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NVIDIA Takes On Apollo 11 Moon Landing Deniers–With Technology

Three prominent moon-landing conspiracy theories are debunked using the latest in dynamic-lighting technology.

In 2002, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, punched Bart Sibrel in the face. Why? According to a Gallup poll from 1999, some 6% of Americans still believed then that the government faked the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969–and Sibrel is one of the more vocal among them. If you search YouTube for moon-landing conspiracy videos today, it’s apparent there are still people like him who believe Aldrin and Neil Armstrong never left planet Earth.

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For all those Coast To Coast AM listeners who think the government staged the moon landing, graphics card maker NVIDIA wants to set the record straight. On Thursday, the Santa Clara, California, company launched two new graphics cards, the GeForce GTX 980 and GTX 970. To show off their ability to render real-time dynamic lighting (what it calls Voxel Global Illumination), NVIDIA used this technology to re-create a model of that historic landing and debunk three prominent conspiracy theories around it.

“We talked to a lot of experts in the field to re-create what happened on the moon that day,” GeForce general manager Scott Herkelman told Fast Company. “We re-created perfectly what they made and how the reflection would look off the suits, duct tape, aluminum foil.”

In the above video from NASA, Aldrin descends from Apollo 11 around the 20-second mark. Conspiracy theorists often point out three problems with the footage:

  1. Given the position of the sun behind Apollo 11, why can we see details that otherwise would be obscured by shadow?
  2. Why can’t we see any stars in the background?
  3. What’s the strange bright light seen between the ladder and the vehicle?

Debunking Theory No. 1

Fine silt on the moon’s surface reflects light onto objects that would otherwise be obscured by shadow.Image: NVIDIA

The conspiracy theorists who question why the footage isn’t obscured by darkness don’t take into account how light from the sun interacts with the moon’s surface. The fine lunar dust covering the moon has mirror-like properties, reflecting the sun and illuminating objects on the surface. “The sun is hitting the dust, and it’s illuminating the backside of the Apollo module and astronaut,” says Herkelman.

Debunking Theory No. 2

We can see the Earth, but not the stars because of the camera’s aperture.Image: NVIDIA

According to experts, some 84,000 stars would’ve been visible from the moon that evening, so why can’t we see any when looking at historic videos and photos? “This one is easier than the other two,” says Herkelman. “When they went to take the picture, the camera they used had a closed aperture.” Doing so allowed viewers back home to see the astronauts and spacecraft clearly. In a simulation, Herkelman opened up the aperture, which gave a clear view of the stars but produced a blown-out image of the moon and the objects on its surface.

Debunking Theory No. 3

Is that brightness a studio light or Buzz Aldrin?Image: NVIDIA

Is that seemingly out-of-place light source a studio light that some amateur forgot to turn off? “We couldn’t quite figure out what’s going on, but then we remembered we needed to place Neil Armstrong. The second we put Neil Armstrong there, we figured out the light source,” says Herkelman. Furthermore, the astronauts wore ultra-reflective space suits to keep them cool inside. When Herkelman changed the perspective of the model, he is able to confirm Armstrong’s position.

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The view from another angle.Image: NVIDIA

This new information is unlikely to change the minds of die-hard moon landing deniers, but you’ve got to hand it to NVIDIA for coming up with a pretty neat way to show off the power of its graphics cards.

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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