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Why Do People Persist in Denying the Moon Landings?

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In the summer of 2009 the United States celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the first Moon landing, Apollo 11. Amidst all of the hoopla virtually every news story, especially in the electronic world, made some comment about a supposedly rising belief that humans have never landed on the Moon.  Why?

Buzz Aldrin

This image of Buzz Aldrin saluting the U.S. flag on the Moon in 1969 is often used by Moon landing deniers as evidence that the landing was filmed on Earth, because the flag appears to be waving in the breeze, and we all know there is no breeze on the Moon. When astronauts were planting the flagpole they rotated it back and forth to better penetrate the lunar soil (anyone who’s set a blunt tent-post will know how this works). Of course the flag waved—no breeze required!

Of course, from almost the point of the first Apollo missions, a small group of Americans have denied that it had taken place. This group seems to be expanding as the events of Apollo recede into history. Aided by a youth movement that does not remember what went down in the Apollo era and for whom distrust of government runs high, it is among that cadre of Americans where those who are skeptical have proliferated. Jaded by so many other government scandals, these younger members of society whose recollection of Apollo is distant to begin with finds it easy to believe the questioning they see on myriad Moon hoax web sites. Lack of understanding of science and failure to employ critical analytical skills make them more susceptible to this type of hucksterism.

There has been considerable research on the parts of society that embrace conspiracy theories of all types. Arguing that conspiracism writ large represents a fundamental part of the political system, legal scholar Mark Fenster claims in Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (Minnesota, 2008), that such conspiracies represent “a polarization so profound that people end up with an unshakable belief that those in power ‘simply can’t be trusted’.”

At the time of the first landings, opinion polls showed that overall less than five percent “doubted the moon voyage had taken place.” Fueled by conspiracy theorists of all stripes, this number has grown over time. In a 2004 poll, while overall numbers remained about the same, among Americans between 18 and 24 years old “27% expressed doubts that NASA went to the Moon,” according to pollster Mary Lynne Dittmar. Doubt is different from denial, but this represents a trend that seemed to be growing over time among those who did not witness the events.

Perhaps this situation should not surprise us. A lot of other truly weird beliefs exist in society. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt has been philosophical about this turn: “If people decide they’re going to deny the facts of history and the facts of science and technology, there’s not much you can do with them. For most of them, I just feel sorry that we failed in their education.”

While it is inappropriate for us to take this denial seriously and opinion surveys show consistently that few do, for those raised in the postmodern world of the latter twentieth century where the nature of truth is so thoroughly questioned it is more likely to gain a footing.

The media, especially, have fueled doubts over the years. While this may not be viewed as a definitive statement, a child’s bib I have seen places the blame squarely on the media’s back. It reads: “Once upon a time people walked on the moon. They picked up some rocks. They planted some flags. They drove a buggy around for a while. Then they came back. At least that’s what grandpa said. The TV guy said it was all fake. Grandpa says the TV guy is an idiot. Someday, I want to go to the moon too.”

No question, the February 2001 airing of the Fox special Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? changed the nature of the debate. In this instance a major network presented a conspiracy scenario without any serious rebuttal that might have been offered. As USA Today (April 9, 2001) reported in the aftermath of the show: “According to Fox and its respectfully interviewed ‘experts’—a constellation of ludicrously marginal and utterly uncredentialed ‘investigative journalists’—the United States grew so eager to defeat the Soviets in the intensely competitive 1960s space race that it faked all six Apollo missions.”

JFK

President John F. Kennedy in his historic message to a joint session of the Congress, on May 25, 1961 declared, “…I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Shown in the background are, (left) Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and (right) Speaker of the House Sam T. Rayburn.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans made it possible to reach the Moon. This launch of Apollo 11 represents one of the most watched events in human history. It defies credulity that so many people could have perpetrated such a hoax.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans made it possible to reach the Moon. This launch of Apollo 11 represents one of the most watched events in human history. It defies credulity that so many people could have perpetrated such a hoax.

The Fox show raised the profile of Moon landing deniers. And it sparked considerable response. Marc Norman at the University of Tasmania quipped, “Fox should stick to making cartoons. I’m a big fan of The Simpsons!”

Whereas NASA had refrained from officially responding to these charges—avoiding anything that might dignify the claims—the Fox show demanded that it change its approach. After the Fox program first aired, NASA released a one-paragraph press release entitled, “Apollo: Yes, We Did,” that was minimalist to say the least. It also posted a NASA information sheet originally issued in 1977 to readdress some of the concerns and pointed people with questions to various Internet sites containing responses. NASA officials added, “To some extent debating this subject is an insult to the thousands who worked for years to accomplish the most amazing feats of exploration in history. And it certainly is an insult to the memory of those who have given their lives for the exploration of space.”

Denials of the Moon landings appropriately should be denounced as crackpot ideas. I look forward to the time when we return to the Moon and can tour “Tranquility Base” for ourselves.

Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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105 thoughts on “Why Do People Persist in Denying the Moon Landings?

  1. A very interesting piece of evidence to skeptics like Mindy, is the Apollo 15 mission back in 1971. Astronaut David Scott tested Galileos principle on the moon, by dropping a feather and a hammer , and both hit the ground at the same time. Now here on earth that wouldn’t work, there is air resistance, the hammer would drop first. The feather would be slowed down, but on the moon, they are in a vacum, so therefore there is no air resistance, and they fall at the same time. I think people should remember we didn’t have the special effects back in 1969 like we have today, so faking a moon landing is out of the question. it’s easier to just go to the moon.

  2. Conspiracists come up with many excuses for why they think everything was fake, from” the pictures are to good to be true” to the always persistent” why have t we been back?” Neither excuse offers any proof it was faked. The claim that their are no visible stars is a claim often made. First, it’s daylight on the moon, second the shudder speed was adjusted to allow for that. If not, the astronauts would be bright, and unclear, while you would then see the stars. It’s actually very simple photography logic, that’s all. I feel many conspiracy theorists jump to conclusions with these hoaxes. I personally think it would be cool if it was a hoax, but it’s true. Just watch the moon buggy, when it kicks up dirt, it falls right back down without forming clouds. That’s because they are in a vacum, they can also be in a giant soundstage with all the air removed, although that’s just crazy! Why would nasa go through all this fakery and then get caught? It’s just rediculous the kinds of things people try to think up as why they claim we never made it to the moon. I know it’s fact, and I hope someday you hoaxers finally do better research and learn.

  3. conspiracy theorists always wanted to be “proved” wrong because it is far more difficult to disprove a negative of that magnitude without something spectacular like taking them to the moon themselves…

    well..here’s the thing, you actually could be taken to the moon..or very close. what does it cost? 25 million dollars? crack open that piggy bank, get your best cameras, lighting gear and a good flag and let spacex know you need to get to the moon stat to disprove that we got there in ’69. im sure they would take ya..

  4. I agree, I looked for years, the hoax is garbage. People can’t accept the truth, it’s not good enough for them.

  5. A conspiracy theorist in his 40s who believed the moon landing was a hoax once asked me what was the point in knowing algebra. Well, poor guy won’t be able to leave a comment on here, will he? Enough said.

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