Did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin really step on to the Moon back in July 1969? Not if Bill Kaysing was to be believed. Five years after the lunar landings he published We Never Went to the Moon: America's thirty billion dollar swindle, a seminal work in the rich and varied history of wacky American conspiracy theories. Its thesis was that arguably the greatest technological achievement of the 20th century was faked - a montage put together on a stage set in the Nevada desert by a cynical and ruthless US government in order to distract attention from the unfolding disaster of Vietnam, and to prove once and for all America's superiority over the Soviet Union.
Publication came at the perfect moment. The 1970s were a golden age for conspiracy theories, from the Kennedy assassination to extra-terrestrials making landfall in New Mexico. It was when the Watergate scandal exposed the man in the White House at the time of the moon landings as a real-life exemplar of the cynical and ruthless, a man who would stop at nothing in the furtherance of his ends.
Throughout his life Kaysing insisted that one purpose of the moon-hoax theory was to encourage people not to take government's word as gospel, and instead live - as he did - a life free of "Madison Avenue influences". Despite much derision, the book gained a cult following, and a 1999 poll showed that 7 per cent of Americans agreed with it.
Having been head of technical publications at Rocketdyne, a company closely involved in the lunar programme, Kaysing brought a veneer of credibility to his work. But the doubts he raised were the classic fodder of conspiracy theories. Why were there no stars in the TV images purporting to be of the lunar surface? Why did the implanted US flag appear to be stiff in the wind, when the Moon had no atmosphere? Sound answers existed to these questions, but, to conspiracy theorists, sound answers are anathema. The persistence of Kaysing's theory infuriated those most directly concerned with the Apollo missions. "Tear up your manuscript and pursue a project that has some meaning," the astronaut Jim Lovell wrote to Kaysing in 1996. "Leave a legacy you can be proud of, not some trash whose readers will doubt your sanity." Kaysing sued for defamation, but a judge threw out the case.
In fact, he had projects aplenty, and leaves a legacy of which many might be proud. Kaysing was an American original, "a self-supporting vagabond" (in the words of his daughter Wendy) who could never long abide the "rat race" of a steady job. In the early 1960s he left Rocketdyne. He sold his home, bought a travel trailer and set up as an itinerant freelance writer, the self-styled "Fastest Pen in the West".
We Never Went to the Moon brought as much infamy as fame. But several of his books (some co-written with his second wife, Ruth) were well- reviewed additions to modern self-help literature. Often they focused on alternative lifestyles - for instance The Ex-Urbanite's Complete & Illustrated Easy-Does-It First-Time Farmers' Guide (1971). At one point, Kaysing launched a newspaper, The Better World News, which urged readers to treat life as an adventure, to break free of a materialist society's dictates and do what they really wanted to do. He wrote about living on houseboats, and about cheap eating - Eat Well on a Dollar a Day (1975).
A special concern was the plight of the homeless. Kaysing co-founded a local church in southern California to help them, and produced a free booklet, Homes for the Homeless, which promoted "granny housing" and "micro-housing", cheap self-sufficient dwellings for those who had none. Late in his life he ran a sanctuary for abandoned cats called Flock - "For the Love of Cats and Kittens".
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