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Rest of the Best: 10 Best Urban Legends About NASA

The fact that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is located here is a source of great pride to Houstonians. In addition to making us Space Lords (The second coolest type of Lords), it proves that we are a hub of innovation, science, engineering, and other things that only smart people get.

But like the meatheads who would shove the nerds around at school, some of the less intelligent or malicious folks out in the world show great umbrage at NASA. Since it is still impossible to wedgie a space command center, this jealous rage is usually expressed as unsubstantiated rumors on the Internet. Here are the best of the best.

10. The Great Wall of China Myth: One of the longest running urban legends about NASA is that they have confirmed that the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object visible from space. This is actually false on several levels. If by space you mean low orbit, then plenty of man-made objects are visible from space including the Pentagon and the Hoover Dam. The Great Wall, being little wider than a highway in most places, is actually barely visible from space.

The myth comes from a travel writer named Richard Halliburton who said in his 1938 book Second Book of Marvels, The Orient that astronomers theorized that the Great Wall was the only man-made object visible from the moon. You'll note by the date that this was long before anyone had been into orbit, let alone the moon. The fact is, no human construction is visible from the moon with the naked eye, as Apollo astronauts have conformed.

Image from an active millimeter wave body scanner
Image from an active millimeter wave body scanner
TSA.gov

9. The Airport Bomb Exploding Scanner: Though it's usually attributed to Israeli airport security measures, occasionally an anonymous NASA engineer has been roped into the recent viral post about a new type of airport scanner. Instead of detecting explosive devices, the sealed cell actually detonates them and kills the alleged terrorist instantly.

Neither Israel nor a NASA engineer has developed any such scanner or device, nor is it likely they would. After all, how hard would it be for someone to slip a bomb onto an unsuspecting person?

8. NASA's "Don't Talk to Aliens" Law: America is really, really into the idea that not only is there intelligent life on other worlds, but that life has visited Earth and the government knows all about it. They just want to keep us in the dark, and seeing the way we react to a Black Friday sale I'm siding with Uncle Sam on this one assuming it's true.

One piece of evidence that UFO enthusiasts cite as proof of the conspiracy is a little known part of the Code of Federal Regulations. Title 14, Section 1211 empowers NASA to quarantine anyone that comes into contact with people or objects returning from space. It was a safety measure established during the Apollo 11 mission because though we assumed the moon was lifeless, it was impossible to know what microorganisms might possibly still be viable and return with our astronauts to Earth. Others of a more tinfoil bent assumed it was designed so NASA could keep little green men under wraps. Well if it is, it works very well.

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7. The Faked Moon Landing Video: I still have relatives who believe Neil Armstrong set foot not on the moon but on a Hollywood sound stage in secret. The classic legend got another dose of life in the 21st century thanks to Moontruth.com, which produced the above video showing a lighting system falling into the shot. It was clearly meant as a joke, but, well, you know how people are on the Internet.

Funnily enough, there is a lie NASA told about the moon landing that people rarely mention. Neil Armstrong's famous line was supposed to be "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind", but in the excitement of the moment he left out the "a" before man. NASA initially tried to blame it on static so as to preserve the prepared line for prosperity, but eventually gave up when the public at large was happy with the actual line.

6. Moon Circles Equal Acid Rain: One thing you learn when dealing with scary viral posts is that people like to destroy any threat to the credibility of their scare by invoking unassailable names. In this regard "NASA" might as well mean "God" in the hands of hoaxsters.

That's why in 2010 when there was a large volcanic eruption in Iceland an oft-forwarded message claimed that NASA had sent out a warning about possible acid rain as a result of particles in the atmosphere. These were said to cause baldness and skin cancer, because there's nothing the internet likes better than to threaten you with cancer.

The main indicator of the threat was a dark ring that was supposed to appear around the moon. While such a ring did appear in 2010, they are not a rare phenomenon. The real cause is clear skies and ice crystals in the upper-atmosphere.

Challenger explosion, 1986
Challenger explosion, 1986
NASA

5. The Lucky Teacher: The tragedy of the Challenger explosion is still very fresh in living memory, all the more so because it claimed the life of a teacher who was supposed to be a the first private citizen in space, Christa McAuliffe. Then, in 2003 the Columbia also exploded taking all her crew with her. According to popular legend in both cases another teacher, Barbara Morgan was supposed to be on the mission but was bumped off at the last minute.

Morgan was the back-up for McAuliffe on the Challenger, and she was only supposed to be on the flight if something happened to McAuliffe. The Teacher in Space program was discontinued after the explosion, but Morgan continued to work with NASA as an educator. The program was restarted in January of 1998, and Morgan was scheduled for a shuttle mission to the International Space Station. However, that mission was to take place after the Columbia mission that broke apart on re-entry. Morgan did witness the accident from a chaser plane, but in neither case was she actually scheduled to be on the doomed spacecrafts.

4. The 2014 Chaos Cloud: We're due for another apocalypse according to another viral post that started around 2005. In it, a Dr. Albert Sherwinski who supposedly works closely with NASA analyzing data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory confirmed that a massive "cloud" of cosmic dust was approaching our solar system, obliterating planets and stars in its way. Our doom is scheduled for the morning of June 1 this year.

At first, this report had some legitimacy because it didn't come from a fringe website, but from Yahoo News! Occasionally Yahoo News will re-post articles from the Weekly World News under its Entertainment News & Gossip section, fully crediting the famous tabloid but on occasion not prominently enough to head off misunderstanding of the pieces as whatever the opposite of a fact is. Needless to say, we are not in imminent danger of cloud death.

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Moses with the Tablets of the Law
Moses with the Tablets of the Law
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

3. A Message From God on Mars: The Curiosity Rover currently exploring Mars on our behalf is an incredible achievement in planetary science. What will it find? Well last year what a lot of people thought it had found was God's autograph.

A story began to circulate that two stone tablets had been discovered. One featured the Ten Commandments and the text of John 3:16 in several different Earth languages, and the other simply said "I am real". Unfortunately, the story was simply a joke by The Daily Currant, which is slightly less famous than The Onion and tends to trip up the gullible more. No, proof of God's existence/ability to write has not been found on Mars and atheist scientists aren't hushing it up.

That thing about sentient rock people stalking the Rover, though? Totally true.

2. The Lost Day: As I've pointed out before, Creationists are really into the idea that they can somehow use science to validate the whole Young Earth model, which is the most ironic use of the idiom, "The Devil can cite scripture for his own purposes" I have ever heard. One of those people was Harold Hill of the Curtis Engine Company.

Hill seized on a legend that almost a century old, that of scientist discovering a "lost day" in the timekeeping of the Earth. Supposedly by looking at planetary trajectories in 1936 a man named Harold Rimmer claimed to have proved that at some point in the past there was a 24-hour missing span of time. This was supposed to correspond to two places in the Bible where God commanded the movement of the sun to shift (Joshua 10:12-13 and 2 Kings 20:10-11). The idea was thoroughly debunked at the time, but the legend stayed around.

Hill, who claimed to have been involved with the space program from the beginning but whose only role was that his company serviced NASA's generators, began telling people in the '60s that he had been at NASA when calculations about the positions of heavenly bodies were found to be out of sync with expected results. Hill later admitted that he had made up overhearing this supposed discovery, but responded by saying "My inability to furnish documentation of the 'Missing day' in no way detracts from its authenticity."

Truth is, NASA does not really care about checking for "lost time" in the past because it has no bearing on space flight now. Regardless, without some sort of objective measure of time it's impossible to determine if Earth is running faster or slower than it should be.

1. The Space Pen: One of your conservative uncle's favorite forwards about your tax dollars at work was a story about how NASA spent ten years and somewhere between $100,000 to $12 billion developing a ball point pen that would work in zero gravity... a problem the Russian space program solved by using a pencil.

It's true early spacefarers used pencils in flight. Problem is, pencil leads break, and unlike on Earth where the miniscule bit just falls to the ground where it does little harm, in freefall those bits can fly into sensitive equipment or right into your eye. Also, pencils are flammable, and they try to keep very little that's flammable on a shuttle.

So NASA needed a space pen, but it was Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company who developed the product using $1 million of his own money to fund it. He initially sold 400 of them to NASA in 1967 at $2.95 each ($20.98 in 2014). A very miniscule investment in terms of space program spending.

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