It was July 20, 1969. U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 lunar module, Eagle, on the surface of the moon. The same historic day, Armstrong took humankind’s first steps on our planet’s only natural satellite, 238,900 miles from home. Back on Earth, millions cheered. At a restaurant in Chicago, however, a diner was unmoved. “These guys never walked on the moon,” the skeptic said. “It was one of those Hollywood tricks.”
The observations appeared in a front-page New York Times story on how Americans were hailing their space-conquering heroes. The sentences were buried at the end of the article, and cordoned off under the subhed, “Some Not So Intrigued.” The unimpressed included a caller to a Utah TV station who complained Apollo 11 news coverage was “boring”-- and a more extreme naysayer from a bar in Madison, Wisconsin.
"This is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind," the disbeliever began, per the Times. “These guys were in Nevada the whole time and never more than 30 feet off the ground.”
It was July 25, 1969. The conspiracy theories had landed.
When dreams come true
In 1969, there was no social media; there were no fake-news content farms. The fact that a segment of the population was immediately dubious of the moon landing was, in part, the byproduct of two things. One, humans have a long history of failing to accept fantastic, but proven concepts. Despite more than 2,000 years of recorded scientific observation, for instance, 5 percent of U.S. adults, a 2018 YouGov study found, still doubt Earth is round. It should be no surprise then that, at a mere 50 years old, the Apollo mission records even less acceptance. A 2013 Public Policy Polling survey of registered U.S. voters found 7 percent still don’t believe the history-making mission, long the stuff of dreams and science fiction, was actually pulled off.
The second potential reason that the idea of a Hollywood-produced Apollo 11 landing took root simultaneously with Armstrong and Aldrin planting the U.S. flag on the moon: the TV-news-produced Apollo 11 coverage -- featuring unreal footage.
A really big show
The show would be the culmination of an eight-day marathon that was designed to take audiences from launch to historic touchdown. True to its pledge, CBS deployed some of its biggest and best coverage on moon-landing day. The July 20 programming schedule, for instance, included an all-new documentary on the history of the space program -- a documentary narrated by one Orson Welles.
Then as now, Welles was best known for, one, blazing a trail in Hollywood with Citizen Kane, and, two, enthralling listeners with his masterful 1938 live-radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds -- a notorious broadcast that blared out real-sounding, fake-news bulletins.
While the addition of Welles was a nice touch, the star of CBS’ coverage was the very real, very tense drama of whether we -- Americans, humans, Earthlings -- could do it. Could we land astronauts safely on the moon? The “world’s greatest single broadcast” aimed to show the answer. As the make-or-break moment approached, as the Eagle lunar lander descended to the satellite, viewers at home saw this:
It was a remote-control-operated model synced to NASA’s flight plan, and designed to, as a CBS-crafted commemorative account of the broadcast put it, “pitch, yaw or roll maneuvers actually being done by the spacecrafts.”
And when the final descent firing sequence began, viewers saw this:
It was an animated sequence.
And when the Eagle finally touched down, the audience saw this:
It was a mock-up sitting on a 120-by-125-foot moonscape at the then-Grumman Corporation building in Bethpage, New York. CBS held this shot until NASA’s black-and-white, live-from-the-moon feed commenced.
The other two TV networks -- there was a grand total of three in the United States in 1969 -- also used models and animation to take viewers on the journey to the moon. The simulations and animations were labeled on screen, and broadcasters, including CBS’ Walter Cronkite, referenced them as such in their running commentaries. The networks did not attempt to deceive viewers. But the idea that the moon landing was pulled off by “them television fellers,” as President Bill Clinton would remember an elderly Arkansas man telling him in the summer of ‘69, took hold because, in a figurative way, it had been.
Lights, camera -- action!
Though ordinary people decided on their own that the Apollo 11 landing was a hoax (along with all subsequent moon landings), the suspicions were formalized -- and spread -- in the 1970s by Bill Kaysing, a former defense-industry employee turned author of We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle, and the 1978 big-screen movie, Capricorn One.
As detailed in Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen’s The World’s Greatest Conspiracies, Kaysing regales readers with an elaborate, alternative-history scenario involving, in part, an astronaut-free rocket launch (the better to deceive the public), and a Las Vegas hideaway (the better to keep the Earth-bound astronauts entertained until the script called for them to arrive on the moon -- the fake one, that is).
Capricorn One, meanwhile, also concerns a dummy launch, this one supposedly bound for Mars. In this scenario, the astronauts, played by Sam Waterston, James Brolin and O.J. Simpson, are told to play along -- or else their families will be killed.
As with the original notions, the mass-media ones from the 1970s centered on the idea that our greatest space achievements had been almost entirely produced on soundstages.
The Stanley Kubrick connection
Through the years, the shot-on-a-soundstage narrative hasn’t merely has been passed down, it’s been built out. Around the time of Apollo 11 mission’s 40th anniversary, the Apollo 11 conspiracy theory got a director -- or, rather, conspiracy theorists named the director they say helped NASA fake the moon landing: Stanley Kubrick.
Not just any director, Kubrick was an Oscar-winning filmmaker. In the span of slightly more than one decade, he produced the classics Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb -- and, of particular note to conspiracy theorists, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
2001 is the epic science-fiction tale of humankind in the age of computers and space travel. Though arguably glacial and sterile, its special effects are expert, especially given the film’s era.
Filming on 2001 began in the mid-1960s, a time when, global space race or no, sci-fi was a Hollywood after-thought, a genre propped up, but barely, by cheap, Z-grade productions.
Released the same year as a laughable clunker such as Mission Mars (pictured), 2001 was a revelation to 1968 audiences. “There is not a single moment, in this long film, when the audience can see through the props,” critic Roger Ebert raved in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The stars look like stars and outer space is bold and bleak.”
In an attempt perhaps to elicit such awe, or maybe merely to serve his vision, Kubrick enlisted futurist and writer Arthur C. Clarke to develop the 2001 screenplay with him, and encouraged NASA’s Frederick Ordway to take a leave from the agency -- and the Apollo program -- and serve as a film consultant.
The resulting film would go on to top the 1968 domestic box office, win Kubrick an Academy Award (his only one) for visual effects, and become instantly, yet deeply embedded in the pop culture. By the Apollo 11 moon launch, the film had become both the standard by which audiences judged future sci-fi movies, and the envisioned template for real-world space journeys. Further allowing science fiction to bleed into science fact, CBS News tapped Clarke as an on-air commentator for its Apollo 11 coverage, and hired Douglas Trumbull, the special-effects guru who helped create 2001’s hard-wired villain, HAL-9000, to help develop the so-called HAL-10,000, a computerized, rear-projection screen used by the network during its moon-landing broadcast.
The 2001-Apollo 11 crossovers of Ordway, Clarke and Trumbull would not go unnoticed by moon-landing skeptics, who would eventually spin their names into their theories, and who would eventually spin the biggest name of them all into the mix: Kubrick’s.
According to this particular streak of the moon-hoax theory, Kubrick stage-directed the Apollo 11 landing, sharing his 2001 visual-effects know-how of front-screen projection with NASA.
From this, even more theories were spun, including one that said Kubrick left clues of his Apollo 11 complicitness in future films, such as 1980’s The Shining, where a gone-mad-writer’s son, played by Danny Lloyd, wears a sweater that visually references the Apollo moon missions.
Kubrick, who passed away in 1999, died before these theories bubbled up enough to require a batting down. But others have done the work for him. In 2013, Leon Vitali, Kubrick’s longtime assistant, told the New York Times that the Shining’s Apollo sweater got the part, as it were, because it simply fit the part.
“That was knitted by a friend of Milena Canonero,” Vitali told the Times. “Stanley wanted something that looked handmade, and Milena arrived on the set one day and said, ‘How about this?’ It was just the sort of thing that a kid that age would have liked.”
In 2016, Vivian Kubrick, the filmmaker’s daughter, took to social media to sympathize with the conspiracy-theory mindset (“There are many, very real conspiracies that have happened throughout our history, are happening presently …,” she wrote in a statement shared on Twitter.). But on the Kubrick-Apollo 11 theory, she was firm: It was a “GROTESQUE LIE” to assert that her father faked a moon landing.
Wrote Vivian Kubrick: “[D]on’t you think he’d be the very last person EVER to assist the U.S. government in such a betrayal of its people?!”
But some people do think just that. Still.
Black as night
To this day, moon hoaxsters argue that photographs taken from the moon -- or supposedly taken from the moon, as they would say -- are further proof of the hoax. One chief contention: A photo taken on the barren moon, so far away from our city lights, would feature a starlit, twinkling sky the likes of which humans have perhaps never seen, and not the blank, pitch-black thing of nothingness that the Apollo astronauts captured.
The contention is, of course, is wrong.
“The stars are there,” Emily Lakdawalla wrote for the Planetary Society, “they're just too faint to show up.”
It turns out the elements that make great shots here on Earth also create challenges on the moon: exposure, aperture, sunlight, backlight, etc.
“Even in space, stars are relatively dim, and simply don't produce enough light to show up in photos set for bright sunlight,” John Borland wrote for Wired.
Shining a light
Another, newer photo-related argument of conspiracy theorists concerns a sequence of snapshots of Aldrin descending a ladder. The pictures, taken by Armstrong on the moon, could not have been taken by Armstrong on the moon, the argument says, because they’re too well lit. The argument further says that the only way Aldrin could’ve popped as he did in the images -- in the shadow of the lunar module, and with the sun as the only light source -- is if NASA had packed, and used, elaborate lighting equipment, which NASA, in fact, did not.
In 2008, Mythbusters tested -- and debunked -- the theory. In recreating the Armstrong photo with miniatures, the science-fact series’ Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage showed that the moon’s dusty surface, or regolith, was the second light source, reflecting the sunlight and lighting up Aldrin.
Red-white-and-blue red flag?
The same 2008 episode of Mythbusters explored a few stubborn moon-landing conspiracy theories, including the one concerning the U.S. flag planted on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin. To staged-moon-landing adherents, the flag is flapping in the wind, even though there is no wind, and indeed, no air, on the moon. To this group, the flapping flag is further proof of a soundstage production here on Earth.
The Mythbusters crew showed, however, that even in a vacuum a flag could appear to move, or flap, as it’s being manipulated. The American Astronomical Society’s Rick Fienberg, meanwhile, told History.com that a specially designed flag pole, with a horizontal rod, helped give the flag the appearance of being unfurled; in absence of the rod, the flag, the website reported, “would’ve hung slack like flags do on Earth when there’s no wind.”
Seeing is believing, sometimes
If the Apollo 11 mission was too abstract for some -- short of becoming an astronaut, you could never go to the moon on your own, you could never witness a lunar-module touchdown or verify a flag-planting to your friends -- then moon rocks were tangible proof. According to the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Armstrong and Aldrin collected 50 rocks during their 21-hour-and-36-minute moon stay.
Over the course of subsequent Apollo-mission moon landings -- they continued through 1972 -- 842 collective pounds of rocks, dust and other surface debris were picked up, and transported back to Earth.
The rocks would be tested, stored and, in some cases, divvied up as goodwill gifts -- to statehouses and to leaders around the globe. To this day, if you hit the right museum, then you can gaze directly at a moon rock, just as Armstrong, Aldrin and other astronauts had.
But there can be no real or authentically collected moon rocks in a moon-landing conspiracy. To the dubious, moon rocks are just Earth rocks that were baked to otherworldliness in an oven. Still others argue that while moon rocks are indeed rocks from the moon, they didn’t get picked up from the moon. Rather, the mineral clumps are crash-landed meteorites, the theorists hold, perhaps collected by NASA guiding force Wernher von Braun during a late-1960s trip to Antarctica.
Over the years, there has been just enough wonkiness in moon-rock news to keep this conspiracy-theory strain alive. As of 2004, scientists, for instance, had cataloged about 30 moon rocks they say arrived on Earth as meteorites. At least one of these moon rocks was discovered at von Braun’s long-ago vacation destination -- the Antarctic.
Then there’s the matter of the moon rock at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
This moon rock, gifted to the former prime minister of the Netherlands courtesy of the United States and the Apollo program, was bequeathed to the museum following the Dutch official’s death in 1988. At Rijksmuseum, it became a main attraction. Then in 2009, it was reported that researchers from Amsterdam’s Free University suspected the moon rock was not a moon rock at all. Testing revealed they were right. The moon rock was actually a worthless piece of petrified wood.
Its own worst enemy
In 2011, two years after the Rijksmuseum discovery, a NASA audit revealed 516 “astromaterials [read: rocks] have been lost or stolen between 1970 and June 2010.”
The news came on the heels of another NASA admission: The agency had lost its original video recordings of the Apollo 11 landing, only to find them -- erased and recorded over.
In an explanation sure to not satisfy a conspiracy theorist, NASA engineer Richard Nafzger essentially told a 2009 press conference that the agency messed up: In 1969, NASA was focused on producing images for live TV, not preserving history.
“We should have had a historian running around saying ‘I don’t care if you are ever going to use them — we are going to keep them’,” Nafzger said, per Reuters.
To make up for what had been lost, NASA would restore the footage that still existed -- tapes from other downlinks, and from other sources, including archival footage from CBS News. But the agency did not restore the faith of those who saw its missteps as proof that the landing had never happened. Arguably nothing, or no one, ever will.
First men, last word
On Aug. 12, 1969, at NASA’s Space Center in Houston, the post-moon Apollo 11 astronauts met the press. The New York Times described Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins as men who’d “had little time thus far for ‘meditation’ on the hero’s life.”
What reporters of the day saw as a trio of perhaps overwhelmed, jet-lagged travelers -- with readers being additionally reminded that the now-world-famous Armstrong was a “private person who likes to keep his private life and thoughts to himself” -- conspiracy theorists would see as men whose posture and demeanor belied their shame for having participated in a staged moon landing.
The fact is Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were not uniformly stoic during the press conference -- they joked, they laughed, they appeared at ease.
Armstrong, who died in 2015, would come to take a dispassionate view of moon-hoax talk: The military veteran simply didn’t see an Apollo 11 conspiracy as logistically possible or plausible.
“I think that one would find that in order to perpetrate such a hoax accurately, and without a few leaks around in the agency would he a very much more difficult job than actually going to the moon itself,” he said at an Apollo 11 anniversary press conference in 1970 when conspiracy theories were already being spun.
The more fiery Aldrin, who, as a sitcom version of himself, shouted down the moon on 30 Rock (“I walked on your face!”), has taken a different approach. In 2002, a moon-landing conspiracy theorist confronted Aldrin outside a Los Angeles hotel, and called the astronaut “a coward and a liar.” As the man continued, the then-72-year-old Aldrin ended the talk with a punch.
Aldrin, as the Daily Beast noted, was not charged.
The truth, you could say, set him free.