As noted in the last post, in a year from now we will be celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I am hoping that those celebrations will include recognition of a unique accomplishment that is part of the Apollo 11 story but that is widely unknown: the work of Larry Baysinger, a man from my home town of Louisville, Kentucky, who independently detected signals from the Apollo 11 astronauts as they walked on the lunar surface. Last week’s post introduced Baysinger and Glenn Rutherford, the reporter (and future editor of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s newspaper) who recorded the project for posterity—both of whom I was fortunate enough to meet, four decades later.
And, four decades later, Baysinger still had the reel-to-reel tape recordings that he had made. He transferred the salvageable sections of the tape to digital format. You can listen to his recording and compare it to NASA’s own recording here:
Some years later, the BBC Radio 3 included an interview with Baysinger and Rutherford in a show called “Space Ham”. By that point Baysinger had managed to salvage more of the tape, including a section with President Richard Nixon speaking to the astronauts. You can click below to hear their interview, in which they give a nice discussion of their experience:
One interesting thing you will hear Baysinger and Rutherford discuss in the interview is how they were hoping to hear something that the general public would not hear. And they did not. When I talked to Baysinger back in 2009, I asked him about this, and he said that absolutely everything was transmitted to the public on TV, and that, in fact, “that was kind of disappointing”. Part of the idea of this project was to hear the unedited “real story”, and it turned out there was nothing edited out. Indeed, Rutherford’s story in the Courier-Journal makes no mention of hearing anything unusual. Baysinger did not attempt to eavesdrop on any other Apollo missions. After Apollo 11 he moved on to other projects.
Various Google/EBSCO/JSTOR searches have convinced me that there certainly were not a lot of amateur radio astronomers eavesdropping on Apollo transmissions. An inquiry I made via the HASTRO-L history of astronomy e-mail listserver did turn up the web page of Sven Grahn. Grahn and Dick Flagg apparently received some signals from the Apollo 17 command module in orbit around the moon, although the voice signals they received were limited to two small sentence fragments and they were using a large dish to receive the signals. A German radio observatory also recorded signals from the Moon. I made inquiries with a number of people in the radio community, none of whom knew of anything comparable to Baysinger’s work. These include Zack Lau, Senior Lab Engineer for the ARRL (the national association for amateur radio) and their QST magazine, who responded to an e-mail I sent to QST to say that they have no record of anyone picking up signals from Apollo 11; Rachel Baughn, editor of Monitoring Times magazine, who responded to an e-mail I sent that she had no information on this sort of thing; and Jim Sky of Radio-Sky Journal who responded to an e-mail Henry Sipes sent to him—again, no additional information. Phil Plait featured Baysinger’s work on his Bad Astronomy blog. His readers posted many comments, but no definite information. In general, people seem to be aware that amateur radio enthusiasts and radio astronomers listened in on Apollo missions. But what was heard, whether the signals were received from the Moon or just from the Apollo spacecraft when they were in Earth orbit, and so forth is an open question. What truly makes Baysinger’s work unique is that it was recorded in print at the time, and that he not only received but recorded extensive audio, much of which has survived to this day. If someone else did succeed in eavesdropping on NASA, but no record was ever made, and if that someone is no longer around, we will not know about it.
Besides the obvious “local interest” aspect to this story, there is a great educational aspect as well. Most people are aware that there is a significant (or significantly vocal) “Apollo denier” movement that says that we never went to the moon. The Apollo deniers have received attention through shows on Fox and Mythbusters that address the Apollo deniers’ arguments. I have found that a noticeable minority of my students, or maybe more than just a noticeable minority, are at least open to the idea that we never went to the moon—an issue I have discussed on this blog more than once. In a sense this is not surprising. Today’s traditional-age college students were born decades after Apollo 11. They have no memory of the moon landings—Apollo is just something in a book. And, it is not obvious that we will be returning to the moon any time soon; humankind today has little in the way of manned space capability beyond low Earth orbit. Thus the voyage to the moon probably seems to today’s students like a mythical voyage such as might have been made by Jason and the Argonauts, to a land which we visited once but to which we cannot go now. And, since all the evidence that we went to the moon comes from one source (NASA), it is relatively easy for conspiracy theorists to make their claims. Had thousands of amateur astronomers been able to see the men on the moon for themselves, there would be no Apollo deniers.
Baysinger’s lunar eavesdropping is an independent verification that men were on the moon, by a local person who is not part of the scientific establishment. Had there been more Larry Baysingers eavesdropping on Apollo, or had there been more Glenn Rutherfords to record the work of the Baysingers who did eavesdrop, there would be no Apollo deniers (this is an illustration of the importance of “reproducibility” in science).
Next summer there will be lots of talk about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, and I hope that some of that talk includes the remarkable story of Larry Baysinger and Glenn Rutherford. It deserves to be told when the other Apollo 11 stories are told.
For a more detailed discussion of Baysinger’s work, see Lunar Eavesdropping in Louisville, Kentucky, on the web page of my college’s observatory. These posts were based on that discussion, which includes some additional details, especially on technical matters.