Apollo Investigation

The Surveyor 3 Mystery

by Jarrah White

Read Crossing the line Part Two

Crossing the line between editorial responsibility
and viewer discernment – Part One

There is a technique commonly used in storytelling that is equally applicable to documentary filmmaking: ‘Show, don’t tell.’ When producing a documentary, it needs to be told visually. Typically, the producers have at their disposal interviews with the people who were directly involved with the documentary’s subject matter, as well as stock footage of the historical event in question. But sometimes footage of the historic event may not exist. In such scenarios, the producers must make the tough choice between several options: sourcing analogue footage that is close enough in appearance to represent what the narrator and interviewees are talking about; using artist’s renditions of the event in question; or physically creating a re-enactment of the event.

For example, in the case of analogue footage, television viewers are used to seeing documentaries showcasing the launch of the Apollo crewed missions’ Saturn V rockets. Such montages usually include 16mm film showing the S-IC first stage and interstage ring drop away [Fig 1]. Unless researched thoroughly, most viewers wouldn’t have a clue that those clips were not from the crewed missions, but were in fact filmed aboard the preceding unmanned Apollo 4 and 6 test flights.1,2 However, it is at least understandable why the editors would choose to intercut such clips with footage of the crewed launches: together they look good and create a seamless sequence of the lift-off in all its phases.

Fig. 1

Fig 1. There were no astronauts aboard the Saturn V when these films were recorded on Apollo 4 (top) and Apollo 6 (bottom). [NASA]

In the case of selecting either an artist’s rendition or a re-enactment, this is generally a more forthright admission by the editors that they have no stock footage to graphically showcase the topic at hand and are improvising to the best of their abilities. Most artist’s renditions and animations are not going to be photorealistic enough to fool viewers into thinking they’re genuine. Even the best of these often have a flaw that reveals their role as a simple visual aid. For example, sequences showing space probes drifting through the void of space could only be genuine IF there was another spacecraft nearby to take such videos. If not, who filmed it? Of course, it must be a mere visual aid. Similarly, actors starring in re-enactments won’t be picture-perfect doppelgangers of the historical persons they are portraying (especially when there is a generation gap between them), and most re-enactments would undoubtedly have far better video quality than whatever was possible a generation ago.

Nonetheless, some visual aids may appear more photorealistic than others and these usually come with disclaimers identifying them as such. But when editorial decisions result in the omission of any such disclaimers, the essential nature of a documentary being the truthful accounting of an event is compromised. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the viewer is now susceptible to being misled and the fine line drawn between the viewers’ discernment and editorial responsibility has been crossed.

However responsible editors were in the early years (and we shall come back to this point in Part Two) unfortunately, by the 1980s and 1990s, few of NASA’s mainstream affiliates cared to appropriately caption any of their visuals regardless of whether they were actual flight footage or just another live-action simulation, or near-photorealistic animation or a combination of the three. Instead, choosing to leave it up to viewer discretion. At best, you’d have to wait for the end credits to see a credit for ‘animations’ or ‘simulations’. At worst, those responsible for these visual aids would be credited ambiguously or not at all. A documentary produced in 1987 for NASA makes this point, specifically its segment on Apollo 12.

The Mystery of the Surveyor III flypast video – Whodunit?

On each of the six Apollo missions, NASA had a Mauer 16mm Data Acquisition Camera (DAC) mounted on a bracket on the inside of the LM’s right triangular window to record things like the touchdown. Sequences from these film magazines are now readily available from NASA’s archives and on video upload websites. These films have naturally been featured prominently in various educational documentaries about the space race. But this 1987 three-part documentary series titled Conquest, made by RSVP Productions Ltd, and edited together with official NASA film footage and video3 [Fig 2], contained a piece of footage that is attributed to the Apollo 12 mission – but is conspicuously absent from the official Apollo 12 archives. Why would that be?

Fig. 1

Fig 2.
VHS cover of Conquest. [Aulis]

At about five minutes into Part 2 of Conquest, Marcus Thompson, its editor, plays a clip from the official 16mm film allegedly taken by the Apollo 12 DAC during the descent. The editor then fades into a very different feed showing what appears to be a flyby of the Surveyor 3 craft. That robotic probe was landed on the Moon on April 20, 1967, and the Apollo 12 LM is supposed to have made a precision landing near this old probe.

Pinpoint landings

In the sequence we see in this documentary, the LM appears to swoop towards the Surveyor and then manoeuvre around it by about 90°. (Note how at the beginning of the sequence one of the Surveyor’s two omni directional antennas is pointing to the right of the screen, and then at the end of the sequence we see that it is pointing towards the top of the screen.) [Figs 3-5]. The editor then cuts back to the 16mm footage from the Apollo 12 DAC. We immediately see that the lunar surface is barely visible, thanks to the LM creating dust plumes at that point in its descent. The sequence ends with the moment of touchdown.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Figs 3-5. Frames from the ‘Surveyor 3’ flyover in Conquest – filmed as if the camera was positioned on the left side of the passing craft – an impossibility for the Apollo 12 LM.

During this sequence, the narrator states: “The landing module was to prove it could make a pinpoint touchdown by flying past Surveyor 3, a robot fired to the Moon two and a half years before.”3 [emphasis added] Note the choice of words ‘flying past Surveyor 3’. Not simply landing near it, but flying past it. The very specific wording, together with this footage purporting to show Surveyor 3, strongly implies that the Apollo 12 crew were somehow able to record this footage during their way down. This is further insinuated as such by the official Apollo 12 audio communications voiceover playing in the background during this lunar descent phase of the mission. Continuing to play after the narrator finishes his sentence, the camera swoops around the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, and we hear LM Pilot Al Bean’s voice: “…coming down at 2 [feet per second], Pete, you got plenty of gas, plenty of gas, babe. Hang in there…” According to NASA’s 'script' for Apollo 12, Bean said this 26 seconds before the surface contact was officially recorded at a distance of some 155m (508ft) northwest of the Surveyor probe.

This statement alone is a red flag: Conceivably, the astronauts might have been able to see the Surveyor 3 at some point during Apollo 12’s alleged descent trajectory, but not from the angles implied by this fly past footage.

Fig. 1

Fig 6. NASA’s description of how the Apollo 12 LM approached its landing site
[footnote from article by Derek K. Willis, Aulis Online, April 2019 [aulis.com/surveyor3]

NASA always said that the Apollo lunar modules touched down on an East to West trajectory to specifically avoid the morning sun shining into the spacecraft windows. If that is not enough, 90 seconds before landing the LM’s closest pass occurred at a distance of 109m (357ft) from the probe and an altitude of 67m (220ft), from those details alone, clearly the footage in this particular documentary was a simulation.

Fig. 1

Fig 7. The official location of Apollo 12 (yellow pin) does not compute with the NASA photographic evidence (red flag 12). The Google coordinates are the same as the decimal coordinates at the yellow pin.

When taking into account the fact that across NASA’s documentation the distance between the Surveyor probe and the LM varies, and worse still, the actual coordinates cited for the Apollo 12 landing site do not conform to the photographic evidence supplied by NASA,4 then clearly something is very wrong with the official record.

This Surveyor 3 flypast also featured in an earlier 1983 documentary titled NASA: The 25th Year,5 made for NASA by Cannata Communications, Houston, Texas. The clip appears around the 9 minutes 40 seconds mark as part of a Surveyor program montage, and only lasts for a few seconds [Fig 8]. However, the sequence differs from that shown in the 1987 Conquest documentary. Here, in this anniversary documentary it appears to be taken from much later in the flyby, with the Surveyor appearing mere meters away from the camera and the camera itself practically a meter or less above the lunar surface! Given the landing data already supplied, we know this cannot be so, and it further illustrates the absurdity postulated in Conquest that the Apollo 12 LM crew filmed this sequence.

Fig. 1

Fig 8. Frame from ‘Surveyor 3’ flyover, in NASA: The 25th Year.

This absurdity was discussed by authors Bennett & Percy in their 1999 book Dark Moon: Apollo and the Whistle-Blowers 6 and again, in the documentary What Happened on the Moon? where Percy stated:

"Instead of just catching a fleeting glimpse through the LM’s triangular window as the LM continued on its descent path, this sequence from The Conquest of Space using original NASA film is very suspect. This result is wholly consistent with imagery that could only be taken with a specially mounted camera capable of considerable lateral panning capacity.”7

Because of the way the camera appears to swoop around the Surveyor craft and view it from different angles, the authors suggested that this sequence was actually recorded using an elaborate camera boom rig in a studio, or a camera mounted on a helicopter, using a film rig with the left door removed. [Fig 9].

Fig. 1
Fig 9. Helicopter equipped with a VistaVision camera rig capable of panning and tilting
from the left side. (Percy directing in 1991, before the days of the now widely-used gyro camera stabilisation systems.)

In Apollo hoax ‘debunk’ forums this finding created quite a stir. The regular propagandists in these echo chambers rightly agreed that this footage could not have been recorded by the Apollo 12 astronauts, but they were quick to dismiss this footage as being a mere simulation! They managed this contradiction by avoiding like the plague the Conquest documentary’s narration that heavily inferred that the footage was indeed from Apollo 12. Four years later, listed on April 18, 2003 under Bilbliography: the Aulis Journal, the Clavius website8 adopted what can only be described as a word salad and ad hominem attacks in order to pin this one purely on the Dark Moon authors:

"So it would be important to prove that the clip actually came from NASA and actually was meant to depict the landing. The proof offered by Ms. Bennett and Mr. Percy: We had no reason to believe otherwise. [sic] Yes, that's it. They didn’t actually verify that the clip was made by NASA, supplied by NASA, or that the people who made it meant for it to be the actual flight footage. The authors just didn't consider any other possibility..."

This is a gross mischaracterization and omission. The Clavius website entirely ignored the narration and audio track on the Conquest video (the script was written by NASA’s David Baker) and in seeking to mask the fact that this footage is indeed a simulation linked to the official record of the Apollo 12 mission, creates ‘a strawman’, in which the blame for attributing this flyby footage to NASA and the Apollo 12 mission is shifted onto Bennett and Percy. After enumerating the many tough editorial choices facing filmmakers with quote ‘a grab bag of stock footage to choose from’, and despite the fact that Clavius also writes with a very clear understanding that the Apollo 12 LM could not have taken this footage, these authors were still considered blameworthy:

“…But because the documentary made heavy use of NASA-supplied materials, and sandwiched the simulation between clips of actual flight footage, it was "reasonable" for the viewer to conclude that the Surveyor clip came from NASA…” [emphasis added]

Yes, indeed it was. The onus would normally be on the production company to state that footage is a simulation. And the reasons for a simulation are simply that the actual footage of the event in question is not available. Either because it has not yet happened or it has not been filmed when happening. However, with a documentary made in 1987 featuring space exploration from 1969, unless advised otherwise, the viewer expects the footage to be the historical reality. This is demonstrably not the case for this few seconds of flyby footage, and so Clavius is not yet finished with blaming Bennett & Percy for discovering this discrepancy between the official record and this flyby sequence:

"…Although [in What Happened on The Moon? Percy] shows the cover of "Conquest", he later emblazons the ambiguous clip with the title ‘Apollo 12 Footage’, thereby removing any doubt in the viewer's mind. There's no doubt expressed in Dark Moon either..."

This sequence was filmed as one continuous shot (requiring a large panning capability).
But this was apparently taken from the small triangular forward-facing window of the ‘Apollo 12’ LM! To obtain such a shot on Earth would require a special camera and mount—to give plenty of sideways camera movement while the craft maintained level flight.
Either a camera and mount fitted to a helicopter with its door removed, or a control rig in a studio would do the trick. In our opinion, this material is absolute Whistle-Blowing and this particular scene totally faked.
But then if the astronauts had not been near the Moon but were credited with having filmed the Surveyor during their mission—it would have to have been specially created, would it not?

The text as it appears in Dark Moon: Apollo and the Whistle-Blowers on p 160.

Actually, from my chair it appears that it was the producers of Conquest who removed the viewers’ choice. What else are the viewers to conclude (many without ready access to raw NASA stock footage and documentation), especially when the footage in question is dubbed with both official Apollo 12 audio communication and very misleading narration implying that this was taken whilst the Apollo 12 crew were ‘FLYING PAST SURVEYOR 3’?

Likewise, without access to the Conquest documentary readers of Clavius have no way of verifying that, at the very least, this ‘Surveyor 3’ footage was presented extremely misleadingly. And instead walk away with the impression that Bennett and Percy were trying to mislead their audience. The reality is that this sequence should have been marked as a simulation by the producers from the start. All that authors Bennett & Percy have done is to do the job for them.

However, there are further issues with this section of the Apollo 12 photographic and film record, one of which concerns the lunar regolith. The authors of Dark Moon also pointed out that there is a mismatch between the lunar surface seen in the still photographs taken by the Hasselblad and that seen in this flyover footage. In the Apollo 12 Hasselblad images [Fig 10], we see the Surveyor 3 probe sitting low down the very smooth slope of a crater with very little dust. But the flyby footage shows the Surveyor 3 surrounded by large mounds and sitting on much darker lunar regolith that is coarse, rough and lumpy.

Fig. 1
Fig 10. Surveyor 3 with the Apollo 12 LM in the background, AS12-48-7099. [NASA]

The misdirection applied by Clavius9 towards Bennett and Percy was an attempt to misdirect the basic premise of these authors’ work: that the official record of the Apollo lunar missions does not stand up to scrutiny, and that whistle-blowers have played their part in drawing the attention of the public to that fact. Whether intentional as Bennett and Percy assert, or accidental as Clavius would prefer, this film footage allegedly showing Surveyor 3 filmed during the Apollo 12 LM’s descent is presented in a sensationalised and misleading fashion in the Conquest documentary and again in the NASA: The 25th Year documentary.

In the latter case, the clip is fleetingly used as part of a brief highlight reel consisting of Surveyor animations and Surveyor Slowscan TV frames. Unlike Conquest, no attempt is made in NASA: The 25th Year to specifically muddy the flyover footage with Apollo 12. This would have been fine. However, during this montage the narrator makes the error of stating that "six Surveyor spacecraft made soft landings on the Moon." In actuality, there were five soft landings and two crash landings. Now for NASA: The 25th Year, it could just be a simple script error. But for Conquest, someone clearly made a conscious effort to cut and splice Apollo 12 audio with this simulation and script the narration as if the simulation was something Apollo 12's camera recorded. As such, it is a perfect example of the fine line between viewer discernment and editorial responsibility being crossed.

The only remaining question is: Where did this footage come from?

imageFear not, I’ve found the answer: The craft in the footage is not Surveyor 3, but a model of Surveyor 1. The sequence comes from a short promotional video produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, titled First Soft Landing on Moon, June 2, 1966.10 It chronicles the first soft landing of an American probe, Surveyor 1, which had launched May 30. This was uploaded to the web 36 years later, on May 8, 2002. It uses a mix of animations combined with real time footage of the JPL control room during the crucial lunar landing phase and images that are attributed to the Probe’s TV camera, once landed.

The first fifty seconds of this NASA JPL video begins with some obvious animations of the Surveyor 1 approaching the Moon and stock footage of the ground technicians led by Dr Al Hibbs at work. Then at 49 seconds into the video, the editor cuts into the fabled footage in question. The Surveyor flyby sequence begins with the camera swooping over some barren rocks, then at precisely 1 minute into the video, the model of Surveyor 1 comes into view top left of frame and the camera swoops down towards it – so close that the solar panels start flapping. This flapping indicates that this was not filmed in a vacuum, but that the close pass of another object had disturbed the atmosphere and this has affected the probe’s relatively fragile solar panels.

We can see immediately that this simulation is the exact same footage used in 1983 for NASA: The 25th Year and misleadingly presented in the 1987 documentary Conquest. Ambiguous as they are, both documentaries bill JPL in their respective end credits. In NASA: The 25 Year, JPL is just one of many NASA facilities in an unspecified list of names scrolling through the credits; and in Conquest, the credits include the following statement: "The Producers wish to thank NASA, JPL, Ames Research Centre, ETV, Europeaan (sic) Space Agency, NASDA, Japan Ford Aerospace." That's it! No disclaimers. No specific credits for simulations or animations. Just thanks!

Upon even closer inspection of the simulation, we can see that apparently, RSVP Productions chose its visual aid poorly when creating their mock-up of the Apollo 12 flyby. Although the Surveyor 1 and 3 probes used the same base design, they had subtle yet significant physical differences that distinguished one from another [Fig 12].

Fig. 1

Fig 12. A comparison of all five Surveyors to successfully land on the Moon. Note how the Surveyor 3 spacecraft has the SMSS instrument with its characteristic pantograph arm, while the Surveyor 1 does not.

Chiefly, the Surveyor 3 included a new instrument called the Soil Mechanics Surface Sampler (SMSS), which was intended to dig trenches through the lunar soil to evaluate the hardness and stability of the terrain. The SMSS consisted of 5cm robotic scoop hand attached to the end of a pantographic arm, which could extend to a length of 1.5m [Fig 13].11

Fig. 1

Fig 13. Close up of the Surveyor 3’s SMSS instrument.

This pantographic arm is easily recognisable in demonstration press photos of the Surveyor 3 [Fig. 14];

Fig. 1

Fig 14. Press demonstration of the Surveyor 3’s SMSS in action. [UPI]

Slowscan TV frames that the Surveyor 3 itself recorded [Fig 15];

Fig. 1

Fig 15. TV transmission of the Surveyor 3’s SMSS digging through the lunar soil. [NASA]

Training photos of the Apollo 12 EVA which used a mock-up of the Surveyor 3 [Fig 16];

Fig. 1

Fig 16. Apollo 12 EVA training. The SMSS’s pantographic arm extends behind Al Bean’s leg on the left of the image. [NASA]

And the official Hasselblad pictures supposedly taken by Conrad and Bean as they inspected this craft [Figs 17-18].

Fig. 1

Fig 17. Apollo 12 AS12-48-7133, the SMSS’s pantographic arm is clearly visible in front of Pete Conrad’s legs.

Fig. 1

Fig 18. Apollo 12 AS12-48-7128, close up of the SMSS.

Because the SMSS was a new feature to Surveyor 3, for obvious reasons that pantographic arm is totally absent in JPL’s simulated flyby of Surveyor 1. We can see ‘Surveyor 1’s’ two omnidirectional arms, we can see its two solar panels, we can even see the television camera. But no pantographic arm.


This entire discussion could easily have been avoided had the Conquest’s editors acted responsibly, and not left it up to viewer discretion. There is no reason why an appropriate disclaimer could not have been squeezed in somewhere. Except for the fact that as demonstrated, this whole flyby sequence was a massive toot on the whistle: as pointed out by Bennett and Percy and supported by the data from NASA, it would have been impossible to film the Surveyor 3 probe from the LM Intrepid. In fact, under the conditions seen in this footage, it would have been impossible to film from any spacecraft. By using flyby footage of the early model of Surveyor, without labelling it as the simulation that it is, and then attaching this footage to the later Surveyor 3 / Apollo 12 mission, the viewer is faced with the consideration that at a time when it was not possible to publicly disagree with the Apollo program, this was deliberately done so that, eventually, this whole discussion concerning the inconsistencies extant within the Apollo record would become inevitable. We are where we are.

Jarrah White

Aulis Online, June 2024

Jarrah WhiteAbout the Author

Jarrah White is an Australian filmmaker, astrophysicist and geologist. He has Certificate III & IV qualifications with distinctions in Screen and Media at the Sydney Institute of TAFE NSW, Australia; and a BSc with a Major in Geology and a Minor in Astrophysics completed in November 2017 and July 2019 respectively at Macquarie University.



  1. NASA (2022) “55 Years Ago: Apollo 4, the First Flight of the Saturn V”
  2. NASA (2023) “55 Years Ago: The Flight of Apollo 6”
  3. Conquest: A History of Space Achievements From the V1 to the Shuttle (1987) RSVP Productions Conquest 1: Tranquility Base Conquest II: No Frontier Conquest III: The Phoenix Will Rise
  4. Surveyor 3°01' 41.43"S 23°27' 29.55"W; LM 3°00’ 45”S 23° 25'18"W
  5. NASA: The 25th Year
  6. Mary Bennett, David S. Percy (1999) Dark Moon: Apollo and the Whistle-Blowers, Aulis Publishers
  7. What Happened On The Moon? Part1 and Part 2-3 (2000) Aulis Productions
  8. The Way Back Machine Clavius (2003) The Aulis Journal
  9. Clavius concluded its March 18, 2003 attack on the Aulis authors by stating, “For the second time in its existence, Aulis Publishing has cut off reader feedback at its web site.” The fact is that Aulis Online hosted a webpage for its readers that offered a guestbook, reader articles and a threaded forum, as well as direct email contact. However, despite continual requests for courtesy when discussing the difficult subject of Apollo, the phenomenon (sadly now common on social media) of libelous, abusive, and ultimately deliberately timewasting commentary, had got to such a level that Aulis chose to revert to email contact. Therefore to say that it had cut off reader feedback is incorrect. Aulis has always endeavoured to respond to readers' comments and questions. The Way Back Machine (August 12, 2001) Aulis Online Message Centre
  10. Surveyor 1: First U.S. Soft Landing on Moon (1966), NASA-JPL and alt YouTube link
  11. A. LePage (2019) The Apollo 12 Visit to Surveyor 3: A Preview of Space Archaeology, DrewExMachina

Read Crossing the line Part Two

creative commons
This article is licensed under
a Creative Commons License

NEXT Article next page
AULIS Online – Different Thinking