Debunking the Moon Truthers, Part 1
The Life and Times of the Moon Hoax Conspiracy
Yes, it's a 3-part Skeptoid episode, the first one ever, and it took more than 500 episodes to get me to finally address the moon landing hoax conspiracy. To those who follow science, the claims that we never went to the moon are the most tiresome and foolish of the conspiracy theories; but to those who believe them, they are absolute religion, and the ultimate token of their conviction that anything coming from official sources is a lie. Today we're going to begin our in-depth analysis of the Moon Landing Conspiracy, of those who believe in it, and a survey of the facts and figures of the basic narrative.
Today we're going to talk about the history and cultural impact of the claim; next week we'll go into the most popular evidentiary claims said to prove that we never went to the moon (hopefully including some you haven't heard before); and in the final installment, we'll look at the hard physical proof that we did go.
The basic narrative of the Moon Truth conspiracy theory, as you probably know, is that NASA faked the Apollo missions and nobody ever actually went to the moon. As with most conspiracy theories, there are all sorts of variations on the claims of what actually did happen, while the only thing they have in common is that no men actually landed on the moon. Some believe the Apollo missions orbited the moon but did not land; some believe they never went farther than Earth orbit; some believe the Apollo spacecraft flew but were uncrewed; some believe they never launched anything at all. The astronauts performed their moonwalks on a movie set, and fake transmissions were provided to the TV networks for broadcast. The reasons given for why the government would have gone to all this trouble range from simply distracting Americans' attention from the unpopular war in Vietnam, to fooling the Soviets into thinking they lost the Cold War, to protecting NASA's budget by appearing to spend it on something supremely impressive.
A big question we have to answer is what's the point of even talking about this? The people who believe it have already heard the science-based responses to their claims a hundred times, and rejected them a hundred times. Their minds are riveted shut to anything but their preferred narrative. We'll not be changing any of their minds today. And the rest of us aren't in denial, and aren't asking these made-up, shoehorned questions that try to raise doubt where none exists. So who is this episode for, nobody?
Well, maybe for somebody. Polling data has, for decades, consistently shown that some 6-7% of Americans believe the moon landings were faked; and even scarier, about four times as many Europeans agree with them. That's a lot more people than the hardcore YouTube-obsessed serial conspiracists; it includes tens of millions of ordinary folks who are otherwise as rational as you or I. It seems there must be something deeply compelling about this odd belief.
American Moon Truthers differ from most other conspiracy theorists in one fascinating metric: political affiliation. Most anti-government conspiracy theorists skew heavily conservative, which is not surprising; the fundamental ideology of such conspiracy theories is distrust of the government, and one basic difference between the left and the right is that the left tends to favor larger government and the right tends to favor smaller government. We'd expect those who distrust the government to gravitate toward any ideology that minimizes it, and that's the basic reason those conspiracy theorists tend conservative. But Moon Truthers are different. Most of them skew liberal, according to the survey data. To understand why, we can look at what the Apollo program represented. The moon landings were a great American triumph; in particular, beating the Soviets to the moon was the quintessential victory of capitalism over communism. Ideologically, capitalism beating communism is more appealing to the conservative than to the liberal. Thus, a conspiracy theory doubting such a victory is more ideologically appealing to the liberal. So now when we look at the conspiracy theory community in its totality, many of the pro-capitalism conservatives tend to drop of out Moon Truthing, leaving a liberal majority. Therein lies the difference.
Correction: An earlier version of this did not specify that only anti-government conspiracy theorists skew conservative. Research shows that conspiratorial thinking is equal across party lines, gender, and most demographics. Political differences depend on which conspiracy theory you're talking about. —BD
The Apollo program was started in 1961, during the height of the United States' Cold War with the Soviet Union. Tensions were rising sharply. The United States had just failed with its Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro using proxy troops, and the Soviet Union prepared to move nuclear missiles into Cuba. In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed "Landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth". Whether the missiles would fly or not, this war was to be fought on the propaganda front as well. Moon Truthers have long drawn upon the importance of the propaganda war as support for their belief that the United States would have done anything to at least make it appear they were winning it.
Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was above deception in the war to convince the world their side was the stronger. The Soviets took the Absolute World Air Speed Record in 1962 with a plane they called the Ye-166, which it turned out didn't exist; it was a modified Ye-152 fighter plane, but they didn't want us to know it could go that fast. The United States responded in 1965 by taking the record back using the YF-12A (an early version of the famous SR-71), but the plane was de-powered so much — in order to fly only just fast enough to break the record — that the pilots reported difficulty in controlling it at speeds as "slow" as Mach 3. They set six different records, all for propaganda purposes; every one of them deceptive in that none revealed the aircraft's true capability. It was a response to the Soviets' own deceptive record. No doubt, neither side hesitated to hoodwink in the name of propaganda.
Changing the model number of a plane or pulling back on a throttle are one thing, but faking a manned moon landing? And then successfully maintaining the fraud for 50 years? It's this exploration of the scope of the required coverup that's one of the strongest arguments supporting the fact that we did go — outside of the physical proof, of course, which we'll talk about in the third installment.
It's been estimated that 400,000 people were part of the Apollo program, including NASA personnel and the many subcontractors. Only one of them has ever stepped forward to claim it was a hoax: Bill Kaysing, who was a publications analyst at Rocketdyne for a couple years in the early 1960s. Kaysing's belief was not based on evidence; he said himself it was "a hunch, an intuition." In 1976 Kaysing self-published a pamphlet titled We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle in which he claimed the Saturn V rocket was discovered to be too weak to make it to the moon; and so, on launch day, the astronauts secretly slipped out of the capsule and transferred to a mockup at a safe location, from where they made the television broadcasts. Then at the end of the mission, the men got into a duplicate capsule which was dropped into the ocean by a transport plane. It's nearly exactly the same plot as Peter Hyams' 1977 movie Capricorn One which was about a fake Mars mission. Kaysing sued for copyright infringement but the case was dismissed, and Kaysing said it was because the powerful government faked the movie script's copyright date. There may be a simpler explanation. Kaysing may have written this narrative into his book, but it was hardly the first time it had been proposed. Other less famous conspiracy theorists had been floating similar premises for years. Most likely, Hyams and Kaysing were inspired by the same folklore that predated both of their works.
Much of that folklore had been around since the Gemini program, and it came from Samuel Shenton, leader of the tiny Flat Earth Society, who had his hands full arguing for a flat Earth in the face of increasing proof against him coming from the space program, particularly the photos of Earth taken from space. Upon Shenton's death in 1971, the Society was taken over by Charles and Marjory Johnson of the Covenant People's Church, who continued charging NASA with hoaxing the Apollo program, based on their Christian Fundamentalist belief that the Earth must be flat. Charles Johnson claimed in their Flat Earth News newsletter that he had personal knowledge — as did Shenton — that author Arthur C. Clarke (whom he described as "the English creep") "wrote, directed, and narrated the moon Ianding."
It was twenty years before another famous name — this time from Hollywood — became attached to the moon hoax, and it came in the form of a satirical post to a usenet newsgroup titled "Stanley Kubrick and the Moon Hoax". It claimed that NASA recruited Kubrick (who had just finished 2001: A Space Odyssey) and special effects guru Douglas Trumbull to spend 16 months on a sound stage in Huntsville, Alabama filming the moon landing footage. It was an obvious put-on, including references to a non-existent brother. The anonymous author of this post may have been inspired by the fact that Kubrick co-wrote 2001 with Johnson's suspect Arthur C. Clarke. Twenty years after the satire, we see the butterfly effect it had. The 2013 film Room 237 portrayed what I call the "Kubrick conjecture", and in those intervening years it has come to not only be taken seriously, but has grown into a tapestry of staggering proportions. It is 100% evidence free, yet fills volumes with its intricacies and constructs.
As one of the most famous directors in the world, just about everything about Kubrick's life and work from those years is documented, and he doesn't seem to have ever disappeared for 16 months. But forget about that. Landing on the moon once would have been enough to win the propaganda war with the Soviets, and there would have been no need to sextuple the risk of the hoax being discovered by repeating the feat five more times. But forget about that too. 3,500 journalists from all over the world investigated, researched, reported, and actually watched every moment of Apollo 11 from beginning to end, and nobody uncovered the slightest indication that everything was not as it seemed, but let's even forget about that. The Moon Truther movement is not about likelihood or plausibility or even facts, but about conspiratorial ideology. Next week, we're going to uncover some of the most dramatic results of that ideology when we look at the Moon Truthers' specific claims.
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