The answer, unfortunately, is no: even the world’s most powerful telescopes are currently unable to resolve such tiny objects at the distance of the Moon, for reasons detailed in Chapter 7. However, if a telescope were placed closer to the Moon, for example on an uncrewed space probe, it could take pictures of the sites where NASA claims to have landed.
Actually, this has already been done. In 2009, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter probe began a high-resolution survey of the entire Moon which is still in progress today. The probe’s state-of-the-art mapping camera has taken many photographs of the landing or crash sites of many US and Soviet space probes, including the Apollo spacecraft. In 2011 it flew as low as 22 kilometers (13.6 miles, 72,000 feet) in the vicinity of some of the Apollo sites and imaged details as small as 0.25 meters (about 10 inches).
Figure 3.8-1. Artist’s rendering of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The LRO images of the Apollo landing sites show that the descent stages of the Lunar Modules and the equipment left on the Moon by the astronauts are still there today, exactly where NASA described and documented them with on-site photographs, TV and movie footage so many decades ago.
These images even show the parallel tread marks left by the wheels of the Rover and the lines of footprints produced by the astronauts. On the Moon there’s no wind or rain to make them fade, so they’re still there right now.
The figures below, for example, are photographs of the Apollo 17 landing site taken by the LRO in 2011. They show the descent stage of the Lunar Module Challenger. Its sharp shadow reveals how high it protrudes above the surrounding surface. The ground around the LM is darker because it was disturbed by Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt’s boots.
Figure 3.8-2. The descent stage of Apollo 17’s Lunar Module, photographed on the Moon by the LRO probe in 2011. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
Figure 3.8-3. Detail of the Apollo 17 LM descent stage imaged by the LRO probe in 2011. PLSS indicates the astronauts’ backpacks; MESA is the tilt-down equipment stowage compartment on the descent stage; Pallet is the payload transport pallet. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged the Apollo landing sites repeatedly and is still doing so periodically. For example, the larger white spot in Figure 3.8-4 is the descent stage of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and the four dots around it are the LM’s footpads, in different lighting conditions: respectively, with the sun at a low angle and at a high angle to the local horizon, thus casting long and short shadows.
The arrows indicate the television camera (TV), the retroreflector (LRRR), the seismograph (PSE) and the line of footprints left by Neil Armstrong when he dashed to Little West crater, about 60 meters (200 feet) from the LM, and took a series of photographs, such as AS11-40-5961, as attested by the radio communications recordings and by the mission reports. The TV recordings show the initial part of Neil’s dash.
Figure 3.8-4. Top: the descent stage of Apollo 11, photographed by the LRO with the sun at a low angle to the horizon in 2011. Bottom: the same site imaged with the sun almost overhead in 2009. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
Figure 3.8-5. Neil Armstrong on the rim of Little West crater. The thin shadow on the right is cast by the ALSCC instrument (stereo macro camera for geology imaging). NASA photograph AS11-40-5961.
That’s the level of cross-checking allowed by the Moon landing data. And there’s more.
The LRO photographs of the Apollo 11 site can be compared with the lunar excursion map published in 1969 by NASA, which details the locations of the items left on the Moon and traces the astronauts’ movements. It turns out that all the objects, the bootprints and the terrain details we find on the Moon today are almost exactly where NASA said they were over four decades ago.
Figure 3.8-6. Comparison between the Apollo 11 Traverse Map (1969) and a site photograph taken by the LRO probe (2009). Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
The Apollo 11 landing site has been photographed by the LRO so many times through the years that it is possible to combine the photographs into an animation which shows the Lunar Module descent stage in various lighting conditions, clearly bringing out its three-dimensional shape and its details.
Figure 3.8-7. Animation of LRO images of the Apollo 11 landing site. Changes in lighting clearly show the LM casting a shadow and catching sunlight. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University, 2018.
Figure 3.8-8. Another animation of LRO images of the Apollo 11 landing site. This image sequence is rotated 90° counterclockwise with respect to Figure 3.7-7. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
The following figures are images of other Apollo landing sites taken by the LRO.
Figure 3.8-9. The Apollo 12 landing site, imaged by the LRO probe in 2011. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
Figure 3.8-10. Detail of the Apollo 14 landing site, taken by the LRO in 2011. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
Figure 3.8-11. Detail of the Apollo 15 landing site, imaged by the LRO in 2012. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
Figure 3.8-12. The Apollo 16 landing site, photographed by the LRO in 2010. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.
To better understand the details of these images of the Apollo landings site it can be useful to refer to Figure 3.8-13, which is a digitally edited photograph from the Apollo 16 mission. It shows how the LM descent stage would appear after the crew lifted off in the ascent stage:
Figure 3.8-13. Digitally edited version of NASA photo AS16-107-17435 (Apollo 16) showing the likely appearance of a lunar module after crew liftoff. Credit: Joel Raupe (@LunarPioneer).
Figure 3.8-14. The full, unretouched source of Figure 3.7-12: NASA photo AS16-107-17435.
This digital artist’s impression highlights the little-known fact that the four exhaust plume deflectors, used to prevent the exhaust of the maneuvering motors from striking the spacecraft and damaging it, were part of the descent stage and therefore were left on the Moon. Today they rise above the descent stage and form shadows on its top.
Someone might object that the LRO is a NASA probe and therefore cannot be trusted. Actually, NASA only launched the probe: the LRO’s camera and the analysis of its images are managed by a separate academic group, the LROC Science Operations Center at the Arizona State University, together with other scientific organizations. The LROC website provides the full list of participants.
All these people, too, would have to be part of the massive cover-up, or someone would have to fake all the pictures that keep coming from the Moon. The fakery would have to be so perfect that the researchers at the Arizona State University and elsewhere wouldn’t realize they were being duped. Considering that they’re digital imaging analysis experts and that fake images would have to be generated whenever the LRO flies over the six Apollo landing sites and would have to take into account the ever-changing sun angle, that’s quite a substantial challenge.
A single slip in any point of this process would reveal the entire decades-old conspiracy to the world, because the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter pictures are regularly posted on the probe’s website.
It strains credulity to claim that any government agency could attain and maintain this level of absolute secrecy and perfection for so many decades.
Another, perhaps more sensible objection might be that the LRO photographs only show the vehicles, but obviously not the astronauts. But if so, how were the bootprints made? Did NASA secretly send a robot with boots to the Moon, to trace the exact patterns faked on the movie set? Six times?