Smoke and mirrors, or the real thing?

27th June 2008 at 01:00
Their mission was to boldly go where few primary children have gone before: their task, to answer one of the 20th century's most perplexing questions
Their mission was to boldly go where few primary children have gone before: their task, to answer one of the 20th century's most perplexing questions.

Did Neil Armstrong really make a "giant leap for mankind" while walking on the moon in 1969, or did he instead make a hoax hop for Hollywood in the Nevada desert?

It is a question that has spawned conspiracy theories and cast shadows over man's claim to have taken a stroll in the lunar landscape. Did astronauts leave footprints in the moon dust and plant a mysteriously flapping American flag in space?

Faced with such astronomical uncertainties, a group of 22 P6-7s from eight primaries set out last month to discover the truth. They were part of the Moon Landings Project, organised by West Dunbartonshire Council, the Scottish Network for Able Children and Martin Hendry, senior lecturer in physics and astronomy at Glasgow University.

The pupils were chosen because of their maths abilities, research skills and interest in space and science. They were given six weeks to investigate one, or more, of the "top 10" conspiracy theories surrounding the Apollo 11 mission 39 years ago. Help came in the form of PhD students and teacher mentors, the internet, and an array of unlikely tools, including marbles, Plasticine, cornflakes, Lego, and a cardboard box.

Rachel Gillan, 10, of St Mary's Primary, Duntocher, helped investigate the waving flag conspiracy. In archive footage, the United States flag appears to be moving, despite the lack of atmosphere, or wind, on the moon. Sceptics concluded that the whole thing was, therefore, an elaborate political hoax, exposed only because a breeze blew undetected across the Nevada film set.

Rachel's team used hairdryers and Scotland flags to demonstrate what the raising might have looked like, had it been filmed on Earth. She explained that the lunar flag flapped for about eight minutes, possibly caused by the vibrations of planting it in the surface. The lack of atmosphere meant there was no friction to slow it down, and once set in motion it continued. That did not happen with the flags on Earth, she said. "After looking at the evidence, I think they did go and the people who came up with conspiracies didn't think hard enough."

Gavinburn Primary also probed the flag conspiracy but used the internet to weigh up different scientific research. They had fun making a short animated film of their findings. Daniel Watson, 11, helped construct the Plasticine rocket and figures of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: "Mine's meant to be Buzz, but looks more like Elephant Man."

Chris Smith, deputy head of additional support needs within the council's network support team, said the point of the exercise was to "raise awareness in schools of children who might require additional challenges and show teachers the kind of things they can do".

Christie Park Primary, Alexandria, used sand (to represent earth) and flour (moon dust) to recreate the raised footprints seen in the moon landing photographs.

St Joseph's, Faifley, had Lego cars, a scrunched-up table cloth (the moon's surface) and a torch (the sun) to demonstrate that it is possible to get shadows pointing in different directions, even with only one light source (as happened in the lunar landing photos).

Aitkenbar Primary, Dumbarton, sought to explain why there are no stars in the photographs, despite the sky being dark. Their research revealed that Apollo 11 landed in the moon's equivalent of day time and the cameras were set to short exposure times. "The astronauts reported seeing no stars. The lunar sky appears dark because there is no atmosphere to scatter the sunlight," said Ruaidhri Irvine, 11.

His team conducted a simple experiment with a cardboard box to demonstrate that if you look at a bright light, then into a dark space, you see nothing at first, but eventually your eyes adjust and you see things that were invisible before.

Braehead Primary sided with the conspiracy theorists. After looking at radiation, they concluded that the astronauts never reached the moon because they could not have survived the lethal bombardment of deadly gamma rays in the Van Allen Belt circling Earth.

Dr Hendry said he was "impressed and pleasantly surprised by the creativity" the pupils had brought to their investigations. "This is a good exercise in thinking about how science works. The point is to learn how to gather evidence and assess it on the balance of probabilities. It's not all about facts. Science doesn't always work like that," he said.

The project will be presented to the bi-annual World Council for Gifted and Talented Children in Vancouver next year.


How can the flag wave if there is no atmosphere or wind on the moon?

Why are there no stars in any pictures of the moon landings, despite a dark sky?

Why are the shadows in lunar photos (for example, of the astronauts and flag) not parallel? They run in different directions, as if there is more than one source of light.

Why, when you play the video footage at twice normal speed, does it look as if it was filmed on Earth?

Why do photographic crosshairs appear BEHIND foreground objects?

If the sun is the only source of light, how are the astronauts clearly visible?

Why did the lunar excursion module (LEM) rocket not leave a blast crater?

Why did the earth's "deadly" radiation belts not kill the astronauts before they reached the moon?

Why do some of the photos appear to have identical backgrounds?

Why, when the LEM takes off, is no jet fuel visible?

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today