The men, the myths, the landing of Apollo 11 a quarter-century later

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Think you know it all about the moon walk? Guess again.

Twenty-five years ago today, man set off for the moon, beginning a week of unparalleled space mania. So spectacular was the hoopla surrounding the mission that almost every detail became embedded in America's collective memory.

Almost, but not all. Did you know that we almost didn't get to watch the mission on live television? Did you know what happened to all the moon rocks? And did you know you may not know the whole story?

Bad as the television pictures from the moon may have been -- the camera that recorded those first steps was immobile, the photography was black and white and the images were not all that clear -- things could have been a lot worse.

For until a few months before the flight, there were no plans to have live television coverage of the landing at all. The scientists working on the moon walk project saw no need for it.

"I think they were looking at it strictly from an operational point of view," says Christopher Kraft, flight director at the time of Apollo 11. "It didn't help them make a decision and it was something else to have to account for in the spacecraft."

Mr. Kraft, who was one of the final arbiters when it came to the mission, says he was dumbfounded by their resistance to

television -- and their belief that the rest of NASA agreed with them.

He remembers Ed Fendel, who would later earn the nickname "Captain Video" for his remote-control handling of cameras on the moon, speaking against live coverage during a planning meeting.

"I asked him, 'Who are you speaking for?' and he said, 'Operations,' " recalls Mr. Kraft, who now works as a consultant and still lives in the Houston area. "I said, 'Like hell you are, because I'm Operations.' "

"I don't remember there being any controversy over whether or not there would be a camera," says Jim McDivitt, who commanded Apollo 9 and became Apollo program manager three flights later. Still, he can understand why scientists did not embrace the idea.

"There was a tremendous concern about weight" on the lunar module, says Mr. McDivitt, now a senior vice president for Rockwell International. "We weren't going to the moon to land a camera on the moon, we were going to the moon to land a man and bring him safely back to Earth."

With characteristic bluntness, Mr. Kraft refers to the arguments against live television -- it had no scientific relevance, it was extra weight the lunar excursion module could do without, the astronauts could simply bring pictures back with them -- as "ludicrous."

And since both he and Apollo Program Manager George Low were firm believers in live TV, it's not hard to figure how this dispute ended.

"I told them to go ahead and figure out how we can take the television camera] along," says Mr. Kraft, who recalls making the decision in March, roughly four months before the flight.

But couldn't NASA have done something to send a better picture back to Earth?

Eberhardt Rechtin, a professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Southern California, worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in designing communications systems for Apollo. He says the space agency could have had color pictures of the moon landing, if only the decision had been made earlier.

"The argument went on for so long that by the time they got there, all they could do, at least reasonably easily, was black and white," says Dr. Rechtin, who agrees that forgoing live coverage would have been a colossal blunder.

Without TV, "the emotional involvement of all the people in the world, and particularly the Americans, would not have been there at all," he says.

Mr. Kraft says NASA went with the best system available; he doesn't remember a color camera that would have worked properly on the moon.

Mr. McDivitt, noting there were plenty of live color TV pictures broadcast from the moon after Apollo 11, concedes the camera used for that first landing wasn't much.

"It was not a very good television camera by today's standards," the former astronaut says from his office in Northern Virginia. "I'm sure there was a lot of technology we could have waited around for. It was good enough to do the mission, but probably not the best technology the world ever saw."

True enough. But at the time, no one really noticed. For the pictures it sent back were unlike anything the world had ever seen.

Speech and stones

What was the first thing Neil Armstrong did when he set foot on the moon? Well, the first thing he did was botch a mini-speech he'd been working on for days (he later admitted he meant to say, "That's one small step for a man."). But after that, he scooped up a few rocks and stuck them in a pocket on the left leg of his spacesuit.

For beyond ensuring the astronauts' safety, the most important goal of the Apollo 11 mission was bringing back moon rocks. Which they did -- roughly 47.4 pounds worth.

So where are they now?

Not -- curiously enough -- at the Smithsonian Institution, which has moon rocks on display, but none from Apollo 11, says James Gooding, NASA's lunar sample curator since 1992.

In fact, just under 41.3 pounds are still in NASA's possession, locked away in safes. Sale to the public is forbidden, but a few slivers (just under .04 pounds), encased in plastic bubbles, were given as gifts to world leaders in the early 1970s.

Although fears vanished long ago that the lunar rocks might unleash harmful moon germs on our unsuspecting planet, the space agency takes its otherworldly souvenirs seriously.

"These things are a national treasure," Mr. Gooding says, "and NASA has the stewardship of that treasure."

Just over 2.3 pounds, including those tiny slivers, are scattered throughout the world. Some have been given to research scientists. Three pieces are on display: one at the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio; another at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Discovery Center in Hutchinson, Kan., and a third at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.

Scientific research so far has led to the destruction of 3.8 pounds of Apollo 11 rocks. Some were ground up and fed to animals to see if they came down with any sort of lunar plague (they didn't). Some were dissolved in acid, as scientists tried to figure out their composition. The Sea of Tranquillity, where Apollo 11 landed, turned out to be "a large lava pond," Mr. Gooding

says, filled with rocks whose closest Earth cousins are volcanic rocks found in the ocean (about 90 percent of the materials found in moon rocks can also be found on Earth, he says).

And, Mr. Gooding says, some of the rocks were ground up and used as soil for growing plants, which did quite well, since planting them in lunar soil was essentially the same as planting them in virgin Earth soil.

None of the Apollo 11 rocks can be touched. People who desire close personal contact with a piece of the moon need to visit one of three places: the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, or the visitor center of the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston.

Those three rocks, however, were collected by the Apollo 17 astronauts.

The landing that wasn't?

Here's something very few people know about that first moon landing:

It never happened.

The whole thing was performed on a sound stage, probably in a Nevada desert. Horrified that so many billions of dollars had been spent on a goal -- landing a man on the moon -- that could never be attained, NASA arranged an elaborate hoax that an unquestioning public has bought hook, line and sinker.

At least that's the conclusion of some space conspiracy theorists, who've been championing their cause almost from the moment Apollo touched down on the moon. Their number is impossible to guess, since most keep quiet for fear of government retaliation. But their most vocal spokesman is Bill Kaysing, a free-lance author and former technical writer for Rocketdyne, an aeronautical and space manufacturing firm.

Mr. Kaysing, who lives in California, has spent 20 years documenting his claims, scouring pictures and poring over documents concerning every aspect of the space program. Although he's continually turning up new evidence, the crux of his argument is contained in "We Never Went to the Moon," first published in 1975 and updated in 1981.

"There's a lot of hanky-panky that's gone on," says Mr. Kaysing, 71, who believes the plot was cooked up by NASA officials shortly after an electrical fire killed three astronauts during a dress rehearsal for Apollo 1.

"They continually said they could do things that they didn't do and achieve things that they couldn't do," Mr. Kaysing says. "By the time they burned to death the three astronauts in '67, I think most of the people at the top were convinced that we couldn't go."

According to his theory, what actually happened in July 1969 is outlined in "We Never Went to The Moon." Twenty minutes before Apollo 11 took off, the astronauts were whisked out a side door. The Saturn V rocket -- now unmanned -- lifted off as scheduled, but went into Earth orbit. It eventually was jettisoned into the South Polar Sea.

Astronauts just partied

Meanwhile, the astronauts were taken to a massive sound stage near Las Vegas and housed in a building complete with every conceivable luxury, "including some of the shapeliest showgirls from Las Vegas."

At the end of their "mission," the astronauts were dropped into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, where a duped American populace saw them get picked up and placed in quarantine -- not, as reported, to prevent the spread of any moon germs, but to ensure they were psychologically fit to spend the rest of their lives acting out the elaborate ruse that had them "walking" on the moon.

Mr. Kaysing says this is what happened, and he speaks of the lunar hoax not like a man possessed, but simply a man convinced. As proof, he notes none of the pictures taken on the moon show stars in the background, that the lunar excursion module seems to have landed on the moon's surface without noticeably disturbing it and that shadows and lights appear in Apollo 11 photographs that cannot be explained -- unless one realizes the photos are actually of a movie set, with banks of lights scattered around.

(Eileen Hawley, a public affairs specialist for the Johnson Space Center, explains that stars are not visible because of the vast amount of light reflected off the lunar surface and says the module did sink into the moon's surface several inches -- as can be seen on photographs. As for the inexplicable shadows and lights, she says NASA researchers would have to examine a particular photograph before any comment).

Any exterior shots of the moon's surface, Mr. Kaysing says, were made at Area 51, an ultra-secret defense department facility in western Nevada, near the town of Mercury.

Mr. Kaysing says he sees cracks in the space program's facade. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin's well-publicized nervous breakdown during the 1970s, he says, was the result of a guilty conscience. And Neil Armstrong has become a virtual recluse since walking on the moon not because he craves privacy, but because he's afraid someone will record his voice and subject it to "psychological stress" tests that would prove he's lying about Apollo 11.

And Mr. Kaysing is not the only person convinced man has yet to set foot on the moon. One man suggests the color photographs "brought back" from the moon are really doctored stills from the color version of a 1950 movie called "Destination Moon."

What an absurd idea!

And then there's the Flat Earth Society, whose president, Charles K. Johnson, scoffs at the notion that man has set foot on another world.

"As far as I've been able to determine, no man has ever been to the moon," he says from his home in California. "The very idea is too absurd to be believed."

Mr. Johnson says the society, whose name comes from its denial that the Earth is round, includes 3,500 members. He says the whole idea of space exploration is a hoax started by Nikita Khrushchev. What better way, the former Soviet leader thought, to disprove the existence of God than by showing the Earth is but a tiny speck in a vast universe?

"[President John] Kennedy decided to get in on the act, too," Mr. Johnson says. "It was kind of a joke between them."

For the real story of the "lunar landing," Mr. Johnson suggests watching "Capricorn One," a 1978 movie starring James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson as astronauts forced to abandon their Mars mission at the last moment -- only to find that NASA intends to hide the truth from the American public.

In a scenario similar to that described in Mr. Kaysing's book, the astronauts are taken to a remote desert outpost, where they enact the landing on a sound stage.

"It was Jack Warner's greatest contribution," Mr. Johnson says of the former head of Warner Bros. Studios. "He exposed the fact that the space program was a total lie."

That comes as news to Peter Hyams, who wrote and directed "Capricorn One." Yes, he says, the film was released by Warner Bros., but Jack Warner had left the studio by then.

Besides, he notes, "Capricorn One" is a work of fiction -- born of the distrust many Americans felt of their government after the Watergate scandal. That, combined with his realization of how easy it could be to manipulate what is shown on TV, led him to write the screenplay.

"To me, [the movie] had nothing to do with space travel," says Mr. Hyams, a successful director of action films. "It had to do with our blind faith in this tube, the television set. I was kind of flabbergasted when suddenly [the movie] became this lightning rod for crackpots."

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