Random thoughts, 17 July 2009

2009/07/17

Only two major thoughts at the moment, so today’s post will be brief; I trust nobody will mind. If you do, well, too bad! It’s my blog, so I can do whatever I want with it!

First, a pair of commentaries on CNN posit the theory that the Republican Party is not quite dead yet. [1][2] I may have mentioned before that the assertion of the GOP’s imminent death confuses me to some extent; party politics in our Republic tends to fluctuate in waves, i.e., one party gains dominance then diminishes as the opposing party gains favor, and so on and so forth. Granted, there have been relatively few times that a single political party has held as commanding a majority as the Democrats now enjoy, but this, by no means, proves that we have moved over to a one-party system and that the opposing party is no longer relevant. I have also occasionally heard assertions that conservatism itself is dead, relying, again, on the current popularity of the Democrats as proof of the same. Again, it is relevant to point out (as many others have) that many of the GOP politicians over both of Bush II’s terms were not really political conservatives; they were social conservatives, but these two ideologies are not at all one and the same. In fact, it would be fair to say that there is no “natural” connection between the two, apart from the fact that social conservatives hijacked the GOP for their own purposes in the past decade; one can, in fact, very easily be a political conservative while supporting socially liberal ideals – consider, for example, libertarianism (not necessarily the Party, as I don’t much care for their take on libertarian notions), which supports exactly this sort of “hybrid” view of Fedgov. Indeed, when one considers such issues as national defense, regulation of interstate commerce, and the host of other responsibilities explicitly granted to Congress by the Constitution, [3] one can quickly see that socially-relevant issues generally do not fit within the scope of these enumerated powers, e.g., the authority to “defend” marriage is nowhere listed in the Constitution – for any of the three branches of Fedgov. Personally, I believe that it is quite clear that the GOP’s status as “defenders” of socially conservative values is, at best, a non-winning strategy; given that they have historically had more success by pursuing an agenda of politically conservative values, i.e., smaller government, lower taxes, less government spending, etc., I hope that they return to this sort of goal. Or, if they refuse to let go of the social agenda, that another party steps in to take up the mantle of political conservatism once more. Ironically, Fedgov seems to be most effective when it is not run by a single party; perhaps the constant negotiations have a positive effect on the policies that (eventually) are enacted? I suspect one could find examples of this in the history of our Republic, but then again, who pays attention to history anymore?

Meanwhile, it appears that the number of people who believe that NASA faked the Apollo landings is growing. [4] In many ways, this is quite sad; I may be a cynic and a pessimist, but I accept the notion that NASA did, indeed, land a handful of people on the Moon. One of the issues here, of course, is that after landing on the Moon, many at the time had taken for granted the notion that we would eventually establish a semi-permanent (if not outright permanent) presence on the Moon, or, at the very least, in orbit via space stations. Of course, we did not do this, [5] and much of the lead we developed over the Soviets during the Apollo Program vanished afterwards, as the Soviet Union did establish a permanent presence in orbit (though they never got to the Moon). This, of course, is no reason to doubt that the Moon landings took place, but of course, as we become further removed from the events themselves, it is easier to argue in favor of the hoax than it is the historical event. That said, there are two issues in particular about which I will make some comments. First, as to the charge that NASA did not have the technology to send the astronauts to the Moon, conspiracy theorists would be well advised to keep in mind that the Apollo Program was the culmination of more than a decade of linear development in both rocket technology, as well as spacecraft design. Unless one is willing to deny the very existence of the various American rocketry programs over the course of decades, it would be difficult to assert that we did not possess the technology. [6] Another point mentioned in the CNN article is that the Lunar Lander did not leave a blast crater beneath its descent engine; perhaps, it would be pertinent to point out that gravity on the Moon is roughly 1/6th of Earth-standard gravity. Given this fact and the fact that the descent engine would have been calibrated to this gravity, and not that of Earth, this argument does not appear to hold much weight (pun sorta intended).

It has also been argued that the photographs taken on the Lunar surface were staged, faked, or otherwise doctored, since there are “inconsistencies” in the resulting photos NASA has presented as genuine articles. Since photography is a topic about which I feel well qualified to comment, here are some of the arguments in support of the hoax, and my rebuttals (in italics) [7]:

  • Shadows in this photo are the result of multiple light sources, as there should be only light source on the Moon (the Sun). According to the Lunar and Planetary Institute, the cameras used by the Apollo astronauts on the Lunar surface were specially modified Hasselblad EL cameras that used a 60mm Biogon lens exclusively. [8] In medium format photography, a focal length of 60mm is roughly equivalent to a 35mm wide-angle lens for a 135 camera; [9] as such, even though the Zeiss Biogon lenses are designed to very exacting standards, the resulting photos will exhibit some distortion, due to the different perspective the wide-angle lens offers. In the industry, this distortion is known as perspective distortion; [10] even the best lenses may still exhibit some form of distortion, especially when said lenses are non-normal lenses.
  • The astronaut in this photo should not be visible, since he is in direct shadow from the Lunar Lander. Such a claim fails to take into account the fact that the Lunar surface itself is relatively reflective (see, for example, the exposed Lunar surface behind the Lander, which appears mostly white); in traditional photography, reflectors are often used to help illuminate shaded (or otherwise dark) subjects where direct light would be impractical, undesirable, etc., and where metering for the subject (as opposed to the scene around him) would cause the rest of the scene to be greatly overexposed. In this case, the astronauts benefitted from a natural reflector, in the form of the Lunar soil.
  • The appearance of “printing” on some of the Lunar environment in this photo indicates that they are props, and that the entire scene was staged. As the Guardian itself points out, and as any photographer who has worked with film and photographic papers will know, dust, hair, and other tiny debris has a tendency to show up at the worst possible times, and even a relatively small piece of dust can appear quite large (and possibly even “deliberate”) once a negative is enlarged to print size. One could argue, of course, that the NASA photographers should have been more careful in their presentation images, but this can also undercut the argument that the entire Apollo Program was a huge publicity stunt – with so much riding on the documentation of the “event” (such as the photographs), would not the marketing department want absolutely pristine photographs to publish? If NASA itself also were not hard at work doing other things (you know, like launching massive rockets into space), would they not have ample time to ensure that a random grain of dust (or a rock with PRINTING on it) didn’t appear in their final photographs to arouse suspicion?
  • And, perhaps, my favorite: why are there no stars in this photo? Isn’t space full of stars? As with the second point above, given that the surface of the Moon is highly reflective (among other things, there is no atmosphere on the Moon to absorb any of the incoming light from the Sun, or the outgoing light once it reflects off the Lunar surface), shooting photos on or near the “day” side of the Moon is essentially like shooting with fast film at high noon; the contrast ratio between light and dark will so high that minute light sources (like those tiny stars in the sky behind the Earth and the Moon) will not even register on the final negative. Even if they (somehow) managed to show up on the negative, the stars could easily “disappear” in the printing process, as the photo in question was undoubtedly exposed for quite awhile; note that the Lunar surface does not appear white in the photo – basically, the entire photo could have been burned in the darkroom to achieve this effect, or the original negative was exposed in such a way that “white” of the Lunar surface was captured as a grey tone, instead. This implies a small aperture and a fast shutter speed, both of which are poor choices if one wants to also capture dim light sources in a high-contrast scene. Also keep in mind that a fast shutter speed would have been desirable for the Lunar astronauts, as they were not trained photographers; faster shutter speeds mean that the resulting photos will not suffer as much from a shaky grip than they otherwise would, if a slower speed were used. [11] And again, considering how bright the Lunar surface is, the cameras likely needed both the small aperture and fast shutter speed settings to capture reasonably exposed negatives.

Okay, this post ended up being quite a bit longer than I had originally thought it would. If anyone encounters other arguments in favor of the notion that the Apollo landings were hoaxes, and said arguments involve photographic topics, feel free to let me know. I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at explaining such matters, if possible (keep in mind, my knowledge of photography is finite, i.e. I don’t know everything).

Notes:

[1]: CNN commentary, Gloria Borger, 17 July 2009.

[2]: CNN commentary, John King, 17 July 2009.

[3]: See Article I, Section 8 of the Federal Constitution. Hell, read the entire document – its not that long (I read it on Independence Day, along with the Declaration of Independence). Who knows? You might actually, you know. Learn something in the process…

[4]: CNN article, 17 July 2009.

[5]: In all fairness, we did try with Skylab, which was done (sorta) on the cheap – it was designed to use existing components of the Apollo Program to the greatest extent possible, as opposed to being an entirely independent design. See here for some pertinent information regarding the program, and here for some information regarding other Apollo-derived proposals that were floated around the same time (Wikipedia articles).

[6]: In many ways, the Saturn V rockets could be seen as the culmination of technology originally developed by the Nazis during WWII; Wernher von Braun worked on both the Nazi V-2 rockets, as well as the Redstone rocket that first launched the Mercury astronauts, and later, the mammoth Saturn V itself. Unless one is willing to assert that none of this technology ever existed, as well, it would be difficult to argue that we could not make the leap from earlier rockets to the Saturn V. Also, I suspect that one would also have some difficulty in explaining how we achieved our current level of missile technology without the developments that took place during the early Cold War. Aliens, perhaps?

[7]: Note that many of these claims have already been debunked numerous times by others; I doubt I will add anything to the debate, other than to confirm other explanations, but I still feel it is worth mentioning, if for no other reason than to register my own take on the matter. The claims I reference are taken from a series posted by The Guardian newspaper; see here for the series itself (I won’t be commenting on all the photos, however).

[8]: See here for a brief description of the cameras used by the various Lunar missions, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute website.

[9]: If you’re interested in testing this out for yourself and own a point-and-shoot digital camera, set the lens to its widest setting (“panoramic”), and take a picture of some tall buildings, flagpoles, etc. – basically, any group of vertical objects that should (all things being equal) be straight vertical. Most point-and-shoot digital cameras us a 35mm (equivalent) lens as their wide-angle setting, and I would be willing to bet that the objects you shoot will appear to curve at the top and bottom, even though they are straight; again, this is a result of the lens itself, and not of the objects in question. While 35mm on a 135 camera is not particularly wide of a view, it is enough such that there will be a noticeable level of distortion in the resulting image, though not nearly as much as one might see with a 28mm or 20mm wide-angle lens.

[10]: See here for a description of perspective distortion (Wikipedia article).

[11]: And no, I don’t mean to impugn the abilities of the Apollo astronauts, but it is generally accepted that few people are capable of holding a camera steady at speeds slower than 1/60 sec. Obviously, this ability varies from person to person, but to leave as little margin for error as possible, it would have been sensible for the camera shutters to be pre-set to relatively fast speed, such as 1/125 sec. or 1/250 sec. (the Zeiss lenses used by the Hasselblad cameras can shoot as fast as 1/500 sec.).

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