51 years after Apollo 11, many still think Moon landing was faked; why the conspiracy theories don’t stand
Fifty-one years ago, the historic Apollo 11 mission landed the first human beings on the Moon. An estimated 650 million people watched astronaut Neil Armstrong's televised image and heard his voice describe the event, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969. According to NASA, the astronauts left behind an “American flag, a patch honoring the fallen Apollo 1 crew, and a plaque that read, ‘Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind’.” Though the first Moonwalker has died, conspiracy theories claiming that the Moon landings were a hoax and that they were faked, live on. How did the Moon landing conspiracy theories start and what are they?
When did the conspiracies begin?
According to reports, theories that the Moon landing was a hoax that the US government had staged to win the space race with the Soviets began to gain traction in the 1970s.
Bill Kaysing, a former US Navy officer, claimed that he had inside knowledge of a government conspiracy to fake the Moon landings. He wrote, “We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle,” in 1976 and many conspiracy theories about the Apollo Moon landings can be traced to this book. “The basic template of the conspiracy theory is that NASA couldn’t manage to safely land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s as President John F Kennedy had promised, so it only sent astronauts into Earth orbit. Conspiracy theorists then argue that NASA staged the Moon landings in a film studio and that there are tell-tale signs on the footage and the photos that give the game away. They claim that NASA has covered up the elaborate hoax ever since,” writes Peter Knight, professor of American Studies, University of Manchester.
The rise of conspiracy theories has also been attributed to a breakdown in trust between the US government and its citizens. In 1971, for example, the Pentagon Papers showed that the government had repeatedly lied about the Vietnam war. In 1976, a House committee concluded that there was a high chance that there had been a conspiracy to kill John F Kennedy. “That Kaysing’s conspiracy theory took hold in mid-1970s America is in large part due to a wider crisis of trust in the country at the time,” says Knight.
With the 1978 Hollywood film ‘Capricorn One,’ the conspiracy theory got more steam. The plot revolved around the government deceiving the American public into believing that they had landed a manned mission on Mars. “It imagined that a Mars landing was faked in a film studio, tapping into conspiracy rumors that the Moon landings themselves had been directed by Stanley Kubrick. This suggestive myth is based in part on the idea that special effects had become much more sophisticated with Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001 A Space Odyssey, although still far from the capabilities that the conspiracy theories suppose,” explains Knight.
In February 2001, Fox Broadcasting ran a documentary titled “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” According to an article on Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s website, after the Fox program first aired, NASA released a one-paragraph press release, “Apollo: Yes, We Did.” It said, “To some extent debating this subject is an insult to the thousands who worked for years to accomplish the most amazing feats of exploration in history. And it certainly is an insult to the memory of those who have given their lives for the exploration of space.”
While these claims were false and easily debunked, they have persisted to this day. Bull. Public opinion polls over the years regularly show that about 5-6% of Americans believe the Moon landing was faked, Roger Launius, NASA’s former chief historian, told AP last year.
Debunking the conspiracy theories
One question that Moon-hoax enthusiasts often ask is why is the US flag fluttering on the surface? That would be impossible since there’s no air on the Moon, they say. The US flag is fluttering because it has a metal rod sewn into it to give it the appearance of moving in the ‘wind.’ “These flags had a horizontal rod inside to make them stick out from the flagpole. The Apollo 11 astronauts had trouble extending the rod all the way, and in still pictures, this creates a ripple effect that makes the flag look like it’s waving in the wind. In video images of the flag, you can see it only moves while the astronauts are grinding it into the Moon’s surface. After the astronauts step away, it stays in the same bent shape because of the partially-extended rod,” explains History.com.
No stars in the sky in the moonwalkers' photograph is another argument. According to experts, the daylight on the surface washes them out, just like it does on Earth. The lunar landscape is brightly lit by the Sun, and astronauts were wearing white space suits that are highly reflective. To capture a bright object with a bright background, the exposure time must be fast. Stars are faint objects, and in the fast exposure, they do not have time to register on the film. “The shutter speeds on the astronauts’ cameras were too fast to capture the faint light of the stars, astronomer Emily Drabek-Maunder at the Royal Observatory Greenwich in London said. NASA used high shutter speeds to make sure the pictures weren’t overexposed from the bright light on the Moon,” says the AP report. Another popular conspiracy theory is not being able to see the astronauts holding a camera, so who took the pictures. This is because the camera was mounted on the front of the astronauts' spacesuit.
People also say that Moon landing is fake because the shadows are not right, indicating that artificial light was used. But the problem with this theory is that besides the Sun, the lunar ground also reflects light. “In the Apollo 11 pictures, the sunlight is being scattered or reflected off the ground every which way, and some of it — a small fraction but enough to be able to see — scatters into the shadows,” Rick Fienberg, the press officer for the American Astronomical Society, tells Hisotry.com. This is the reason why in some pictures, one can make out a plaque that Armstrong and Aldrin left on the Moon even though it is lying in shadow.
People also ask why in all the pictures taken by the astronauts, the shadows are not black. They argue that if the Sun is the only source of light on the Moon, and there is no air to scatter that light, shadows should be black. American astronomer Phil Plait explains, “The lunar dust has a peculiar property: it tends to reflect light back in the direction from where it came. So if you were to stand on the Moon and shine a flashlight at the surface, you would see a very bright spot where the light hits the ground, but, oddly, someone standing a bit to the side would hardly see it at all. The light is preferentially reflected back toward the flashlight (and therefore you), and not the person on the side.”
Why do you see footprints in the pictures, but no marks from the lunar modules that landed there? There are footprints but no impressions from the modules because the weight of the modules was more evenly distributed than the astronauts' weight, which was in their boots. Further, since the Moon has no atmosphere, liquid water or wind erosion, the footprints remain.
And there is more evidence. Between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions brought back 382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface. All of the tests have confirmed that they did come from the Moon. “The six space flights returned 2,200 separate samples from six different exploration sites on the Moon. Besides, three automated Soviet spacecraft returned important samples totaling 300 grams (approximately 3/4 pound) from three other lunar sites. The lunar sample building at Johnson Space Center is the chief repository for the Apollo samples,” says NASA.
In 2009, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, or LRO, returned its first imagery of the Apollo Moon landing sites. The pictures show the Apollo missions' lunar module descent stages sitting on the Moon's surface, as long shadows from a low Sun angle make the modules' locations evident. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, was able to image five of the six Apollo sites. “Not only do these images reveal the great accomplishments of Apollo, they also show us that lunar exploration continues,” said LRO project scientist Richard Vondrak of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, in a statement.