By Jacob Roberts
Sometimes the research and fact checking behind a story is just as interesting as the end result. This story is about whales (or bits of them) in space.
Michal Meyer, editor of Chemical Heritage gave me the idea for Whales in Space . Some time ago, she met a representative of Nye Lubricants at a social gathering. Nye is a company that used to process whale oil for use in everything from car transmissions to watch gears, but switched to synthetic lubricants after whale hunting was banned in 1972.. The representative told her how whale oil was being used in space programs and handed her a copy of The Last American Whale-Oil Company, a history of the company by Ed Parr.
That book does not mention Nye supplying whale oil to any organization involved in space exploration. However, after Nye was forced to adapt to the bans on whaling, it became a supplier of artificial lubricants to NASA and other aerospace programs. It seemed plausible that the timeline given in the book was wrong. If Nye started supplying NASA before 1972, it’s possible they were providing whale oil.
I turned to the internet rumor mill to find out. A quick Google search turned up countless (uncited) web pages, blog posts, and articles asserting that whale oil was a staple of space exploration because of its special properties: it does not freeze in extremely low temperatures, making it an effective lubricant even in outer space. A 2008 post on TreeHugger.com, written by Graham Hill, the founder of the site, accused NASA of continuing to use whale oil instead of developing an environmentally friendly synthetic alternative. Hill also wrote that whale oil was used in the moon and mars rovers. An article in The Independent, written by author Philip Hoare, echoed this claim, but clarified that whale oil was specifically used in the Hubble space telescope and Voyager probes. The 2010 History Channel documentary, America: The Story of Us, went beyond any of the other assertions: “Even today, whale oil is used by NASA. The Hubble space telescope runs on it.”
Not only were these claims lacking any cited evidence, but they were all different. After more searching, I found that the History Channel documentary had led to the greatest amount of discussion on message boards, prompting NASA to go on Twitter to declare that “no whale oil was used in Hubble.” Despite this denial, the speculation continued. I realized that I had to talk to NASA directly.
Luckily, Michal was already in touch with Bill Barry, the chief historian of NASA. He explained that NASA had conducted an investigation years ago focusing on the rumor that whale oil was used on the Space Shuttle. They traced the source of the claim back to Nye Lubricants, and after meeting with Nye’s Chief of Engineering, determined that whale oil had been “out of vogue for a good many years and had never been used on the Shuttle.”
Still, I wanted to know why the modern versions of the legend kept cropping up. What was the original source? I decided to contact the few reputable authors and journalists who had written about whale oil to see if they remembered where they got the information.
The first person I emailed was Paul Kupperberg, author of Spy Satellites, who wrote that the oil was used in Cold War era reconnaissance satellites:
“Sorry to say that I no longer have any of my references or notes from the Spy Satellites book (which was published about a decade ago) so I couldn’t tell you where I came up with the whale oil reference. Wish I could have been more help.”
Next, I contacted Sarah Vowell, the author of the 2012 book Unfamiliar Fishes in which she claims that whale oil was used as a lubricant in moon landers. Her assistant, Ted Thompson, responded to me with a list of sources that he used to fact check her book, including an article on the BBC website and another article in The Independent by Philip Hoare – the same one that I had found earlier.
I investigated the BBC article. It turns out it was originally published on the user generated website H2G2 before BBC purchased the site and started hosting it under their domain, giving it an accidental appearance of authority. The page cites Sir Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night television show as a source for the claim. I could not find a single episode that referenced whale oil.
Finally, I looked at the Independent article again. It was written by Philip Hoare, who was the author of The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea where he repeated the claim that the Hubble was lubricated by whale oil. Conveniently, he was the last person on my list of authors to contact.
Hoare responded quickly to my query, citing the same BBC article that was actually an H2G2 post, and also referenced conversations with his brother who worked in the aerospace industry. Since I already knew that the H2G2 article was useless, I asked if I could speak directly to Hoare’s brother, Clare Moore. The response:
“I have been retired for 17 years and the information about the use of whale oil only came to me as part of casual conversations during informal breaks at meetings and unfortunately I have no direct references to assist you.”
Whale oil may have been used long ago for a few obscure space satellites, and then rumors and casual conversations warped it into the legend we have today. Philip Hoare’s work helped convince Sarah Vowell to include it in her book, and undoubtedly another author will see both of these references and write about it again.
Fact checking is often as fun as it is tedious, and I doubt I will ever know exactly how this myth started. If you want to do any of your own fact checking on this rumor, or if you’ve heard about the myth of whale oil in space in another context, let me know in the comments!