Lunatic fringe

There has long been a suspicion in some quarters that the Moon landings were faked. Nasa, however, has always maintained a dignified silence on the subject. Until now... Andrew Gumbel reports on a new twist in the greatest conspiracy theory of all
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The Independent US

To understand everything you need to know about the Great Moon Landing Conspiracy, you don't have to go back to 20 July 1969, the day that Neil Armstrong's celebrated moonwalk (or perhaps, given the territory we are entering, we should say purported moonwalk) was broadcast live to an awestruck world.

To understand everything you need to know about the Great Moon Landing Conspiracy, you don't have to go back to 20 July 1969, the day that Neil Armstrong's celebrated moonwalk (or perhaps, given the territory we are entering, we should say purported moonwalk) was broadcast live to an awestruck world.

You don't even have to go back to the summer of 1978, the release date for a highly suggestive sci-fi B-movie called Capricorn One, in which the first manned mission to Mars is revealed to be a colossal fake staged by Nasa – a plotline that gave a lot of otherwise trusting people some irresistibly scurrilous ideas about the true size of that "giant leap for mankind" nine years earlier.

No, the really crucial turning point in the conspiracy came just last year – 15 February 2001, to be precise. That was the date that the Fox television network created a headache for all right-thinking rocket scientists by broadcasting a curious hour-long programme entitled Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? There was only ever going to be one way to answer that question, especially with a host such as Mitch Pileggi, an actor from The X-Files and, sure enough, the programme claimed to present compelling evidence that man never set foot on the Moon. Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin et al were nothing better than frauds and government stooges, it alleged; the whole thing had been staged inside a film studio on a US military base somewhere in the Mojave desert.

Why should we believe that? Well, the programme asserted, the US flag planted on the Moon's surface is shown in the television footage to be fluttering, and we all know there is no breeze of any kind on the Moon. The photographs taken by the astronauts are suspiciously well-framed and, significantly, do not include any of the Moon's night sky, even though there would surely be a stunning array of stars on view. Even more significantly, the shadows in the pictures are clearly coming from more than one angle – a seeming impossibility on the Moon, where the only light source is the sun, but more than plausible inside the confines of a film studio. As for the famed Moon rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts, one of them is marked with a tell-tale letter "C", suggesting the markings not of some alien life force but of a prop master who forgot to erase his handiwork.

It's a wonderfully alluring idea, and a good portion of Fox's viewership was no doubt sorely tempted to swallow it. Most of us love a good conspiracy theory and this is one to put up with the best of them. Could it be that we've been duped all these years? Could it be that we were right all along to think that putting a man on the Moon was the very definition of impossibility? It's a delicious thought, and one whose time has surely come. The world may have been naïve about the manipulative power of the media back in 1969, but now we're all familiar with Wag The Dog, The Truman Show and The Matrix, films that suggest we may not actually be living in the world we perceive around us but rather in an alternative reality created for political reasons by forces beyond our control. Much of modern life plays out like a film or a television drama already (just turn on the 24-hour news channels), so why should the Moon landings be any different?

Granted, the Fox programme was not intended as a pinnacle of investigative journalism – this is a network, after all, whose previous offerings have included such shameless tabloid romps as When Good Pets Go Bad and Alien Autopsy – but it caused a sensation none the less. All sorts of nuts started coming out of the woodwork, peddling their own twists on the Moon hoax. The internet went crazy with theories and counter-theories. A "self-taught engineer" from New Jersey called Ralph Rene produced a monograph, "Nasa Mooned America", in which he referred to the heroes of the Apollo missions as "astro-nots". (His humour, one presumes, was also self-taught.) A squint-eyed Tennesseean called Bart Sibrel produced a video, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon, in which he claimed to have dug up behind-the-scenes Nasa footage of astronauts mugging for the cameras. Sibrel also developed an obsessive habit of confronting former Apollo astronauts and challenging them to swear on the Bible that they really went up into space. It is a habit that came to an abrupt end last September when a harried Buzz Aldrin lost his temper and thwacked him on the nose outside a Beverly Hills hotel. (Sibrel tried to sue for assault, but the Los Angeles district attorney's office refused to press charges.)

Pretty soon, Nasa itself wondered if a reaction wasn't in order. So it put out a press release stating, for the record, that there had been no hoax and that astronauts really did go to the Moon. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all the press release said, all but inviting the conspiracists to accuse the space agency of refusing to engage with their arguments – the implication being that they were too good to refute.

A few weeks ago, Nasa tried again, announcing that it was commissioning a respected popular science writer, Jim Oberg, to write a lengthy pamphlet dismantling the naysayers' arguments one by one. An enthusiastic Oberg explained how much he was looking forward to the task, not just because he relished the chance to demolish the sensationalism of the Fox programme but because he wanted people to understand why such conspiracy theories arise in the first place. "There is no such thing as a stupid question," he said. "Every time something like this comes up, it is an opportunity for teaching and learning."

But now Nasa has just played into the hands of the conspiracists all over again by abruptly changing its mind and cancelling Oberg's contract. Officially, the reason was that the space agency considered the Moon landing hoax to be so preposterous as to be unworthy of a response. Unofficially, sources close to Nasa suggested, top management was worried that publicity over Oberg's book would distract from its current political difficulties in shoring up the agency's budget. But in that realm that is so far off from officialdom as to be absent from reality altogether, there was no doubt what Nasa's decision portended. Almost in unison, every Moon-obsessed conspiracy theorist floating out in cyberspace gasped in amazement: My God, these people really do have something to hide!

It's probably worth stating at this juncture that plenty of appropriately qualified scientists have examined the evidence and unanimously concluded that the conspiracy theorists don't have even the beginnings of a case. Too many things about the Apollo missions were impossible to fake, from the radio signals picked up at listening stations around the world to the Moon rocks, which have been subjected to repeated geological analysis and clearly date back several millennia in an environment that was entirely devoid of water. (That "C" on the photographed rock has since been found to have been a hair accidentally introduced when Nasa was printing up the negatives.) If the US flag on the Moon is kinked in photographs, it is because it was arranged to look that way. (The astronauts hung the flag from a horizontal rod across the top to stop it drooping in the windless atmosphere and purposely did not pull it entirely straight.) If the shadows go in more than one direction, it is because sunlight is reflected off the surface of the Moon itself, an effect known to physicists as Heiligenschein, the German word for a halo. If the stars did not come out in the photographs, it is because they were too dim in the background. (Try taking a photo of the night sky on earth with a compact camera and they will be equally indistinct.)

Just because the conspiracy theorists don't have a case, though, doesn't take away from their oddly compelling loopiness. Take the grandaddy of them all, a septuagenarian rabble-rouser called Bill Kaysing, whose book We Never Went to the Moon came out in 1974. Kaysing – who has also taken an interest down the years in the suggestion that Britain paid the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor – claims to have been in on the ground floor of the space programme as a researcher for Rocketdyne, a major Nasa contractor, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In his rather fevered version of events, the Americans decided to go ahead with the faked landings years after Russian scientists "proved" that travelling to the Moon was scientifically impossible. The three astronauts who perished aboard the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission in 1967 – Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White – were, in fact, murdered after they threatened to reveal the hoax to the world.

The Apollo 11 mission, meanwhile, was launched with no astronauts on board and the rocket quickly jettisoned in the South Atlantic, he claimed. The astronauts spent the entire mission inside a film studio either at the Area 51 military base in Nevada or at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California, and were later dropped by parachute from a military transport plane over the Pacific. If they were kept out of public view for a month after their "re-entry", it was to prepare them for the grotesque lies they were expected to tell.

The conspiracy has never stopped. The Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986 was, in Kayser's opinion, another instance of government-instigated murder: the lone civilian on board, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, had refused to go along with the lie that you can't see stars from space and needed to be silenced. Kaysing's evidence? Hey, who needs evidence when the facts speak so eloquently for themselves?

One recurring feature of the Moon conspiracy theorists is their claim that Nasa astronauts have lied, distorted and covered up the record. Curiously, though, the conspiracists themselves don't stand up too well under close scrutiny. Kaysing, for example, did indeed work for Rocketdyne, but as an archivist, not a scientist. His undergraduate degree was in English literature and he has no specialist scientific knowledge at all.

Bart Sibrel, meanwhile, likes to say he is a former television journalist with NBC, when in fact he did no more than work once as a part-time editor at NBC's Nashville affiliate for a couple of months. (NBC has disowned him entirely.) His "never before seen footage" of the faked Moon landing turns out to be a publicly accessible Nasa tape of astronauts preparing, without subterfuge, to go on television for an interview.

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that all Moon conspiracists are as low-calibre as this bunch. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the hoax advocates is an entirely different, rather more literate school of conspiracy-mongers whose views are every bit as sensational, even if they happen not to have been given an airing on national television. These are the UFO nuts, the true believers in alien life forms. Their line is that astronauts most definitely did go to the Moon, but that they recovered far more than a load of rocks. In fact, Nasa found widespread evidence of an ancient alien civilisation that may or may not still exist – a discovery so jarring that the agency has been desperately seeking to conceal its findings from the public ever since.

This is a natural follow-on from the touchstone of all UFO theories, the purported alien crash-landing in the New Mexico desert in 1947. Philip Corso, a former US Army intelligence officer, wrote a book a few years ago arguing that the space race was at root an effort by both the US and the Soviet Union to be the first to negotiate an interstellar treaty with the aliens – the thinking being that whoever could enlist the support of technologically superior life-forms from elsewhere in the galaxy would surely win the Cold War and come to dominate political affairs on earth. Lt-Col Corso did not mention whether such a treaty was ever signed in the wake of the Moon landings.

Some more recent theorists take exception to the Moon hoax school, saying its advocates are an insult to their intelligence, no less. "Let us be clear; we are all uniformly, unabashedly, conspiracy theorists here. We are 100 per cent convinced that there has been a cover-up by Nasa," the authors Richard Hoagland and Michael Bara wrote in a recent paper published at their Star Trek-influenced website www. enterprisemission.com. "That said, one thing they did not do, unquestionably, was fake the Moon landings. In fact, most of the charges made... are so absurd, so easily discredited, so lacking in any kind of scientific analysis and just plain common sense that they give legitimate conspiracy theories like ours a bad name."

And the authors go further: the only possible explanation for Kaysing and his followers, they argue, is that they are themselves government agents publicising the hoax theory as a smokescreen to mislead the public and prevent people from asking questions about the real scandal and the real cover-up. It's a dizzying concept. Hoagland and Bara are careful to point out that this is only their suspicion; they don't have any evidence to back it up. But who cares? They've stumbled upon a conspiracy within a conspiracy. And in this Moon business, that's as good as it gets.

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