A postponement of a mission to the Moon and the whole disinformation machine is set in motion again. Since NASA, the American space agency, postponed the Artemis missions until 2026, old misinformation has resurfaced. The whole thing is illustrated in a viral meme, which aims to highlight the so-called inconsistency between the “low capacity” computer used during the Apollo missions and a quote attributed to astronaut Donald Pettit about the fact that “we don’t could no longer go to the Moon because we would no longer have the technology. This is a piece of the “Moon hoax” machine, this conspiracy theory claiming that man has never walked on the Moon and that NASA is lying.
Small clarification: the man starring in this meme is not Donald Pettit. This is Andreas Arato, a Hungarian electrical engineer who became a star of the “Harold hides his pain” meme in the 2010s, and who was also a model for royalty-free photos. In 2018, he recounted his adventure as a meme hero in a TedX conference.
The Apollo Guidance Computer, the computer for the Apollo missions
The illustration of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), the computer used on board the lunar module of the Apollo missions, is however the correct one. A photo can be found on the website of the NASA and several models of the AGC are today preserved in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington (there were 17 Apollo missions between the program’s launch in 1961 and its end in 1972, the most famous of which was the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, where man walked on the Moon). But the data associated with it on the meme, 45 kb of memory and a processing speed of 0.045 MHz, is incorrect.
The Apollo Guidance Computer’s RAM (the RAM, which temporarily stores files) was 4 KB and its permanent memory (the ROM, which stores instructions in a fixed manner) could go up to 74 KB, indicates Pierre Mounier -Kuhn, computer science historian at CNRS. The computer’s clock frequency, one of the components of its computing power, was 1 MHz, “which was fast for a very small computer from 1969”, specifies the historian, co-author of a Illustrated history of computing (EDP Sciences).
“Enormous efforts in ten years”
“The important thing is not the inferiority of the Apollo mission computers compared to those of today, but the superiority of the computers of 1969 compared to those of 1960,” he emphasizes. Enormous efforts were accomplished in ten years. The “insufficient computing” argument only persuades people who believe that “digital” did not exist before their smartphone. »
What was the purpose of this little computer? “It was enough to record and “run” the very compact programs, necessary to control control-command tasks and written in machine language, that is to say a binary code, made up of simple sequences of 0 and 1 and not in advanced languages, which are too cumbersome,” explains Pierre Mounier-Kuhn. This machine language was then materialized in the form of electromagnetic circuits in permanent memory, ROM.
“This ROM was a precise combination of electrical wires and tori, small magnetizable rings, assembled by real seamstresses in a Raytheon factory in Massachusetts,” says the historian, who specifies that he got this information from the reference book on the subject. Digital Apollo by David Mindell. They knew the astronauts, who had come to visit them, and were very aware that the precision of their work would determine their life or death as they approached the Moon. »
Donald Pettit and “destroyed technology”
Finally, did Donald Pettit say this sentence? A 15 second sequence has been circulating since May 2017 among believers in the “Moon hoax” theory. Contacted, NASA has not yet responded to our questions on the authentication of this sequence. In this video clip, the man who appears to be astronaut Donald Pettit says: “I would go to the Moon in a nanosecond, the problem is that we no longer have the technology to do that. We had it, but we destroyed that technology and it’s a difficult process to rebuild it. » We have not found the full original video or for whom or when it was broadcast, but a slightly longer version is available.
In it, the astronaut also explains why the Moon could serve as a base before sending an expedition to Mars (which contradicts the theory that the technology would not exist). In 2012 interview given to students at Oregon State University, he claims that he would go into space in “a nanosecond,” a phrase he seems to prize. The talk about technology is found in a interview with National Public Radio dating from 2012 in the series “Ask an Expert”. This time, Don Pettit is interviewed by listeners alongside another astronaut, Jeffrey Hoffman. The latter explained more than ten years ago that if the Americans ever wanted to return to the Moon, they would have to “pick up where the last Apollo missions left off [en 1972]apply 21st century technology and find a way to do it affordably.”
The context of the Cold War
“Why didn’t we continue to do it? he continues, it was really incredible to have developed this ability to go to the Moon, and then we threw it all in the trash. » He then recalls the context of the Cold War of the 1960s and 1970s: “When President Kennedy challenged us to go to the Moon, it was never expected that it would be a continuous process. and supported. We were there to beat the Russians, we did it, then we stopped. » It is in this sense that Don Pettit’s words can also be understood.
Pierre Mounier-Kuhn also underlines this: “Alunir was a political challenge between the two superpowers during the Cold War”, the United States and the USSR, “once the bet was won by the United States, no one had reason to return there, especially since the cost of these missions was disproportionate in relation to their benefit. »
“It’s expensive to go to the Moon”
This is also what reports Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, geographer, research director CNRS Center Alexandre Koyré, and specialist in questions of geopolitics of space and space policies. “It’s not particularly difficult to go to the Moon today, it’s just expensive,” she explains. If you want to go there with human beings, you need an exceptional equipment reliability rate, with a lot of testing, the ability to eject the capsule…” Until 2011, NASA flew space shuttles and managed maintenance. of the International Space Station, which represented a budget of 10 billion dollars per year, “roughly the equivalent of the entire European space budget, the European Space Agency and European countries included”, comments Isabelle Sourbès-Verger.
Since 1972, space powers have refocused “their investments on the launch of numerous satellites into Earth orbits, which are much more useful, and, in terms of scientific exploration, on space stations in orbit or on robots sent to explore the stars more distant (planets, comets, etc.), while saving the risk of sending men,” adds Pierre Mounier-Kuhn.
China’s arrival on the Moon in 2019
To go to the Moon or even Mars, you need solid reasons to generate such a budget. The triggering factor is that since 2018-2019, China has been interested in the Moon, and has landed its first lander on the far side of the satellite. The country is also considering taking humans there. “And that allows the United States to reactivate the good old, extremely positive memory of the race with the Soviet Union and the Apollo 11 victory,” notes Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. In 2014, Obama passed regulations requiring NASA to use the private sector for certain activities, such as transport to low Earth orbit entrusted to Boeing and SpaceX.
With the International Space Station reaching the end of its life, NASA has proposed in its manned programs to create a space station around the Moon, Lunar Gateway, with landers or moonlanders which will travel between the Moon and this station. A lunar base could be set up to prepare for future missions to Mars. “There, to go to Mars, we really have zero easily developable technology, that is to say we know very well what we would have to do, we would know how to do it, but it would take time and it would still cost more expensive, underlines the geographer. By proposing this Artemis program, NASA is taking a very significant lead compared to the Chinese program, with the idea that the United States must assert leadership in the world. »