The Van Allen Belts are areas of high radiation where solar particles have been trapped and accelerated by the Earth’s magnetic field. This has long been touted as evidence by conspiracy theorists that we couldn’t have gotten to the moon. But while the Van Allen Belts are dangerous, the tenacity and genius of NASA engineers literally found a way around them. Here’s how.
I’m old enough to remember a time before the internet. In fact, that’s when I spent the most impressionable years of my life, I was molded before the internet as we know it changed the world as we know it.
So sometimes I find myself fascinated with Gen Z because these guys did grow up with the internet and were molded in a completely different world from me, with any information or entertainment they could ever want instantly available at all times.
And I worry about all the misinformation on the internet and what that does to someone who develops their worldview in a hurricane of clickbait and deepfakes and conspiracy theories.
Like you hope that someone who grows up in it might be more saavy to it because they’ve never known a time when you could just take information at face value, so they’re more aware of the manipulation and aren’t as taken by it.
Or… could growing up in a time of information chaos lead to a total abandonment of the very concept of truth? Where the loudest voices win?
You want it to be the first one… Until you hear that there’s a growing conspiracy theory amongst Gen Zers that birds aren’t real. And then you start to think it’s the second one.
Only you would be wrong, it’s actually totally the first one.
Birds Aren’t Real is a satirical movement that claims that birds aren’t really animals but sophisticated drones that the government uses to spy on you.
They’ve been showing up at protests around the country, putting up billboards in major cities, and driving vans covered in conspiracy lingo.
But Birds Aren’t Real… Isn’t real.
It’s a parody, meant to highlight the absurdity of the conspiracy theories that seem to be taking over the country.
Like any good satire, it walks the line to where you might not know if it’s real or not unless you’re in on the joke. For the people who are in on the joke, it serves as a kind of release. A way to thumb their nose at something that they see as dangerously destabilizing to the world they’re inheriting.
And it kind-of backs up the old adage that you can’t reason with crazy, you can only out-crazy them.
Oh, so you think JFK Jr is going to return from the dead and he’s going to do it at the place where his dad was murdered? Okay, well I don’t think birds are real. Top that.
Like people always say if you encounter someone who thinks the moon landings were faked, you should just say, “oh, you believe in the moon?”
Except there actually are people who think the moon is actually an alien spaceship so… yeah…
A (Hoax) Theory Is Born
On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 lander touched down on the lunar surface. It was watched live by 652 million people around the world, which was 1/5th of the entire world’s population at the time.
And yet, here we are some 50 years later and 11% of the US population either strongly believe or somewhat believe that the moon landing was faked.
That’s nearly 40 million people.
But here’s the thing… That’s nothing new.
The major reasons given were that the US made it up to fool the communists or to justify the expense of the space program.
Yeah… this was the first book that really caught fire in the moon landing denier world, but some of what he talks about in it… I guess are understandable considering the time.
This was the early 70s, the height of the Cold War, and Vietnam and Watergate had just shattered most Americans’ trust in their government.
So the idea that the moon landings were the shiny object they were using to distract people from “what’s really going on” is not hard to understand.
Climate of Doubt
For some people, it was easier to believe they’d been lied to than that the Eagle had landed.
And of course once you believe in a conspiracy theory, you see evidence of that conspiracy theory everywhere you look, and one thing that many moon landing deniers locked onto was the Van Allen Belts.
Earth’s magnetic field creates powerful rings of radiation that circle the planet known as the Van Allen Belts… Wait a second… If the Earth is surrounded by intense radiation, then there’s no way they went to the moon. Busted!
This has become one of the biggest pieces of “evidence” that moon landing deniers reference, and I’ve seen it brought up in my comments for years, even though it has been disproven a thousand different ways, it keeps coming back up. It seems to be one of the stickier elements of this particular conspiracy theory.
And I think that’s because there is an element of truth to it. The Van Allen belts do exist. And they are dangerous.
But pretty much everything about the Apollo missions were dangerous. And they were only overcome by the grit and determination and sheer genius of the NASA engineers and astronauts. They literally problem-solved their way to the moon.
And I think that’s why this conspiracy theory is so aggravating, it’s just totally urinating over the herculean efforts of hundreds of thousands of people to do this one amazing and inspiring thing. And it’s so cynical, we have this one great thing that we did, why do you have to…
Sorry… That was… Off topic, we’re talking about the Van Allen belts.
James Van Allen
The belts are named after astrophysicist James Van Allen, who was a cosmic ray expert from the University of Iowa.
In the late 50s, he worked with graduate students to develop the Cosmic Ray Instrument, which included a Geiger counter that could register protons and electrons above a minimum energy.
Rocketry was in its earliest years and they hoped to be able to launch this into space to gauge what the radiation looked like above our atmosphere.
This proved to be a challenge. But not so much a technological one but a political one.
Army v. Air Force
This was in the days before NASA, when rockets were strictly a military thing, and the various branches of the military were competing to be the first to put a rocket into space.
The main competitors were the Army and Air Force. And each had a secret weapon in their corner.
The Air Force had the U. S. secretary of defense on their side; he wanted them to control rocket design.
And the Army had NAZIS… (long pause) Guess who won?
Specifically Werner von Braun who yes, was a Nazi, but he was also a genius.
But on October 4, 1957… things changed.
The first Soviet satellite, Sputnik I, was put into orbit and the second those beeps started sounding over American heads, well that clarified some things.
The Defense department fell in line behind von Braun and gave him all the resources he needed to launch a satellite.
And to distance the project from military goals — in the public eye at least — the decision was made launch a civilian satellite, something that didn’t have a military objective.
And von Braun was given a deadline of 90 days to get this thing up into space so he didn’t care what it was as long as it was ready to go.
And one satellite that was ready to go was Van Allen’s Cosmic Ray Instrument, so it got picked and was renamed Explorer 1.
Quick side note, Van Allen himself was in Antarctica when he heard the news so he contacted one of his grad students named George Ludwig to deliver the satellite. Which he did… in the back of his car.
He literally loaded up his pregnant wife and two young daughters and drove 1600 miles to Cape Canaveral with Explorer 1 – the first American satellite to ever reach space – in his trunk.
But I guess it paid off because he later became a chief research scientist at NASA. Good show, old chap.
So anyway, Explorer 1 launched on January 31, 1958, the United States was officially in space, and there was much rejoicing. (yaay…)
But while Americans were high fiveing each other over this accomplishment, Van Allen and his team went about interpreting the data that was coming back. (grand gesture) and THIS was… not when the Van Allen belts were discovered.
Actually they were really disappointed with the data because half of it was missing.
Space is Radioactive
Where readings should have been, there were long gaps where the detector didn’t pick up any particles. And they couldn’t quite figure out why.
So for Explorer Two, they added a magnetic recorder to keep a log of the detector’s measurements. Previously, they were just reading it live.
And THIS was… (down energy) not when they Van Allen Belts were discovered because Explorer 2 blew up (didn’t make it to orbit), but Explorer 3! Haha! Explorer 3 in March 1958, that one got up there and everything worked perfectly.
Same as the first time, there were giant gaps where the detector didn’t pick up anything, but this time they were able to pin those gaps down to specific locations in orbit.
At the same time they ran some tests on one of the Cosmic Ray Instruments and discovered that the effect could be simulated by bathing it in X-rays.
And THIS is… where he figured out that there were belts of intense radiation around the Earth, that’s how we got the Van Allen Belts.
So, what to do with this information? (thinking) Radiation belts… So many ideas… (idea) Let’s nuke it.
(sigh) Yeah, the US nuked the Van Allen belts in 1962.
It was actually part of a series of 5 atmospheric nuclear tests because that was a thing we just used to do.
But one particular test was called Starship Prime, and it was aimed at the Van Allen Belts.
They were testing to see if they could use the belts to create a radioactive shield that could protect targets on the ground from missile attack. It didn’t work. But the EMP from it did manage to disable 1/3 of all satellites that were in orbit at the time.
The Inner and Outer Belts
The inner belt extends from about 600 kilometers to nearly 10,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface, and it’s mostly made of protons.
Some have been stripped from the solar wind by the Earth’s magnetic field, while others are supplied by the upper atmosphere
The outer belt especially can swell at times as low-energy electrons and other particles rush in, but that diminishes gradually, sometimes in a few minutes, sometimes it takes days.
And there are still a lot of questions around how exactly the belts work, but we do know the basics.
Earth’s magnetic field captures the particles and funnels them around the planet, kinda the same way particle accelerators and fusion reactors contain particles in a magnetic field.
And Other Surprises
But recent measurements by NASA’s Van Allen Probes has shown the belts are more dynamic than we thought.
In one observation period, a solar storm caused a surge of electrons in the outer belt
Five days after the energy dissipated, there was another major surge..
. but there wasn’t a storm this time. They don’t know what caused it.
The Van Allen probes also revealed the existence of a third belt. Briefly.
This one popped up in what they call the “slot region” between the inner and outer belts in 2012.
So yeah, the belts are super dynamic, they grow and change according to solar activity and other things we still don’t understand. And they are powerful. Any conspiracy theorist that says these are dangerous is absolutely right. But are they deadly?
How Deadly Are They?
Studies have shown that inside the typical shielding of a satellite, an astronaut could absorb as much radiation in an hour in the belts as most people absorb in eighteen months on Earth.
Scary… sure, but notice I said “survivors.” A fatal dose of radiation is far higher than that.
So talking about radiation measurements gets tricky because there are many different units scientists use but I’m going to try to stick to the Sievert, because that measures damage done to living tissue.
A dose above 2000 millisieverts can be fatal.
But even double that dosage is survivable, with treatment. I don’t recommend you try this.
With that in mind, an astronaut in our hypothetical spacecraft would absorb 6 millisieverts of radiation per hour. So not too bad.
Damage Over Time
According to the FDA, doses of 5 to 20 millisieverts of ionizing radiation may increase the risk of fatal cancer.
A typical CT scan can deliver a dose in that range, which is why doctors don’t give them to everybody.
Must Go Faster
So, obviously, you wouldn’t want to hang out in the Van Allen Belts any longer than you have to. Thankfully, rockets go really fast.
When we talk about how NASA minimized the risk to the astronauts, the first thing they did was to limit the time astronauts spent there.
When the Apollo astronauts
entered the inner belt, they were traveling just over 38,000 kilometers per hour.
That means the trip through both belts was under two-and-a-half-hours long. Not great, not terrible.
But that’s not all they did to minimize exposure.
Long before Apollo 11, Van Allen and his team had mapped the radiation in the belts, and there are certain regions of the belts that are stronger than others. So they didn’t go through there.
Yes, they developed a complicated maneuver called (look at paper), Going Around It.
Average Mission Dosage
The next precaution they took has to do with the command module capsule.
So remember earlier when I mentioned how much radiation an astronaut would receive in a typically – shielded satellite? Well they weren’t in a typically-shielded satellite.
One of the mandatories of the Apollo command module was that they be engineered to survive the largest solar flare then on record.
So, special materials and coatings in the hull, water shielding, and even their suits provided a bit of shielding.
Solar Event Monitoring
And one last thing NASA did was they monitored the sun for solar events.
Like I said before, the size and strength of the belts fluctuate quite a bit. Usually due to solar activity.
So NASA created the Solar Particle Alert Network, or SPAN, which carefully monitored solar activity leading up to the missions.
They advise NASA on periods of high solar activity
, so astronauts can be ordered to shelter in the shielded areas of spacecraft, which thankfully never happened on any of the missions.
The crew of the Apollo missions carried personal dosimeters that measured radiation exposure from launch to landing.
And because of the efforts I just listed, the average dose ranged from a low of 0.18 rad on Apollo 11 to a high of 1.14 rad on Apollo 14.
As I mentioned before there are lots of different radiation measurements
and rads don’t convert directly to Sieverts, but for reference, 70 rad is considered dangerous, while 120 rad can be fatal.
So, long story short, the Van Allen Belts are not as deadly as conspiracy theorists seem to think. NASA was well aware of their danger long before Apollo 11 took flight, and they took the proper precautions.
Of course if you’re dedicated to the conspiracy, none of this matters, these are all just lies to cover up the fraud and anybody and everybody who can validate these facts are in on the conspiracy. Including me.
Small Price to Pay
When it comes down to it, the Van Allen Belts are just one of MANY concerns to deal with regarding space travel, like orbital debris or thermal management.
They definitely put a limit on the altitude of crewed missions, but it’s not a danger to anything like the ISS, they orbit thousands of kilometers below the belts.
In fact, those dosimeters on the Apollo astronauts showed that they probably received twice as much radiation on the moon as a typical astronaut does in low Earth orbit.
So you might say the Van Allen Belts are a small price to pay for the protection of Earth’s magnetic field.
No Fatal Radiation
Moon hoaxers would of course move on to all the other “evidence” that has all been thoroughly debunked, I’m not going to spend time on any of those. And I’m sure that as we go back to the moon with the Artemis program, these theories are going to crop up all over again.
But I for one choose to celebrate the moon landing, and instead of focusing on all the things that might disprove it, focus on the amazing people who contributed to this program and tell their stories.
Like George Ludwig driving 1600 miles with Explorer 1 in his trunk, these people embodied the best of what it means to be human, doing whatever it takes to advance and explore and push past boundaries. Even massive particle accelerators in space.