How Our Maxwell GPUs Debunked the Apollo 11 Conspiracy Theory [Updated with Video]

by Brian Caulfield

No, the Apollo 11 moon landing wasn’t a hoax. And we can prove it.

Rather, our game demo team already did. By using Maxwell, our new GPU architecture, to digitally rebuild one of the landing’s iconic photographs – Neil Armstrong’s shot of Buzz Aldrin clambering down the lunar module’s ladder.

Neil Armstrong’s photo of Buzz Aldrin clambering down to the moon’s surface. Above, Armstrong’s original photo.

The photo, taken 45 years ago, shows Aldrin lit against the dark shape of the lunar module behind him. It’s a good shot. Too good, conspiracy theorists claim.

Their argument: because the sun is behind the lunar module, and Aldrin is in its shadow, Aldrin must have been lit by something other than the sun. Some auxiliary light source. Maybe in a back-lot studio. Perhaps somewhere in L.A.

Pretty swiftly, our team debunked the debunkers. Their secret weapon: Maxwell, the new graphics architecture we’re introducing today. We designed Maxwell to solve some of the most complex lighting and graphics challenges in visual computing. Maxwell is at the heart of our new GeForce GTX 980 and GeForce GTX 970 GPUs, the most advanced GPUs ever made.


[Update: Want to try your hand at debunking a conspiracy? Read more about our demo, and download itand decide—for yourself.]

Thanks to Maxwell, our demo team rebuilt the scene of the moon landing in Unreal Engine 4, a game engine developed by Epic Games. They simulated how the sun’s rays, coming from behind the lander, bounced off the moon’s surface, and Armstrong’s suit, to cast light on Aldrin as he stepped off the lander.

It’s a feat that gives Mark Daly, who leads our demo team, great satisfaction.

“Men lost their lives as part of the Apollo project, so it bugs me when people say it was all a hoax,” says Daly, an NVIDIA veteran. “People risked their lives to get to the moon.”

Out of the Box

To understand our demo team’s discovery, it helps to know the workings of one of Maxwell’s key technologies – Voxel-Based Global Illumination, or VXGI. VXGI is about better representing the way light bounces from one object to another in real time.

To do that, VXGI breaks a scene’s geometry into many thousands of tiny boxes called “voxels,” or 3D pixels. Each of the six sides of each box is analyzed to determine its opacity (how transparent it is) and its emittance (how much, and what color, light it reflects from other objects in a scene).

VXGI let our demo team reconstruct the way light moved around the Apollo 11 landing site.

All these boxes help capture the way light bounces from one object to another. So, in a game, if a rocket launcher blows up a wall – or a character moves in front of a light source – the lighting in a scene will change. That’s a huge advancement.

If this kind of dynamic lighting environment sounds computing intensive, it is.

Maxwell accelerates the creation of voxels – a process known as “voxelation” – with hardware support for a technology called “multi-projection.” Multi-projection lets a Maxwell GPU process the geometry just once for each of a box’s six sides (For more on Maxwell’s technology, see “Maxwell: The Most Advanced CUDA GPU Ever Made,” on our Parallel Forall blog).

Moon Shot

Nice, in theory. But the practical advantages of VXGI became clear when we used it to analyze the iconic Apollo 11 photo.

To recreate the moon landing, the demo team collected every detail they could. They researched the rivets on the lunar lander, identified the properties of the dust coating the moon’s surface, and measured the reflectivity of the material used in the astronauts’ space suits.

It was during this research when the demo team uncovered a big clue. A video clip that showed Aldrin descending the ladder had a bright spot of light that seemed to move every time the camera did.

Picture perfect: Maxwell was able to recreate the conditions on the Moon's surface that led to NASA's iconic shot.
Our demo team used Maxwell to simulate the conditions on the Moon’s surface during the lunar landing 45 years ago, revealing how Aldrin was illuminated by light reflected from the Moon’s surface and Armstrong’s spacesuit. Above, a screenshot of their work.

“When the glow started moving, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s it,’” Daly says.

Was it an artificial light? Or – as one of NVIDIA’s senior GPU architects had suggested – was it a reflection from Armstrong’s bright white space suit? At first, Daly had dismissed the idea that Armstrong’s suit could account for some of the light illuminating Aldrin.

“You figure, ‘How much can some guy in a white suit contribute to the scene?’” Daly says.

Let There Be Light

Turns out, quite a bit. They could reproduce how that light illuminated Aldrin as he stepped onto the moon’s surface at the exact moment Armstrong snapped his photo. Inside a shot cited by Apollo 11 skeptics, Daly’s team had uncovered hidden evidence that the mission was real.

And that wasn’t the only proof they found for the landing hidden in NASA’s photos.

Another detail seized on by skeptics: photos from the landing site don’t show any stars. That’s led some to claim that the U.S. Government faked the landing and left out the stars in the scene, because it would be impossible to portray the position of the stars from the moon.

By using Maxwell our demo team was able to find them.

“The reason the stars aren’t visible is the exposures in the camera are set to capture the scene on the Moon’s surface,” Daly says. But they’re there. And our demo team was able to find them by digitally changing the exposure on the shots to reveal them. Consider this conspiracy theory debunked.

For a closer look at Maxwell’s technology, see “Maxwell: The Most Advanced CUDA GPU Ever Made,” on our Parallel Forall blog.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional video content.

Similar Stories

  • VRsenal3D

    You better publish that demo!

  • VRsenal3D

    I change my comment to “You better publish the UE4 project source with blueprints and all!”:

    Better still, Daly says NVIDIA is currently building a consumer UI for
    the demo, and will release it to the public sometime in the next several
    weeks. It’s also a project that has become important to him. “Because I
    got to see a lot of this live when I was a kid, it has a special
    meaning to me. I know in Apollo 1 three men died, and other men risked
    their lives to get into these crazy contraptions to actually do this.
    It’s kind of offensive to me when people say this didn’t happen,” he
    explains. “I want to show that it really happened and these people
    risked their lives. They actually did go to the moon.”

  • SlutMagnet

    It’s great that you guys did this, but the only ones to deny this were basement dwelling anti-intellectuals and philistines. Some people were unable to conceive this as a possibility.

  • domahman

    Denver+maxwell-intel+android= affordable 4k console.

  • Quilan Hanniffy

    Demo link ?

  • HeadLikeARock

    That’s a brilliant demo, my congratulations to the team. Is it possible to get hold of this and play around with it in a sandbox mode? That would be cool. I’d like to see an analysis done of the reflection in Aldrin’s visor in this most famous image:-

    Does the software model heiligenschein correctly?

    Big thumbs up to you guys!

  • Paolo Attivissimo

    Great work! Just one nitpick: the original photo at the top of the post is incorrect. It’s not the one you recreated. Aldrin is too high up the ladder. The right photo is AS11-40-5868.

  • кяιgнтσи

    Doesn’t change the fact that, the pictures taken before ANYONE got out of the craft on the moon, were taken by .. who? That’s right kids. Eat what they feed you.

  • Rassah

    They said that those pictures were taken by Neil Armstrong, who’s suit was reflecting the extra light.

  • c4p0ne

    An anti-thought troll not showing up for once? Impossible. They were taken by Neil, ya conspiradouche.

  • Jarrah White

    NVIDIA’s recreation is a deception. When comparing their results with objects taken on surfaces with the same albedo as the moon, it is clear that they upped the albedo to around 40%. Otherwise the shaded side would have been black. And their claim that Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit offered fill light is laughable. The Apollo 12 footage shows Conrad’s suit barely able to throw light onto the ladder unless he’s standing right up to it – and that’s with the landscape overexposed – and the first pictures of Aldrin’s descent were allegedly taken with Armstrong in the LM shadow. Aldrin looks exactly the same as he does in the latter photos allegedly taken by Armstrong standing in sun.

    NVIDIA owes it to their 130,000+ subscribers to show them what the actual albedo settings were and to recreate this experiment in real life using asphalt as the lunar surface, because asphalt has the same albedo as the moon. If they can’t or won’t do that, then they should retract their video and replace it with an apology.

  • Sean Mars

    Let me get this right? You’re using Apollo 12’s photos to debunk Apollo 11’s?! So are you saying that Apollo 12 went to the moon, but Apollo 11didn’t?

    And you never heard of Occam’s Razor?

  • kleenec

    Useless uninteresting proof of technology. You should have spend time on #wtc7. NIST don’t want to disclose their so-called model for its destruction.

    Do you have what it takes to nail the debate?

  • AwE130

    Neil Armstrong as filllight, who is gone believe that story hahaha.

  • AwE130

    This experiment is so easy to debunk that it seems very unlikely we ever hear from this again.

  • Brady Hurst

    Looking forward to being able to download and run the demo…

  • mjh49783ab

    Asphalt as the lunar surface? What a freaking joke! (facepalm)

  • mjh49783ab

    Don’t forget the flat earth society types as well.

  • jimjimmy123

    It doesn’t run on a Maxwell that’s why they won’t publish it. It’s a lie.

    Think about it, you’ve already developed this, it’s a great Nvidia marketing tool, yet you choose not to make it public, or even sell it.

    Why? Because it doesn’t work as advertised on that GPU.

    Like the fracture tech demos on Kepler, again painstakingly developed and demo’d two years ago but never released because they simply don’t run as advertised. There is no other explanation for developing these and not making them available as a .exe for free or for a fee.

    Nvidia simply lying to us as with the past 2 generations of GPU architectures.

  • John B.

    Wonderful demonstration. Enjoyed reading and watching this.