Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 2 September 2012
Neil Armstrong’s death last week created news headlines worldwide. We indulged in some harmless nostalgia for a turbulent decade in another century that now belongs to a very different era.
For many of us who experienced it, the memory of Apollo 11 Moon landing is indelible. But did they really go to the Moon? Some still ask this question, all these years later. Was it all an elaborate hoax?
The Apollo Program had twin goals: to land astronauts on the moon; and to send back live TV transmissions so that everyone could see it – including the rival Russians and their allies.
To their credit, the Soviet Union accepted the Moon landings with good grace, although it meant they lost the Great Space Race where they scored some impressive initial victories.
But not everyone was convinced. Even as astronauts landed on the Moon, some people refused to believe it — apparently it clashed with their religious beliefs…
Since then, conspiracy theorists have argued that the Moon landings were faked by the US space agency NASA with some help from the masters of make-belief in Hollywood. They claim that the entire Apollo Program – which landed 12 astronauts on the Moon in six successful missions between 1969 and 1972 – was staged on a movie set or secret military base!
These doubters emerged while Apollo missions were still underway, and have persisted for over four decades. Over the years, the ‘Moon Hoax’ has turned into a cottage industry with its own books, films and websites.
Conspiracy theorists accuse NASA of manufacturing, destroying or tampering with ‘evidence’ — including photos, telemetry tapes, transmissions, and rock samples.
Most concede that the Apollo launches took place. But instead of going to the Moon, they say, astronauts just orbited the Earth for a few days while NASA carefully fed the media with manufactured images.
Why fake it?
Various motives have been suggested. Chief among them is saving face and national prestige when NASA realised it couldn’t meet President Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” before the 1960s ended.
Another one speculates that the US government, faced with the debacle of Vietnam War, racial tensions and general social upheaval, badly needed a national distraction – and going to the Moon was a spin doctor’s dream! (Well, it certainly was. NASA worked closely with the media in telling this Big Story. For once, reality was better than fiction.)
More far-fetched theories admit that astronauts did land on the Moon, but only with substantial tech help from extra-terrestrials. That was allegedly part of long-running alien-military collaboration; to keep that secret, a civilian drama had to be ‘acted out’. Hmm…
An early proponent was Bill Kaysing, a technical editor for aerospace companies that had some Apollo contracts. His self-published We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle (1974) was largely based on his own interpretations of Apollo photographs and TV footage. He claimed to have found many ‘suspicious inconsistencies’.
Such ‘theories’ might have inspired the 1978 Hollywood movie Capricorn One. In that story of the near future, NASA fakes a Mars landing on a military base on Earth — and then goes to desperate lengths to cover it up.
Who can separate fact from fiction beyond a certain point? And wasn’t Apollo the stuff of science fiction anyway…until it happened?
In 1980, the Flat Earth Society (their name says it all!) speculated that NASA ‘stage crafted’ Apollo by engaging the top ranked film director Stanley Kubrick who worked off a script by Arthur C Clarke!
Kubrick and Clarke had co-created the science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late 1960s. Many astronauts and cosmonauts hailed it for realistic depictions of outer space.
The plot thickens. Peter Hyams, director of Capricorn One, went on to make the movie adaptation of Clarke’s sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two in 1984.
Clarke used to laugh it off for many years, but when the story refused to go away, he joined the fray. Circa mid 1990s, he wrote a letter to the NASA chief (with his tongue firmly in his cheek): “Dear Sir, On checking my records, I see that I have never received any payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.”
Of course, he never received any reply – but it reportedly elicited many laughs at the space agency and has since become part of NASA lore.
NASA has never spent time discussing conspiracy claims in detail. On one historical website, it says, briefly: “The Apollo Moon landings were among the most completely documented and observed events in history. Moon rocks have been examined by scientists from all over the world, not just the US. Video special effects were in their infancy in the late 60s so that faking a landing on the Moon would probably have been more difficult than actually going there…” (See: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/planetaryfaq.html)
From the early 1990s, the Internet has provided another platform for everyone to argue matters out. Several independent websites are now dedicated to painstakingly debunking lunar conspiracies. Notable among them are Clavius.org and badastronomy.com.
A few astronauts have also stepped in, some more forcefully than others. In 2002, astronaut Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (second man to walk on the Moon) infamously punched filmmaker Bart Sibrel provoked by the latter’s aggressive interview tactics.
Rationalists have to deal also with changing demographics and fading memories. Half of humans alive today were not even born when Neil & Buzz left those expensive bootprints on the Moon.
NASA is well aware of this. “As the number of people who were not yet born at the time of the Apollo program increases, the number of questions [about the moon landings] also may increase,” the agency said on the 40th anniversary in 2009. “Conspiracy theories are always difficult to refute because of the impossibility of proving a negative.”
Roger D Launius, Curator in Planetary Exploration Programs at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, says that youngsters become increasingly sceptical since they have no firsthand recollection of Apollo. He wrote an insightful chapter titled ‘American Spaceflight History’s Master Narrative and the Meaning of Memory’ in a 2008 book titled Remembering the Space Age (Steven J. Dick, ed.).
He placed this in a wider context. “The denials of the Moon landings excite the response of crank and crackpot from most who hear them. Indeed, those conspiracy ideas deserve disdain. But so do many other conspiracy theories that now are now major elements of the memory of the nation. For example, how many Americans believe that President John F Kennedy was assassinated by means of a massive conspiracy that involved the national security establishment?”
He wonders: “Might this happen in the future in relation to the Moon landings?” (Full text: http://tiny.cc/MemSpace)
No matter what the scientists say and how overwhelming the evidence is, conspiracy theorists (and their blind followers) will always believe what they want. Perhaps the best response is what Clarke once proposed in relation to UFOs: a decade or so of benign neglect. Myth-makers thrive on counter arguments. When they don’t get it, they might run out of steam.
Neil Armstrong, the quiet and reclusive Odysseus of Apollo, was unaffected by all this. He just said: “People love conspiracy theories… But it was never a concern to me, because I know that one day, somebody’s going to go and fly back up there — and pick up that camera that I left.”