Here's an image (AS11-40-5922) from Apollo 11 that NASA describes as:

View of the ascent stage from the northeast. Note the wrinkled surface of the RCS plume deflector and the warping of the rear of the ascent stage.

Apollo 11

According to (don't laugh) the Flat Earth Society¹, this picture shows a lander made of paper:

Upon close inspection one might notice that the Lunar Lander, a supposed six billion dollar hallmark of American engineering, is in truth made out of cardboard paper, a few old curtain rods, a roll of roofing paper, some floodlight holders, gold foil, and lots and lots of scotch tape to hold it all together on the hostile environment of the moon's surface.

Forget the source of the quote -- this image definitely shows a very wrinkly-looking ascent stage with what appear to be misaligned panels on the upper left.

Why does it look like this?

1: Okay, go ahead and laugh.

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    $\begingroup$ I'd post something on the Flat Earth Society's site, but a) I doubt they'd listen, and b) I'm still not sure if they're for real. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Nov 13, 2014 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ I love the false equivalence here. A Saturn V system cost $6 billion so we're going to try and discredit it by equating one small (but important) component to the entire project. $\endgroup$
    – CyanAngel
    Nov 13, 2014 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ The amazing thing is that these "geniuses" are happy to accept that NASA staged a thousand-person conspiracy to show a real rocket and simulate the landing, but then used low-quality props? $\endgroup$ Nov 13, 2014 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ Heretics. Everybody should know that you need duct tape, not scotch tape for a job like this. $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2015 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, I don't laugh, but I do smile. The beauty of science is that it stands up to skepticism like that of the FES and other organizations by design. If it can't handle skepticism it isn't science! $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Jun 1, 2017 at 16:08

1 Answer 1


Like everything else, the ascent and descent stages were built to be as light as possible. But because they knew they would operate only in a vacuum, many things really didn't need to be sturdy, nor did the shape of it matter. It would never have to deal with aerodynamic drag. In fact, the descent stage was designed to buckle in the right places upon landing, that was how it absorbed the impact. It was only going to be used once, this was the most weight-efficient method of handling the shock of landing.

Also, the complex insulation blankets covering the module had many layers, and contact points between the layers needed to be minimized so that heat wouldn't be passed through them by conduction. The black material is where thin Inconel sheets formed the outer layer of the insulation blanket, and they were painted matte black with Pyromark paint to improve their heat emission properties, so they would cool off quickly. (Black material both absorbs and emits heat better than material of other colors.) Beneath the black layer were reflective layers to prevent the heat of the black layer penetrating into the module. This treatment was done where the exhaust of the reaction control thrusters heated the lunar modules. It had a tendency to crinkle, and on this particular module, that may have been accentuated by the fact it was in fact installed at the last minute, as were the chutes under the thrusters. From the Lunar Module Coatings Page:

A few months before flight, shock tunnel tests using a new thruster duty cycle revealed that the Pyromark painted Inconel lay-ups on the upper sides of the Descent Stage quads would not be sufficient protection against the hot plumes. A crash program to design a fix resulted in "coal chute" plume deflectors mounted below the down-firing jets. These were installed on LM 5 while it was on the pad, just before launch.

Another last minute thermal fix added 39 pounds of Kapton and Pyromark painted Inconel to the landing gear, pads and probe. One of the reasons for this added weight was a crew request(!) that they be allowed to keep the engine on past probe contact to pad touchdown. This would result in greater heating from the engine plume as it reflected off the lunar surface past the gear.

Considering the vast ambition of going to the Moon for the first time, it isn't surprising some fixes were last-minute.

The foil is Kapton MLI (multi-layer insulation) blankets, and it is actually pretty complex. In the places on the lunar modules that only needed to be a heat barrier to sunlight, high reflectivity was the most efffective approach, and those places are the shiny amber color of the Kapton. As there is no air in space to pass heat by convection, if you lower absorption of heat radiation by making surfaces that are highly reflective or emissive, and there are few contact points to pass heat by conduction, insulation can be highly effective. With the Kapton foil blankets, the contact points were reduced by hand-crinkling an inner layer of the blanket. From the Apollo News Reference:

To make an even more effective insulation, the polymide sheets are hand crinkled before blanket fabrication. This crinkling provides a path for venting, and minimizes contact conductance between the layers.

So, this is bound to make the outer layer rather uneven.

All the other covering material you see is also just there to protect whatever is underneath from the effects of sunlight. Perhaps they were also thinking a bit about keeping dust out. That is all it has to do, and it was made merely sufficient for that job. Weight savings were more important than looks. The fancy stuff is underneath all those bare-bones panels.

I found a different photo of the lander that gives a better sense of the complexity of it. The photo shows the Ascent Stage in the process of assembly, before the heat shielding had been put on it:

Apollo 11 lunar lander

This photo of an LM test article shows the sturdy underlying aluminum and titanium structure pretty clearly:

"naked" LM test article from the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum

And a quote from the book Chariots of Apollo available on the NASA website's History section:

By the end of 1965, Scrape and SWIP had pruned away 1,100 kilograms, providing a comfortable margin below the control weight limit. One of the more striking changes to come from this drive for a lighter spacecraft was the substitution of aluminum-mylar foil thermal blankets for rigid heatshields. The gold wrapping characteristic of the lander's exterior saved 50 kilograms. Many of these weight-reducing changes made the lander so difficult to fabricate, so fragile and vulnerable to damage, that it demanded great care and skill by assembly and checkout technicians. Structural components took on strange and complex shapes, requiring careful machining to remove any excess metal

'Scrape' and 'SWIP' were both programs Grumman, the company that fabricated the Lunar Module, instituted specifically to reduce the weight of the LM.

I found both things on a great thread on the topic at CosmoQuest

You can pore over the LM Apollo Operations Handbook for a great deal of technical information on the spacecraft, for more evidence.

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    $\begingroup$ Illustrations would help, especially for any moon-hoax people who've never seen how much engineering went into the moon lander. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Nov 13, 2014 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what illustrations would really make the point to someone who believes in the moon hoax. After all, the photo in the question comes from deep in NASA's Apollo photo archive. They went searching through that, and didn't come away convinced it was real? But it is an important matter, and i'll look later for something that might help - even if you believe huge government resources were expended on a fake mission, and thus all sorts of elaborate stuff was staged. Pretty high standard - any suggestions appreciated. $\endgroup$
    – kim holder
    Nov 13, 2014 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ @briligg, actually I'm thinking of two different kinds of people. One is the guy who went searching through NASA's photo archive -- they're a dedicated believer. The other is the guy who stumbles across their page and sees a single photo that looks odd -- they're ready to listen to an argument from one side, we're presenting an argument from the other. $\endgroup$
    – Joe
    Nov 13, 2014 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Joe You may be giving many of the latter guys too much credit. $\endgroup$
    – Jason C
    Nov 13, 2014 at 21:07
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    $\begingroup$ Somewhere, there's a video of an astronaut stripping off gold foil from the lander stage to free up a rover for off loading. It's obvious that the foil is very thin, but when he launches it over his shoulder it flies away in a perfect arc, instead of fluttering to the ground just behind him. $\endgroup$ Nov 14, 2015 at 3:17

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