Dear Straight Dope:
I was reading an online story about the anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing and it mentioned that a very few folks maintain, nay, obsessively insist, that it never happened. That none of the moon landings ever took place, except for on a movie set or in the Nevada desert. It sounds to me like the talk of someone who has a wee bit too much time on their hands. What's the Straight Dope — did Armstrong and company walk on the moon or no?
SDStaff DavidB replies:
Yes, they walked on the moon. And yes, some people insist they did not — that it was all a huge conspiracy. You seem shocked at this, but remember, there are still folks maintaining that the Earth is flat or only 6,000 years old. (In fact, the flat-Earthers are one of the groups claiming the moon landing is a hoax — after all, the astronauts took photos showing a round Earth, and they know that isn’t true, so it must be a hoax!) You don’t actually expect evidence to convince people like this, do you? Any piece of evidence that we could present would simply be, to them, a part of the conspiracy. A good conspiracist can incorporate any piece of information into the big conspiracy without even blinking.
There have been several books written to promote this claim, and more articles. There was even a movie with a similar plot, Capricorn One, starring O.J. Simpson, among others (1977). The difference was that in the movie, the fake landing was for Mars, not the moon. One group of flat-Earthers actually claims O.J. was framed by the government for exposing the fake moon landings through his part in this movie! As Peter Huston, the writer and skeptic who mentioned this to me, deadpanned, “Apparently, the government moves slowly on framing its enemies.”
Bob Mulford, of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, wrote a short article for the group’s newsletter, The WHY-Files, discussing a recent book claiming the whole thing was a hoax. Apparently a reviewer in a technical magazine aimed at radio astronomers actually gave the book a more-or-less positive review! He noted that the reviewer bought into one of the author’s arguments, saying it was obviously a hoax because the photos brought back by the astronauts showed their footprints in the moon’s soil. The author claimed (and the reviewer apparently agreed) that dry sand doesn’t leave footprints, and since we all know there is no water on the moon, that proves these photographs must have been faked on a movie set here on Earth.
Mulford points out in his article that the Moon’s surface is not covered with beach sand. He notes: “On the earth, sand comes from rocks ground to small pieces by the ocean, or from rocks that were weathered by freezing water. In fact, a little thought shows we should not expect the Moon to be like an desert on the Earth. The astronauts reported that the Moon was covered by an extremely fine soil which compacted easily. They likened it to talcum powder. This soil was produced by a rain of micrometeorites that the Earth’s surface is protected from by our atmosphere. It is easy to do an experiment that shows that this type of surface would leave nice footprints. I didn’t have any talcum powder, but I did recently produce a large pile of fine dust from sanding spackling compound used to patch a plaster wall. It leaves nice footprints.” Mulford adds: “Incidentally, if the Moon walks actually were a hoax carried out in an earthly landscape that looked like the Moon, it would have been done in a dry desert and we wouldn’t see footprints in the photos.” In other words, the author of that book provided evidence against himself rather than proving the moon landing was a hoax!
In 1994, the Fortean Times had an article calling the moon landing into question. The article began, “The idea that we went to the Moon — and that we were successful in our Apollo endeavours — is so firmly embedded in the cultural lives of most people on this planet, that to voice the opinion that this might be untrue smacks of paranoia.” I can’t argue with that! The article goes on to claim, “In actual fact, mankind has no proof at all that we ever set foot on the Moon, other than the photographs that NASA has elected to publish.” Which is simply untrue. We have the photos, the video, the audio, the testimony of all the men and women who worked on the various projects, the samples brought back, etc. The “evidence” of a conspiracy is from the photos themselves, and calling it “flimsy” gives it too much weight. For example, in the first photo he uses, the author supposedly analyzes the shadows, claiming to show that they are facing in different directions, meaning it was done with a very nearby light source. When I look at the same photo, however, I can’t begin to imagine what this guy is going on about even with the arrows he has kindly inserted to point this stuff out! In several of the other photos, his claims are simply wrong — he puts in arrows to “show” how things should be, but he doesn’t line them up properly.
To their credit, a number of readers responded and said the article was full of baloney, to put it nicely. They pointed out that the author didn’t make allowances for 3-dimensional objects casting shadows on a 3-dimensional ground, that he didn’t notice they were using wide-angle lenses in some instances, etc. In fact, the volume of letters was so great (they said it was the biggest response they’d ever had), they did a follow-up article in 1997, explaining some of the same things that were pointed out in the letters they received. Suffice it to say this guy’s claims were thoroughly debunked.
There have been other similar claims, of course, and I’m sure there will continue to be new claims of a moon landing hoax. I recently heard one that included the gem that Stanley Kubrick directed the moon footage for NASA, which was filmed “on location.” Hmmm. If he was on location, wouldn’t that mean they made it to the moon? Whoops, never mind! I’m looking for rationality in an inherently irrational subject.
And that’s about what it comes down to. There will always be people who claim a conspiracy for just about anything. Facts will be ignored, rational people will be amazed and dismayed. And Cecil will continue to try to fight ignorance, against all odds.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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