review: a funny thing happened on the way
  to the moon
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Now that the viewer feels suitably ashamed and humble before God, A Funny Thing can hurry through the supposedly factual evidence for its claims. It begins with the Van Allen belts, which we cover in a separate page.

The Van Allen belts start at an altitude of 1,000 miles (1,600 km).

That's what is claimed in the film, and that's what appears on Bart Sibrel's web site.
Fig. 1 -Bart Sibrel's webpage as it appeared on 22 March 2004, indicating the Van Allen belts start at 1,000 miles (1,600 km).

But elsewhere on the site Mr. Sibrel suggests a different altitude.
Fig. 2 -Another page on Sibrel's site saying that the space shuttle encountered Van Allen belt radiation at only 400 miles (650 km).

Which is it? To be sure, the typically cited lower altitude of the inner Van Allen belt is 400 miles (650 km) while portions such as the Southern Magnetic Anomaly dip to a mere 250 miles (400 km) above the surface. But why give one altitude in one circumstance, and another in another circumstance?

By claiming that the Van Allen belts don't begin until 1,000 miles, A Funny Thing can make the case that no manned missions other than Apollo have gone into them. This makes Apollo unique in the claim to have gone there. But if a more reasonable altitude of 400 miles is given, Sibrel can point to certain recent effects such as light flashes that would seem to substantiate the supposed danger of the Van Allen belts. This discrepancy demands a reconciliation. Sibrel simply gives whatever figure is convenient to his argument at the moment.
Fig. 3 -Artist's concept of the Soviet Zond 5 spacecraft, which carried living organisms through the Van Allen belts and around the moon in 1968.

Nor does Mr. Sibrel explain why only "heavy lead shielding" would protect astronauts from the effects of the Van Allen belts. Lead will certainly work, but lighter elements work better. Not all radiation is created equal.

The question Sibrel doesn't answer is how exactly Apollo was supposed to have fooled the Soviets on this point. Zond 5 flew turtles around the moon and back in 1968, returning the turtles alive and safe to Mother Russia -- without six feet of lead (Figures 3, 4). And the basic designs for the Apollo command module were easily available to American schoolchildren and therefore to Soviet agents. A Funny Thing argues that Apollo was a grand deception to fool the Soviets, but fails to answer why the Soviets would have believed a thin-hulled spacecraft safely passed through radiation they themselves had measured.
Fig. 3 -The Zond 5 spacecraft on display at Orevo, Russia. (Julius deRoo)

The answer, as usual, is that neither Sibrel nor any of his conspiracist colleagues knows the first thing about protecting spacecraft and crews in space. That's why A Funny Thing overreacts to a CNN report of ominous-sounding "killer electrons" that threaten astronauts. Sibrel makes it sound as if radiation in space was a shocker to NASA in the 1990s. The number of spacecraft sent aloft between 1958 and the late 1990s to characterize and measure space radiation is a list too long even to summarize. In line with his colleagues, Sibrel invokes the standard Radiation Boogey Man without ever once giving a single number or concrete comparison.
Fig. 4 -The crew of Gemini 10 photographed their Agena docking target, whose engine boosted them into the inner Van Allen belt. (NASA)

Gemini 10 ascended to 475 miles (765 km), well into the lower reaches of the Van Allen belts, and Gemini 11 even higher -- other facts Mr. Sibrel ignores. Radiation affects electronics too, and we have sent thousands of pounds of electronics into the Van Allen belts and expected them to do useful work for many years in those circumstances. The companies who make those electronics are very interested in knowing just how strong the Van Allen belts really are.

And let's not forget the light flashes. Sibrel makes a big deal out of the shuttle astronauts having seen them in an unusually high orbit, and wonders why they were never seen by Apollo astronauts. (Hint: they were, and extensively studied.) Not only has Sibrel been caught ignoring history again, he has created a contradiction. He says NASA was smart enough to forbid the astronauts from pretending to have taken any pictures of the stars, in case their fabricated details wouldn't match those that came later. But he doesn't explain why NASA shuttle astronauts were allowed to reveal a detail that should have been revealed earlier by NASA Apollo astronauts.

A Saturn V launch is 95% similar to launching an ICBM.

No source is given for this claim. The Saturn V was built precisely because NASA was tired of trying to fly into space on converted ICBM boosters. We suppose Sibrel is trying to create some sort of connection to all the miscellaneous rocket failures he showed us earlier, saying that if those rockets couldn't fly, then we shouldn't expect the Saturn V to fly either. But in fact the previous NASA manned rockets were glorified and enhanced ICBMs -- rockets originally designed to be produced in great numbers and only to lob bombs at enemies. The Air Force knew that a few ICBMs out of the whole fleet would probably fail in some way due to engineering inexactness, which was why multiple missiles were assigned to each target. Anyone who makes a product knows that going from 99% reliability to 100% reliability is always disproportionately difficult and expensive. Better to accept the failure of the 1%.

The Saturn V, in contrast, was the first NASA rocket intended by design to carry humans, and therefore no catastrophic failure was considered acceptable. As such it was highly redundant, meticulously tested, consummately fault-tolerant, and highly instrumented and automated. It was a well-funded, well-tested rocket designed to carry humans into space -- every time. It's much easier and better to design safety and reliability into a product in the early stages rather than try to make an existing design safer after the fact than the original designer intended.

Mr. Sibrel claims the Apollo astronauts never left Earth orbit. He wants us to believe the Van Allen belts kept them from doing this, but he also wants us to believe that America simply lacked the expertise in rocketry to go that far. This is another contradiction; Sibrel obviously doesn't understand what rocket reliability means. Getting to Earth orbit isn't any different than going to the moon, in terms of booster reliability. In Sibrel's montage the rockets explode seconds after ignition. In that case it doesn't matter whether the rocket was bound for the moon for low Earth orbit. By accepting that the astronauts made it at least to Earth orbit, Sibrel undermines his own "bad rockets" argument.

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