NASA
If NASA were to launch a secret moon mission, then setting off at night, as Apollo 17 is shown doing here, might be a good start.
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updated 9/1/2011 1:44:27 PM ET 2011-09-01T17:44:27

The new film "Apollo 18" is like "The Blair Witch Project" of space travel flicks, couched as found footage shot by NASA astronauts during a secret mission to the moon in 1973. In the story, the astronauts encounter unfriendly lunar aliens, chaos ensues and NASA forever hushes the whole thing up.

It's science fiction, of course: History has it that Apollo 18 was canceled, along with 19 and 20. Apollo 17 was NASA's final lunar mission. But the new film will surely stoke conspiratorial fires about the agency's secret activities. Might NASA really have launched a secret human spaceflight during the Apollo era, without anyone noticing it?

Almost definitely not.

Too many eyes and ears
"Developing the entire manned program involved 400,000 people, so to cover up the whole thing you'd have to keep them all quiet," Craig Nelson, a space historian and author of "Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon" (Viking 2009), told Life's Little Mysteries. "Just to send astronauts up in the air required a crew of 300 people. Not only did you have all of them working as part of NASA, but a huge percentage worked for other contractors, so you'd have to have hundreds of people keeping a secret forever."

According to archival records, the number of NASA employees had, in fact, dropped to about 200,000 by 1973, the year Apollo 18 was originally scheduled to take off. That's half the peak employment of 1965, but still a huge number of people to keep silent, had NASA carried out a lunar mission in secret.

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Furthermore, Nelson pointed out that the space agency would have somehow had to quiet the millions  of people who saw each liftoff of the Saturn V rocket (which delivered Apollo's lunar capsules into space) as it left the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "There's no way (NASA) could cover up a launch. They could claim that the Air Force was doing it, but even then they would have to completely disguise an Apollo mission as an Air Force satellite mission, and that would be extremely difficult," Nelson said.

If NASA were to attempt a secret launch in today's world, in which there are more watchful eyes and more avenues for information sharing, he thinks the space agency would be even less able to hide a launch from the public.

That's not to say that it couldn't be done at all, though.

Military secrecy
The "Apollo 18" trailer includes a snippet in which the astronauts are communicating with the Department of Defense (DoD), suggesting that it is involved in the secret mission. (The astronauts, however, are decked out in NASA gear and communicate with personnel in Houston, the location of NASA's mission control center.) Filmmakers might be playing off of the fact that the DoD's space program is much more secretive than NASA's, making the premise slightly more conceivable (though more confusing, too).

"The space budget at the Pentagon is much bigger than NASA's budget," Nelson said. "They launch missions all the time and they don't reveal hardly any of it. They have their own launch pad next to NASA's in Florida, and another launch pad in California."

Voyage of the Millennium: Retrace America's moon effort

The Department of Defense's space budget currently stands at $26 billion; by comparison, NASA's budget is $18 billion. The bulk of the DoD funds, according to Gregory Schulte, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, pay for satellites that aid in ground navigation, missile launch detection and smart bomb precision. The military satellite network also helps to relay unmanned aerial vehicle feeds to troops, and to track space junk, which can collide with satellites.

Satellites aren't the whole story when it comes to the military's space operations, though. Last year, the Pentagon sent a spacecraft called X-37B, which looks like a miniature space shuttle, into low-Earth orbit. The launch wasn't secret — the Pentagon has said that it couldn't hide a launch even if it tried — but everything else about the mission, including what it accomplished and why, is classified.

Nelson says there's no way of knowing whether the Pentagon has launched a manned mission, to the moon or otherwise. However, when reached for comment, DoD spokeswoman April Cunningham wrote in an email: "The Department of Defense has not launched a manned mission to space."

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @ nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @ llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

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Timeline: NASA's glory days

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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