Mission Creep Level: Impossible


I’m going to do a small series of postings extracted from an archive of video interviews that I made in 2010. It was one of those projects that (so far) has died a horrible “death from success.”

Some background: I was at a conference in Texas and encountered an honest-to-goodness lunar landing denialist. We talked for nearly 2 hours as I tried to get a grasp on what the heck their issue was – I couldn’t see how anyone could think such a silly bunch of things, but he was sincere. Our discussion finally centered on my question of “if you think it didn’t happen, what was that gigantic thing that went into the Florida sky, that everyone saw? You know, with all the smoke and flames and stuff?” That was when he said, “Oh, we got into orbit OK, but they just stayed up a while and came back down.”

“I wrote ‘will you marry me?’ in the ‘dust’ and the next day, she saw it and said ‘sure!'”

You know the expression “laughed ’till I was sick?” He caught me in mid-breath and I almost threw up, I was laughing so hard. Then I explained that getting something that big out of the gravity well was the hard part, and that faking that part would be almost as hard as actually going to the moon. We parted ways and I went to dinner with a friend, and wine was involved, and later I was trying to sober up in the shower when I had this thought: “Where did all the people who did that fake program go?

The production manager. “There is only one Hollywood. Nobody can touch us. After the project was completed, we all wound up in LA – where do you think all the SFX for Star Wars and Blade Runner came from, anyway?”

The real moon program spun off all kinds of ancillary technologies (like the Manhattan Project did) that dramatically boosted the US’ technological advances. There were people figuring out all kinds of insanely complicated things, like how to re-enter atmosphere at 20,000mph (also a useful skill for ballistic missiles) and so forth. Where did those people go?

It turns out, I know a few of them.

My big “aha” moment in the shower was realizing that a smart technical person can bullshit circles around someone less knowledgeable or technical. In a flash I conceived the entire project.

I called it “Coming Clean” – a documentary of interviews with the many technical nerds who were involved in faking the moon landing. A friend of mine got involved, and we made a punch-list of our main “cast of characters”: the KGB agent, the model-maker, the spacesuit prop-maker, the continuity expert, the project manager, the special effects coordinator. Then I cooked up a few basic themes – incidents that occurred during the production – and simply asked very smart people to spew bullshit about those incidents, in character.

It worked so well that I have 5 hours of unedited video, much of which is hysterical, some of which is brilliant. Trying to make sense of all of that, in a real documentary format, was simply too much work for me. My video-editing skills are barely up to basic stuff, and a top-notch documentary is out of reach. What should have been a brief silly youtube joke turned into a Big Project, and Big Projects have bigger expectations, and … I got stuck.

The LEM model continuity expert, and his wife, the woman who designed the proportion of portland cement to make the “lunar” surface. They got married on the “set” and are still happily together.

My friend canvassed a bunch of his friends from the science departments of Carnegie-Mellon and Google research, and we sat down with them, gave them their character thumbnail sketch, and let them go at it. I asked them leading questions about the talking-points that made the thread of the whole narrative – basically reversing the process of documentary, in which the documentarian tries to find the thread – we all had a wonderful time. The lovely couple on the couch are both senior science faculty, and let me tell you, when brilliant people decide to cut loose with bafflegab, it’s weapons-grade bafflegab!

As the project evolved we realized that there were whole roles that would have had to exist, which nobody (but us!) have thought of. I’ll drop one spoiler: at one point I interviewed the continuity expert, the person who maintained the master script. As it turned out, everything had to be very closely time-sync’d to match physical predictions – a fraction of a second of non-delay in communications would give the whole game away! The fellow I interviewed told me, with great passion and tremendous detail, about the warehouse they had in New Mexico that had the entire flow-chart of the project up on the wall – and how a last-minute change in one of the missions meant they had to pull all-nighters to re-compute all the side-effects in order to make the fake physics still work. By the time he had finished explaining how much work went into it, I was genuinely pitying him and his team. They were Great Americans, Making America Fake at a time when America needed to be fake.

I’m going to use this blog (and now this posting) as a way of forcing myself to pull this stuff from the archives. What I’m going to do is not try to do a full documentary – instead I’ll review the parts from each of the project-members I interviewed, and post a few little clips for your enjoyment.

And this is the last time I’m going to spoiler it. Maybe someone will walk into this narrative in the middle, and send it to Alex Jones.

------ divider ------

“a smart technical person can bullshit circles around someone less knowledgeable or technical” – I started to formulate general theories of lying, and then tore them apart with interior skeptical challenges. I doubt it’s worth doing a posting on that stuff, but… One of the things I realized is that perhaps humans are optimized to detect lying on a 1:1 basis, because that’s what we almost exclusively experience. So, the larger the number of people that are “in on” the lie, the more people are likely to buy it. If you’ve ever seen The Sting [imdb] it’s a good example of what I’m talking about: everyone is in on the lie except the mark. I also theorized that (in spite of that we don’t know what “intelligence” is) lying down a knowledge-gradient is almost always going to be more successful. I believe, quite seriously, that I just explained the American “conservative” movement. And, if you don’t believe that explanation, watch some old videos of William F. Buckley – that’s where I came up with my description of him as “a stupid person’s idea of what ‘smart’ sounds like.” Then, based on my partial theory of lying, I was thinking about how to construct a sort of trolley-car experiment to see if it was possible to measure an inflection point at which WEIRD students let their guard down. But, ugh, social science.

Comments

  1. says

    What’s going on with the intelligence officer in your trailer? What this man actually says in Russian and what is written in the subtitles are two totally different things. The actual translation would be: “A bad dancer is disturbed by his balls. I kiss you and I hug you.”

    By the way, this project sounds hilarious. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

  2. Owlmirror says

    I don’t know whether to applaud the genius or be appalled by the pandering to conspiracism.

    Tangentially, I remember reading a while back an essay by an expert on film photography that the film technology to create a convincing fake didn’t exist at the time. Or something like that.

  3. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#1:
    What this man actually says in Russian and what is written in the subtitles are two totally different things.

    Yes, that’s because it’s a fake documentary about fake moon landings. So I had a fake KGB agent, too!
    He said he was going to just say some random weird Russian stuff, but didn’t tell me what; I just did the subtitles to say what I thought would sound good.

  4. says

    Owlmirror@#3:
    I don’t know whether to applaud the genius or be appalled by the pandering to conspiracism.

    I have a transparently bad excuse prepared for that, which I will now deploy:
    By producing fake conspiracies, we will force the conspiracy theorists to burn brain-time trying to figure out what’s real, what’s conspiracy, and what’s fake conspiracy. They will have to think harder, as a result.
    Mild spoiler: the woman who plays the overall project leader (I will try to remember to drop that bit of interview) explains exactly that: they realized that if they threw some semi-credible head-fakes into the special effects mix, they would maneuver the inevitable conspiracy-detectors into discrediting themselves when they fell for the head-fakes, which could then be revealed as mistakes.

    At the time I produced all this, I had just finished reading A Wilderness of Mirrors and I believe that had some affect on my thought processes at the time.

    Tangentially, I remember reading a while back an essay by an expert on film photography that the film technology to create a convincing fake didn’t exist at the time. Or something like that.

    That’s right. You are possibly referring to Dino Brugioni’s book Photo Fakery which is really amazing. Dino was the technical founder of National Photo Interpretation Center (NPIC) and was the dean of intelligence imagery analysts for most of his life. It’s a fascinating book. (In a casual sort of aside he debunks a couple conspiracy theories regarding photos of Lee Harvey Oswald) The issue is film grain: when you look at a composite under a microscope you can see the difference in film grain size/shape because the films used to make the composite were processed under different batches of developer at different temperatures, always. I think he published the book when it was clear that film was on the way out

    During the course of making our fake footage about the fake landing we concluded that the hardest technical problem would be accurately simulating the speed of light delay of radio signals. You get one of those even slightly wrong and the whole game’s up. Then, you have to edit together your “cabin audio” side to exactly match. Nope, nope nopeitty nope!

    So, the way to fake the special effects is to use in-camera theatrical techniques, not editing. That, by the way, is why Blade Runner has such a unique look – a lot of the scenes were done by shooting small bits of the scene and projecting them onto glass so another camera could record them, then rewinding the film in the second camera and doing another projection, etc. It was incredibly painstaking work but the scenes look like they were recorded on the same piece of film because they were.

    Spoiler:
    In the interview with the special effects guy (who was just a ‘gopher’ at the time) we get into a bit of how that was done. Mild spoiler: the way you make it look like a hammer and a feather dropped together fall at the same rate is you create the scene on a soundstage that’s hydraulically raised at a programmed speed, and the hammer and feather are hanging on very fine black wires. That was one of my favorite bits of bafflegab.

  5. says

    Arnie@#2:
    Do you know about Opération lune a.k.a. Dark Side of the Moon

    Nooooooo!!! OMG Stanley Kubrick faked it too?!?!
    Can’t be. Kubrick never would have gotten it done in the budget ‘NASA’ had.

    Gotta get a copy of that.

  6. Owlmirror says

    I have a transparently bad excuse prepared for that, which I will now deploy:
    By producing fake conspiracies, we will force the conspiracy theorists to burn brain-time trying to figure out what’s real, what’s conspiracy, and what’s fake conspiracy. They will have to think harder, as a result.

    *shakes head*

    You did write “transparently bad excuse”, but I wonder if you know quite how bad the conspiracist mindset is. (Did I post this before? Well, it’s worth posting again.)


    Dead and Alive
    Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories

    Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n = 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

    (PDF)

    Thinking about fake documentaries makes me suggest that instead of (or in addition to) “Coming Clean”, maybe (sub)title it: “This is Lun̈ar Hoax”

  7. jrkrideau says

    # 7 Owlmirror
    Coming Clean : The real story
    Marcus simply asserts that Opération lune was a subtle plot to discredit those telling the truth and make people accept that NASA had landed on the moon.

    He (Marcus) is revealing the true story that has been hidden til now.

  8. komarov says

    Re: KGB-agent

    Actually I believe he is talking in code. This is based on the Youtube subtitles, which are utter nonsense. Ergo: Coded message that was to be smuggled to the USSR using your documentary. Ieva Skrebele is probably in on it and just covering for the KGB. You might be in on it, too, Marcus, but the message never reached its destination – one assumes – since you never finished your work. Besides, it’s probably rude to to accuse your host of being a soviet collaborator. I’m not familiar with cold war etiquette though.

    Since Owlmirror already pointed out that conspiracy theories are unconstrained by reason or contradiction, consider this a practical demonstration. It’s conspiracies all the way down.

    Re: SIgnal delay

    During the course of making our fake footage about the fake landing we concluded that the hardest technical problem would be accurately simulating the speed of light delay of radio signals. You get one of those even slightly wrong and the whole game’s up. Then, you have to edit together your “cabin audio” side to exactly match. Nope, nope nopeitty nope!

    I shall blame my ignorance but don’t see how this could be the major hurdle you make it out to be.
    My thinking: The important part would be the trajectory, which tells you where the craft is at what point in the fake mission. From that you can work out how your signal gets back to mission control, both the distance travelled and how many relay stations are involved. Hence you can compute the expected delay at any point where you want radio contact. That’s probably a very long and dull conversation between the orbit and continuity people. At the end of it, Orbit could probably give the sound person a list of mission events with their appropriate delays.
    Now I’d assume either the audio could be edited afterwards to insert the appropriate delays. Failing that surely Sound could rig up some device to plug in between microphones and the recorder to actually delay the signals by the required amount of time? I suppose you could even try to send the signal through the actual relays, around the globe, adjusting the sequence to get the right delay for the signal return. That would seem to be the most appropriate, over-the-top approach when your fake moonlanding already involves launching real Saturn Vs. (Not to mention the man-rated spaceships – two for each act)

  9. Owlmirror says

    Most conspiracies only go up to 10, but this one, this moon landing conspiracy — it goes all the way up to 11!

  10. says

    Owlmirror@#7:
    You did write “transparently bad excuse”, but I wonder if you know quite how bad the conspiracist mindset is. (Did I post this before? Well, it’s worth posting again.)

    I don’t think I’ve seen that before. Damn, that’s depressing.

    If I am understanding it right it says “the more they learn the less they know”
    Offhand, it sounds like what’s happening is a cognitive reward model is kicking their asses: they get pleasure/reward from learning something (anything) and connecting the dots (any dots) and feedback on the reward, without worrying about if it makes any sense or not.

    “This is Lun̈ar Hoax”

    I’m not in that league! This is going to be, at best, out-takes.
    It does make me realize what an art-work This is Spinal Tap is.

  11. says

    komarov@#9:
    Actually I believe he is talking in code. This is based on the Youtube subtitles, which are utter nonsense. Ergo: Coded message that was to be smuggled to the USSR using your documentary. Ieva Skrebele is probably in on it and just covering for the KGB.

    Remember the standard conspiracy theory trope: I’m the only person who’s figured this out so they’re going to try to kill me. If you’ve figured out the message behind the message inside the message, then you’d better stay away from windows and not step on any cracks in the sidewalk.

  12. says

    jrkrideau@#8:
    Marcus simply asserts that Opération lune was a subtle plot to discredit those telling the truth and make people accept that NASA had landed on the moon.

    Have you read Foucault’s Pendulum?
    It’s quite good, if you haven’t. It’s about a person who gets curious about conspiracies and, as he begins to investigate, the strange forces of conspiracy begin to swirl around him as other true believers realize he’s onto something and start investigating the investigation.

  13. says

    Umberto Eco drives me nuts. He appears to have written some great, highly interesting novels I can’t read. Just can’t hammer through his prose, and that’s from someone who read and enjoyed ‘The Silmarillion’.

  14. Siobhan says

    Then I explained that getting something that big out of the gravity well was the hard part, and that faking that part would be almost as hard as actually going to the moon.

    Really? I just point my butt-end prograde and burn. You know, in Kerbal Space Program.

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