5.17 How come Aldrin looks like he’s standing in a spotlight?

IN A NUTSHELL: He’s not. He’s standing in a patch of the lunar surface where the lunar module’s rocket exhaust swept away the dust, making the surface brighter.

THE DETAILS: Several Moon hoax theorists observe that in some photographs of the Apollo 11 landing, such as AS11-40-5903 (Buzz Aldrin’s “tourist photo”), the ground around the astronaut is far brighter than the rest. As the distance from the astronaut increases, the ground becomes unusually darker. That, they claim, is the result of a studio spotlight.

This alleged evidence is often illustrated by copies of these photographs in which the contrast has been pushed, exaggerating the difference in brightness, as in the example shown below, which is taken from Fotografare, an Italian photography magazine whose editor supported the claims of fakery. Moon hoax literature knows no language barrier.

Photo AS11-40-5903 as printed in the August 1989 issue of Italian photography magazine Fotografare.


The common-sense objection to this allegation is that the organizers of the hypothetical fakery on behalf of the US government wouldn’t have been short on cash to the point of not having enough spotlights and wouldn’t have been so incompetent as to forget to light the background evenly. It would have been a truly amateurish blunder, as any directory of photography will attest. Such a patently obvious blunder, moreover, would somehow have had to get by the inspection of the people in charge of selecting and publishing the alleged fakes, yet be so glaring as to be noticed by the unrelenting gaze of conspiracy theorists.

Another objection is that if Aldrin is standing in a spotlight, his shadow should be washed out in the spotlit patch and then be dark in the foreground, where the “spotlight” effect ceases, but it isn’t. Moreover, a spotlight should produce a second shadow of the astronaut, but there isn’t one in the pictures.

If the difference in brightness of the ground can’t be explained by lighting conditions, then perhaps the ground itself was brighter around Aldrin for some reason. Finding that reason requires a bit of detective work.

First of all we need to locate that part of the ground. In the uncropped version of AS11-40-5903, a leg of the lunar module is visible next to Aldrin. The direction of the shadows allows to determine that it’s the LM’s right leg (as seen from the crew compartment). So the brighter ground is to the right of the lunar module’s right leg.

Now we can look for other photographs of the same area. It turns out that AS11-40-5886 (below) is a wider view of the area. Surprisingly, this photo, too, exhibits the same “spotlit” effect despite the fact that there’s no astronaut in the brighter patch (Neil Armstrong is in the picture, but he’s standing in the shadow of the LM). More importantly, the wider view reveals that the brighter region is actually an elongated streak that crosses the picture diagonally from the upper left to the lower right, and that the LM’s shadow is roughly at right angles to the streak.

Photograph AS11-40-5886 (Apollo 11, cropped).


The high-resolution scans of these photographs also suggest that the brighter patch is almost dust-free (astronaut bootprints are shallow or nonexistent in it), as if something had swept away the dust in that particular area and exposed a band of the underlying smoother, more reflective rock.

That something could be the LM’s descent engine exhaust, if the spacecraft had moved sideways just before touchdown. It did. The radio communications logs and the 16 mm film footage of the landing show that the LM drifted mostly sideways, first to the right (Aldrin: “4 forward. 4 forward. Drifting to the right a little”) and then to the left, seconds before landing, with negligible forward velocity. This path is also supported by telemetry data, by the small pits to the sides of the LM footpads and by the orientation of the contact probes that stick out of the ground.

In other words, the explanation that best fits all the available facts is not that a spotlight was secretly and clumsily used, but that Buzz Aldrin was standing in the band of lunar ground that had been swept by the LM’s rocket exhaust, which had blown away the surface dust, exposing the brighter rock below.

This is a good example of how it can be challenging, even for a very expert photographer, to explain the apparent anomalies that occur in some Moon photographs without knowing the technical details of the circumstances in which they were taken.