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The Webfooted Astronomer - February 2002


SAS Banquet: A "Bad" Time Was Had by All

By Greg Donohue

WE had a really bad time at this year’s banquet…. But that’s a good thing, because our speaker wasn’t Martha Stewart, but rather Dr. Phil Plait, a.k.a., the Bad Astronomer.

Dr. Plait has a Web site about bad astronomy called, appropriately enough, And he has authored a book titled “Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax.”

Since December 2000, Phil has been working at the Sonoma State University Department of Physics and Astronomy, doing Web-based public outreach for the GLAST satellite. Check out his auto-bio at

Phil gave a very interesting, informative, and humorous presentation debunking the Fox TV network program called “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?”, hosted by Mitch Pileggi (the actor who plays Assistant Director Walter S. Skinner in Fox’s “The X-Files”). Phil points out that although Mitch is bald and wears glasses, he is considered a sex symbol. For those not at the banquet, it is probably worth noting that Phil is also balding and wears glasses.

Phil is a real astronomer, and has worked at such places as GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center). But he is quick to point out that he is not a direct NASA employee, and speaks strictly for himself (and maybe for many of the rest of us who deplore “fuzzy thinking” in astronomy, or anywhere else for that matter). However, at least one of his detractors (someone whose work Phil has “called into question”), has referred to him as a “NASA shill.” The Fox show used sensationalism, fuzzy thinking, and omission of key facts to try and convince people that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax, staged by NASA on a set (perhaps in Nevada at Area 51).

The show opens by dramatically pointing out that footage from the movie “Capricorn One” (about NASA faking a landing on Mars) is strikingly similar to footage from the Apollo Moon landings! But the show fails to remind the audience that “Capricorn One” was filmed in 1978-nearly a decade after the first manned landing on the Moon! No great mystery here: scenes in the movie were made to look like the Apollo footage, not vice versa! You might recall that O.J. Simpson starred in “Capricorn One.” Sadly, some of the “Moon Hoax” true believers think that O.J. knew that the Apollo landings were a hoax, and that NASA set him up with a double murder to discredit and silence him! Fox’s “Conspiracy Theory” program then goes on to point out what many “Moon Hoax” proponents believe to be their most potent evidence: in photos and TV pictures from the Apollo landings, no stars appear in the Moon’s pitch black sky! Most anyone with any knowledge of photography can debunk this damning evidence quickly enough. It is simply a matter of contrast. On the Moon, the sky is always black, because the Moon has no atmosphere to scatter sunlight. But the Sun is shining in all the Apollo camera shots, so that the astronauts, spacecraft, and even the lunar surface itself are all brightly lit. In order not to overexpose the scenes on the Moon, the cameras had to be set for fast exposure times and small apertures. With these settings, the stars are simply too dim to show up.

If you took a picture of someone here on Earth under similar conditions (subject brightly lit under dark night skies) using those same settings, background stars would not appear in those pictures either. But just suppose that NASA really did spend $30 billion to stage a series of fake Moon landings. Does anyone think they would overlook a simple detail like adding stars to the pictures?

“But wait!” say some hoax believers (which Phil dubs “HBs”). “There are stars in some Apollo photos, such as the famous picture showing damage to the Apollo 13 service module.” But the “stars” in this case are nothing more than dust on the picture. Either that, or there are stars inside the service module’s rocket nozzles as well.

Another major contention of the HBs is that if the Sun is the only source of light at the Apollo landing sites, then all of the shadows should be perfectly parallel. But shadows in the actual Apollo pictures are clearly not parallel.

Again, the implication is that these pictures were taken on some secret movie set with multiple spotlights lighting up the area. But if this were the case, then each object would cast multiple shadows. But this is never the case in the Apollo images.

So, what’s the deal? Shadows cast by objects in sunlight do not appear parallel. But it’s just not something that many of us normally look at too closely (and which those of us living in the oft-overcast Puget Sound area don’t have many opportunities to test by observation). When we view shadows cast by objects in sunlight, we pick up many other visual cues. But in photographs, the shadows appear to be non-parallel. (In fact, if extended far enough, they would seem to converge at the so-called “vanishing point”, much as the parallel rails on a train track appear to converge in the distance).

The good doctor Phil debunked many other aspects of the Fox program, but there is not enough space to do his presentation justice. If you are interested in learning more, please visit his Web site for all the details. The fix is in (again)?

After Dr. Plait’s excellent presentation, it was time once again for the long-awaited door prize giveaways. With two-dozen door prizes from a number of generous sponsors, the odds of winning were pretty good. As you may recall, last year’s door prize ceremony was tainted by scandal, when the then club president, Randy Johnson, walked away with the grand prize!

This year’s president, Mary Ingersoll, went to great pains to eliminate any appearance of impropriety, by choosing a young girl from the audience to pick the winning tickets from the hat. But alas, this appeared to be just an elaborate cover-up to yet another corrupt administration scheme, since the very first ticket drawn belonged to none other than Mary herself! And the ploy really began to unravel when the seemingly innocent young lady picked winning tickets for not only herself, but also for both of her parents! Four other club officials also won door prizes during the drawing, so who knows how far this scandal will eventually reach? (By the way, your club secretary, who is writing this article, would like to point out that he is untouched by these scandals, having come away empty-handed both this year and last. Sour grapes reporting? You be the judge!)

But despite the dark cloud surrounding the door prizes, this year’s banquet was another smashing success, and a truly good time with the bad astronomer was had by all. Hope to see you there next year!

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