If you look at moon-landing contrarians long enough, they roughly organize themselves into four species: the deniers (“we never went”), the doubters (“I’m not so sure”), the esoterica (“we went, but not for the reasons we say we went”) and the critics (“we have urgent planetary problems — why race to the stars before we’ve even learned to tie our shoes?”).
But after spending a few weeks lightly skimming across the shallows of various conspiracy theories — go deep at your own peril — the one enduringly interesting piece of information, the thing that really sticks in the mind, is a fact.
The name of the master ignition routine, the Apollo 11 software code that actually launched the thing, is “BURN_BABY_BURN” — a rallying cry from the Watts riots of 1965.
“We might not have been out on the streets, but we did listen to the news,” Peter Adler, who co-authored the code, wrote in 1998. “The two biggest news stories were Viet Nam and Black Power, the latter including H. Rap Brown [the radical civil-rights activist] and his exhortations to ‘Burn Baby, Burn’ — this was 1967, after all.”
“That’s one of my favorite things about the actual code,” said tech-minded Seattle artist Meghan Elizabeth Trainor, whose work is partly inspired by Apollo 11-era computing (lots of copper wire) and partly by the history of witchcraft. “It’s a phrase synonymous with black liberation, and it’s the phrase that brought us to the moon.”
Trainor has her own conspiracy theory about Apollo 11 — part serious, part winking — which she’ll present at the Salish Sea Anti-Space Symposium (S.S.A.S.S.) in the Central District on July 20. But we’ll get to all that in a moment.
First, let’s meet some more traditional moon-landing contrarians — who will hasten to tell you they’re not all alike. Some believe in aliens; some don’t. Some are deniers; some are merely doubters.
The more earthbound (but perhaps more compelling) skeptics leave the did-they-or-didn’t-they debate to alien conventioneers and professional opinion mongers. Instead, they ask more immediate questions, like why we’ve spent so much time, energy and money on the moon at all — and why some contemporary billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk) are fixated on pouring money into space colonies instead of following the Bill Gates example and, you know, trying to raise taxes on the wealthy and end malaria and stuff.
Here are four moon contrarians, each of a different stripe. (Important caveat! I am not suggesting that all skeptics, from social-justice-minded Bezos critics to alien-conspiracy theorists, are equally credible. I just interviewed them.)
One: An Esoteric
Mike Bara remembers the big day in 1969 when the Apollo moon landing was broadcast for the TV-having parts of the world to watch. He was 9 years old, living in Seattle and asking his father — a Boeing engineer who’d worked on parts of the lunar module — pointed questions, like why they had a color TV in their living room, but the astronauts’ footage was in crappy black and white.
“I just had this feeling there was stuff they were hiding from us,” Bara said. As a moon-landing esoteric, he still thinks they’re hiding stuff from us. Now a retired Boeing engineer living in Auburn, Bara is also a TV personality and author (“Ancient Aliens on the Moon,” “Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA”) who thinks Apollo 11 went to the moon, but suspects it was there on a salvaging mission to retrieve ancient alien technology. And he’s got a lot to say about Mars and the alien cities he thinks are buried under its ice.
Bara, who is part of the current Science Channel series “The Truth Behind the Moon Landing,” considers himself a skeptical, critical thinker. But he’s persona non grata in some conspiracy circles because he actually believes Apollo 11 landed — just not for the reasons NASA says it did.
“People in my community fancy themselves as flexible, of having an open worldview,” Bara said. “But they’re as locked in as everybody else. Most people’s No. 1 motivation in life is to keep their comfort zone comfortable. When something weird happens they can’t explain, they forget about it. I don’t. That’s how you become a conspiracy theorist — hang onto stuff and wait for the other pieces to come together.”
Is moving through life as a conspiracy theorist stressful? “The toughest part is to convince people that I’m not crazy, NASA is,” Bara said. “When NASA launches things to the stars in certain positions that align with an old Egyptian religion, I’m not crazy for pointing it out.”
Two: A Doubter
Clyde Lewis was a kindergartner in Kearns, Utah, when Apollo 11 launched, and just thrilled by the moon hubbub. His teacher had set up a cosmos-oriented area of the classroom with a replica lunar module the kids could climb into and read space books. “I made pictures of the Earth and moon and put it on the TV in there,” he said. But sometime around middle school, he started asking questions (for example: if the moon is such a dusty environment, why do limb pads on the lunar module look so clean in the photos?) and wasn’t satisfied with the answers.
“I’d like to think we landed in 1969, but I have a hard time believing it,” he said. “I have my doubts about having something with technology not as advanced as our cellphones getting to the moon.”
Now he lives in Portland and hosts “Ground Zero,” an aliens- and apocalypse-minded radio show on KXL-FM (101.1). “I don’t do this out of cruelty or the fact that I want to be a jerk,” he explained. “I’m willing to listen to anybody. But I’m adamant about how we need more information about the moon landing so people like me can ask questions without getting sidelined as tin-foil-hat wearing idiots.”
Three: A Denier
You know the archetype — the steadfast, fully convinced, Apollo-11-was-a-hoax type who preaches that message with evangelical intensity.
Bart Sibrel became the most famous delegate from that crowd in 2002, when he aggressively confronted astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who punched Sibrel in the face.
“I went from being the biggest fan of the ‘moon missions’ to being their biggest critic,” Sibrel wrote in an email, explaining that he’d met an unnamed source who claimed to have worked on the Apollo program for six years. The source alleged that the Apollo missions were faked to avoid embarrassment after the U.S. naively bragged it could land on the moon — that they were, essentially, a series of very expensive, wholly deceitful TV commercials for U.S. technological superiority.
“The untried feat was simply impossible to achieve, just like it is today,” Sibrel wrote, adding that he had a secret recording of an American astronaut discussing whether to have him assassinated by the CIA.
“If you choose not to give this incredible historical event of flagrant government corruption, or the real potentiality thereof, the attention and work that it actually deserves,” he concluded, “and instead only choose to do yet another pop-culture piece on ‘doubters,’ then someone else will step up to the plate and make history instead of you.”
Fair enough. Godspeed, Mr. Sibrel.
Four: A Critic
Elmer Dixon was 18 years old in the summer of ’69, steeped in the era of “Star Trek,” and as attracted to the idea of space adventures as the next mid-20th-century American teenager — but he was only tangentially aware of Apollo 11. As co-founder of the Black Panther Party in Seattle (the first chapter outside California), he had more dire, terrestrial fish to fry: building the free community clinic (which would eventually become the Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center), securing resources for the Free Breakfast for Children program and generally staying safe.
At that time, he said, he always traveled with at least one weapon on his person — sometimes two.
“First and foremost in our minds at that time was staying alive, because we were under attack from the ATF and FBI,” Dixon said. “Several of our members were murdered in ’69. J. Edgar Hoover had targeted three cities for Panther elimination: Chicago, L.A. and Seattle.”
Dixon said his wife thinks the Apollo 11 landing was staged, but he’s mostly agnostic on the question. “Heck, I may have even watched clips of them stepping out onto the moon,” he said. “But we had much more critical things we were focused on, and would certainly throw criticism at the sheer cost of that compared to what was happening in black and poor communities across the country.”
Dixon, along with Trainor, climate scientist/artist Judy R. Twedt, Tulalip Tribes treaty-rights commissioner Terry Williams and others, will be asking similar questions about privatized space-exploration companies (Blue Origin, SpaceX) at S.S.A.S.S. — a part-serious, part-lighthearted event with speakers, zines, artwork and performers July 19-21 at Pipsqueak Gallery in Seattle. Its slogan: “No to space exploitation!”
“When you think about space exploration, part of me says ‘yes!’ ” Dixon said. “But then I look at things like SpaceX and millionaires buying tickets to ride in space. I remember Sputnik, I remember the pumping of billions of dollars into that space race while communities here were burning, reacting to their poverty.
Which brings us back to Trainor, “BURN_BABY_BURN” and her take on lunar conspiracies.
“They’re so uninteresting to me, so far away from the systemic complexity of actual problems,” she said. “The moon-landing conspiracies tend to be a very white, very male enclave, like: ‘I have this secret knowledge you don’t and I’m being oppressed by these invisible forces.’ No, you’re not. But there are people right over here being oppressed by actual forces. Another conspiracy is that we raped and pillaged Africa for 500 years — but that really happened, or that we’re locking people up on the border.”
Instead, Trainor (who studied physical computing at NYU and is a Ph.D. candidate at UW’s DXARTS program) has been splicing together her own artful quasi-conspiracy about Apollo 11 and space-age technology: It’s the heir of pre-Enlightenment, pre-witch-burning moon magic.
Not all moon skeptics fit neatly into one of the four camps — if they formed a Venn diagram, Trainor’s theory would live in the overlap between the esoterica and the critics, with a heavy dose of wry humor. Her “conspiracy of witches” alleges that the moon mission was a secretly sacred journey for “practitioners of secret female technologies.” In other words, NASA, with its men in ties and lab coats, were unwitting pawns in a witches’ long game.
“I have this speculative idea that hundreds and hundreds of years ago, there was the ‘domestication of electrons’ through witchcraft,” she said. (In a word: magic.) “Then we get to the end of the ‘Dark Ages,’ to the age of Enlightenment — which is collocated with the slave trade and the rise of colonialist patriarchy. Witch trials were like: ‘Look, ladies, nope!’ They took away their medicine, their property, and white men exerted dominance over the world.”
Persecution from the church threatened the witches’ relationship to the moon, Trainor explained, so they started looking at covert ways of keeping the lunar connection alive. “They thought: ‘We need to hand this technology over to people with more resources to make it happen.’ And if you look at the last people to touch the way we coded information to get to the moon, it was done by little old ladies.”
Like all compelling conspiracy theories, Trainor’s includes tantalizingly suggestive facts — like the “little old ladies.”
The on-board Apollo 11 computer had minuscule memory capacity: about 72 kilobytes. (That’s 2.25% the size of the file for Miles Davis’ song “Moon Dreams” on my computer.) So programmers like Peter Adler, of “BURN_BABY_BURN,” wrote software code that was literally, painstakingly woven at a factory into what they called “core rope memory,” made of copper wire and magnets.
Who did the weaving? Women. Hence the core rope memory’s real-life nickname: LOL memory, short for “little old lady.” (Incidentally, the director of Apollo’s flight-software program was also a woman — computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, who held that post from 1967-76.)
Trainor’s work plays off other alluring historical details. “Isaac Newton: definitely an occultist,” she said. “So was [Johannes] Kepler, whose mother was a witch.” (The astronomer and mathematician’s mother was jailed for 14 months on charges of witchcraft.) “A lot of these guys were participating in what we’d call science, but also astrology — they didn’t have that separation yet. That’s a really fertile place for thinking about the fact that we’re living on a planet that is suffering from this particular acceleration of scientific knowledge and exploration — I counter those things with a conspiracy of my own.”
The thing that sets Trainor apart from traditional moon skeptics — the deniers, doubters, esoterica and critics — is her mission. While the others want to disenchant the rest of us, to tear down what they see as a moon mythos, Trainor leans into it. She aims to bewitch and beguile.
“I want people to help people feel the same way I do: a sense of wonder and a healthy sense of critique,” she said. “I think those things can sit — need to sit — together.”
Salish Sea Anti-Space Symposium (S.S.A.S.S.): July 19-21 (speakers July 20 from 1-6 p.m., followed by a block party from 6-9 p.m.); Pipsqueak Gallery, 173 16th Ave., Seattle; free; ssass.us