The Wrong Stuff
Wired, September 1994
Are you sure we went to the moon 25 years ago? Are you positive? Millions of Americans believe the moon landings may have been a US$25 billion swindle, perpetrated by NASA with the latest in communications technology and the best in special effects. Wired plunges into the combat zone between heated conspiracy believers and exasperated NASA officials.
"Columbia, he has landed Tranquility Base. Eagle is at Tranquility. I read you five by. Over." The voice from Houston betrayed no emotion, although this was anything but business as usual. A human being was about to set foot on the moon for the first time in history, armed only with the Stars and Stripes, some scientific instruments, and an almost reckless, can-do demeanor that had captivated the world.
The reply from Columbia, the command-and-service module that had released the lunar lander 2 hours and 33 minutes earlier, betrayed only equal professional cool. "Yes, I heard the whole thing," Michael Collins said matter-of-factly.
Houston: "Well, it's a good show."
That's when Neil Armstrong chimed in. "Yeah, I'll second that," said the 38-year-old astronaut, the moonwalker-to-be, America's own Boy Scout, and the most famous man in the - well, in the universe. And even though the static ate away at the clarity of his consonants, Armstrong's sneering tone came through loud and clear. The mission control man heard it too. And he knew what was coming. Sort of.
"A fantastic show," Armstrong said. "The greatest show on earth, huh, guys?"
There was a moment's silence. Then a cameraman sniggered. And the director sighed, and did what directors do when actors screw up their lines. "Cut," he groaned. He was a heavyset man in his 50s, and the combination of the long hours and the hot studio lights had started to get to him.
"Shit, Armstrong, if you're gonna be a smart-ass, do it on your own time, all right? We got 25 tired people on this set. We got a billion people who are going to be watching your every move only a week from now. We're on deadline here. Now, do you suppose you could just stick to the script and get it over with? Thank you."
His assistant stepped forward with the slate. "Apollo moon landing, scene 769/A22, take three," she announced.
"Columbia, he has landed Tranquility Base," the mission control man began again.
The history books lie. So do the encyclopedias and the commemorative videos and the 25-year-old coffee mugs with the proudly smiling faces of Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins. When Armstrong got down from that ladder, proclaiming that it was only a small step for him but a giant leap for mankind, he was merely setting foot on a dust-covered sound stage in a top-secret TV studio in the Nevada desert. NASA's cold warriors and spin doctors faked the whole moon landing. Come to think of it, they faked all six moon landings - spending around US$25 billion to prove to the world that not even the Soviets, especially not the Soviets, could hold a candle to the US when it came to space exploration.
Well, at least, that's the view of writer Bill Kaysing. It's also the conviction of millions of Americans who have learned to distrust their government with a passion. Most of these skeptics don't even appear to be steamed about the alleged superfraud. They shrug and raise their palms and go about their business. Not Kaysing. He seems to have never heard a conspiracy theory he didn't like, and this one tops 'em all. For almost 20 years now, he has been trying to get out "the most electrifying news story of the entire 20th century and possibly of all time." He has written a book aptly titled We Never Went to the Moon and won't give up trying to uncover more evidence. Kaysing, a white-haired, gentle Californian whose energy level seems mercifully untouched by his 72 years, worked as head of technical publications for the Rocketdyne Research Department at their Southern California facility from 1956 to 1963. Rocketdyne was the engine contractor for Apollo. "NASA couldn't make it to the moon, and they knew it," asserts Kaysing, who, after begging out of the "corporate rat race," became a freelance author of books and newsletters. "In the late '50s, when I was at Rocketdyne, they did a feasibility study on astronauts landing on the moon. They found that the chance of success was something like .0017 percent. In other words, it was hopeless." As late as 1967, Kaysing reminds me, three astronauts died in a horrendous fire on the launch pad. "It's also well documented that NASA was often badly managed and had poor quality control. But as of '69, we could suddenly perform manned flight upon manned flight? With complete success? It's just against all statistical odds." President John F. Kennedy wasn't convinced at all that the endeavor was next to impossible. In fact, he had publicly announced in May 1961 that "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth" would be a Number One priority for the US, an accomplishment that was to instill pride in Americans and awe in the rest of the world. And so, Kaysing believes, NASA faked it, acting in accordance with the old adage that in a war, the truth is often the first casualty. (Cold wars, he and his fellow conspiracy believers say, are no exception.) To hear him tell it, NASA had good reason to stage moon landing after moon landing, instead of simply admitting that lunar strolls would have to remain the stuff of science fiction novels, at least for a while. "They - both NASA and Rocketdyne - wanted the money to keep pouring in. I've worked in aerospace long enough to know that's their goal."
There is an almost instinctive rejoinder to all of this: but we saw it. If television ever had a killer app, the moon landing was it. We bought new sets in droves, flicked them on as zero hour approached, and, miraculously, felt ourselves being locked into an intangible but very real oneness with a billion other people. It was our first taste of a virtual community, of cultures docking. It felt good. And now there's this guy telling us that it was all a lie? C'mon! His rockets are a little loose. What proof does he have anyway?
Kaysing points out numerous anomalies in NASA publications, as well as in the TV and still pictures that came from the moon. For example, there are no stars in many of the photographs taken on the lunar surface. With no atmosphere to diffuse their light, wouldn't stars have to be clearly visible? And why is there no crater beneath the lunar lander, despite the jet of its 10,000-pound-thrust hypergolic engine? How do NASA's experts explain pictures of astronauts on the moon in which the astronauts' sides and backs are just as well lit as the fronts of their spacesuits - which is inconsistent with the deep, black shadows the harsh sunlight should be casting? And why is there a line between a sharp foreground and a blurry background in some of the pictures, almost as if special-effects makers had used a so-called "matte painting" to simulate the farther reaches of the moonscape? "It all points to an unprecedented swindle," Kaysing concludes confidently.
But just how could NASA possibly have pulled it off? How about the TV pictures that billions of people saw over the course of six successful missions: the rocket lifting off from the Cape Kennedy launch pad under the watchful eye of hundreds of thousands of spectators; the capsule with the crew returning to earth; the moon rocks; the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of space-program employees in the know who would have to be relied upon to take the incredible secret to their graves?
Easy, says Kaysing. The rockets took off all right, with the astronauts on board, but as soon as they were out of sight, the roaring spacecraft set course for the south polar sea, jettisoned its crew, and crashed. Later, the crew and the command module were put in a military plane and dropped in the Pacific for "recovery" by an aircraft carrier. (Kaysing claims that he talked with an airline pilot who, en route from San Francisco to Tokyo, saw the Apollo 15 command module sliding out of an unidentified cargo plane, but he can't provide the captain's name or the name of the airline.) The moon rocks were made in a NASA geology lab, right here on earth, he continues. Not very many people on the Apollo project knew about the hoax, as they were only informed on a need-to-know basis. Cash bonuses, promotions, or veiled threats could have ensured the silence of those who were in on the whole scheme.
Kaysing is not alone in his assertion that NASA has been, um, mooning the public. Bill Brian, a 45-year-old Oregonian who authored the 1982 book Moongate, agrees that there is "some sort of cover-up." Although Brian thinks that his fellow investigator may very well be right in saying that we never went to the moon, he believes there is an entirely different reason for many of the inconsistencies the two have found. Maybe we did go, Brian says, but it's possible we reached the moon with the aid of a secret zero gravity device that NASA probably reverse-engineered by copying parts of a captured extraterrestrial spaceship. Brian, who received BS and MS degrees in nuclear engineering at Oregon State University (although he now holds a job as a policy and procedures analyst at a utility company), uses his "mathematical and conceptual skills" to reason that the moon's gravity is actually similar to Earth's, and that most likely, the moon has an atmosphere after all. He has crammed the appendices of his book with complex calculations to prove these points, but he trusts his intuition, too: "The NASA transcripts of the communication between the astronauts and mission control read as if they're carefully scripted. The accounts all have a very strange flavor to them, as if the astronauts weren't really there." But why in the world would NASA feel compelled to cover up knowledge of a high-gravity moon? "It's a cascading string of events," explains Brian. "You can't let one bit of information out without blowing the whole thing. They'd have to explain the propulsion technique that got them there, so they'd have to divulge their UFO research. And if they could tap this energy, that would imply the oil cartels are at risk, and the very structure of our world economy could collapse. They didn't want to run that risk." As this issue of Wired goes to press, a new book is headed to the stores: Was It Only a Paper Moon, by Ralph René, "a scientist and patented inventor." Published by tiny Victoria House Press in New York, in what it has announced will be a first run of "at least 100,000 copies," Paper Moon supposedly presents the latest scientific findings regarding the moon landing. René offers data suggesting, among other things, that without an impractical shield about two meters thick, the spacemen "would have been cooked by radiation" during the journey. Ergo, the lunar endeavors were impossible, and were cynically faked at the expense of gullible people everywhere. Other conspiracy buffs don't doubt that men walked on the moon but call the fact irrelevant because extraterrestrials made it there ages ago - and NASA knows it and has preferred to keep it a secret. In his recent book, Extra-Terrestrial Archeology, David Childress points out various unexplained structures on the moon and argues that these might be archeological remnants of intelligent civilizations. Childress, an avid believer in UFOs, also doesn't rule out the possibility that aliens still use the moon as a base and a convenient stepping stone for their trips to our planet. This might even mean, enthuses the author, that the moon is really "a spaceship with an inner metallic-rock shell beneath miles of dirt and dust and rock."
Although very few Americans subscribe to such grandiose theories, millions of people doubt the authenticity of the lunar missions, much to NASA's exasperation. Over the years, the agency's public services department went through reams of paper answering incredulous schoolchildren, teachers, librarians - and even US lawmakers like former Sen. Alan Cranston (D-California) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina), who had written to NASA relaying the doubts of some of their constituents. As many as 100 million Americans, says Kaysing, are inclined to disbelieve the whole lunar adventure. Like many of his statements, that one should be taken with a grain of salt: his proof is based on his observation that "almost half the people who phoned in to radio and TV shows" he has been on supported him. That's hardly irrefutable proof. But when Knight Newspapers (one of the two groups that later merged to form Knight-Ridder Inc.) polled 1,721 US residents one year after the first moon landing, it found that more than 30 percent of respondents were suspicious of NASA's trips to the moon. A July 20, 1970, Newsweek article reporting the results of the poll cited "an elderly Philadelphia woman who thought the moon landing had been staged in an Arizona desert" and a Macon, Georgia, housewife who questioned how a TV set that couldn't pull in New York stations could possibly "receive signals from the moon." The greatest skepticism, according to Newsweek, surfaced in a ghetto in Washington, DC, where more than half of those interviewed doubted the authenticity of Neil Armstrong's stroll. "It's all a deliberate effort to mask problems at home," explained one inner-city preacher. "The people are unhappy - and this takes their minds off their problems." Poll or no poll, even James Oberg, a nemesis of Kaysing, conservatively estimates that the disbelievers may number between 10 and 25 million Americans. Oberg works for NASA contractor Rockwell International as a space-flight operations engineer with the space shuttle program. He writes as a second profession, covering all aspects of space activity, with a special interest in space folklore. Myths have a way of blossoming in the fertile soil of scientific discovery, Oberg notes. "Every age of exploration is the same in that respect - from the time of the Phoenicians...to Marco Polo, and including mermaids and unipeds and all these mythological creatures that lurk at the edge of our exploration. To me, it's extremely humanizing to have this typically human reaction - this denial, this myth making - to our lunar adventure. I'm not at all surprised that these stories or interpretations exist. Actually, I'm surprised they aren't more widespread." Nonetheless, hoax believers can be found in many parts of society, here and abroad. According to Oberg, Cuban children are officially taught that Yankee space technology failed miserably and that NASA was reduced to pitifully faking every single lunar landing. Some New Agers also contest the possibility of moon landings, as do Hare Krishnas. Non-mainstream Christians at the Flat Earth Society - a Lancaster, California-based anti-science group of about 3,500 members - contest the entire field of astronomy (not to mention moon landings). They liken the towering launch pads to the Tower of Babel. The eccentricity of such convictions certainly intrigues Oberg. "I respect these people's dedication to their view of the world. One reason they fascinate me is that they're a constant reminder to me that we can't rest on common knowledge, we can't be complacent with our traditional interpretations of things - even though these interpretations are almost always right. But I also find their pathology of reasoning, or non-reasoning, compelling. We define health by the boundaries of pathology, and I try and define rational thought by looking at cases that go over the edge." That's damning praise indeed. So it's no surprise that Bill Kaysing doesn't much care for James Oberg, whom he dismisses as "a NASA agent."
If NASA had really wanted to fake the moon landings - we're talking purely hypothetical here - the timing was certainly right. The advent of television, having reached worldwide critical mass only years prior to the moon landing, would prove instrumental to the fraud's success; in this case, seeing really was believing. The magic of satellites, with their ability to enable live global (and interplanetary?) communication, fascinated and awed millions of people, much like anything atomic had caught the public's fancy in the previous decade. Also, space research and rocket science had advanced far enough to make a trip to the moon likely - or, at the very least, remotely feasible. "The structural nature of technology had changed to make the moon landing possible, but that also made it possible for people to doubt it," says Gary Fine, a sociology professor at the University of Georgia in Athens specializing in rumor and contemporary legend. Perhaps more importantly, Watergate hadn't happened yet, and people still trusted their elected officials. "A distrust of authority clearly plays into this whole thing," argues Fred Fedler, who teaches journalism at the University of Central Florida and has written a book on media hoaxes. "With Vietnam and Watergate, people have become less trusting, and to some people it doesn't matter what the government says; their immediate reaction is to disbelieve and to sometimes embrace the opposite view." The distrust continues to be fed by the mass media, especially in the film and TV business. It is rare to find a movie in which a government agency is actually depicted as a collection of fairly efficient, competent people who serve their country to the best of their ability. Dramatically speaking, an elite of sinister, evil bureaucrats is much more appealing. Linda Degh, a retired folklorist who taught at Indiana University in Bloomington, and who has recently published a book titled American Folklore and Mass Media, is reminded of the film Capricorn One. Released in 1978, Capricorn One tells the story of a staged flight to Mars. The astronauts grapple with the moral implications of the giant charade and fear they might be killed to keep them from blowing the whistle. Sure enough, they find themselves hunted down by bloodthirsty government thugs; only one of the astronauts makes it to freedom and reporters' microphones. Degh recalls that it was "quite a slanderous movie, pretending that the government had been killing people," and she believes that it must have given a powerful boost to the moon-landing hoax theory. "The mass media catapult these half-truths into a kind of twilight zone where people can make their guesses sound as truths. Mass media have a terrible impact on people who lack guidance."
Peter Hyams, Capricorn One's director, agrees that mass media can be very powerful - dangerously so, in fact. "My parents believed that if it was in The New York Times, it was true. I was part of the generation that grew up believing that if we saw it on television, it was true. And I learned how inaccurate newspapers were, and I realized that TV is just as inaccurate, or it can be. So I said, wouldn't it be interesting if you took a major event where the only source that people have is a television screen, and you showed how easy it would be to manipulate everybody." Hyams insists that he made Capricorn One "for entertainment, for fun," not because he was making not-so-veiled references to the alleged Apollo hoax. "I was aware that there were people who believed that we never walked on the moon, but I never read their books or consulted with them. And frankly, I think they are being totally ludicrous." (Nevertheless, an invitation to a sneak preview screening at the time of Capricorn One's release said: "Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?") The concept of the moon swindle holds a certain appeal for other filmmakers as well. In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), James Bond accidentally stumbles onto a movie set that consists of rocks, a lunar backdrop, and a vehicle that looks like NASA's Eagle. Men in spacesuits move about slowly and clumsily, as if simulating low gravity. Bond's pursuers give chase, but 007 - stirred, but not shaken - climbs into the lunar lander and makes his escape. The scene is never explained. In the high-tech thriller Sneakers (1992), Dan Aykroyd's character, a gadgeteer and conspiracy enthusiast, refers to the moon landing by casually remarking: "This LTX71 concealable mike is part of the same system NASA used when they faked the Apollo moon landings." And a small San Francisco Bay area production company with a big name, Independent Film and Video Productions, is working on an as-yet-untitled feature film in which a writer discovers that the moon landings may have been simulated - and then nearly gets killed in his quest for the truth.
Technically speaking, could the moon landings have been faked? Was the state of special effects advanced enough in the late '60s to fool even the most discriminating eye? Simulating one-sixth gravity could have been done with the use of hydraulic cranes and thin wires - the Peter Pan approach - or by filming scenes under water, says Dennis Muren. Muren, an eight-time Oscar winner, is the senior visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic, a division of Lucas Digital. He was responsible for making the Jurassic Park monsters come alive and for key scenes in Terminator 2, Star Wars, and The Abyss. "A moon landing simulation might have looked pretty real to 99.9 percent of the people. The thing is, though, that it wouldn't have looked the way it did. I've always been acutely aware of what's fake and what's real, and the moon landings were definitely real," Muren stipulates. "Look at 2001 or Destination Moon or Capricorn One or any other space movie: everybody was wrong. That wasn't the way the moon looked at all. There was an unusual sheen to the images from the moon, in the way that the light reflected in the camera, that is literally out of this world. Nobody could have faked that." Of course, Bill Kaysing will have none of it: "Perhaps this guy [Muren] was part of the cover-up. Anything is possible." Kaysing likes to paraphrase Alvin Toffler: "He writes that most people are producer/consumers - he calls them prosumers. They go through life not questioning anything, not knowing anything. Ninety percent of the American population has no idea what's going on in this country. I'd like to be the one to tell them - tell them at least part of it. I'm either going to share the truth about the moon with them, or I am going to die trying."
Rogier van Bakel