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

  1. Whether or not something is true or not, or considered just a conspiracy theory, the beauty of the United States is that the citizens are free to question everything, especially their government.

  2. MythBusters also did an episode on the Moon landing to “bust” a number of the conspiracy theories. If the MythBusters say we went to the Moon, then we went to the Moon…

  3. Ikah makes a very good point; the very fact that we can have this discussion on this blog is a testament to the genius idealism that makes up the US government system.

    If you’d like proof that we made it to the moon, come on into the museum and touch the moon rock that we have, go see Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon at the Udvar-Hazy Center, visit a lecture with some of the astronauts that went there, walk through our “Going to the Moon” gallery on the National Mall, or just review the facts from NASA, SI, and other institutions that discuss it.

    Conspiracy theories are just that: theories. More often than not, they surround a major issue or a controversial claim; going to the moon and placing our flag there certainly falls within that category. These theories most often prove false, but you’re free to believe whatever you wish to believe. Just make sure your belief is based on fact and logic before you accept it; a visit to NASM will probably change your mind.

  4. Why do they do it?
    Because doing so diminishes America’s standing in the world.
    It speaks to American exceptionalism that for a brief time, we came together and made something of our species.
    And that’s a threat to pregressivism.
    In my experience, the kooks behind this conspiracy nonsense are all leftist America haters.

  5. What can I say…People will deny what they can’t understand/ comprehend. They like to think ALL life has been and is on earth.

  6. Has the Smithsonian ever considered curating an exhibit on the various arguments that ‘hoaxers’ have? To my mind, that’s an excellent way to teach science-using it to debunk the junk. One could even delve into why people fall for hoaxes so easily as Curator Launius alludes.

    Also, a shorter more direct version of the above video would be helpful. Though I understand the passion in the speaker’s voice, it doesn’t ‘read’ the same as the in-person presentation I think that it was. I believe most people would cut it off before it gets to the meat of the material.

    BTW, I was nine when the moon landing happened and remember it as one of the most significant events of my life. Surrounded by my parents and grandparents (Dad was a pilot), we drank in the moment as we had had a part in making it happen. Still gives me chills!

    Thanks for such a great museum-I don’t visit often, but it’s truly one of America’s crown jewels!

  7. These are great ideas. I would love to do an exhibit or display someday on counter-narratives in the history of air and space. It is something to think about and perhaps pursue, the difficult is finding the resources necessary to make it real. I also appreciate the comment about my presentation. This was offered NASM in the “Ask An Expert” series of curator talks, for an in-house audience. Perhaps we could edit it, or make a shorter version at some future time. Thanks for your ideas.

  8. that was the worst Mythbusters episode ever, because they used NASA as their source for information. That’s like asking a child “did you make this mess?” and accepting “no” as their answer. If anything, they showed me that there is quite a high level of reasonable doubt for this debate. I had hoped they would have tried harder.

  9. just because someone disagrees with you, does not make them “leftist”

    i know plenty of people who would call themselves “rightists” that firmly believe the moon landing was a hoax, and have been angry at the government for tricking them ever since.

  10. Because it’s an absolute fact. Go to the Nasa photo archive and download the high def pictures #AS11-44-6642 and AS12-47-6892. Import them into photoshop cs4, click Image-Adjustment-equalize. Presto, case solved. Our government are not even good liars, but their not pitching to intellectuals. The American public have been dumb ed down to the point that even a completely incompetent group could pull off the events of 911 and convince these sheep that Osama “the bad guy” Bin Laedin pulled it off. With the tons of evidence that the government was complicit, it’s obvious that Americans are deaf and dumb as well.

  11. I, for one, take great pleasure in reading the contributions of people like Mr. Casebolt. This world needs more of this type of entertainment; without such, what a boring world this would be, indeed. Steve, keep up the great work!

    For everybody else– keep your shirt(s) on! It’s only a joke. He’s JOKING. I don’t fully understand British humor either.

  12. What kind of computer technology did they have in the 60′s- do you really think that kind of technology could get you to the moon and back? Get real people- it didn’t happen. If it did, why can’t we just go again if it was so easy that it could be done in the 60′s.

  13. What I fail to understand is the motive that moon-landing deniers believe the government would have had for deceiving the public in such a way.

  14. Why can’t we just go again? Because it’s very, very expensive business and the Government has no intention of spending a fortune to send astronauts there for a day or two again. NASA’s plans for the future are much more ambitious and it will take much more effort and budget than Apollo program.

    Many of us accept some conspiracy theories. OK with me. We live in free society, we believe different things, we disagree, but Moon landing hoax theory is definitely one of the most stupid conspiracy theories ever conceived.

    Apollo program is very well documented. Literally thousands of pictures and hours and hours of footage wait for anyone who doubts it was real.

    I think one of the main problems of our society is large scale ignorance. I have met many Apollo doubters who have not seen anything more than some conspiracy videos. They barely scratched the surface of all available material, but somehow they believe they know so much…

    Education is important and sadly, most conspiracy believers are seriously lacking.

  15. Recent trends show the moon landing denials fading.

    The big reason we’ve seen Apollo denials is that we retreated from the moon and haven’t yet been back. For people born since the moon landings, this made the moon seem as distant and unattainable a goal as it seemed in 1950.

    As the moon and other goals become realistic for our species again, awareness grows among the public that as a species we are doing this a second time, building on what we have learned.

    Another factor is that social rewards shifted. Many people are drawn to far-fetched conspiracy theories out of fear of looking stupid. The far-fetched conspiracy theory is the lazy mind’s imitation of critical thinking. It is supposed to carry the same social reward as real critical thinking–marking one as nobody’s fool, as an adult who doesn’t believe everything he or she is told–while providing a shortcut around the task of really learning the subject.

    This works only as long as the general public is widely ignorant of details. The denier gets to “fill in” everyone and feel triumphant. When that pattern shifts the attempt backfires. Deniers gain no status with the now tougher audience and it is now they who must back up more of what they say. Most get quiet.

    The moment that shifted momentum in the case of Apollo came when a moon landing denier acted like an insulting, braying ass on camera and astronaut Buzz Aldrin socked him in the jaw. People everywhere applauded. The deniers themselves now noticed that they did not like the company they were keeping.

    Another factor is that memory of the irresponsible Fox-TV show is itself fading.

    A big factor is one few people have pointed out: popular understanding of photography has increased hugely since the show was aired. Most of the arguments in that show were based on ignorance of photography. Thousands more people now know why stars don’t appear in a photo, or how reflected light illuminates objects in shadow, or how the angles of shadows vary on uneven surfaces. The arguments evaporate in the face of their daily experience.

    That in itself spotlights the most damning thing about the Fox TV show. The network aired specious comments by deniers with no space given to experts for rebuttal. Yet at the very moment it did so, Fox had people IN the room–the professionals working in its camera crew–who could have responded to the claims if asked.

  16. In the first photograph the shadow of the flag pole is 180 degrees of all other shadows. I believe we got there but this photograph puzzles me.

  17. Ed, I read that it is because the moon’s surface is reflecting the light, and many other things is also reflecting the light.

  18. I think they persist because there is seemingly more evidence that there was no moon landing. People have asked a few simple things to prove that it happened and somehow NASA cannot deliver the evidence to back up their story. How easy is coming up with that evidence? Way easier than landing on the moon! Questioning government agencies can only make our country stronger, because people will learn the truth instead of believing lies, its not undermining anything at all, except for deception. Do you want to live in a country that is based on deception?

  19. The reason why there is “more” evidence that the moon landings where faked is that fake evidence is easy to obtain: you make it up. Conspiracy theorist take random objects, materials, facts, statements, and documents, and magically transform them into critical pieces of “evidence” by making up a creative context in which to place the items.

    Conspiracy theorists will never run out of evidence. No matter how much proof to hand them, they will turn around and invent one more “startling fact” to insure they’ve always got one more piece of evidence because human beings are fooled by numerology. Quality of the evidence, and whether it passes critical thinking tests, doesn’t matter.

    As to why people circulated the moon landing hoax in the first place, and why they persist, the general reason is pretty simple: there’s a perverse attraction in ignorance.

    People who are ignorant to begin with tend to feel intimidated by the complexity of the world and society. They compensate for their lack of knowledge and understanding by telling themselves “ignorance is bliss” and that most things aren’t worth knowing. It’s just a bunch of nonsense that others trick themselves into thinking is important. These people also tend to be anti-intellectuals and are afraid of anyone who appears to have a high degree of abstract intelligence – they’re afraid those people will trick them and deceive them.

    Subjects like the moon landing hoax have great appeal for the ignorant and the willfully ignorant because the hoax is a flat denial of a great achievement by a bunch of “smart people”. Untrustworthy scientists. Thinkers. Eggheads. America in particular has a troubled history of its “down to earth” farmbelt people distrusting “city slickers”, those with high levels of education, and thinkers. The moon landing hoax is a linchpin in an attitude of anti-intellectualism. Proving that smart people can’t do most of what they claim they can and must resort to tricks to appear impressive.

    Ignorant people never seem to consider that the tools and implements their conspiracy theories rely on, such as photography and television studios, were things developed and refined by yet more smart people. But critical thinking isn’t a strong suite for those who buy into conspiracies.

    The reason why belief in the moon landing hoax is ridiculous above all, is that foolish people think they’re clever for denying that “the government” as they see it, wasn’t as capable and clever as it claimed. What they’re actually denying is the incredible amount of work and dedication of hundreds of thousands of persons who not only made the US space program possible, but ushered in the space age for the entire world.

    There’s nothing mysterious or unreachable about space. To people who educate themselves, it is remarkably close and understandable. Our entire world is supported by a complex network of satellites and space based technology. We have space stations, and even civilian companies building space-capable ships and equipment. We have placed nuclear powered explorers on Mars, far beyond the moon.

    To deny the moon landing is to deny the reality of much of the world around us today; that’s the height of selfish, conceited irrational thinking.

  20. There are some very good arguments made here. I LOVED the third paragraph of AT’s post. That is absolutely true of pseudointellecuals. Even reminds me of someone whom I used to know.

    Mori, I have to say something here: I see where you are going with the rhetoric and reasoning to support the success of the lunar landings but why generalize that it’s the farmbelt countryfolk who are being duped by the lunar landing naysayers? And the “educated city slicker/thinkers” are the ones who support it? Not necessarily…in either case. I don’t live in the so-called farm belt, among the simpletons you refer to. Nor am I a “city-slicker”. Your simplistic generalization is bogus. When presented facts and evidence a person who uses it to form a conclusion versus someone who simply refuses to accept it and forms their own facts versus another who simply believes anything they’re told without question is a matter of individuality. It doesn’t matter whether they live in a town of 10 or 10 million…whether your religious or not…or your culture. People are individuals. A graduate from an Ivy League school sitting atop a penthouse in Lower Manhattan having philosophical debates with collegues over cocktails doesn’t necessarily exhibit more credibility or intelligence…than someone who is self-taught and works their land for a living. A farm is a business and requires someone who is mentally tough and skilled to run it. The “farmbelt” is as equally capable of producing an intelligent, critical thinking individual as anywhere. The “city” is as equally capable of producing an ignorant and gullible individual too.

    We stand on the shoulders of geniuses whose inventions give us all a quality of life that we take for granted. Many are directly tied to the space program. It was also geniuses who have made NASA successful–to inlude six manned lunar landings under Project Apollo. These scientists came from ALL walks of life and backgrounds. So did the technicians, project managers, craftsmen, and even the astronauts themselves. Neil Armstrong, for example, happened to be from Wapakoneta, Ohio–one of those “farmbelt” towns…
    Sorry Mori, I had to. I’m not even from the “farmbelt” and I’m not a farmer. I’m not exactly a city-slicker either. I was just being a critical reader. The rest of your post sets fine with me, though.

    I’m not going to make any arguements to support the lunar landings. If I want proof, there is more than I can possibly fathom. I’m not going to argue with the conspiracy-theorists either. They have the right to believe what ever they want–even if it’s based on doubt instead of data and facts.

    On a broader scheme: Should we scrutinize our government? Sure. Opinions and beliefs? More than plenty to go around for everyone. Hey, question everything!–that’s intelligence. Denying facts and evidence because you are being stubborn and pessimistic–is not.

    I am proud of what we have accomplished in aeronautics and space exploration. I would love to witness a manned landing on the Moon or even Mars in my lifetime.

  21. Americans are so touchy and sensitive on this subject. Relax. The Russians still beat you in travelling to space and that personally impresses me more… I don’t really see the point in landing on the moon.

    Anyway I think the reason some people doubt the moon landing is because: 1) During the Cold War there was a space race between Russia and USA. The Russians went into space first, therefore the Americans wanted to “one up” this achievement. 2) Some assume that the technology in the 60s wasn’t good enough to actually land on the moon. 3) JFK publicly stated that it was his goal to have Americans going to the moon by the end of the decade. The landing happened in 1969, which some people may think was a desperate attempt for him to fulfill this promise… There may be other reasons too, I don’t know.

  22. Pingback: Sometimes it’s really hard to trust a good old American flag | We Run and Ride

  23. If there was any gravity at all the on the moon, that flag in the photograph would not be so straight along the top.

  24. Apollo was a hoax, the evidences are innumerable, now 42 years after the last man ever “walked” on the moon!

  25. the so called evidence many hoax cheerleaders believe as proof we faked it, is wrong. there are websites out there spreading these lies and misinformation.” a funny thing happened on the way to the moon” is a good example of bad astronomy. this documentary is filled with misinformation, and outright lies. yet skepticts believe it without question, the very thing they accuse believers of. there is nothing wrong with doing research to double check things we have been told. however the facts and evidence outshine the hoax believers theories. hoax believers feel that if they cannot understand something, then it is impossible. they have no knowledge of science, astronomy, or physics, so if they do not see something they feel they should see, then it must be a hoax. many non americans fall into this catagory, mainly because of their jealousy and hatred of the us, , plus their lack of understanding for the space program.

  26. People try so hard to believe in the hoax theory, even though these theories have been disproven time and time again these people are in denial of the truth. It is a shame they do not do research and obtain knowledge so they can understand science and not deny it.

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