There is yet another strand of conspiracy theory codswallop that says that the details in the Apollo images of the lunar surface were obtained by earlier lunar probes in the Lunar Orbiter series, or some other unnamed and mysterious source, in order to construct studio sets.

Obviously this does create some problems for the landing deniers, because they have to concede that rocket technology capable of sending things to the Moon and returning a signal did exist long before the the first human orbit of it. Even the Russians had been at it, beating the Americans in a number of areas of lunar exploration, as well as getting a probe to land on Venus.

What will be attempted below is to try and examine details revealed about the landing sites as they are today, and comparing them with what we know was available at the time of the missions.

For more background information on the Lunar Orbiter probes, see here. This site also contains useful information, and is the source of new scans of the orbiter photographs. This document gives a detailed history of the Orbiter programme, while much higher resolution images can be obtained from this USGS site. More detailed information on the imaging and printing processes can be found here and here.

In brief, one of the main aims of the probes was to provide photographic data on the Apollo zone of interest - the area identified as likely to provide both safe landing areas and scientifically valuable sites. They carried cameras capable of high resolution images, and eventually coverage of the lunar surface was almost complete.

While one camera lens took a large scale view, a separate lens zoomed in on much smaller areas. The highest resolutions are claimed to show features just a few feet across. Obviously, argue the conspiracy lovers, this means they must have been capable of providing the detail of the lunar surface needed to generate the photographs taken by Apollo. The lenses and film it used were from previously classified spy cameras developed in the late 1950s.

In order to get the photographs to Earth, they were developed inside the Orbiter using an automatic process much like the one that used to be used to print DIY passport photographs from booths in shops. The developed image was then scanned, and this scanned information was transmitted back to Earth essentially as a video signal, with modulations in the signal proportionate to the light signal received from the developed negative

At the Earth end of things, the received images were scanned again on a kinescope and printed out, line by line, on long rolls of paper using different sized square blocks to represent the light level in a specific part of the image. These prints could be quite large, and individual strips up to 25 feet long were used to compile the complete photograph, shot from above in a large building.

This long convoluted process, where an original photograph was transmitted to Earth, re-scanned and then finally photographed again is essentially a lossy process, and the theoretical image resolutions possible in the camera are not necessarily those available to NASA back on Earth. The high resolution photographs were 1.58m by 0.4m, making them unwieldy (hence their division in to 3 more manageable pieces).

It’s difficult to tell from the scanned images available now, some of them re-processed by the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project what the photographs would have looked like in reality to those using them. The image below shows a small section of the type of print-out photographed for NASA (Source).

The first photograph below shows a NASA technician with a ream of photo printouts used in assembling the lunar orbit simulator, and gives some idea of the size and quality of the printed images, as does the second image below showing orbiter 3 images laid out.

As luck would have it, I am actually in possession of a couple of original large glossy prints of two Orbiter images.

The bottom one is the so-called ‘Image of the Century’, Lunar Orbiter II’s high resolution oblique shot of Copernicus crater, and the top one a vertical medium resolution view of Tycho crater from Orbiter V. Photographs of these glossies are shown below, with a 10” tablet showing the same photograph for size comparison.

The photograph below shows a comparison of a section of the 17Gb RAW TIFF scan of the Tycho image (left) and my own full size glossy (right).

It’s fairly obvious from this comparison that the scanned images are a good representation of the glossy originals available to NASA, although the scan is noticeably sharper. A magnifying glass would have been required to view the same level of detail visible above.

The image shown below is a close up view of the original glossy image (bottom) compared with a ‘digitally remastered’ view from the same image done by the LOIRP (top).

More detail from the original can be recovered with some digital processing in Photoshop, but obviously this wasn’t available to the Orbiter teams at the time (see below).

It’s fair to say that the scans available on line seem to be a good representation of what was available to the original NASA teams using them to find landing sites, produce simulators for landing rehearsals, and produce maps for the Apollo crews.

Speaking of simulators, one really interesting use of Lunar Orbiter images happened at a place called Cinder Lakes, where the USGS spent a lot of time and effort recreating a 1:1 scale replica of part of the Sea of Tranquility in which astronauts could practise their skills.

There are some interesting documents showing how they created the fields here and here, and a video here.

The literature tell us that Lunar Orbiter 2 images were used, and some conspiracy lovers like to imagine that this proves something, namely that it must have been where they filmed Apollo 11 and all that stuff. We’ll ignore the fact that there were several other missions and that people might have spotted the same craters being used over and over.

The question is, which Orbiter views did they use and which part of those images did the USGS emulate?

Well, we know from the literature that they were interested in potential landing site II-P-6-1, an area east of the eventual landing site. Here is that landing ellipse superimposed on Google Moon in the correct location.

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The inset shows a mock up of what they ground based photo-analysts believed the orbiter view should show.

Surveyor 3 will be dealt with under the Apollo 12 section, but here’s a quick view of the probe as viewed from Orbiter 3 (left) and the LRO (right).

This time, the shading in the crater makes it difficult to make out the location of the probe, which has been marked by a small white triangle in the Surveyor report.

We therefore have satellites capable of identifying small surface details, including equipment from unmanned probes.

Having mentioned the landing simulator earlier, some of the hoax believers will also argue that Project LOLA was used to recreate the landing sequences, and that the images from Lunar Orbiter were used in this way to fool people.

LOLA was a very clever device, constructed so that both the 3D model built using all the data they had to hand and the camera that moved above it could move in response to the simulator controls. The scale was restricted to 1:150 - better than the maps produced by the USGS. As luck would have it, some photographs exist of the pilot’s eye view from the LM simulator as it approaches Hadley Rille, and it’s worth a quick look to see how it compares with the real thing, because it will demonstrate an important feature that repeats itself many times when looking at mission images.  

The images were obtained from this thread on a mostly hoax believer forum, and there are lots of other useful pieces of information there. Many hoaxtards will claim that it was a secret project, but this is a complete fabrication - I have copies of magazines from the Apollo era with images from the simulator in them.

So, let’s look at the evidence and establish what we’re looking at. The first image is from 5000 feet, and I’ve compared it with a view from Google Earth (right) and also the Apollo 15 16mm footage from the 16mm DAC (centre) taken at the point the crew announce ‘5000 feet’.

Here are the sections of Lunar Orbiter 2 image that they reproduced, the one on the right being a later addition to the site.

So - where is it?

Time for a little logic, combined with guesswork. We know it is an Orbiter 2 image, and it must be a fairly high resolution image to get the level of detail shown. The high resolution images that cover the ellipse are 2084 H1 and H2, and 2085 H1 and H2. It seems reasonable to start looking for the two areas near the centre of the ellipse, and this means we are mainly looking at 2085 H2.

This turned out to be  good guess, and you can see where both of the crater fields come from in the image below, firstly in relation to each other (left) and secondly in relation to Apollo 11 (right).

Turns out that far from replicating Tranquility Base, these areas were actually 7 km from it! Oh, and the Apollo 11 crew never went there!

Anyhow, we digress.

There are also images from contemporary publications that show the kind of detail available at the time. One such is the use of Lunar Orbiter 3 images to locate the Surveyor probes on the moon, particularly Surveyor 1 and Surveyor 3, later visited by Apollo 12. This publication contains a number of references to that process, and the image below shows the Surveyor 1 probe as revealed by the 3rd Lunar Orbiter probe (left) and the modern LRO.

The LOLA view isn’t bad from this ‘altitude’, and the broader features are easy to make out on Apollo and Google Moon views once you orient yourself correctly.

Let’s now descend to 3000 feet.

The only arrow pointing to the same feature is the red one, as this is the most obvious one that is visible in all 3 images. We are now starting to see the feature I mentioned earlier. While the camera is descending on the model’s static view, the amount of additional detail being revealed is not increasing. Contrast this with the Apollo image, where the descending camera is moving on on a three dimensional object and more detail is being revealed as it does so. Here is the 3000’ image zoomed and cropped and looking at the crater picked by the red arrow from LOLA (left), Apollo 15 (right), and a more detailed LRO image (centre).

The hollow arrows are visible on all 3 pictures and are there to show that we are looking at the same view. To the right of the pair of craters at the top of the photographs (the left-most of which is marked by the hollow red arrow) is the actual landing site. The solid arrows are not visible on LOLA’s view of the area. Were it not for the window markings there could have been many more of these.

What was giving a superficially accurate overview of Hadley Rille in the simulator does not compare with the detail visible in an Apollo 16mm still even from 3000 feet and from a lossy video conversion.

This feature is something that, as you will see if you care to look at the additional pages linked to below, is repeated in image after image. From altitude, Lunar Orbiter images do a superb job in rendering the lunar surface. From close up they do not reveal the same amount of detail as Apollo video, TV and still images.

Could the Lunar Orbiter images have been used to create sound stages or other models to fake the Apollo landing sites?

In a word no.

There’s also a new section looking at Apollo images, the LRO and the USSR’s Lunokhod-2 probe.

Lunokhod 2