The Unusual Suspects

Moon hoax believers contend that NASA’s Apollo lunar landings were elaborately orchestrated lies, and that men never walked on the moon. Apollo 18, a film that opened this month, proposes the opposite: that NASA launched a manned lunar mission the public has no knowledge of—until now. The Apollo program was canceled in 1970, and the [...]

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Moon hoax believers contend that NASA’s Apollo lunar landings were elaborately orchestrated lies, and that men never walked on the moon. Apollo 18, a film that opened this month, proposes the opposite: that NASA launched a manned lunar mission the public has no knowledge of—until now.

The Apollo program was canceled in 1970, and the last mission of the series, Apollo 17, launched on December 7, 1972. Apollo 18 sells itself as a documentary drawn from real footage shot during a secret—and final—manned moon mission. But the illusion is ruined by the credits that roll at the end of the film, as well as a statement that all characters are fictional.

Taken as a work of pseudo-history, Apollo 18 gets many things right. Good special effects simulate the grainy black-and-white footage from real Apollo missions. And the film is nicely cast, with Lloyd Owen as mission commander Nate Walker and Warren Christie as lunar module pilot Ben Anderson. Both men capture the swagger and unflappability of military aviators turned astronauts (their characters are U.S. Navy pilots).

The weakness of Apollo 18 is its lack of originality. The moon’s real secret, as it turns out, (plot spoiler ahead) is that the rocks themselves are extraterrestrial life forms, who like to invade human hosts. Unfortunately, we’ve seen scarier parasitic aliens before, most notably in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien.

The Apollo 11 crew in quarantine, after their return from the moon in 1969.

Before Apollo 11 (the first manned moon landing) in July 1969, there were a lot of Earthly concerns about the planet being contaminated by a lunar pathogen picked up by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. In a book just published by NASA, When Biospheres Collide: A History of NASA’s Planetary Protection Programs, author Michael Meltzer devotes a chapter to examining the years of committee meetings and painstaking plans on how to prevent “back contamination.” Items that had come into contact with the  Apollo 11 crew—clothing, film canisters, even the command module—had to be sanitized. Lunar samples were quarantined until it was determined they did not pose any risk of contamination. The astronauts themselves had to chill for a few weeks in the Mobile Quarantine Facility, a customized trailer now on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.

In a scene that seems almost comical today, Meltzer details the care taken to protect Richard M. Nixon when he visited the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, where the Apollo 11 crew was taken after their command module landed in the Pacific: “Only after the astronauts were safely sealed in the airtight Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) and the Hornet’s deck disinfected did NASA allow President Richard Nixon…to approach the large window at the rear of the MQF to give his congratulations. During the transfer of astronauts, President Nixon had been kept far away, a helicopter waiting to fly off the ship should any leaks be detected in the MQF.”

Scientists now know that the surface of the moon is too sterile to support life, but NASA had to play it safe. After Apollo 14, however, the sanitizing and quarantining protocols were suspended.

At the end of Apollo 18, the filmmakers note that more than 840 pounds of lunar samples were returned to Earth, some of which were given to foreign dignitaries as gifts and were stolen and now unaccounted for. Implying what, exactly? That there’s still a threat of moon rocks going alien on us? Don’t tell that to the hundreds of people who daily touch a moon rock on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

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