Apollo 11: Fact and Fiction
Forty-five years ago today, the tiny lunar module “Eagle” set down gently—too gently, actually—on the surface of the Moon, and mankind has never been the same since. We now live in a world in which man has walked on another world. After four decades, we have yet to come to terms with the magnitude of that event. It should be no surprise that the Apollo 11 mission is riddled with misconceptions, myths, fabrications, and conspiracy theories. So let’s set the record straight as to the fact and fiction of Apollo 11.
Late in the Apollo 11 Moonwalk, Mission Control was puzzled by an enigmatic statement by Neil Armstrong: “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky.” Confused by the Russian-sounding name, they assumed Armstrong was referring to a Russian cosmonaut—but there was no Cosmonaut Gorsky. Many years later, someone cornered Armstrong at a party and asked about his strange quote. Armstrong hesitated, but finally said, “Well, he’s dead now, so I guess it’s okay to tell you.” Mr. Gorsky had been Armstrong’s neighbor when he was just a boy in Wapakoneta, Ohio. One day he was playing baseball with his friends when the ball went into Gorsky’s yard. Armstrong went to retrieve it, and as he picked the ball up he heard a woman’s voice issuing from the window above: “Oral sex?! I’ll give you oral sex the day the kid next door walks on the Moon!”
A funny story. Unfortunately, there is not one lick of truth to it. Neil Armstrong had no neighbor named Mr. Gorsky, nor is the phrase “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky” spoken at any time in the air-to-ground transmissions from Apollo 11. Yet the story has been told so many times it’s widely accepted as truth—in fact the quote appears in the 2009 movie Watchmen. So where did the Gorsky story come from? Actually it was just a joke originally told by Buddy Hackett.
But that is far from the only myth about the Apollo 11 Moonlanding. Another is that Neil Armstrong converted to Islam when he heard the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer, while on the Moon. There is no truth to this. Armstrong was fairly secretive about his religious beliefs, but was clear on the matter that he never converted to Islam.
More extreme are allegations that an alien spacecraft followed Apollo 11 to the Moon, and even that Armstrong and Aldrin (as well as astronauts on subsequent Moon landing missions) discovered ancient alien artifacts on the Moon which the United States government has covered up. Obviously that can’t be true, since the television downlink, was live and therefore couldn’t have been doctored, shows nothing resembling alien structures, and the air-to-ground transmissions, which contain the full two and a half hours of the Moonwalk, say nothing about such a discovery.
But the story of the alien spacecraft has its origins in something that really did happen. An unidentified object was spotted out the window of the Command Module, flashing brilliantly at regular intervals. Armstrong contacted Houston and asked for the present location of the S-IV-B (the discarded upper stage of the Saturn V rocket), and was told that it was six thousand nautical miles away—too far to be the object being observed.
But few experts believe there is any real mystery to the unidentified object. Given its location and the fact that it was flashing at regular intervals, it is almost universally agreed that the object was one of the four adapter panels that had been jettisoned from the S-IV-B. Those panels had no transponders, and therefore could not be tracked from the ground, and since they opened up like flower petals as they were jettisoned, they were thrown into a tumble as they moved away. In all likelihood, one of the panels was tumbling near the Command Module, flashing reflected sunlight toward the spacecraft as it rotated.
One of the more widespread conspiracy theories is that Apollo 11 and all of the other Moonlandings never happened at all—that it was a hoax perpetrated by the government and filmed on a soundstage in—where else?—Area 51. It’s understandable that there might have been doubts in some people’s mind at the sight of the Moonwalk on television—the astronauts do appear to be semitransparent, as if double-exposed onto a prearranged, stationary setting. The reason for this is simple; the television camera was a primitive and experimental design, and its motion capture capability was very poor. Whenever Armstrong or Aldrin moved, whatever was behind them lingered for a while, making the astronaut appear ghostly.
Yet the notion that the mission was faked persisted—fueled, no doubt, by the failure of the television camera on Apollo 12, which prompted some news networks to air obviously fake lunar footage and pass it off as the real thing, and the movie Capricorn One about a faked mission to Mars, which some saw as an exposé. But the hoax theory reached its apex in 2001 when Fox aired a faux documentary that alleged that not only Apollo 11, but all the Moon landings, had been faked. Their “evidence” was a mishmash of bad science, misinterpretation of photographic anomalies, and outright lies (no stars in the photos, shadows supposedly pointing the wrong way, the “deadly radiation” of the Van Allen Belts, the flag appearing to wave in the wind, and so on), but it was convincing enough to persuade many people who lacked the knowledge base to understand space flight, science, and the Apollo program. Unfortunately this conspiracy theory has become so widespread that even the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s photos of the Apollo landing sites failed to convince many.
Perhaps the most powerful evidence stems from NASA’s current status. With all its advanced technology today, the United States can’t even put its own astronauts in space, so doubts about the Apollo program will probably linger in the minds of lay people until humans finally return to the Moon. Which, sadly, does not seem to be a priority with the current administration.
However, the fact is the Moon landings—all six of them—were real. Nations around the world—including the former Soviet Union—tracked them, they returned with hundreds of pounds of Moon rocks which continue to yield valuable information about our celestial neighbor to this day, the Laser Ranging Retroreflectors (LRRR) left by the Apollo astronauts on the Moon are still used today, the spacecraft’s burns at the Moon were observed and photographed by amateur astronomers, the LRO has photographed the landing sites with the Apollo artifacts and footprints still there, and for all their efforts the conspiracy theorists have yet to produce the slightest evidence of a massive cover-up or fakery.
Yet all this only scratches the surface of the myths surrounding Apollo 11. Thanks in part to the high-profile 1996 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, it’s widely believed that Neil Armstrong was chosen to get out of the Eagle first instead of Buzz Aldrin because of the way the hatch opened. In fact this was NASA’s official story, but the truth was a little more personal. NASA officials didn’t care for Aldrin’s attitude—he had, in fact, made a lot of noise about how spaceflight precedent indicated that he, rather than Armstrong, should be first out. Armstrong was perceived as quiet, resolute, decisive, and heroic—indeed, his quick thinking and calm action had saved Gemini 8 in 1965 from almost certain disaster when it entered an uncontrolled tumble.
In fact, some have speculated that it was his heroic action on Gemini 8 that caused NASA to choose Armstrong to command the first Moon landing. That is false. Armstrong was chosen to command Apollo 11 long before it was known that Apollo 11 would be the first Moon landing mission. The Apollo missions were to fly lettered missions, each to accomplish a particular goal—for instance, the A mission was an unmanned flight of the Saturn V. The B mission was an unmanned flight of the lunar module. The C mission was a manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft. And so on. The G mission was the first Moon landing. Should any of the Apollo missions fail, the next mission would take over. For example, Apollo 13 was a failed H mission. Since the H mission was unsuccessful, Apollo 14 took up and flew its mission.
At the time the crews were selected for the Apollo missions, it was unknown how many missions would fail. Apollo 11 might have ended up flying an F mission, testing the lunar module in Earth orbit. Or it may have been an H mission, following in the success of the first successful Moon landing. It was the success of previous Apollo missions that landed Neil Armstrong in the driver’s seat of the first successful Moon landing.
Armstrong is widely considered the right choice to command Apollo 11, and he probably was. He handled himself well, taking the right actions at the right times and keeping calm even as things went wrong. For as mundane and routine as the air-to-ground transmissions may sound to the layman, the first Moon landing was a hair-raising experience. As soon as the Eagle separated from the Command Module Columbia, the thrusters began to oscillate wildly.
Then contact with Mission Control was lost and had to be routed through the Columbia. Because of unexpected air pressure in the airlock at the time the spacecraft separated, Eagle was moving too fast and was going to miss the landing site. The alarm screeched that the computer was overloaded with data. Armstrong had to switch to manual control to avoid landing in a perilous field of boulders. By the time he found the famous flat plain where he made history, he was running low on fuel.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Eagle actually landed too softly. As soon as the probe on its footpad touched the lunar surface, Armstrong was supposed to cut the engine and let the ship fall the remaining five feet. But he was so intent on flying the lunar module that he didn’t hear Aldrin call “Contact light!”, and he continued to fire the engine until the footpads touched the surface. As a result the shock absorbers didn’t crush and the ladder was much higher above the surface than intended.
None of that is to say Armstrong didn’t do an extraordinary job, but it should be known that Apollo 11, though a resounding success, was a bumpy ride—and even Neil Armstrong was not perfect.
But after forty-five years, the legend of Apollo 11 will likely remain as real in people’s minds as the reality—as it does with any historical event—and it will be interesting to see how the story is told in another forty-five years.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.