Apollo Investigation

Jerry Wiant and the Big One

Developments in 2004

McDonald ObservatoryProblems with Laser Ranging?

On 2 June 2004 a UK terrestrial TV network broadcast a documentary in the 'Stranger Than Fiction' series called The Truth Behind the Moon Landings. The bulk of the documentary may have persuaded the casual viewer that the Apollo missions were problem-free in all respects, but for anyone else this programme was full of inconsistencies.

If half the statements had been completed or if the 'experiments' had been done with any scientific rigour, then this particular documentary could not have been made. As it was, The Truth Behind the Moon Landings turned out to be a misnomer if ever there was one, since it can be demonstrated that the network included in its broadcast a terminological inexactitude. And then repeated it, in case viewers did not hear the first time.

Appearing towards the end of the program, Jerry Wiant was interviewed. He is the Chief Engineer from the McDonald Observatory on Mount Livermore, near Fort Davis, Texas. This observatory is one of those responsible for getting laser readings from the reflectors allegedly placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts.

According to this documentary, which more specifically referred to the 1969 Apollo 11 manned mission, this act demonstrated absolutely that NASA got its astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin onto the lunar surface. What did Jerry Wiant actually say? Mr Wiant stated that, "In 33 years no one has come and talked to us!"

After a brief demonstration of the lunar laser protocol at the McDonald Observatory, the voiceover then continued: "It's a tough one to dispute. And surprisingly, the conspiracy theorists tend to grow reticent when the subject of laser reflectors crops up." Jerry Wiant then repeated: "So it's sad… that er… the detractors… have never taken the time to ask the people who were actually involved. They just made up their minds it was a hoax and never bothered to ask us."

At least as far as Bennett & Percy, the authors of Dark Moon are concerned, all three of these remarks are incorrect. While it is technically true that we did not go to Mount Livermore in person, it is totally untrue that Mr Wiant has not been contacted by 'the detractors' of the Apollo program, as he put it. Thanks to a challenge set by the late Brian Welch (the media relations director for NASA when we were doing our research) we examined the laser ranging matter very closely indeed.

Brian Welch had asked us to tell him how NASA got the readings back from the Moon if the astronauts had not been there to place the laser -reflectors on site. Following up that challenge in 1997 there was an exchange of several emails on this subject with Jerry Wiant who replied to quite a few of them. For the sake of those who do not have the book here is the condensed extract of our interaction with Mr Wiant:

Jerry and the laser rangers

Aulis contacted McDonald Observatory on Mount Livermore near Ft Davis, Texas, and Jerry Wiant together with his colleagues kindly responded to our enquiries.

Jerry corroborated the fact that the Soviets used specially made French laser reflectors on both their Lunokhod roving vehicles in order to provide two LR3s for measuring the precise Earth/Moon distance. These Lunokhod reflectors were built higher up on the chassis than the cameras that returned over 80,000 images, and both cameras and laser reflector had protective dust covers. Lunokhod 1 arrived on the Moon in November 1970 by which the time the Soviets, who were highly skilled at remotely controlling their vehicles, had acquired enough data on the properties of the lunar surface to be prepared for any dust movement.

So how can it be the case, as Jerry Wiant informed us, that the LR3 on Lunokhod 1 was unusable because it had become covered in dust from the wheels? Jerry Wiant also confirmed that the Lunokhod 2 (which arrived on the Moon in January 1973) worked better than Lunokhod 1.

As well as these Soviet LR3s, Jerry Wiant told us that his observatory used the three American LR3s, situated at the 'Apollo 11', 'Apollo 14' and 'Apollo 15' designated landing sites.

We were informed by Jerry Wiant that four laser reflectors, (three from Apollo plus Lunokhod 2) were still being used in 1997 by the MLRS at McDonald Observatory in Texas, although the signal received from 'Apollo 14' was higher (i.e. better) than that returned by 'Apollo 11'. This, Jerry added, was considered to be due to the scattering of debris onto the retroreflector during the LM Eagle lift-off. Note that at the time of filming this segment for the documentary, a colleague asserted that they were currently using two sites, and then corrected this to three sites.

Allegedly, at the time of 'Apollo 11' the 120 inch optical telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mt Hamilton in California and the brand new 107 inch telescope at McDonald Observatory were used to concentrate these beams.

However, the above record of when the laser(s) was/were first fired turns out not to be correct. Jerry Wiant stated that the McDonald Observatory was unable to obtain any readings from the lunar surface until "mid-August 1969". Why? Well, Jerry told us that there were too many clouds in the local Texan sky that summer.* So to check this claim, we contacted the relevant American meteorological office and interestingly their weather data for the area recorded: Clear skies with temperatures averaging 88°F and no precipitation from July 18 thro' August 25 1969!

In the hope of obtaining something more precise, we put some further questions to Jerry Wiant relative to the reading of the laser signals, who then sent us this reply:

The Apollo pictures show the reflectors angled with reference to the local horizontal. If the astronauts had landed at the Moon's equator I believe the reflector panel would have been flat to the surface. The angles were known prior to landing and so the astronaut made an alignment with the sun to get a local azimuth. Then he looked at a carpenter's [type] level to get the panel [bottom plane] level.[sic]

But Jerry, 'Apollo 11' did land at the equator! At 0°41'N latitude, according to the NASA record. Yet the reflector was tilted a full 28° to the horizontal, not flat on the surface. How can that possibly square with your statement?

Even though McDonald Observatory uses theseLR3 reflectors to this day, Jerry Wiant was [in 1997] unable to advise us as to what extent the Moon is moving away from Earth. This was one of the alleged reasons for establishing these reflectors. Jerry wrote: "The number I remember (sometimes I cannot trust my memory) is 4 millimetres." We were totally astonished at this professional's memory lapse, because it is generally acknowledged that the Moon is moving away from the Earth at a distance of approximately 4 centimetres per annum.

We had asked that question in order to ascertain the accuracy level of the information returned to us. Did Wiant's response infer that as we are not scientists known to Wiant this was a tactful(ish) way of putting us off? Did Wiant not value our questions? Or did it mean that he simply did not know? Jerry Wiant said that McDonald personnel "are not skilled in analysing the data" and that "McDonald do not use the data from these LR3s but send it up to archives in Maryland for other scientists to access".

Wiant explained that their data is "analysed by geo-physicists and used by a large variety of scientists". But how can it possibly be that an astronomical observatory is unskilled in understanding the lunar data returned by their own laser measurements? And thus unable to advise us as to how much the Moon is moving away from Earth. Note that in this 2004 documentary it was demonstrated to the viewer that the technicians did understand their screen readouts. We asked Jerry Wiant to elaborate on some of his responses to the questions engendered by his initial communication.

  • We asked for confirmation of the exact day that the observatory had picked up the laser reflector on the 'Apollo 11' site, together with the Earth/Moon distance measured at that time.
  • We also asked for more precision concerning the rate of movement per annum and to specify whether his "4mm" was a constant.
  • We requested that he inform us what were/are the furthest and nearest distances McDonald personnel have measured since 1969.
  • And to stipulate if those distances were expressed as planetary centre-to-centre, or surface-to-surface.
  • We also asked him if the Lunokhod 2 reflector was considered to be as good at returning their beams as the 'Apollo 15' reflector.
    • Was it perhaps even better?
    • How many reflectors did it actually have?
    • And when did they first try it?

No reply.

So we sent Jerry Wiant a nudge requesting that he confirm having received our communication. Bullseye! We had a response within hours. Jerry wrote: "Yes, I did get your last note, but it is beyond my knowledge. I forwarded your questions to Pete. I will ask him if he got them." Jerry signed his message with a small 'j' and fled from our questions.

The mysterious Pete never contacted us, despite requests for further details.

Following this exchange, on December 18 1997 the London Daily Telegraph published a positively rhapsodic article exclaiming over the fact that astronomers can measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Yes! A feat that these professionals find 'extraordinary'. Has it really taken nearly thirty years for the scientific community to wake up to this scientific prowess? We do not think so, in fact having spoken to astronomers in France, America, Australia, England and Germany, we know that is not so.

In the Daily Telegraph article it was claimed that the Earth/Moon distance can be measured to within an inch rather than the six inches accuracy range of 1969. The significant thing is that this information also came from the McDonald Observatory, "from where the November 24 measurement was made", as the Daily Telegraph reported. The spokesman at McDonald was a certain Dr. Peter Shelus. No doubt he was Jerry Wiant's 'Pete'.

And no doubt Pete will also be happy to know that at least some of the 'detractors' of the public record relative to the Apollo program took the trouble to get in touch – even if Jerry Wiant says he doesn't remember. But then, as he wrote to us before fleeing from our enquiries: "Sometimes I cannot trust my memory."

We commiserate, Jerry. But it is a big problem when appearing as the punch line in a program titled The Truth about the Moon Landings. It makes the whole of the NASA position look exceedingly weak indeed. And that is putting it mildly.

Mary Bennett

Aulis Online, 2004

See also Lunar Laser Ranging: A Review by Andreas Märki, M.Sc. Aulis Online, 2018

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