couldn’t compensate for this, which would have crashed the lander. Thus, the landing was faked.
Good: Rene is wrong. Evidently he doesn’t know how the internet works either, because there is a website which describes how the attitude control was maintained on the lander during descent and ascent; it’s the Apollo Saturn Reference page. There was a feedback control system on board the lander which determined if the axis were shifting. During descent, the engine nozzle could shift direction slightly to compensate for changes in the center of gravity of the lander (the technical term for this is gimbaling the nozzle). During ascent, the engine nozzle was fixed in position, so there was a series of smaller rockets which was used to maintain the proper attitude. Incidentally, every rocket needs to do this since fuel shifts the center of gravity as it is burned up by the rocket, yet Rene and the other HBs don’t seem to doubt that rockets themselves work! So we have a case of selective thinking on the part of the HBs.
Bad: The program claims that when the top half of the lander took off from the Moon to bring the astronauts back into orbit, there was no flame from the rocket. Obviously, every rocket has a visible flame, so the takeoff was faked.
Good: There is actually a simple reason why you cannot see the flame from the lander when it took off. The fuels they used produced no visible flame! The lander used a mix of hydrazine and dinitrogen tetroxide (an oxidizer). These two chemicals ignite upon contact and produce a product that is transparent. That’s why you cannot see the flame. We expect to see a flame because of the usual drama of liftoff from the Earth; the flame and smoke we see from the Shuttle, for example, is because the solid rocket boosters do actually produce them, while the lunar lander did not. Here is a brief webpage describing this. Note too that fuels like this are still used today, and indeed rockets in space produce little or no visible flame.
Bad: When the movies of the astronauts walking and driving the lunar rover are doubled in speed, they look just like they were filmed on Earth and slowed down. This is clearly how the movies were faked.
Good: This was the first new bit I have seen from the HBs, and it’s funny. To me even when sped up, the images didn’t look like they were filmed in Earth’s gravity. The astronauts were sidling down a slope, and they looked weird to me, not at all like they would on Earth. I will admit that if wires were used, the astronauts’ gait could be simulated.
However, not the rover! If you watch the clip, you will see dust thrown up by the wheels of the rover. The dust goes up in a perfect parabolic arc and falls back down to the surface. Again, the Moon isn’t the Earth! If this were filmed on the Earth, which has air, the dust would have billowed up around the wheel and floated over the surface. This clearly does not happen in the video clips; the dust goes up and right back down. It’s actually a beautiful demonstration of ballistic flight in a vacuum. Had NASA faked this shot, they would have had to have a whole set (which would have been very large) with all the air removed. We don’t have this technology today!
Bad: When the astronauts are assembling the American flag, the flag waves. Kaysing says this must have been from an errant breeze on the set. A flag wouldn’t wave in a vacuum.
Good: Of course a flag can wave in a vacuum. In the shot of the astronaut and the flag, the astronaut is rotating the pole on which the flag is mounted, trying to get it to stay up. The flag is mounted on one side on the pole, and along the top by another pole that sticks out to the side. In a vacuum or not, when you whip around the vertical pole, the flag will “wave”, since it is attached at the top. The top will move first, then the cloth will follow along in a wave that moves down. This isn’t air that is moving the flag, it’s the cloth itself.
New stuff added March 1, 2001: Many HBs show a picture of an astronaut standing to one side of the flag, which still has a ripple in it (for example, see this famous image). The astronaut is not touching the flag, so how can it wave?
The answer is, it isn’t waving. It looks like that because of the way the flag was deployed. The flag hangs from a horizontal rod which telescopes out from the vertical one. In Apollo 11, they couldn’t get the rod to extend completely, so the flag didn’t get stretched fully. It has a ripple in it, like a curtain that is not fully closed. In later flights, the astronauts didn’t fully deploy it on purpose because they liked the way it looked. In other words, the flag looks like it is waving because the astronauts wanted it to look that way. Ironically, they did their job too well. It appears to have fooled a lot of people into thinking it waved.
This explanation comes from NASA’s wonderful spaceflight web page. For those of you who are conspiracy minded, of course, this doesn’t help because it comes from a NASA site. But it does explain why the flag looks as it does, and you will be hard pressed to find a video of the flag waving. And if it was a mistake caused by a breeze on the set where they faked this whole thing, don’t you think the director would have tried for a second take? With all the money going to the hoax, they could afford the film!
Next Generation Science Standards: Science & Engineering Practices
● Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
● Ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.
● Ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables.
● Ask questions to clarify and refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.
● Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable and relevant.
● Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.
● Ask and/or evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of the design
A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012)
Implementation: Curriculum, Instruction, Teacher Development, and Assessment: “Through discussion and reflection, students can come to realize that scientific inquiry embodies a set of values. These values include respect for the importance of logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, and a requirement for transparent research procedures and honest reporting of findings.”