KSJ Tracker March 5, 2014

Who Would Believe NASA Used Whale Oil on Voyager and Hubble?

NASA: No Whales Were Harmed in This Project

Maybe it’s just me, but if a source told me that NASA used whale oil to lubricate parts of the Hubble, or if I read such a statement in a book, I’d want some sort of documentation - some hard evidence.

Right off the bat, the claim raises some questions: Does NASA employ a secret whaling ship, or does the stuff stay fresh long enough that they can use a supply left over from the days of Moby Dick?  

I first heard about this incredible rumor in the most recent issue of the Chemical Heritage Foundation Magazine. In an enlightening piece called Whales in Space, an intern, Jacob Roberts, examines and debunks the rumor. According to Roberts, the whale story raised some eyebrows in 2010 when it was repeated on The History Channel. The show, America: The Story of Us included the claim that, “Even today, whale oil is used by NASA. The Hubble Space Telescope runs on it.”

This wouldn’t be worth a Tracker post if the rumor mongering began and ended with The History Channel, however.

Roberts traces the whale oil rumor back to a book titled The Whale: in search of the giants of the sea, by Philip Hoare. When I started searching around, I also found it here, in what looks like a freelance piece by Mr. Hoare in The Independent.

And as time passed, new uses were found for the arcane commodity of whale oil in the post-modern world. Since it doesn't freeze in sub-zero temperatures, spermaceti was used in Nasa's space missions – no substitute could be found for this natural lubricant. Even now, the Hubble space telescope and the Voyager space probe are careening into infinity, oiled by whales.

(Note: Unless there’s something NASA is hiding from us, HST is not really careening into infinity. It’s still in orbit.)

Shouldn’t the editors of this paper have asked a couple of questions? If the rumor is indeed untrue, then aren’t they shirking their responsibility to readers by leaving this statement in an alleged piece of non-fiction?  There’s no question it makes them look foolish.   

The Independent editor responsible is at least in good company. The rumor showed up again here in a book review in The New York Times.

….As it turns out, whales have already ventured beyond this paltry ­planet. Unlike any other known substance, sperm whale oil works as a lubricant in the extra­ordinarily cold temperatures of outer space. “The Hubble space telescope is wheeling around the earth on spermaceti,” Hoare writes, “seeing six billion years into the past.” But that’s not all. The scientists who fitted out the Voyager probe decided that the song of the humpback was the best way to greet any possible aliens. This means that long after all of us are gone, the call of the whale will be traveling out into the distant reaches of the universe.

Isn’t it interesting that rumors can so freely mutate. The Times says HST is oiled by whales but Voyager carries a whale song. The latter claim is, I believe, documented and not particularly shocking since no whales were likely to have been harmed in the process. In The Independent, both craft use whale products for lubrication and in the History Channel show, both craft “run” on whale oil.

Various other writers bought into the rumor, including this blogger, who said it’s “weird but true” – a statement that is half correct. Notice that the link goes back to Hoare's piece in The Independent.

But did you know that whale oil was used to send a man to the moon? I learned this weird but true fact during my sea travels...Back in the day, NASA used whale oil as a lubricant in their space program, including the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) for expeditions to the Moon and Mars. Fast forward to the future and whale oil is still being used to lubricate spacecraft such as the Hubble space telescope and the Voyager space probe. Apparently spermaceti--or Sperm whale oil--doesn't freeze in sub-zero temperatures (quite important given space's super-chilly temps) and man hasn't yet found a suitable substitute for the natural lubricant.

In researching this post, I learned some important differences between true whale oil and spermaceti. Spermaceti is not an oil, nor is it what it sounds like. Apparently it's composed primarily of was esters and got its name through a misunderstanding.

In his piece, Roberts wrote that whale book author Philip Hoare did reference his claim, citing a user-generated website called h2g2, founded by fiction author Douglas Adams (which doesn’t mean Adams had anything to do with the rumor). Hoare also cited a conversation with his own brother, who worked in the aerospace industry. But when Roberts looked into this, here’s what he got:

When interviewed, Hoare’s brother recalled casual conversations with coworkers about NASA’s use of whale oil but could not cite a credible source.

There’s also the fact that NASA purchases oil from a company called Nye Lubricants.  Back in the early 20th century, the company supplied whale oil, but it switched to synthetic products after whaling was banned.

Roberts offers a suggestion for how this tall tale got so much momentum with so little evidence:   

Perhaps it’s one of those things people subconsciously wish to be true, an anachronism from a romanticized period that became an essential part of modern technology. Like most myths, it may contain a drop of truth, and no matter how many times it’s debunked, someone will resurrect it.


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