Moon landing conspiracy theories get a revival in our social media age

Since the 1969 Moon landing, conspiracy theorists of various stripes have alleged that this achievement was an elaborate hoax, the product of a NASA driven project in fakery. There are a number of reasons for the resilient nature of this particular conspiracy theory. People on both sides of the political spectrum – left and right – have recycled this trope, demonstrating its appeal over the years.

There have been numerous takedowns of the main claims of the Moon truthers, or Moon landing hoaxers. While we will address some of the more egregious claims in this article, a full accounting of Moon truther points would make this blog excessively long. However, we can establish enough of a foundation to refute the Moon hoaxer conspiracy theory.

The Apollo space programme began in 1961, and was boosted by then President Kennedy’s pledge of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Consisting of 11 space flights, there were multiple objectives with each mission. However, landing a man on the moon was the most publicised goal, and captured the public imagination. In 1969, the NASA space programme was successful. So why are there so many people who think it was all a fake, staged in a movie studio?

Moon truthers are very adept at exploiting mistrust of government. Since the 1970s, we have witnessed multiple and interweaving lies spouted by US government circles. The deceptions involved in rationalising the war on Vietnam, the Watergate break-ins, the Iran-Contra scandal, the criminal and clandestine activities of the CIA – public exposure and knowledge of these deceptions has cultivated an active distrust of government pronouncements.

Peter Knight, professor at Manchester University, has written how people are ready and willing to disbelieve anything emanating from sources in Washington. The Moon truthers have constructed an elaborate edifice of epic proportions based on this skepticism. In 1976, Bill Kaysing, a former US Navy officer, published a book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. He elaborated what became the main tenets of the Moon hoaxer belief system.

In 1969, the USSR had achieved numerous firsts in planetary sciences – the first successful launch of an artificial satellite, the first non-human animal in space, the first man in space. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Venera programme recorded another first – a robotic probe successfully landing on the planet Venus, coping with its crushingly dense atmosphere and sending back data. So the 1969 American landing on the Moon seems a little odd; isn’t it too convenient that the US deployed a man on the Moon while the Soviet space programme was impressively successful?

There is always an underlying motivation of geopolitical competition in space exploration. The US Moon landings were a way of projecting American power, and giving the middle finger to those Russian Commies. The Apollo 11 mission, the one that deployed astronauts to the Moon, was not technologically advanced over the previous Apollo missions. The existing technology was available to land astronauts, even prior to Apollo 11.

During the Apollo 11 mission, the Soviets were listening in. The former Soviet Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stated that he and his colleagues were watching and listening to the Apollo landings with keen interest. If the Soviet government wanted to, they could easily have exposed any alleged NASA fakery. Not only were the Soviets watching the spacecraft every step of the way, they – along with the subsequent Chinese and Indian space programmes – independently confirmed the corroborative evidence of the Apollo 11 mission.

Moon hoaxers have pointed to the absence of stars in the photographs taken by the American astronauts. Would not stars display in genuine photos from the Moon? No – because the astronauts were using photographic settings for bright sunlight. The Moon has a negligible atmosphere, so it is being hit by direct sunlight. Faint objects do not show up if your aperture and camera settings are set for bright daylight. Use those same settings to take pictures at night here on Earth, and you will not see any stars.

If the Moon has no atmosphere, how is the American flag flapping in the breeze? It isn’t. The astronauts fitted the long-crumpled flag with a lengthy metal rod to give the appearance of flapping in the wind. What about the Moon rocks? These rocks contain cosmogenic nuclides. These are isotopes which are bombarded by extremely high-energy cosmic rays. The Earth’s atmosphere blocks out such high energy rays, so cosmogenic nuclides cannot be faked in a laboratory or particle accelerator.

With the growth of social media, and the resurgence of anti-vaxxer denialism in the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, Moon truthers have ridden on the coattails of such misinformed refusal. There are many reasons to question the deceptions, duplicity and hypocrisies of the US military-financial complex. We should be skeptical of government statements; we should apply equal skepticism to conspiracy theories.

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