Apollo 11 moon landing: How conspiracy theories that began on the lunar surface shaped the world we live in today

Those who twist evidence of the July 1969 mission and subsequent manned landings may be frustrating and upsetting, but they paved the way for others whose fanaticism has cost lives

Footage from the 1969 moon landing Apollo 11 mission

Buzz Aldrin punched one. Nasa shows them pictures. Scientists point to the data.

But the moon landing conspiracy theorists do not go away. Millions of people continue to believe that man never touched the surface, and that humanity was not heir to one of the greatest achievements imaginable but instead duped by a plot to improve the standing of the US in the world.

The story is almost as shocking as what really happened. In July 1969, a spacecraft really did shoot up and away from Earth, the conspiracy theorists claim – but it just looped around in orbit outside the Earth, while people at home made a video of a moon landing in a TV studio, and then the astronauts dropped down again to be hailed as heroes.

The moon landing conspiracy in the mainstream is much younger than the moon landings themselves. Though it is exactly 50 years since humanity touched the surface, it took a few years for humanity to start believing that it never actually happened.

It finally emerged when Bill Kaysing wrote and published a book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle in 1976. The book claimed there was only a 0.0017 per cent chance that it would be possible to safely land on the moon, and that therefore it made more sense that it never actually happened.

That came at a time when Americans were ready to lose trust in the government.

At the beginning of the decade, the Pentagon Papers were released, and showed that the US government really had been engaged in a vast conspiracy to trick the American public into supporting military action in Vietnam. Soon after, public trust took another hit with the discovery of Watergate and yet another indication that the US establishment was attempting to trick the people.

It established a pattern that would come to define the half-century that followed. Often, that questioning approach to the official story was proven right, with stories like the US government’s shady mind control programme known as MK Ultra actually more horrifying in reality than the stories had suggested.

But at other times that reasonable distrust could be weaponised, as a way of attacking whoever was most convenient, with conspiracy theories being turned on gun advocates and Muslims.

The moon landing conspiracy appears to come in large part because the achievement was so hard to believe and to comprehend, and that the possibility of a government trick was so very real. But all of the reasoning behind the moon landing being faked is still patently false, of course.

What’s more, there are easy ways of seeing the evidence for yourself.

The reaction to those photos are also evidence of the way that conspiracy thinking can rapidly spread. If you are committed to the belief that the moon landings were fake, then those images are not proof to the contrary but instead evidence of the fact that the cover-up is more widespread and deeper than you had thought; any proof of the truth can be quickly flipped to become even more evidence of the conspiracy.

The moon landings were perhaps the most ambitious and successful of any single effort by humanity. They required centuries of understanding of physics and propulsion, vast machines built using the very latest technology, and the combined brainpower of thousands of the most clever people on the planet.

But they would be truly dwarfed by the effort that would have been required to fake them. Humanity still would have needed much of the technology used in the landing – even conspiracy theorists accept that the astronauts were sent up into orbit on a powerful rocket – but it would also have required much more technology besides, such as cameras and special effects that would not be seen for decades. The establishment would have required the cooperation not only of the thousands of scientists who really did the calculations and operations that theoretically and then practically carried humanity to the moon, but also the yet more thousands of people required to make such a hoax happen and then keep it under wraps.

So despite the fact that conspiracy theories are often presented as radical challenges to those in power, they actually appear to grow out of a belief that they are actually far more powerful than they really are. The US government or whatever other body is controlling the world might be evil, they suggest – but they are still comfortingly in control.

If 9/11 was an inside job, mass shootings were staged by actors; if global warming isn’t real and aliens are being hidden inside of Area 51, then at least someone is doing all of those things. Conspiracy is more comforting than chaos.

Even the most dangerous of conspiracies can sometimes seem like ways of grasping at or dealing with the horrific parts of civilisation. In recent years, two conspiracy theories have gripped the far right – Pizzagate and QAnon – that appear to be a way of grasping the horror that surrounds us.

Both theories claim that the establishment has been involved in large-scale child abuse, and that it has been both conducted and abetted by many of the most powerful people in the world.

As time goes on, and after scandals such as those surrounding the BBC and Jeffrey Epstein come to light, the concern that powerful people are using their influence to harm children does not seem quite so unbelievable. But what is particularly notable about QAnon especially is that it suggests the world can be saved – believers trust that Donald Trump is engaged in an invisible but vast plan that will expose and punish those involved. Once again, conspiracy trumps confusion, and offering a kind of comfort.

Interest in conspiracy theories often focuses on the weird and the whacky – the kind of stories that are patently untrue and might not cause any great pain if it turned out they were. But conspiracy thinking is more and more affecting the way we conduct policy and politics, and the kind of things that are up for political discussion, and the results can be dangerous.

In Britain, 30 per cent of people believe that the government is involved in a cover-up of the truth of immigration, for instance, and it is even higher in other parts of Europe. That belief tends to be popular among those who voted for Brexit or Trump, according to research from the University of Cambridge.

That kind of virulent and viral conspiracy reaches perhaps its most harmful form in the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which suggests that white people are being systematically but secretly swapped for non-European people, across the western world. It has become a central recruiting myth of the far right, and the fact there is absolutely no evidence that it is true has not hindered its spread.

It is deadly. When a man slaughtered 51 people in mosques in New Zealand earlier this year, he left a screed that made heavy reference to that conspiracy theory, and suggested that the massacre had been inspired by it.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Similarly, antisemitism has come to focus as a kind of conspiracy theory, and one which has spread across both left and right. Often it cross-pollinates with some of the more spectacular and fantastic kinds of conspiracy theories – a shadowy cabal that controls the world, for instance, or references to various people in power secretly being lizards or other non-human animals – and can use them to spread antisemitic rhetoric without doing so in any obvious way.

“Antisemitism is a very particular kind of conspiracy theory,” wrote Cambridge historian Richard Evans, who served as an expert witness during a famous High Court trial during which the very fact that the Holocaust happened as reported was challenged.

“Unlike others, it doesn’t rest on the belief that there is a small group of people hatching plots. It’s purely racist in origin and expression. Like other forms of racism it rests on the belief that there is something in the blood, something hereditary, that creates a certain type of character – in this case, one that’s constantly engaged in conspiracies, plots and subversive, exploitative activities.”

A conspiracy theory is really just a story that humanity tells itself; we are as good as they are. In the case of the moon landing, it is frustrating and false. But the flurry of fake stories about real events that the Apollo conspiracy theories unleashed led to something more deadly, and one that has reshaped our world.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments