A message from earth

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Today’s Friday funny is brought to you, as ever, by author and journalist Eugene Byrne. This week’s offering is a story about preparations for NASA’s mission to the moon in 1966, which took place in the deserts of Arizona. But just how much of the story is true?

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The story

It was 1966 and preparations for NASA’s moon mission were well under way. As part of the astronauts’ training for walking on the lunar surface, they were taken to an area of the Arizona desert which strongly resembled the terrain they would encounter.

The site happened to be on part of a Navajo reservation, and one day, an elderly man and his son were herding their sheep when they came across the NASA team. The old man, who did not speak English, asked his son to inquire what was going on, and why there were two men in spacesuits walking around.

One of the NASA officials explained they were rehearsing for a moon-walk. The younger Navajo explained this to his father, who asked if it would be possible to send a message to the moon with the astronauts.

The NASA guy instantly spotted an excellent PR opportunity, and got a tape recorder into which the old man uttered two brief sentences in his own language. His son tried to suppress his laughter.

The NASA official asked the young man to translate, but the latter refused.

Later that day, the NASA official drove to the nearby Navajo village and played the recording to various people, asking them to translate. On hearing it, they all laughed, but refused to tell him what the old man has said.

Finally, he offered the villagers money. First $100 dollars, then $200 … When he finally agreed to pay up $300 they split the money among themselves and translated the Navajo message to the moon:

“Watch out for these white men. They have come to steal your land.”

The truth

America’s astronauts trained for their moon landing at a number of different sites around the US. Most notable among these is probably the famous Meteor Crater near Winslow in the northern Arizona desert. NASA has also been active in other desert areas nearby, including on Navajo reservation land near Flagstaff, Arizona. Astronauts trained here, and the area was later used for testing the Sojourner vehicle for the Mars Pathfinder mission. To this day, NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (Desert RATS) team takes advantage of the Arizona desert’s rough, dusty terrain and extremes of temperature to develop and test remotely-controlled vehicles destined to visit other planets.

Sadly, though, it’s likely that the story above, in all its different variations, is apocryphal, It’s been suggested that the gag originated with a line from American TV comedian Johnny Carson just after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969.

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You can see the appeal, though. Native Americans had been swindled out of their land by successive generations of white settlers, either by force or by unfair treaties, and had now been moved to the some of the most marginal land in the country. Getting one over on the US Government, and making a few dollars in the process, was a victory for the little guy. Besides, it might – just might! – be true. Though it probably isn’t.
You can read more of Eugene’s historical jokes and comedy tales at www.historyextra.com