Thursday, August 30, 2012

Waving Apollo's Flags

On August 25, Neil Armstrong died. Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon, on July 21, 1969, making that incredible statement about a small step for man, but a giant leap for Mankind. He is thus the prime of twelve people who have walked off-Earth.
Or did he? For several years, there is a strong contingent of Moon Skeptics, who argue that we did not go to the moon. Some years ago, the Australian magazine New Dawn even asked me to write an article on the subject, to map the debate. The conclusion of that article – which can be read here – was that some aspects of the space exploration were nebulous, some of them hoaxed, some likely fake. But that there was also a body of evidence that we went.
Specifically, the hoaxing came in the form of photographs. When one realizes the cumbersomeness of the cameras that were being used and the type of gloves the astronauts were wearing, it is indeed no surprise to see that few would have been able to make good photographs. But the world wanted images – it speaks a thousand words – and so it seems that NASA resorted to image manipulation – which many decades later was exposed as such.
There are other instances of how images were hoaxed, for example how Apollo 11 astronauts were shown playing with a screen in the window, to make it appear that they were further from the earth than they truly were. Whenever someone posts this clip on YouTube, it soon gets deleted, with a message from YouTube that it has been removed “as a violation of YouTube’s policy against spam, scams, and commercially deceptive content.” Oh irony! The footage is absolutely genuine and to find that Apollo 11 astronauts were engaged in such deception does indeed cast doubt on the veracity of their endeavors. What they were caught doing, was pretending they were deeper in space, taking video of a distant earth, whereas in reality they were in a near-earth orbit. The question asked by skeptics is: did they ever leave it? They don’t believe so.
But images can work both ways. A few weeks before Armstrong’s death, NASA reported that the shadows that were cast on the lunar surface by the US flags were still visible. Five of the six flags were still standing; ironically, the first flag, that of the Apollo 11 mission, was knocked over as the craft ascended from the lunar surface, which therefore means that there is evidence that we went to the moon, but that there appears to be no evidence yet that Apollo 11 went to the moon! The five flags were captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). Mark Robinson, an investigator connected with the program, added: "Personally I was a bit surprised that the flags survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface, but they did."
The skeptics, of course, are debating the veracity of this claim, arguing that you cannot see the flags themselves, but merely the shadows. But the truth of the matter is that the shadows are in the locations where the flags were, suggesting they are the shadows of the flags. The body of evidence suggests we went to the moon… the question which might need to be posed, is… but did Apollo 11? Though the evidence suggests they did, it is far from definitive.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Future of Rosslyn Chapel

Before “The Da Vinci Code” was written, I had written a book, largely a guidebook, to Rosslyn Chapel: The Stone Puzzle of Rosslyn Chapel. It means that I have seen this chapel through some of its latest transformations, from a relatively well-known attraction to a site that welcomes hundreds of visitors each day, as it featured in the movie as the place where the body of Mary Magdalene was allegedly hidden. Coping with a few hundred visitors each day wouldn’t be such a problem were it not for the fact that Rosslyn is a very small building. It means that the church is now almost always overcrowded.
Since 1997, two new visitor centers have been built, while the chapel also went through extensive restoration works, the last phase of which is still ongoing. For most of the last few years, the visitors were actually largely welcomed to a building site, various parts of the chapel off-limits or out of view for the visitor – something tourists were not always advised of.
Last weekend, I returned to Rosslyn Chapel after more than a year of absence. The new visitor center welcomed me; inside the chapel, were more than a hundred people, with an official guide trying to invite the tourists to listen to his uninspiring and error-ridden explanation of the chapel. It looked amateurish, because it was. Most of all, I felt sad that this chapel should be basking in this glory, but instead, the people running it, seem unable to cope, or don’t care.
Over the last few years, attempts have been made to upgrade the visitor experience, including the call for a new audio guide, which didn’t materialize. The new visitor center is supposed to be better than the old, but the cafe area remains cramped, the selection of books was less than before and was it truly better and bigger than the previous visitor center? Its internal layout is weird and almost designed by someone who didn’t visit similar attractions to get a flavor of what works and what doesn’t.
Small tourist sites have found it necessary to reduce visitor numbers to provide tourists with a good experience. Rosslyn Chapel doesn’t seem to consider or ponder this notion, or may not even see a need for it, but the need is there and certain decisions may have to be made. Right now, I am sad to say, the magic of Rosslyn Chapel is hard to feel and that isn’t the building’s site, nor even a side effect of the restoration work. Some weeks ago, a waiter told us that the best chef could make the best steak ever, but if the waiter’s attitude to putting that dish on your table came short, it would never taste like the best steak ever. And that is the same problem Rosslyn Chapel is facing.