The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

50 years after Apollo, conspiracy theorists are still howling at the ‘moon hoax’

Apollo 12 mission Commander Charles P. “Pete” Conrad was the third astronaut to walk on the moon. The moon hoax is a classic conspiracy theory — elaborate, oddly durable, requiring the existence of malevolent actors with a secret agenda. (NASA/AP)

The moon is having a star turn. This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, and the Trump administration has ordered NASA to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024.

None of this, however, will probably change the minds of people who live in a parallel belief universe where NASA faked the Apollo moon landings.

The moon hoax is a classic conspiracy theory — elaborate, oddly durable, requiring the existence of malevolent actors with a secret agenda. The moon-fakers are allegedly so competent they can fool the whole world (but not so competent that they can actually put humans on the moon).

Researchers suggest conspiracy theories are spreading more easily in today’s information universe, with the Internet functioning as a superconductor. A growing science of conspiracism seeks to understand who these people are, why they embrace such ideas, and whether there is anything that can dislodge a really magnetic conspiracy theory from the mind of a true believer.

Polls show that about 5 or 6 percent of the public subscribes to the moon-hoax theory, former NASA chief historian Roger Launius said. That is a modest number, but these folks showed up reliably whenever Launius gave a lecture on the topic: “They’re very vocal — and they love to confront you.”

As NASA celebrates Apollo 11, the space agency must decide whether, and how, to respond to the moon-hoax conspiracy theory.

In response to a query from The Washington Post, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel issued a statement saying there is “a significant amount of evidence to support NASA landed 12 astronauts on the Moon from 1969-1972,” and specified some of that evidence: NASA has “842 pounds of astronaut-collected Moon rocks studied by scientists worldwide for decades; you can still bounce Earth-based lasers off the retroreflector mirrors placed on the lunar surface by the Apollo astronauts; NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the landing sites in 2011 . . . ”

And so on. But it’s a tough situation for NASA.

The evidence that the moon landings were real is exactly what a conspiracist would expect to be manufactured by an agency committed to hoodwinking the public. This is the eternal conundrum for debunkers.

The theory never dies

In one iteration of the theory, the Apollo missions were filmed by legendary movie director Stanley Kubrick, who directed “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Bill Kaysing, a former technical writer, published a book in 1976 titled “We Never Went to the Moon,” which became a foundational text in the moon-hoax mythology.

In 2001, the Fox TV network aired a documentary called “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” with actor Mitch Pileggi of “The X-Files” TV series (one theme of which was “Trust No One”) serving as narrator.

The conspiracy theory keeps popping up.

During a podcast discussion with other NBA players in December, basketball superstar Stephen Curry lobbed the idea that humans hadn’t gone to the moon. (He soon backpedaled, apologized and had a friendly chat with astronaut Scott Kelly.)

A key feature of the moon-hoax idea is that photographs taken by the Apollo astronauts (supposedly!) simply don’t look right. For example, where are the stars? Also, there’s no blast crater underneath the lunar lander.

Highlights from the Apollo 11 mission on July 21, 1969. (Video: NASA)

The camera couldn’t pick up the faint light of stars behind the astronauts and other bright objects on the sunbathed surface. And in the moon’s gentle gravity field, the lander’s descent engine didn’t need to produce much thrust to settle onto the moon’s surface.

NASA responded to the book and film by putting out a statement citing the moon rocks as incontrovertible evidence: “The rocks and particles, still under study by scientists worldwide, were clearly formed in an atmosphere lacking oxygen and water and they show major chemical differences from any previously known Earth rocks.”

Astronomer Phil Plait dissected the hoax hypothesis in a 2001 blog post that holds up as the definitive debunking. “Their evidence is actually as tenuous as the vacuum of space itself,” Plait wrote.

A more direct response came from Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin when he was hectored by conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel outside a Beverly Hills hotel in 2002.

Sibrel, brandishing a Bible and asking Aldrin to swear on it, said, “You’re the one who said you walked on the moon when you didn’t. . . . You’re a coward and a liar and a thief.”


Aldrin decked him with a right cross.

Often strange, sometimes toxic

Conspiracy theories may seem strange and fringe, but they are not harmless. They often transmit racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic beliefs. In their most toxic form, these theories have led to violence, including mass shootings. Behind many conspiracy theories lurks a pervasive rage. Many researchers and communicators who deal with fringe conspiracy theories endure venomous and misogynistic threats and harassment.

A conspiracy theory doesn’t have to provide all the answers. It has to only pry open the consensus narrative and expose potential gaps or anomalies in what we know. The classic conspiracy theory is thus an open narrative. The only thing the conspiracy theorist knows for sure is that what the experts are saying isn’t true.

In a 2012 paper titled “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” researchers showed that people with high degrees of conspiracism can embrace two mutually exclusive narratives, so long as both reject the mainstream consensus. For example, people more inclined to believe that Princess Diana faked her death were also more inclined to believe she was murdered. Both cannot be true.

In a 2013 paper, cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky and two colleagues found that conspiratorial thinking contributes to the rejection of the scientific consensus on matters such as climate change, vaccine safety and HIV/AIDS. People susceptible to conspiracies begin with a mind-set — that the world is full of secretive forces with malign agendas — and can be induced to believe in newly fabricated conspiracies.

'Flat Earth' enthusiasts

The moon-hoax idea is closely related to “flat Earth” theory, which has gained adherents in recent years thanks to social media and viral videos.

“In reality, you are actually in a giant planetarium, slash terrarium, slash sound stage, slash Hollywood back lot that is so big that you and everyone you know and everyone you’ve ever known never figured it out,” declares a leading flat earther, Mark Sargent, in the documentary “Behind the Curve.”

In Sargent’s version of Earth, Antarctica is a 200-foot-tall wall of ice circling the disk of the Earth like salt abundantly applied to the rim of a Margarita. The sun and moon are two lights circling the sky like planes in a holding pattern.

When Asheley Landrum, a psychologist at Texas Tech University, attended the first Flat Earth International Conference near Raleigh, N.C., in 2017, she discovered that 29 of the 30 people she interviewed had embraced the flat Earth argument after watching YouTube videos, and the only exception heard about it from family members who had watched those videos.

Typically, they had been watching conspiracy videos about such subjects as the Sandy Hook school shooting or the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and YouTube had recommended the flat Earth videos. They followed the trail blazed by computer algorithms.

The people Landrum interviewed reported being skeptical of the flat Earth notions initially. The conversion process involved continued investigation — what Landrum described as an attitude change coming from a “thoughtful systematic, or mindful, approach.” They were trying to get it right.

Landrum said she has found that people are more likely to be open to the flat Earth idea if they were low in science literacy and high in conspiracy mentality. Her research suggests that flat earthers occupy all points of the traditional political spectrum, but they share a common distrust of government and authorities.

At the conference, every person she interviewed said the moon landings were faked. They do not think the Earth is a planet. The Earth is a disc and its center is the North Pole (as anyone can clearly see in the official emblem of the United Nations).

“The most basic thing it affirms is that people are special. We’re not a speck of dust floating in this vast space, but the Earth is the center of things. We’re not moving. We’re not a planet. This is it. Heaven is above the Earth, hell is below the Earth,” Landrum said.

Trump and 'birther' belief

One conspiracy theory helped shape the political career of President Trump. Long before he ran for president, Trump stoked the “birther” belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and was not constitutionally eligible to serve as president. In her recent memoir, former first lady Michelle Obama said Trump’s birther promotion was “dangerous, deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks,” and put her family’s safety at risk.

Trump has repeatedly called global warming a “hoax.” He has hinted that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died of foul play. While running for president, he claimed that, before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the father of his leading rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), had met with Lee Harvey Oswald.

“I could say, with some degree of certainty, that he uses conspiracy theories to motivate his core supporters. Whether he believes them or not is a completely different question,” said Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami professor and co-author of the book “American Conspiracy Theories.”

For years, Trump endorsed one of the most dangerous conspiracy theories: that vaccines cause autism. (He recently reversed himself and urged parents to vaccinate their children.) Leaders of the movement contend that pediatricians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccine manufacturers, medical journals, and epidemiologists around the world are hiding this terrifying truth. Anti-vaxxers have spread misinformation and dissuaded parents from protecting their children. This is a factor in the record-breaking measles outbreak that is still raging this year.

For any of these conspiracies to be true, they would have to be vast in scale, ruthless in implementation and strikingly efficient — with no leaks from conspirators. Apollo sent 24 astronauts to the vicinity of the moon and 12 walked on it, and not one of them has revealed their big secret.

Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor of the history of science, says all this conspiracy-mongering does matter when it comes to issues such as climate change and vaccine safety.

“Without trust in institutional authority — and particularly without trust in science — we are left with no way to correct disinformation,” Oreskes said. “And from there, it is a downward spiral.”

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