The Life and Times of the Moon Hoax Conspiracy
Yes, it’s a 3-part Skeptoid episode, the first one ever, and it took more than 500 episodes to get me to finally address the moon landing hoax conspiracy. To those who follow science, the claims that we never went to the moon are the most tiresome and foolish of the conspiracy theories; but to those who believe them, they are absolute religion, and the ultimate token of their conviction that anything coming from official sources is a lie. Today we’re going to begin our in-depth analysis of the Moon Landing Conspiracy, of those who believe in it, and a survey of the facts and figures of the basic narrative.
Today we’re going to talk about the history and cultural impact of the claim; next week we’ll go into the most popular evidentiary claims said to prove that we never went to the moon (hopefully including some you haven’t heard before); and in the final installment, we’ll look at the hard physical proof that we did go.
The basic narrative of the Moon Truth conspiracy theory, as you probably know, is that NASA faked the Apollo missions and nobody ever actually went to the moon. As with most conspiracy theories, there are all sorts of variations on the claims of what actually did happen, while the only thing they have in common is that no men actually landed on the moon. Some believe the Apollo missions orbited the moon but did not land; some believe they never went farther than Earth orbit; some believe the Apollo spacecraft flew but were unmanned; some believe they never launched anything at all. The astronauts performed their moonwalks on a movie set, and fake transmissions were provided to the TV networks for broadcast. The reasons given for why the government would have gone to all this trouble range from simply distracting Americans’ attention from the unpopular war in Vietnam, to fooling the Soviets into thinking they lost the Cold War, to protecting NASA’s budget by appearing to spend it on something supremely impressive.
A big question we have to answer is what’s the point of even talking about this? The people who believe it have already heard the science-based responses to their claims a hundred times, and rejected them a hundred times. Their minds are riveted shut to anything but their preferred narrative. We’ll not be changing any of their minds today. And the rest of us aren’t in denial, and aren’t asking these made-up, shoehorned questions that try to raise doubt where none exists. So who is this episode for, nobody?
Well, maybe for somebody. Polling data has, for decades, consistently shown that some 6-7% of Americans believe the moon landings were faked; and even scarier, about four times as many Europeans agree with them. That’s a lot more people than the hardcore YouTube-obsessed serial conspiracists; it includes tens of millions of ordinary folks who are otherwise as rational as you or I. It seems there must be something deeply compelling about this odd belief.
The Internet is polluted with craziness, and there is no better example than YouTube. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen when you give everyone on the planet the power to show everyone else on the planet their innermost thoughts, desires, and insane ramblings, you need only look at YouTube.
One of the biggest offenders of incoherent ramblings is the subject of spaceflight. Simply search ‘space shuttle’ on YouTube, and you’ll find accusations of the crew of Columbia being abducted by aliens. Crazy, incoherent, and somewhat insulting. Accusations of a moon landing conspiracy are unavoidable in the ‘related videos’ section and are similarly filled with videos from people with either a tenuous grasp of reality or too much time on their hands.
A broken clock is right twice a day, a broken calendar is right every twenty-eight years or so, and every once in a while, simply from the volume of videos on the subject, one conspiracy theorist will present a new and novel idea. Here we present perhaps the only moon landing conspiracy theory that makes sense, is consistent with physical laws, and that may actually be true.
Comparing other government conspiracies
One of the best ways to figure out what it would take to pull off a project is to compare it to earlier, similar projects. If you’re building a 100-storey skyscraper and need a good idea of how long construction will take, just look at how long it took to build the last 100-storey skyscraper. If you want to build a dam and wonder how much it will cost, just look at earlier, similar dams that used the same construction methods and materials.
The Apollo moon landing conspiracy contends that 400,000 government workers and contractors would need to keep quiet, and no inquisitive journalists would be out in the trenches, digging for the truth. This government conspiracy would ostensibly be headed by none other than Richard Nixon, and fortunately we have a pretty good analog to compare a moon landing conspiracy to other Nixon-era conspiracies. Watergate-gate, with far fewer people involved, was found out. It strains credibility that a conspiracy many orders of magnitude larger would not be uncovered.
Additionally, there are many other nefarious activities sponsored by the US government that have been made public. The MK Ultra experiments dosed hundreds of people including Ted Kaczynski and Sirhan Sirhan with LSD. Not all of the records were destroyed, though, and the entire experiment was disclosed in 1977 with a FOIA request. The US Public Health Service infected people with syphilis, and the CIA is responsible for overthrowing dozens of governments around the world. All of these conspiracies were eventually found out. The very idea that researchers, academics, and journalists are unable to pierce the veil of a moon landing conspiracy over forty years strains credibility.
There is one government project on the scale of the Apollo moon landing that was, for a time, secret: the Manhattan Project. With perhaps 300,000 people involved in the creation of the first atomic bombs, it is the only secret government project with the same scale as NASA in the 1960s. Here, history tells us that secrets that big don’t stay secret for long, with the Soviet Union receiving plans for atomic weapons before the end of the war.
In comparing the scale of an Apollo moon landing conspiracy to other, real conspiracies committed by the US government, the argument completely falls apart. The Tuskegee syphilis experiments involved perhaps a few hundred people. The MK Ultra experiments perhaps a few thousand. Watergate-gate involved less than one hundred. An Apollo moon landing conspiracy would involve nearly a half million over the course of ten years, yet moon landing conspiracists say the largest conspiracy of all time would be the one that succeeded. It doesn’t strain credibility – it completely destroys it.