For many, the moon landing will forever be tied to moon landing denial and a grand cosmic hoax. The fiftieth anniversary of the summer 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon is being celebrated this year, with celebrations, parades, special exhibits, lectures, and re-enactments taking place across the country, plus TV specials and documentaries scheduled for broadcast and a special gala starring surviving mission astronaut Buzz Aldrin on July 13th in California.
But in the shadow of this prestigious anniversary season is a belief that, while not quite 50 years old, sprang up long ago and has never died: That the Moon landing was an elaborate hoax. These two parallel worlds have not co-existed happily.
A 1999 Gallup Poll said that 6 percent of the American public supports the Moon-hoax theory or some form of moon landing denial. Some say that the Internet has fostered and broadened the belief and that percentage is much higher today. Former NASA chief historian Roger Launius told The Washington Post that disbelievers have showed up whenever he gave a lecture on the topic: “They’re very vocal — and they love to confront you.” In 2002, Buzz Aldrin punched a man who had been harassing him and accused Aldrin of being a liar.
The Apollo 11 landing took place in the midst of the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In Russia, the number of people who believe the U.S. landing was faked is reportedly 28 percent.
Doubters say the U.S. government, desperate to beat the Russians, faked the lunar landing, with the late Neil Armstrong and Aldrin acting out their mission on a secret film set. There is even a subtheory that Stanley Kubrick oversaw the concocted film, based on expertise gained in 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968.
In 1976 a book was published, We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. Written by Bill Kaysing, the book claimed that NASA concocted the Moon landing after realizing its chances of success were 0.0017 percent. Soon other doubters were heard, speculating that the American government wanted to not only beat the Russians to the Moon but also distract a divided nation from the Vietnam War with a “win.”
In 1978 a mainstream thriller film, Capricorn One, costarring James Brolin, Elliott Gould, and O.J. Simpson, was premised on astronauts faking a Mars landing in a film studio. Scientist Hal Holbrook had told the astronauts, “We found out two months ago it won’t work. You guys would all be dead in three weeks. It’s as simple as that.”
The main points of the disbelievers are that they’ve identified inconsistencies in photographs and televised snippets of the Moon walk. The flag should not flutter in the wind because there is no wind on the Moon; shadows are wrong; stars are missing in the sky. These ideas have been discussed at length in various documentaries, youtube videos, and social media threads.
A core belief of the resurgent Flat Earth Society is that “government space agencies are taking creative liberties with your tax dollars and producing misleading materials.” The society is planning a conference in Dallas in November 2019 to discuss its evidence that humans live “on a flat, stationary plane” and there were no Moon landings.
NASA has long vigorously defended itself against moon landing denial. In response to the Washington Post, spokesman Allard Beutel issued a statement saying there is “a significant amount of evidence to support NASA landed 12 astronauts on the Moon from 1969-1972,” and specified some of that evidence: NASA has “842 pounds of astronaut-collected Moon rocks studied by scientists worldwide for decades; you can still bounce Earth-based lasers off the retroreflector mirrors placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts; NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the landing sites in 2011 . . . ”
NASA historian Bill Barry said in an interview in 2018, “I try not to worry too much about conspiracy theories although it is, frankly, a consideration as we plan for Apollo’s 50th anniversary.” How conspiracy nurturers react to the intense anniversary celebrations this summer remains to be seen.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com