SO HERE WE ARE, 50 years after landing — by most accounts — on the surface of the moon, an event that, at the time, seemed a harbinger of a national future marked by something much more fantastic than space-program spinoffs such as Tang, Velcro and, ultimately, annoying mobile phones.
And yet: A half-century after the flames of Apollo 11 fizzled, rather than zipping around in jet-pack nonchalance, without worry or want, we find ourselves conjuring not whether things might go bad for America but when and where the subsequent long slide into mediocrity began — and even more important, who can be held responsible.
The Backstory: The dark side of the moon-landing conspiracy theory
This assignment-of-blame phase is beloved by historians, who, when not attending conferences in Omaha, sift through the shrapnel of failed civilizations and fit together enough chunks to re-create the unraveling. The honest ones will attest that the closer this navel-gaze is to the initial big bang of Things Going South, the more error-prone it will be.
But the big pieces tend to present themselves early and hold up. And in our own refuse pile, one trait stands tall: Our longstanding and growing embrace of conspiracy theory — once sort of quaint, now alarming, given its intrusion into national politics and policy.
The biggest of all these was, and perhaps still is, the ongoing fascination with whether we, the United States of America, in July 1969 actually landed on the moon — where, ahem, astronaut footprints are still visible.
It sounds stupid. It is stupid. So what’s your point? This is us.
This steadfast embrace of the absurd — by up to 10 percent of Americans, depending on one’s poll sourcing — is remarkable, and demonstrates a sort of inverse logic: The larger the scale of an event, the more that’s at stake, the more an even clearly refutable conspiracy seems to gain in both power — and longevity.
What does it say about us? Nothing good. But what seemed decades ago a fine knee-slapper now stands, in hindsight, as an early indication of our current national slide into the embrace of fake news, end-sum politics, distrust of institutions, widespread social paranoia and rampant all-for-ones-selfism — all arguably based on distrust and misinformation.
Social scientists point to various reasons for this seemingly sudden national inability to possess the common sense God gave a goat. These include a breakdown of societal and cultural norms; mayhem associated with globalization; lingering nativism and racial resentment; and resurgent anti-intellectualism coupled with a persistent lowering of standards that combined to elevate Donald J. Trump’s own pop-culture re-entry vehicle, “The Apprentice,” to the level of daily discourse among outwardly educated Americans.
These are all good points, but also distractions from what the savvier among us know is the one, single thing most clearly to blame for our loss of trust, abandonment of the common good, idiotic embrace of conspiracy theory and resulting general societal malaise.
That would be O.J. Simpson.
WE ARE JOKING HERE, a little. And not picking on The Juice for reasons one might suspect, but for his indisputable crimes against cinema, specifically his starring role in the conspiracy-theorists’-dream-night-out flick “Capricorn One,” a 1978 “conspiracy thriller” about the U.S. government’s faking of a landing by humans on Mars.
The storyline: Astronauts are whisked away from a launchpad by government operatives to a secret location while their rocket blasts off without them, and are forced to secretly re-create the landing on Mars on a movie set. Although it’s the Red Planet, not the moon, the screenplay is a clear nod to the conspiracy theories about faked moon landings that began shortly after Apollo 11 touched down — yes, yes it did! — on the lunar surface.
The screenplay was conceived by writer/director Peter Hyams while he worked for CBS covering the Apollo missions. He was prescient enough to foresee the potential chaos of the barely noticed, but hugely impactful, public shift in acceptance of video footage as stand-alone proof of historical events.
“There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses,” Hyams told The New York Times in May 1978. “And the only verification we have … came from a TV camera.”
And right there, at what now looks to be at least one dawn of the Era of Not Believing What We See, the illogical-but-potentially-lucrative follow-up question was too tempting to pass up. It appeared, in fact, as a tagline for the film: “The most important event in our nation’s history … what if it never really happened?”
Hollywood — and now, in the era of bathroom-robe digital self-publishing, legions of less-accomplished salesfolk online — has been asking the question, for fun and profit, ever since. At every turn, real national political conspiracies have aided, abetted and diminished institutional credibility, laying the foundation for the U.S. president to declare, a year ago: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
Hyams finished writing “Capricorn” in 1972, according to news accounts. It was not snapped up by Warner Bros. until a year or two later, as network television asserted its historical power by airing the Watergate Hearings that revealed the dark, conspiratorial persona of President Richard M. Nixon.
“Watergate may not have inspired ‘Capricorn One,’ but it made its thesis more acceptable, its plot more credible and some of its content strangely prophetic,” The New York Times noted.
The film drew a big “meh” from critics but was a surprise action hit with the public. We won’t spoil the endgame for any of you forensic streamers (see: Prime Video), but suffice to say: It is unarguable that things in this country have gone downhill pretty much ever since its big-screen debut.
THAT FILM, of course, didn’t invent conspiracy theory or extraterrestrial landing hoaxes, or even serve as an early stop on this long national bus route to Crazytown. The result of this devolution in logic is anything but funny, and included, recently, the parents of children murdered at Sandy Hook being forced to get a court judgment to have nonsensical treatises on the supposed faking of those killings pulled from bookshelves. Think about that.
But the movie, and other fiction posing increasingly as fact, served to legitimize that which was previously relegated to dark corners of cinder-block taverns, and their modern-day successor, the internet. Moon-hoax films, books and documentaries, in addition to normalizing conspiracy on a national level, reflected U.S. media’s longstanding willingness to turn a lamentable substrate of the national psyche into a profit center.
Americans have long been into conspiracy spoofs, but in the old days, the telling of same played out in a relatively jocular manner. Witness the August 1835 series in The (New York) Sun, publisher Benjamin Day’s irreverent upstart example of the urban, working-class targeted “Penny Press” newspaper. Two years after its founding, The Sun made its name with what became known as “The Great Moon Hoax” — a series of six articles, complete with shocking lithographs of winged “manbat” creatures — purporting to reveal details of life on the moon as seen through a secret high-powered telescope. (To its everlasting discredit, the newspaper never issued a retraction.)
Few sane readers bought it, factually, but millions of customers bought it, literally.
The same has held true of modern “moon hoax” theories, with the venue shifting from print to late-night cable TV, and now online. It should not be surprising that to a conspiracy-prone populace, the most dramatic historical events not only are not spared, but tend to draw the most concerted moonbat attention. Higher stakes equal broader market share.
The flight pattern of similar conspiracy theories has been full through most of modern times, escalating off the charts with the JFK assassination; warping into light speed with the moon landings; reigniting over the 911 terror attacks; and taking on frightening new frequency with constant, politically motivated conspiracy theories over mass shootings and other painful public events, all easily disseminated online.
SO WHAT, THEN, do we take away from these moon-landing-as-hoax conspiracy theories, on the golden anniversary of what still is considered one of mankind’s signature technological achievements?
One lamentable fact, already mentioned, is that larger-scale events tend to attract more ardent conspiracy theorists, despite the fact that such conspiracies are usually easily disproved. The fact that a persistent, small but low-information segment of the public continues to believe the moon landings were faked is at once amazing and consistent with history.
A 2013 survey put the number of nonbelievers at 7 percent in the United States. (The same poll revealed that 20 percent of surveyed Republicans believed then-President Barack Obama was the “anti-Christ.”) This phenomenon is not unique to America. A 2016 poll put the number of Brits who disbelieve in the moon landings at 52 percent, with 73 percent of those aged 25-34 — bloody hell! — believing the landings were a hoax.
But is it really a surprise in a culture that seems to celebrate ignorance? America is a place, remember, where a role-model star NFL quarterback, Jared Goff, a recent product of vaunted Cal-Berkeley, no less, confessed on national television that he couldn’t name the direction that the sun comes up in the morning. Goff has a four-year, $28 million contract. Another pro athlete, Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving, professed to reporters that he was a Flat Earther, later apologizing.
Yes, they’re athletes. But still.
GIVEN ALL THIS, a throat-clearing pause here to state for the record: All conspiracy theories about the moon landings have been thoroughly debunked, not just by government officials, but by legions of neutral scientists and observers who have provided independent, third-party verification that a dozen Apollo astronauts trod upon the lunar surface over a six-year period that began a half-century ago.
Every item of supposed “proof” of the faked landings — much of it centering on supposed discrepancies in NASA moon photos (which conspiracy buffs believe were shot on a secret set, a la “Capricorn One,” with direction by famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick) has been debunked.
What’s more, subsequent unmanned missions to the moon have photographed the six moon-landing sites with detail fine enough to unmistakably identify the Apollo ephemera left behind. Of particular note was the NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission launched in July 2009, which has produced images sharp enough to reveal the trails of chalky footsteps left by astronauts shuffling between scientific gear still visible, including moon buggies produced by Boeing.
Further, a series of “retroreflectors” left on the moon by Apollo astronauts reflected laser bursts from the Earth back to our planet shortly after their placement, and continue to do so on a regular basis for laser-ranging experiments.
Neil Armstrong, the first human to step on the moon, noted in James R. Hansen’s biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” that those reflectors alone should have long ago shut up the yapping conspiracy hounds, whom he dismissed as “delusional … misguided souls.”
Only the most slow-witted dullards, or delusional contrarians, continue to embrace the theory of moon-landing fakery. But in an age that seems to celebrate that trait as some sort of plucky defiance of institutional rot, this does little to diminish the potential destructive power of even the most ill-considered conspiracy.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, some of the most overt, honest reactions to what likely stands as America’s most-grandiose conspiracy theories have come from people directly associated with the Apollo missions, including the astronauts themselves.
Leading conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel, responsible for a series of nonsensical documentaries on the subject, took to dropping in on Apollo astronauts at public appearances, demanding that they swear on a Bible that they had stood on the moon. Sibrel in 2002 was famously rewarded outside a Beverley Hills hotel with a solid right cross to the jaw from astronaut Buzz Aldrin, then 72, whom Sibrel had called “a coward, and a liar, and a thief.” No charges were filed.
Other astronauts have understandably shown similar disdain, as have the literally tens of thousands of living people involved directly or peripherally with the Apollo missions. The fact that any such conspiracy would have required so many closemouthed participants, from so many walks of life, stands by itself as proof of the landings, said Armstrong, who once sagely noted, “It would have been harder to fake it than to do it.”
This all rings true to the average non-moonbat American: The federal government, in its infinite wisdom, can’t organize a decent broadband system, let alone a faked moon landing.
And from this reporter’s seat, there’s additional, weighty evidence. One of the first three humans to travel the 240,000 cold, dark miles from the Earth to the moon lives in Anacortes. Bill Anders, an Air Force pilot, was 35 at the time he strapped into the first ride on a powerful Saturn V.
From his seat on Apollo 8 in December 1968, Anders was one of the first humans to see the dark side of the moon. There, he made the famous “Earth Rise” photo credited with launching the modern environmental movement by bringing the fragility of the planet into unprecedented, stark relief for the masses.
In his golden years, Anders is weary of talking about Apollo — for some of the reasons, no doubt, discussed here. But I’ve had the good fortune of hearing his retelling of the events in vivid detail, including embracing, with much humility, his own role in history. He won an Emmy for the photographs. A crater on the moon today bears his name.
Of the many hundreds of notable people I have had the privilege of interviewing over a three-decade career, Bill Anders is at the very bottom of my list of people likely to make stuff up — or to play along with a ruse. And that list includes a couple of nuns.
To promulgate and perpetuate the moon-landing conspiracy theory is to call him and all of his fellow Apollo heroes complicit fakes. Anders is 85 today, but a tough bird, through and through, not unlike Buzz Aldrin.
Want to call him a liar? A line from another old action film comes to mind.
Go ahead. Make his day. Even though it has become part of our very being, some people still take crazy very personally.