Thursday, December 01, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt - December 2011

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • The Brain on Trial: How Neuroscience Challenges the Law as We Know It
  • January NCAS Lecture: Lawrence Krauss
  • Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell - Nowhere to Hide: Looking for an Apollo Moon Landings Hoax-from Inside NASA
  • From Readers
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically

NCAS Public Lecture Series
The Brain on Trial: How Neuroscience Challenges the Law as We Know It
Mark Frankel
American Association for the Advancement of Science

Saturday, December 10, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
National Science Foundation, Room 110
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA [map] [directions]
(Ballston-Marymount University Metro stop)
Enter NSF from the corner of 9th N & N Stuart Streets.
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

Neuroscience has a lot to offer the law. These include, for example, use for determining whether a person is competent to stand trial or sign a contract, whether brain dysfunction is a mitigating factor in applying capital punishment, whether future dangerousness is predictable, and whether an adolescent brain is mature enough to merit certain types of punishment. It also holds out the promise that it may help distinguish false memories from true memories, enhance memory, ascertain truth, detect deception, and reveal lies.

So one might reasonably ask, is the law ready for neuroscience? To some extent, that question can be asked of any new research finding in science or technological development. But so much that neuroscience relates to memory, truth telling, impulse control, empathy, reasoning, consciousness, and behavior are core concepts that underlie enduring legal principles and play important roles in the administration of justice. This presentation will describe a range of uses, realized and potential, for neuroscience in the law, and assess the challenges such uses pose for the law.

Mark Frankel
As Director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Frankel has supervised the production of such resources as, Neuroscience and the Law: Brain, Mind, and the Scales of Justice (2004); Human Inheritable Genetic Modifications: Assessing Scientific, Ethical, Religious, and Policy Issues (2000); Stem Cell Research Applications: Monitoring the Frontiers of Biomedical Research (1999). Frankel's research includes studying the impact of information technology on human subjects; developing a research agenda for the US voting system; efforts to promote research integrity; and the legal implications of advances in genetics and neuroscience. Frankel earned his B.A. in political science from Emory University, and his Ph.D. in political science (concentration in science policy) from George Washington University.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.
January NCAS Lecture
Lawrence Krauss will speak on Saturday, January 14 at 1:30 pm at National Science Foundation in Arlington.  Krauss is professor of physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, as well as author of several books, including The Physics of Star Trek, Atom, and his latest, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.  More information about this lecture will be available in the January 2012 Shadow of a Doubt.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Nowhere to Hide: Looking for an Apollo Moon Landings Hoax-from Inside NASA
On September 6, 2011, NASA held a media teleconference to reveal new images of three Apollo landing sites taken by the agency's unmanned Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).  The images provide detail of the Apollo 12, 14, and 17 landing sites surpassed only by the photos taken decades ago by the crews of those expeditions.  The LRO Camera (LROC) obtained the images after LRO entered a temporary low-altitude orbit in August, bringing the spacecraft as close as 22 kilometers from the Moon's surface.

Although primarily intended for comparison with surface photography obtained by the Apollo astronauts, the LROC images also pose a challenge for the segment of the public who doubt that the Apollo landings occurred.

A 1999 Gallup poll showed that only 6% of Americans believed that the US government staged or faked the Apollo landings, but more recent polls indicate a much larger percentage.  For example, 25% of United Kingdom citizens in a 2009 survey commissioned by the Institution of Engineering and Technology's Engineering and Technology magazine indicated they don't believe the Apollo Moon landings were real.  (The shift in public opinion might be due to a notorious 2001 "documentary" televised on Fox entitled Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?)

I can attest that this myth has actually given pause to some of my fellow employees at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  A young colleague of mine once asked me what I thought about the alleged hoax, knowing of my involvement with NCAS (I was president at the time) and hoping I could answer his questions.  He didn't believe in the hoax, but didn't know what to make of the claims, which had an air of plausibility.

The recent LROC images have drawn no comments (yet) from several web sites that promote the claim of faked Apollo landings.  But lower-resolution LROC images from 2009 are variously criticized as fakes or insufficiently detailed to prove that Apollo artifacts are shown rather than boulders or other natural features.  The latter critique would be hard to make for the recent images, although Jarrah White of Australia complained in a September audio interview that "it's still a bunch of pixels" (a silly remark, because all digital images comprise pixels), misleading listeners into thinking the images can't possibly show rover tracks and the astronauts' footpaths, which in fact they do.

The high quality of the recent LROC images doesn't seem to leave room for any counterclaim other than fakery.  To check on that slim possibility, I decided to make use of my position as LRO flight software engineer (i.e., a programmer of its onboard computer, the "brain" of the spacecraft) to "look inside" the project's infrastructure.  Could LROC images be plausibly faked or doctored to show Apollo artifacts?  If there is in fact a conspiracy within NASA to perpetuate an Apollo landings hoax, would I be able to find evidence of it?

I believe the answer is yes, but I understand that I can't (at least for the purposes of this article) prove to readers that I'm not a part of the conspiracy and contributing to a cover-up.  Instead I'll present the results of my search for the truth and allow readers to consider this along with any other information they encounter.

My first step was to determine the provenance of the Apollo landing site images.  I would identify the images, then locate the records of the commands sent from the onboard computer to LROC to take the photos.  From there I would follow their progress as stored in the onboard solid-state recorder, then their transmission to the ground station at White Sands Complex in New Mexico, and finally their relay to the ground system in the LRO Mission Operations Center at Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland.  I have access to these "raw" (i.e., prior to processing) LROC images stored at Goddard.  (From there, the files are conveyed to the LROC science team at Arizona State University in Tempe, where the processing occurs.)

For this investigation I've made use of my previous experience and knowledge gleaned from resolving anomalies occurring between LROC and the LRO onboard computer.  I identified the raw-file counterparts to the three high-resolution Apollo landing site images shown at this site:

Each image is actually a composite of a pair (left and right) taken by LROC's Narrow-Angle Cameras (NACs).  The image number (upper left) contains information about the date and time of the exposure that can be used to identify its raw counterpart.  All of the digits following "M1" show when the image was commanded, reckoned by the number of seconds elapsed since 2009 June 18 at 21:32 Universal Time (i.e., LRO's launch time).

I've also located and verified each of the exposure commands sent from the LRO computer to LROC.  (The commands are batched and sent every 24 hours or so to the onboard computer from the ground with associated "time tags" in order to execute later at the specified times.  This way LRO can perform its specified tasks at specified times, even when it's not in communications contact with the ground.)

I then determined when the files were transmitted from LRO to the White Sands Complex and relayed to Goddard.  All of the times associated with the images are consistent with my expectation: the exposures were made at the specified times, stored in the onboard solid-state recorder, then transmitted later as described.  I also reviewed ground-system log files that provide detailed information that can be used for investigating anomalies.  All of the transactions completed normally, including the associated data integrity checks (which ensure that the onboard data were received uncorrupted on the ground).

Finally, I examined the Goddard ground-system computer's archive of LROC images by listing the appropriate directory's files.  All of them showed the expected file sizes and times for these exposures.  I concluded from this that no one had meddled with these images, or, if someone did meddle, he or she then concealed it by changing the file modification date back to its original value.  (This is easily done.)

So, in summary, I found a consistent, plausible, and straight-line (i.e., no detoured or delayed) path for each of the images, from exposure to onboard storage to transmission to relay.  The entire process of transmitting the images (each about 140 megabytes in size) requires about 20 to 30 seconds to complete.  There isn't enough time for someone to intervene en route in order to doctor the image with phony Apollo evidence.  Often there isn't time for someone to intervene between the time of the exposure and its onboard storage; the Apollo 14 image, for example, was taken only 14 minutes before it was transmitted to Earth.

Playing devil's advocate, could LRO have not actually been launched to the Moon?  We interacted with it at Goddard during pre-launch testing, so I know it existed then and there.  But is it possible that it was later concealed somewhere on Earth, and its amazing images (along with data from six other instruments) are faked?  I suppose I can't rule that out, but if true, I applaud the realism of the ruse, which occasionally includes anomalies seen only by a relatively small audience of spacecraft engineers.  After over 2 years of supporting LRO mission operations, I can attest that I've seen no "edges" to the realism of the experience.  I have found flaws in the programming, dealt with problematic hardware components onboard, and responded to changing mission objectives, but nothing that would suggest that this is not actually the same system we tested before launch, and is now in lunar orbit.

Next, I will look inside the raw LROC images at Goddard.  If there is a hoax, it's extremely unlikely that the perpetrators would expect anyone at Goddard to bother looking inside the images there.  That's the job of the scientists, students, and staff at Arizona State who receive the files after they're transferred from Goddard.

What will I find?  See part two of this article in the January Shadow of a Doubt!

1999 Gallup poll:
2009 IET poll:
Apollo Moon hoax advocate Jarrah White's complaints about the recent LROC images (at the 2-minute mark):
From Readers
Reader Charlie Loomis, commenting on November's "Gaddafi's 2011 Death a Sitcom?" writes, "If Duclon and Menteer [producers of the sitcom Second Chance] were truly psychic they would have never done a sitcom that lasted a whopping 2 months." 

Actually the series continued under the new name Boys Will Be Boys, but was canceled the following spring after completing only a single television season, so Mr. Loomis' point is valid.

Shadow Light
Some members and contacts of NCAS receive a postal notification of this and every new monthly Shadow of a Doubt.  The Shadow Light postcard announces the monthly lecture and highlights of the electronic Shadow of a Doubt, which is available online at  NCAS thereby reduces Shadow production and postage costs.  To further reduce costs, members and contacts can opt out of postal notification altogether, while continuing to receive Shadow of a Doubt via e-mail.  To opt out, send us an e-mail at

Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and  VA!
On Wednesday, December 14 at 7:00 p.m., please join fellow NCASers at either of our simultaneous DC-area Drinking Skeptically events:

Jackie's Sidebar
8081 Georgia Avenue (entrance on Sligo Avenue) in Silver Spring, MD

Chevys Fresh Mex
4238 Wilson Blvd (Ballston Common Mall) in Arlington, VA

The February issue of Washingtonian magazine features the Sidebar on its cover, for a story on the best bars in the DC area.

Drinking Skeptically is an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals. There's no cover charge and all are welcome. Don't drink? Don't let that stop you from joining us! Some of the world's most famous skeptics are teetotalers, and we are happy to have you! Remember that drinking skeptically means drinking responsibly. If there's one thing science has taught us, it's the effects of alcohol on the human body.

Time to Renew?
Be sure to check your renewal date above your postal address on the Shadow Light postcard. Send any queries to  Use the membership form to renew.