Mooning the Lunar Landing

Even after 50 years, not everyone is convinced it actually happened

At 9:56 pm CDT on July 20, 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong spoke the famous words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as he became the first human to set foot on the moon.

Or was he really stepping onto a movie-studio set? That’s what the lunar-landing skeptics would have you believe.

I met my first moon-landing denier at a family gathering a dozen years ago when my uncle revealed his disbelief that Americans landed on the moon. He didn’t have any good reasons for his disbelief other than not having much faith in the U.S. government. He piqued my curiosity, and I quickly learned there is a community of disbelievers out there.

One report said that as many as 10 percent of Americans believe the lunar landing was a hoax, and when I read that a whopping 57 percent of Russians think Americans never landed on the moon, I see red, white and blue. It’s a question of patriotism. 

The conspiracy theorists who propagate the hoax scenario would turn Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins from American heroes of the space race into all-time masters of deceit.

I (and about 2 billion other people) had my eyes glued to the live images being beamed to television screens worldwide as the first men – Americans, at that – landed on the moon 50 years ago. It generated tremendous national pride and for a brief time brought together two disparate groups: nerds, as represented by the scientists who made the moon landing happen; and jocks, as represented by the pilot/astronauts who piled into those flaming tin cans that we shot into space – the ones who were brave enough to put scientific theory into practice.

Ten years ago, at the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, I wrote a series of stories about people who have spent considerable energy debunking the theories of those who doubt the moon landing. I’m going to recap some of their thoughts.

Jim Scotti, a researcher at the Lunar and Planetary Lab of the University of Arizona-Tucson, caught my attention with his website, The Moon Landings Were Not Faked. Scotti was almost nine years old when Apollo 11 landed, and he recalled being allowed to stay up late for the moonwalk. 

“Watching Apollo had a huge effect on me,” he said in 2009. “It kindled an interest in science.”

Today Scotti researches near-Earth asteroids at his day job, but the website refuting the myths and legends of the moon landing was purely personal, he told me in 2009:

“I was tired of seeing the hoax theories go unchallenged, and after seeing quite a few web pages make such silly claims, I picked one of them that was fairly representative of the ensemble and built my page around it.

“I do find the hoax claims to be insulting to the history of Apollo and all that it accomplished, especially when I see just how silly and easily debunked their claims are.”

In an August 2008 show, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters took on the monumental task of debunking some key points of the lunar-landing conspiracy theorists.

“It has actually been on our books since Day One,” Mythbusters Executive Producer Dan Tapster told me in 2009. “It’s arguably the biggest myth out there.”

Finally, Tapster said, the number of people who said they did not believe in the lunar landing was growing to the point where the Mythbusters team said, “This is ridiculous. We have to put this to the test.”

“I’m all up for a good conspiracy,” Tapster said, “but there are elements to the moon-landing conspiracy that actually verge on the offensive.”

In Episode 104, Mythbusters busted several of the top lunar-landing myths promoted by the skeptics, including the waving flag in a vacuum, footprints in a vacuum and supposedly faked photos.

Tapster summed up the Mythbusters mission: “One of the things we’re constantly trying to do on Mythbusters is challenge people not to accept what they have heard, particularly for young people. Challenge what they’ve read, challenge what they’ve heard, to become real thinking people.”

Finally, I reached out to the filmmakers of a 2002 mockumentary called Operation Lune (Dark Side of the Moon), which weaves real and fictional characters in a story of the moon-landing hoax that includes the major detail that it was shot on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey set. I heard from Luc Martin-Gousset, president of the company that produced the mockumentary, which is available on Amazon Prime.

The film had already been around for seven years when we communicated, so it had to be asked whether he was surprised by how many conspiracy theorists viewed the satirical film as just more ammunition in their anti-moon-landing arsenal and believe that Kubrick – or some Hollywood joker – filmed the landing in a studio.

“The good-bad surprise is that the people who did not get the joke come from any social background,” he said. “People who like to believe in conspiracy theories would tend to take this film at face value. This was a surprise: how much people are fond of conspiracy theories whatever their social background, but generally because they have an agenda – personal, ideological – in mind.”