I don’t believe any of the alternative theories about the moon landings but this week I thought it would be fun to explore some of the arguments around these seminal events. We begin by looking at some of the arguments people have made in support of the conspiracy theories and the questions they overlook and evidence they do not have. I then take a look at why there are both optimistic (secret space program) and pessimistic (we never went) conspiracy theories about the moon landings and whether this is a good thing.
This is a subject that I wouldn’t normally address but it does stand out in the history of conspiracy theories as being quite popular and therefore, I guess, worthy of some commentary. The ‘moon landings’ usually refers to the NASA Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972 when a total of 12 NASA astronauts walked on the surface of the moon. Of course, there have been quite a number of other moon landings by unmanned vehicles from other government agencies. In February 1966 the Soviet Union achieved the first soft landing, i.e. one that wasn’t just a probe crashing into the surface. Luna 9 landed safely and took pictures, which were transmitted back to earth. Three years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon, at least according to the official histories.
The alternative stories are quite broad in range, from those saying that no human has ever landed and walked on the moon through to those claiming that hundreds or thousands of secret moon missions have built up huge bases there. These theories found their way into popular culture quite rapidly, most memorably in two 1970s films. In the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever there is a sequence where Bond stumbles onto a TV set mocked up to look like the moon’s surface. This was released in 1971, while the Apollo missions were still taking place, and must have been conceived before or just after the first landing in 1969. A few years later we got the film Capricorn One, which features NASA faking a manned mission to Mars.
More recently we’ve had films like Interstellar, in which the US government deliberately spreads moon landing fakery theories to encourage people to seek Earth-based solutions to the blight and famine. There have also been a trio of mockumentaries beginning with William Karel’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which features interviews with real government officials telling the story of how Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landings on behalf of the US government. In 2013 we had the wonderful mockumentary Apollo 18, which depicts additional moon landings after 1972 that were covered up. There is a similar film out right now called Operation Avalanche, where a small group of CIA agents infiltrate NASA to try to hunt down Soviet spies and end up helping to fake the moon landings. The romance and spectacle of moon landing conspiracy theories are far too tempting for Hollywood to ignore, and as a fan of all of these films except Interstellar I am glad they have not resisted that temptation.
We’ll return to the popular culture side of this later but I want to take a look at how this dialogue, this argument about the reality or unreality of the moon landings, has played out. I should say that as with most conspiracy theories this is not one that I buy into. I can see why people are suspicious but frankly I think that the most boring explanation is probably the truth – NASA did land people on the moon, they found it was a dead rock with nothing of any great interest there, and it was massively expensive and accomplishing nothing so they stopped doing it. But let’s take a look at some of the arguments that people have made.
1) The space race was deeply political, so the US government had a motive for faking it.
I find this quite convincing. The space race certainly was deeply political, a competition between two superpowers that in the eyes of many people would settle which nation and therefore which system, which ideology, was superior. The Soviets launched the first satellite, the first animal in space, the first human in space. This was a blow to the ego of the United States.
Furthermore, there was a planned black operation around the Mercury launch that saw John Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth. Operation Dirty Trick was developed, with the documents saying that ‘The objective is to provide irrevocable proof that, should the MERCURY manned orbit flight fail, the fault lies with the Communists and Cuba’ and that ‘This to be accomplished by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans.’ So clearly there were deep politics behind the Space Race and the US government were willing, and presumably able, to fool a large proportion of the public.
However, there is one massive question that strike me. Why didn’t the Soviets fake it? If the US faked it and the Soviets didn’t want to expose that fakery then why not fake a mission to the moon for themselves? Officially no Russian has set foot on the moon, which is cited by some as proof that it cannot be done. But if all that is true then why didn’t they fake it? They were more than willing to lie to their own people and the rest of the world, they had as much motive as the Americans. I’ve never heard this question addressed in any of the populist dialogue about these theories.
2) It is impossible to get to the moon because of the Van Allen radiation belts. This is quite commonly believed and is one of the central planks in the argument of Bart Sibrel, the guy behind the films A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon and Astronauts Gone Wild. Sibrel and others claim that the radiation belts around the earth are so strong that to get through them on the way to the moon would require a lead-lined spacecraft, which would be too heavy to launch via a rocket.
However, he doesn’t cite any real evidence for this. Apparently hundreds if not thousands of satellites and space probes and the rest have flown through the Van Allen belts and at least some of them must have carried radiation meters. To my knowledge Sibrel and others who maintain these claims have never obtained and published data about these radiation fields. If they did and it supported what they claim then that would be pretty strong evidence, but they haven’t. Why not? Have they tried and failed? Is NASA covering up this data? Or has no one bothered to test this theory, preferring instead to rely on people’s inherent fear of radiation to emotionally, psychologically persuade them to believe or disbelieve something?
3) That the Apollo 11 astronauts seemed unable to answer some of the most obvious questions they were asked upon their return, and Neil Armstrong almost immediately left NASA and became a recluse. This is, in my opinion, basically true. I’ve watched the full press conference with the Apollo 11 astronauts and they come across as vague, confused, detached. This could be the result of spending days travelling to the moon and back, the sense of isolation, the outright weirdness of setting foot on another celestial body. But it could also be the result of hypnosis, which is how it comes across to some. They certainly don’t seem at all excited or proud or any of the emotions you might expect. I’ll play you a short clip from the press conference and invite you to watch the whole thing and make up your own minds.
As I say, make up your own mind and draw your own conclusions but as you’re doing so consider the possibility that whether these men went to the moon or not, that doesn’t prove anything about whether anyone else did. It’s entirely possible, just for example, that these men were hypnotised into believing they went to the moon while some other astronauts whose names we don’t know were the ones that actually went.
4) The photographs contain numerous anomalies, proving they were fake. This is perhaps the most popularly believed and commonly-cited argument and there is some odd stuff in quite a lot of these photographs. I won’t get into all the specifics but my question is that if NASA faked it then why did they fake it so badly that the photos contain all these anomalies? Why put out photos purporting to be from the moon’s surface or from a lunar orbiter that contain within them evidence that they are fake?
The whole thing reminds me of the CCTV from the 7/7 London bombings. Initially the police released one still image of the four alleged bombers walking into Luton station on their way to London, and the image has several digital anomalies cited by conspiracy theorists as proof that the image is fake. There is no CCTV, the conspiracy theorists claimed en masse. They just faked one picture because they don’t have any video of the four men at that place on that day. Several years later this was gazumped by the police releasing clips from the CCTV in which at least two of the alleged bombers are recognisable. My point is that there are some people who will decry any anomaly or mystery or inconsistency as proof of a conspiracy, when it isn’t. Anomalies, mysteries and inconsistencies are inherent in our experience of reality, but reality itself is not a conspiracy.
That being said, some of the attempts to debunk the claims that the photographs from the moon are faked are just as stupid and illogical as the claims. There is an episode of Mythbusters where they recreate a miniature moon surface set and use one big spotlight to represent the sun and show that by messing with the topography you can get shadows to appear to be pointing in different directions. And to be sure, they are right about that and demonstrate it convincingly. But there is an issue here. In trying to prove that the NASA photos weren’t taken in a TV studio, they took similar photos in a TV studio. Regardless of specific arguments about specific aspects of the photos, they actually managed to prove that you could fake those photos quite simply, if one were so inclined. In purely logical terms it’s a shorter leap from ‘we did this in a TV studio, therefore NASA did this in a TV studio’ than it is from ‘we did this in a TV studio therefore NASA didn’t do this in a studio’. Explaining and showing how something could be faked is not a good argument for it being real.
To my mind the stronger argument is: Even if NASA did fake the video footage and photographs, does that prove anything either way about the reality of the moon landings? What if they discovered it wasn’t possible to send a TV signal back to earth? What if the signal proved unreliable or they were genuinely worried about Soviet interference? They could have faked the video and gone to the moon, the two are not mutually exclusive.
It is this last point that cuts to the heart of the matter – that a lot of people sees anomalies in the evidence and then project onto that an elaborate story for which they have no evidence. Either the photos were faked because NASA never went to the moon, or they were faked because that’s just the cover story for the secret space program. The idea that the photos and video were faked and NASA went to the moon in a relatively mundane fashion is a distinct possibility but one that is rarely, if ever, considered. It doesn’t fit in with the grand narratives that a lot of people subscribe to, it doesn’t satisfy their desires for a story that means something big and important. The notion that the moon is a dead rock that’s actually quite boring and that it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether NASA astronauts went there or not or faked it or not, that’s not a notion many people want to entertain. You’ll find most people have quite strongly held opinions about this.
Along these lines I also want to know why it is that it is only the US footage and photographs that are subject to such scrutiny. I have never seen any sceptic of the Apollo missions apply the same scrutiny to the Russian pictures of the surface of the moon, or other pictures subsequently produced by Chinese or European lunar orbiters. These pictures do exist, but a comprehensive comparison of them does not seem to have been done. Do those who believe the NASA pictures are fake also believe the Russian and Chinese and other pictures are fake? I don’t know, but for their worldview, or moonview, to be coherent this is a critical question.
It is relevant that, unlike most conspiracy theories, there are optimistic and pessimistic versions of the moon landing conspiracy theories. There are those like Bart Sibrel who believe it’s impossible, we didn’t go to the moon because we can’t leave this planet due to radiation. That’s quite pessimistic, and it may be instructive that both of Sibrel’s movies contain strong religious elements. The first begins with a prologue about the tower of babel, a massive technological project that failed, as an example of humanity’s arrogance before God. Sibrel calls the moon landings a ‘satanic lie’. In his second film he goes around trying to get the Apollo astronauts to swear on the Bible that they went to the moon. One of the astronauts who does this admits that he doesn’t believe in God, the other one does not make clear his religious beliefs, and the rest refuse. You even get to see Buzz Aldrin punching Sibrel in the face, which is one of the best moments in the history of documentary cinema. If nothing else, the films are very entertaining, especially the second one Astronauts Gone Wild.
On the other side you have the optimists, who believe that we did go to the moon but not using NASA rocket technology. Instead some variant of the ‘reverse engineered alien technology’ idea or the ‘nazi flying saucer’ idea are employed to explain that NASA has a secret space program that is used to visit the moon. Certainly, given NASA’s budget at this time, it is possible that there was a parallel space program developing different technologies. But you’ll notice that when it comes to launching satellites and other space equipment that every country still uses rockets. Why would they do that? Is it only the US that has access to this supposed secret space technology? Why would aliens only allow one country to reverse engineer their ships? There is a lot about this that doesn’t make sense.
Nonetheless, I think it is good that an optimistic version or versions of this theory exists. Typically, conspiracy theories seek to fill gaps in people’s knowledge, they are arguments from ignorance. Because we don’t know something, or at least because it’s possible or even plausible to doubt our supposed knowledge, the explanation is a conspiracy, and conspiracies are usually nefarious. The notion of a benevolent conspiracy is extremely rare, so it’s nice to see in this instance.
I don’t want to turn this into a lengthy analysis of evidence or a critique of those who believe any particular version of the moon landings story. If you believe we went to the moon, I’m cool with that. If you believe we didn’t, I’m cool with that too. If you think that Armstrong and Aldrin and the rest are just PR people covering for the secret space program then so be it, that doesn’t really bother me. To my mind there’s very little at stake here, whichever story is the truth. It doesn’t make a lot of difference to me or my life, unlike other conspiracies or potential conspiracies, I have nothing invested in this, I just think it’s an interesting topic.
However, before I leave you I do want to try to answer the question of why there are both optimistic and pessimistic conspiracy theories about the moon landings. Most conspiracy theories are inherently pessimistic and as a result disempowering, alienating and depressing. This is why I don’t have much time for them, aside from the lack of solid evidence and sincere investigation that makes it hard to know what to do with most such theories. So why are the moon landings different? It isn’t surprising that there’s a reactionary Christian element who disbelieve the story that the moon landings were a great triumph of human technology. After all, it threatens their cosmological model in the same way that Darwinism threatened their biological model. They are responding to an ideological threat in the same way most true believers respond to something that disrupts their beliefs and desires.
But why is there also this idea of a secret space program? It isn’t based on evidence in the form of documents and whistleblowers and the usual evidences one might expect to find for black projects. If anything I’ve found that it is more common for people to cite popular culture as evidence for the secret space program. I guess when you don’t have any basis on which to argue for your desired point of view, a film more or less portraying that same view is a kind of validation and reinforcement.
One angle that I think proves helpful is a comparison with the discovery and colonisation of the Americas and the destruction of the model of the flat earth. Obviously I mean the European discovery of the Americas, rather than the discovery by all the people who were already there when the Europeans showed up. Even today some people still believe in the flat earth model, or at least pretend that they do to try to appear weird and edgy and different. And with some people it’s because their minds are bored and it’s fun to argue for a wacky idea that you don’t actually believe in. I’m certainly guilty of that at times. But scientifically the earth is curved, almost spherical.
However, to maintain their belief, their argument, that the world is flat this peculiar bunch of people claim that the video and photographs are all fake. They often preface this by saying that all the pictures of the round earth are from NASA, a government agency. ‘Do you trust the government?’ they ask. But what about the other pictures and video? The ones from other governments? This would, by its nature, have to be a global conspiracy, which makes it much harder if not impossible to maintain and thus the question should not be whether you trust the government, but whether you believe all space-capable governments have a motive for lying to you in the exact same way. You would at least think they’d come up with different lies, no?
Various suggestions have been offered for why the Flat Earth cult has been in the ascendancy in recent years. Some have said it’s the CIA trying to discredit the truth movement, but frankly I think the CIA have bigger concerns and the truth movement does a fine job of discrediting themselves. Others have suggested the Russian government might be encouraging this in order to undermine Western people’s faith in their governments and in the superiority of Western society. This is slightly more plausible, but I want to offer you a different view that has nothing to do with secret government strategy.
There is a prominent feeling in our postmodern culture that there is nothing new. It is perhaps this that most directly characterises postmodernity, the idea that everything has been discovered, that philosophy is just footnotes to Plato, that artists are just recycling the same ideas and stories. This isn’t a particularly pleasant idea, it usually leads to cynicism and pessimism. Thus, this string of anti-NASA conspiracy theories are a response to that, a refusal to accept it. After all, if the earth is flat and Antarctica surrounds the flat earth like a giant polo mint then there might be more land out there, entire continents yet to be discovered, with all the resources and material wealth that comes with that. That’s actually quite an optimistic idea, however ludicrous it may be.
Likewise if we didn’t go to the moon via the Apollo missions then that’s something we could still accomplish. Not in the Bart Sibrel – Van Allen radiation belts view of things but even there we might develop a new form of radiation shielding that means one day we could go to the moon for the first time. The secret space program is an advanced version of this, because it says we’ve been going to the moon for years, possibly decades, before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The implication is that by now we might have already been to Mars or Venus and be in the early stages of a whole new age of discovery like that in the middle of the last millennium. Having discovered and colonised the whole of planet earth the next logical step would be colonising another planet, and the notion that some of us might one day be part of that is quite enticing and optimistic. It is the romance of known unknowns, the romance of believing that there is something out there that is new and offers different possibilities.
So, as much as I find flat earth theory absurd and as unconvincing as I think the moon landing conspiracy theories are, I think they come from a place of optimism. Even the more pessimistic theories have a grain of optimism in them. They might have regressive consequences, in terms of giving a boost to old religious values and attitudes but to be honest most secular atheists refuse to look at evidence that contradicts their beliefs – irrationalism and denial are not only traits of religious fundamentalists. I think that people’s refusal to accept the pessimism that there is nothing new to discover is a good thing, however insane the expression of that might be.
To illustrate this and to give you something to explore that might at least entertain you and be thought provoking, I’m going to play a clip of a guy I have mentioned before called Math Boylan. He claims to have been a photo-realist artist who worked for NASA but at the same time he’s a stand up comedian who appears to believe in the flat earth, so it’s hard to know what to make of him as an individual. But he is very funny and I think the absurd humour in his work speaks to the optimism at the heart of these anti-NASA conspiracy theories.