Project Apollo sent six two-man teams of astronauts to the surface of the moon between July 1969 and December 1972. Roughly 10–20 percent of Americans now believe, however, that no human has ever set foot on the moon, and that all evidence for the landings is part of an elaborate hoax staged by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Skepticism about the landings began to surface almost as soon as they took place and has remained steady for three decades since. Supporters of the hoax theory argue that careful scrutiny of still pictures, films, and radio transmissions reveals telltale signs of the deception.
Critics of the hoax theory dismiss the idea of a thirty-year-long conspiracy involving hundreds or thousands of people as patently absurd. The “anomalies” in lunar photographs are, they contend, products not of a shadowy conspiracy but of the will to believe in one.
Origins and Context
Belief that the moon missions were faked entails belief in two separate premises. The first is that it was possible, in 1969, to simulate a lunar landing and the “moonwalks” that accompanied it. The second is that the U.S. government deceived the public about one of the defining events of the century. Between 1968 and 1973, events outside the space program rendered both premises more plausible, to far more people, than they would have been a decade earlier.
Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) signaled a revolution in movie special effects and, specifically, in the simulation of space travel on screen. John Sturges’s Marooned (1969) and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1971) showed that 2001 was more than a brilliant fluke. All three films stood as far beyond Destination Moon (1950) as that film, revolutionary in its time, had stood beyond the crude Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s. The new films’ extraordinarily realistic “look” made it easy to believe that the simulated space flight could now be passed off as real.
The five years between 1968 and 1973 also saw the rapid erosion of the U.S. public’s trust in the federal government. The optimistic pronouncements of politicians and generals about the war in Vietnam were repeatedly undercut by the testimony of journalists and returning veterans. The 1970 publication of the Pentagon Papers—the government’s own “secret history” of the war—damaged government credibility further, as did the 1970 revelation of a secret bombing campaign against Cambodia.
The Watergate Scandal of 1973–1974 destroyed the Nixon administration and further damaged the federal government’s credibility. The knowledge that the president and his advisors had systematically abused the power of their offices for political gain, then systematically lied about their actions, permanently soured many Americans’ attitudes toward their elected officials.
The idea of a trip to the moon had, as late as the late 1950s, seemed to many Americans a distant dream at best. Many continued, in the early 1970s, to find the idea implausible. Disbelief in the moon landings coalesced around those doubts.
A poll taken by Knight Newspapers in July 1970, a year after the first landing, revealed that 30 percent of those polled doubted the landings had been real. Doubts ran especially high where trust in the federal government was especially low. In poor, black neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., half of those polled believed that the landings had been a hoax.
Cynicism about the government diminished little after the early 1970s. The healing effects of time and fading memories were repeatedly offset by fresh scandals. Americans born since the mid-1960s thus have only vague, secondhand memories of the Apollo missions but vivid memories of government duplicity. “I’d always suspected something like that” is a common reaction among high school and college students encountering the hoax theory for the first time.
The Community of Believers
The hoax theory, even according to its critics, is accepted by tens of millions of Americans. It has been shaped and promoted, however, by a much smaller group of core believers. The members of this core group are responsible for collecting, analyzing, and publishing what they see as compelling evidence of government deception with respect to Project Apollo.
They agree on what constitutes this body of evidence, on how the individual pieces of evidence should be interpreted, and on the idea that the public record of the moon landings was falsified. They disagree about the extent of, and the reasons for, that falsification.
Some hoax theorists, like William Brian, argue that U.S. astronauts did land on the moon in 1969–1972, but that they discovered evidence of an alien civilization that has been ruthlessly suppressed. Other theorists, like David Percy, argue that the landings broadcast on television to worldwide audiences of millions were fakes. The real moon landings, they believe, were carried out in total secrecy by a shadowy “black space program,” and that there is no public record of it or them.
The most popular view—narrowly believed among dedicated hoax theorists and widely among rank-and-file believers—is that humans never went to the moon at all. NASA faked the landings, according to this view, because it was incapable of actually carrying them out by the end of the 1960s, as President Kennedy had challenged them to do in 1961.
The leading advocate of this “mainstream” version of the hoax theory is Bill Kaysing, who has been promoting it since the early 1970s. Ralph René’s book NASA Mooned America (1994), James Collier’s video Was It Only a Paper Moon? (1997), and Bart Sibrel’s video A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon (2001) stake out positions similar to Kaysing’s, while offering similar arguments and evidence.
Kaysing’s forthrightly titled book We Never Landed on the Moon (1974) was the first extended discussion of the hoax theory to appear in print. It remains in print at this writing, having been expanded and republished several times, and spawned a series of videos that present its argument visually.
Kaysing’s ideas were also featured prominently in the Hollywood suspense film Capricorn One (1978)—the story of NASA’s attempt to fake the first manned landing on Mars. Except for the change of destination, the film’s fictional scenario is virtually identical to Kaysing’s purportedly real one. Even the spaceships are identical to those used in Project Apollo.
Kaysing has actively promoted the hoax theory on radio talk-shows and, in 1997, achieved fleeting fame by suing ex-Apollo astronaut James Lovell for referring to him as “a wacko” (a judge dismissed the suit as baseless). The Fox television network’s hour-long documentary Conspiracy Theory: Did We Go to the Moon? (2001) gave Kaysing’s ideas a thorough, and thoroughly uncritical, airing.
The Case for the Hoax Theory
The mainstream version of the hoax theory is built around three central ideas. The first is that NASA, incapable of actually sending anyone to the moon, never allowed the Apollo astronauts to go beyond the Earth’s orbit. The second is that official NASA photographs and films from the Apollo missions show telltale signs of their creation on an earth-bound sound stage.
The third is that NASA, and its coconspirators elsewhere in the government, have kept those with knowledge of the conspiracy quiet for thirty years. The rest of the hoax theory consists of a web of suppositions and “likely stories” connecting those three ideas.
Proof of NASA’s inability to carry off a real lunar landing lies, believers argue, in the contrast between the space agency’s performance before and during the Apollo missions. NASA’s early attempts at space flight in the late 1950s and early 1960s were often spectacular failures.
They achieved a measure of success with Earth-orbiting flights during the Mercury and Gemini programs, but Apollo was plagued by problems with quality control, with meeting deadlines, and with spacecraft performance.
As late as January 1967, three astronauts died on the launch pad when fire broke out in the cabin of a poorly designed Apollo spacecraft during a test. Yet, beginning with the flight of Apollo 8 around the moon in December 1968, mission followed flawless mission with only one (nonlethal) failure—Apollo 13.
Hoax theorists argue that real, successful lunar missions are far less plausible than faked ones in which (according to one scenario) empty Apollo spacecraft were launched and then “parked” in Earth orbit for the required number of days before being returned to Earth under remote control.
Proof that the moon landings were staged on Earth rests, according to believers, on clearly visible “anomalies.” Why, they ask, is the “moon rock” shown in one NASA photo marked with the letter “C”? Why is the soil beneath the engine nozzle of the lunar module only slightly disturbed? An engine so powerful should have blasted out a crater deep enough to be noticeable.
Why do photographs supposedly taken on the lunar surface show objects lit from more than one direction? There should be only one source of light on the moon: the sun. Why are the stars not visible in the lunar sky? With no atmosphere to obscure them, they should shine clearly.
Why, in film footage that shows an astronaut planting the U.S. flag, does the flag appear to wave as if in a breeze? It should, on the airless lunar surface, hang limply from the rod that supports its top edge.
Proof of a post-Apollo conspiracy of silence lies, believers argue, in the fact that no one connected to NASA has spoken out on the subject. They see it as particularly significant that Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11 and the first person to set foot on the moon, declines to give interviews and that other astronauts have specifically refused interviews with hoax theorists.
Some (including Bill Kaysing) go further, suggesting that the three astronauts who died in the mid-1960s plane crashes, the three who died in the 1967 Apollo cabin fire, and the seven who died in the 1986 Challenger disaster were murdered by NASA to keep them quiet.
The Case against a Hoax
The hoax theory, according to its critics, is a tissue of faulty assumptions, specious “evidence,” and bad science. The Apollo flights to the moon, though successful, were far from the flawless exercises that Kaysing and others suggest.
Apollo 11, the first to land, came within seconds of crashing on the lunar surface. The explosion that crippled Apollo 13, and many of the problems that resulted, were products of flawed or inefficient design—the same kinds of problems that NASA had faced throughout the 1960s.
The purported “anomalies” on which believers rely so heavily are, in fact, readily explained without a hoax. The “C” appears only in a single copy of the photograph in question, not on the original film.
The lunar module’s rocket engine fires only briefly when the ship is close to the lunar surface, and not at all for the last seconds of the descent. The shallow craters it leaves in the lunar soil reflect this. The rays of the sun illuminate objects on the lunar surface directly, but also by reflecting off the soil, the lunar module, and other light-colored objects.
The stars are not visible in the dark lunar sky for the same reason they are not visible to observers standing near a bright street light: the street light (or, in lunar photography, the sun) overwhelms them. The flag moves after its pole is planted not because of breeze but because of inertia. The act of driving the pole into the ground shakes the cloth and, for a moment or two, it continues to shake.
No present or former NASA employee has “blown the whistle” on the hoax, critics argue, because there was no hoax. It defies belief that the hundreds or thousands of NASA employees who would have been aware of some part of the hoax would all have kept silence for three decades.
It is, on the other hand, far from surprising that astronauts would refuse to talk to hoax theorists who accuse them of being brainwashed dupes at best and bald-faced liars at worst. Neil Armstrong’s reticence about the first lunar landing mirrors his similar reticence about his combat missions in the Korean War and his test flights of the X-15 rocket plane.
Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who flew with him aboard Apollo 11, have both written extensively about their experiences on the moon. Unless the existence of a hoax is assumed, critics point out, nothing about the death of six astronauts in the mid-1960s or seven aboard Challenger suggests foul play. Space travel is, as even hoax theorists readily admit, a dangerous business.