Nvidia sinks moon landing hoax using virtual light

Using its new top-shelf graphics processing unit, Nvidia tackles one of the most persistent conspiracy theories in American history: the veracity of the 1969 to 1972 Apollo moon landings.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read

A virtual re-creation of the Apollo 11 landing site helped gaming-component supplier Nvidia debunk persistent hoax claims about the moon landings. Nvidia

Few events in US history inspire a paranoiac bent on unearthing political conspiracy theories quite like the Apollo moon landings do. So when Nvidia, the leader in high-end graphics processing units (GPUs) for PC gaming, wanted to show off a lighting feature of its new GeForce GTX 970 and 980 cards, it found its inspiration in the sky.

"Global illumination is the hardest task to solve as a game company," Scott Herkelman, Nvidia's GeForce general manager, said in an interview. "Virtual point lights don't do a bad job when the environment stays the same, but a game developer has to fake shadows, fake reflections...it's a labor-intensive process." So when a Nvidia research engineer used the company's new dynamic lighting techniques to show off a side-by-side comparison between an Apollo 11 photo and a GeForce-powered re-creation, the company knew it had a novel demo on its hands.

"We're going to debunk one of the biggest conspiracies in the world," Herkelman said.

The first manned missions to Earth's satellite began in 1969 with Apollo 11. Just a few years later, conspiracies sprouted up claiming that potentially each of the six lunar landing crews and every one of the 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon had in fact participated in an elaborate ruse. To the conspiracists, it may never have happened -- or didn't happen like NASA said it did -- and oh by the way, we duped the Russians into losing the space race.

Voxel global illumination, however, proves them wrong, says Nvidia. The technique, which the new GTX 970 and 980 can tap into, lets developers use dynamic lighting that will bounce, diffuse and reflect in real-time with unprecedented fidelity when new objects are added to a scene. Nvidia's GPUs are enhanced chips that allow graphics cards to more effectively and efficiently take data from a central processing unit, or CPU, and turn it into moving images on a display. In other words, voxel global illumination is the perfect rendering tool to tackle moon landing hoaxes that often use as evidence for their claims lighting discrepancies with NASA photography.

The result is a near-perfect replication of the 1969 Apollo 11 landing site. Nvidia tackled some of the most persistent claims used to support a moon landing hoax, starting with the notion that astronaut Buzz Aldrin couldn't have been illuminated when descending the ladder to the moon's surface if he was hidden from the sun by the spacecraft.

One popular claim by those who say the moon landing was a hoax is that astronaut Buzz Aldrin, photographed here by fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong, could not have been illuminated, because he was in the shadow of the Apollo Lunar Module. NASA

After talking with many engineers and NASA employees, Nvidia discovered that there were two key factors, both of which could be addressed using voxel global illumination. First, the moon's surface is comprised of what are essentially thousands of tiny mirrors -- moon dust if you will -- that bounce light back at a viewer. Yet that didn't account for the necessary level of brightness to light up Aldrin.

So Nvidia engineers began tinkering with different elements of the photograph until they discovered that it was not what was in the frame, but who was behind it. The famous shot was snapped by Neil Armstrong -- who was off to the side of Aldrin in full view of the Sun -- wearing a 85 percent reflective spacesuit that contained five layers of the highly reflective fabric Mylar blended with four layers of the flexible yet durable material Dacron on top of an additional two layers of heat resistant Kapton.

A virtual rendering of astronaut Neil Armstrong photographing fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin climbing down the ladder of the Apollo Lunar Module in 1969. Nvidia

That kind of garment, Nvidia discovered, could bounce a ton of light. So they dropped in Armstrong, adjusted his suit's reflectivity and found that they were able to re-create the scene realistically.

Nvidia was also able to address another claim of moon landing conspiracists: the lack of stars in the sky. Because of the level of brightness on the moon, the astronauts were using cameras with smaller apertures, meaning less light was streaming in during the on-site photographing.

With a smaller aperture, the astronauts were able to avoid blowing out the photos' primary subject matter, the astronauts themselves and the reflective surface of the moon, but they removed the faraway light of the stars in the process. By dialing up the aperture of a virtual photo to let in more light, Nvidia found that it could illuminate space while also washing out the astronauts.

Nvidia's re-creation of the Apollo 11 landing site, showing what a photograph would have looked like with a small aperture, meaning less light and thus no stars in the sky. Nvidia

Of course, further evidence supporting the Apollo moon landings has been released many times over the years, including high-def shots taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showing lander tracks and footprints, and 2012 images showing five out of the six Apollo mission American flags, confirming scientists' understanding that the Apollo 11 flag blew over because of rocket exhaust.

Yet the conspiracies lived on, not helped by the Flat Earth Society -- the very same organization that, yes, believes the Earth is not round -- and its more conveniently believable, yet still pretty crazy, claims. The group famously said in the '70s that filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and Hollywood helped NASA stage the event during the filming of the 1968 masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Still, Nvidia hopes its voxel global illumination demo will offer convincing evidence to finally dispel the moon landing hoax. Or at least slow its spread.