Have you ever met a person who’s been on the moon? There are only four of them left. Within a decade or so, the last will be dead and that astonishing feat will pass from living memory into history, which, sooner or later, is always questioned and turned into fable. It will not be exactly like the moment the last conquistador died, but will lean in that direction. The story of the moon landing will become a little harder to believe.
I’ve met three of the twelve men who walked on the moon. They had one important thing in common when I looked into their eyes: they were all bonkers. Buzz Aldrin, who was the second off the ladder during the first landing on July 20, 1969, almost exactly fifty years ago—he must have stared with envy at Neil Armstrong’s crinkly space-suit ass all the way down—has run hot from the moment he returned to earth. When questioned about the reality of the landing—he was asked to swear to it on a Bible—he slugged the questioner. When I sat down with Edgar Mitchell, who made his landing in the winter of 1971, he had that same look in his eyes. I asked about the space program, but he talked only about UFOs. He said he’d been wrapped in a warm consciousness his entire time in space. Many astronauts came back with a belief in alien life.
Maybe it was simply the truth: maybe they had been touched by something. Or maybe the experience of going to the moon—standing and walking and driving that buggy and hitting that weightless golf ball—would make anyone crazy. It’s a radical shift in perspective, to see the earth from the outside, fragile and small, a rock in a sea of nothing. It wasn’t just the astronauts: everyone who saw the images and watched the broadcast got a little dizzy.
July 20 1969, 3:17 P.M. E.S.T. The moment is an unacknowledged hinge in human history, unacknowledged because it seemed to lead nowhere. Where are the moon hotels and moon amusement parks and moon shuttles we grew up expecting? But it did lead to something: a new kind of mind. It’s not the birth of the space age we should be acknowledging on this fiftieth anniversary, but the birth of the paranoia that defines us. Because a man on the moon was too fantastic to accept, some people just didn’t accept it, or deal with its implications—that sea of darkness. Instead, they tried to prove it never happened, convince themselves it had all been faked. Having learned the habit of conspiracy spotting, these same people came to question everything else, too. History itself began to read like a fraud, a book filled with lies.
. . . .
The stories of a hoax predate the landing itself. As soon as the first capsules were in orbit, some began to dismiss the images as phony and the testimony of the astronauts as bullshit. The motivation seemed obvious: John F. Kennedy had promised to send a man to the moon within the decade. And, though we might be years behind the Soviets in rocketry, we were years ahead in filmmaking. If we couldn’t beat them to moon, we could at least make it look like we had.
Most of the theories originated in the cortex of a single man: William Kaysing, who’d worked as a technical writer for Rocketdyne, a company that made engines. Kaysing left Rocketdyne in 1963, but remained fixated on the space program and its goal, which was often expressed as an item on a Cold War to-do list—go to the moon: check—but was in fact profound, powerful, surreal. A man on the moon would mean the dawn of a new era. Kaysing believed it unattainable, beyond the reach of existing technology. He cited his experience at Rocketdyne, but, one could say he did not believe it simply because it was not believable. That’s the lens he brought to every NASAupdate. He was not watching for what had happened, but trying to figure out how it had been staged.
There were six successful manned missions to the moon, all part of Apollo. A dozen men walked the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972, when Harrison H. Schmitt—he later served as a Republican U.S. Senator from New Mexico—piloted the last lander off the surface. When people dismiss the project as a failure—we never went back because there is nothing for us there—others point out the fact that twenty-seven years passed between Columbus’s first Atlantic crossing and Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, or that 127 years passed between the first European visit to the Mississippi River and the second—it’d been “discovered,” “forgotten,” and “discovered” again. From some point in the future, our time, with its celebrities, politicians, its happiness and pain, might look like little more than an interregnum, the moment between the first landing and the colonization of space.
. . . .
Kaysing catalogued inconsistencies that “proved” the landing had been faked. There have been hundreds of movies, books, and articles that question the Apollo missions; almost all of them have relied on Kaysing’s “discoveries.”
- Old Glory: The American flag the astronauts planted on the moon, which should have been flaccid, the moon existing in a vacuum, is taut in photos, even waving, reveling more than NASA intended. (Knowing the flag would be flaccid, and believing a flaccid flag was no way to declare victory, engineers fitted the pole with a cross beam on which to hang the flag; if it looks like its waving, that’s because Buzz Aldrin was twisting the pole, screwing it into the lunar soil).
- There’s only one source of light on the moon—the sun—yet the shadows of the astronauts fall every which way, suggesting multiple light sources, just the sort you might find in a movie studio. (There were indeed multiple sources of light during the landings—it came from the sun, it came from the earth, it came from the lander, and it came from the astronauts’ space suits.)
- Blast Circle: If NASA had actually landed a craft on the moon, it would have left an impression and markings where the jets fired during takeoff. Yet, as can be seen in NASA’s own photos, there are none. You know what would’ve left no impression? A movie prop. Conspiracy theorists point out what looks like a C written on one of the moon rocks, as if it came straight from the special effects department. (The moon has about one-fifth the gravity of earth; the landing was therefore soft; the lander drifted down like a leaf. Nor was much propulsion needed to send the lander back into orbit. It left no impression just as you leave no impression when you touch the bottom of a pool; what looks like a C is probably a shadow.)
- Here you are, supposedly in outer space, yet we see no stars in the pictures. You know where else you wouldn’t see stars? A movie set. (The moon walks were made during the lunar morning—Columbus went ashore in daylight, too. You don’t see stars when the sun is out, nor at night in a light-filled place, like a stadium or a landing zone).
- Giant Leap for Mankind: If Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, then who was filming him go down the ladder? (A camera had been mounted to the side of the lunar module).
Kaysing’s alternate theory was elaborate. He believed the astronauts had been removed from the ship moments before takeoff, flown to Nevada, where, a few days later, they broadcast the moon walk from the desert. People claimed to have seen Armstrong walking through a hotel lobby, a show girl on each arm. Aldrin was playing the slots. They were then flown to Hawaii and put back inside the capsule after the splash down but before the cameras arrived.
. . . .
Of all the fables that have grown up around the moon landing, my favorite is the one about Stanley Kubrick, because it demonstrates the use of a good counternarrative. It seemingly came from nowhere, or gave birth to itself simply because it made sense. (Finding the source of such a story is like finding the source of a joke you’ve been hearing your entire life.) It started with a simple question: Who, in 1969, would have been capable of staging a believable moon landing?
Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, had been released the year before. He’d plotted it with the science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke, who is probably more responsible for the look of our world, smooth as a screen, than any scientist. The manmade satellite, GPS, the smart phone, the space station: he predicted, they built. 2001 picked up an idea Clarke had explored in his earlier work, particularly his novel Childhood’s End—the fading of the human race, its transition from the swamp planet to the star-spangled depths of deep space. In 2001, change comes in the form of a monolith, a featureless black shard that an alien intelligence—you can call it God—parked on an antediluvian plain. Its presence remakes a tribe of apes, turning them into world-exploring, tool-building killers who will not stop until they find their creator, the monolith, buried on the dark side of the moon. But the plot is not what viewers, many of them stoned, took from 2001. It was the special effects that lingered, all that technology, which was no less than a vision, Ezekiel-like in its clarity, of the future. Orwell had seen the future as bleak and authoritarian; Huxley had seen it as a drug-induced dystopia. In the minds Kubrick and Clarke, it shimmered, luminous, mechanical, and cold.
Most striking was the scene set on the moon, in which a group of astronauts, posthuman in their suits, descend into an excavation where, once again, the human race comes into contact with the monolith. Though shot in a studio, it looks more real than the actual landings.