The moon landing in 1969 was a high point of human determination, teamwork, and more types of technology coming together than you can count. Three men went hurtling atop a skyscraper full of explosives to travel nearly 239,000 miles to orbit the moon. Two then landed on the surface, marking the first time people set foot somewhere other than the Earth.
No sooner were the images transmitted to the earth than some conspiracy theorists decided that we had not reached the moon. Instead, an elaborate theory of how the lunar landing must have occurred on a terrestrial sound stage came about. People pointed to what they claimed were inconsistencies in lighting or other visual evidence that “proved” the filming had to occur elsewhere.
A group of engineers at graphics chip company Nvidia decided to kill two birds with one stone: showcase the capabilities of its newest graphics cards and debunk the lunar conspiracy theories. Although an unusual application, it’s an example of how people with a computer science degree can use their expertise to open new areas of forensics, which is, ultimately, the science of finding out what really happened in a situation.
Nvidia undertook a detailed 3D recreation of the lunar landing, with a specific eye to claims that differences in lighting could show that no one left the Earth. Here is the video they produced.
As Nvidia notes, “on the surface, some of these claims seem reasonable.” The question is whether science and facts support the claims or not. What Nvidia was able to do for the first time was control “global illumination in real time.” The new chips and video boards could handle both initial illumination and light reflected from other objects to accurately and completely model visual reality. So, in addition to the point lighting of the sun, engineers, taking into account characteristics of lunar soil and the materials in the space suits and ship, could also represent all the reflected sources of light that could cast additional shadows or illumination.
So, the image of Buzz Aldrin descending from the ship in what would have been the shadowed side away from the sun was still visible because of all the reflected light — not just from the lunar surface and the landing module, but from the suit of Neil Armstrong, who was already standing on the moon. Experienced photographers will find the results familiar, as they often use reflectors to bounce light back from a source onto an object to change the way it appears. Similarly, arguments that stars should have been visible in the original iconic photos and video failed to take into account the difference in brightness between a sun-lit lunar scene and the spots of light in the sky.
Nvidia’s deconstruction of the visual elements in the lunar images is an example of how computer science often plays a role in uncovering truth. Whether examining conspiracy theories, analyzing crime scenes, or finding information that was accidentally lost or deliberately erased from computers, software savvy is critical to understanding what actually happened.