Did NASA Fake Moon Photographs?

A Short Story

Okay, this doesn’t have much to do with travel but I thought I’d tell it anyway.

Short Answer • Yes and No

Back when I was a much younger man I worked in photographic science for a company that engineered specialized photographic equipment. I was a field engineer and dealt with systems in medicine, aerial imagery and even the space program.

I worked closely with our companies head salesman Gene, who had been with the company since its beginning. He had developed friendships with a lot of senior people in the industry, many of them in government. One of his favorite customers was NASA and the headquarters of NASA’s photographic operation was at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. The head of the “still photography” section was a fantastic gentleman named Ludy Benjamin and the three of us spent some time working on photographic problems with a bit of drinking and good eating on the side. I really liked Ludy and he had a close relationship with all the programs astronauts.

One of Ludy’s jobs was to teach astronauts how to use cameras and the mistakes astronauts made were a constant source of frustration and a fair amount of humor. One example was Apollo 8 where Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to witness and photograph an Earthrise as they came around from the back of the moon. Their mission was the first to leave Earth orbit and travel to the moon, orbit the moon and return to Earth. Upon their return Ludy discovered that they had put the colored filters that were to be used on the black and white cameras on the color film cameras. The joke became “what color is the moon?” as the developed film showed it was bright red, or at times blue or sometimes green. How about green cheese?

After Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin walking on the moon, taking lots of beautiful photographs, NASA management came to Ludy with a PR problem. There were pictures of the Lunar lander, the astronauts, the flag and many showed one or two of those elements, but none showed all three. NASA really wanted an iconic image showing an astronaut, the American flag and the Lunar Lander.

This was 1969, no fancy graphic computers, no Photoshop or CGI systems and nobody thought they were going to create the seed of a conspiracy. Ludy’s lab, using multiple exposures, masks and a little creativity added the American flag between “Buzz” Aldrin and the Lunar Lander in one photograph. Hell they even had the Sunlight direction right but the flag and pole wasn’t casting a shadow.

As I recollect it was a couple of years before anyone commented on the missing shadow. The first conspiracy nuts were more concerned about why there weren’t any stars in the lunar sky showing in those photos. As far as I am aware there is only that one slightly faked photo from the American moon landings.

The Apollo 13 Photo

A year later Apollo 13 headed off to the third moon landing and everyone knows that story. The Service Module exploded early in the mission and it was a tribute to engineering and human skill that got them home safe.

As the Apollo capsule was approaching re-entry the astronauts had a photographic assignment – take pictures of the damaged Service Module after the separation. They only had a couple of minutes to point a camera out a porthole and photograph the damage to provide NASA some idea as to what had happened. Grabbing a Hasselblad camera Jim Lovell pointed it at the Service Module and clicked off a couple of shots.

Unfortunately the camera he grabbed had a wide angle lens attached and the resulting negative only showed a tiny black dot on a clear piece of film. Ludy sent one of the negatives to our lab to see if we could get a usable photograph out of it. We were eager to try, considering the significance of the negative but after a week in the lab we hadn’t produced anything usable.

The Writing On The Wall

A month later Ludy sent us a photographic print produced by the computer lab at a facility named The Jet Propulsion Laboratory out in California. It was a remarkable image and we wanted to ask how it was created. A few months later I talked with one of their people and he explained how they had “digitized” the image and had a computer compare it to a photograph of an undamaged Service Module. By comparing shadows and shapes the computer painted an image of the damaged module. That was the first indication I had that maybe I needed to look into computers and digital imaging but it was far from the last.

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