It happens every year. One or more students ask me if I think the Apollo moon landings were a hoax. I teach critical media studies at Temple University in downtown Philadelphia, where the diverse collection of urban students are street smart, open-minded, and hard-working. This is not an indictment of students in my classes. I’m sure it happens at other colleges and universities. Frankly, it’s not surprising that some American college students wonder about the Apollo 11 moon landings, given that polls and surveys show 24% of Americans and 25% of British citizens believe NASA faked the moon landings. Some people believe that NASA paid director Stanley Kubrick to film the fake footage.
The internet and YouTube are littered with zillion of claims that NASA masterminded an Apollo hoax. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) depicts this issue in the scene where Matthew McConaughey confronts the future educators who deny NASA landed humans on the moon. Why are there so many attacks on the great achievements of Apollo? One reason is because of the rise of pseudoscience in popular culture.
Pseudoscience in the Guise of Skepticism
The students skeptical of the Apollo moon landings are often those who fashion themselves as rebels, anti-authoritarians, and challengers to the American cultural orthodoxy. Of course, being skeptical of the US government is understandable in general. Like all other political systems throughout history, the US government has lied, currently lies, and will lie again in the future. Governments are always lying about something. It’s obvious the US government is still lying about the Kennedy assassination, but there is zero doubt NASA sent humans to the moon.
It saddens me that youthful rebellion and much-needed government skepticism are channeled into pseudoscientific nonsense—not unlike the “ancient astronaut theorists” celebrated in the long-running Ancient Aliens (2010-) series, which is repeatedly aired on the History Channel in the United States.
Like those who deny the Apollo moon landings, the ancient astronaut theorists present themselves as rebels against the mainstream orthodoxy of modern science and archaeology. They offer nothing other than an endless stream of bogus “evidence” for the scientifically illiterate and well-intentioned skeptics, like the students who ask me about Apollo. My debunking of the “ancient astronaut theorists” is (by far) my most read essay in Medium. It has thousands of readers, who I assume agree with the ancient astronaut theory because the essay also has very few likes and little applause. Yet not one reader has even remotely challenged any of my arguments. There are reasons why this particular version of pseudoscience exists, but I’ll save that for the end of this essay.
In 1969, the video and television technologies weren’t advanced enough to stage and fake the moon landing in any plausible way. NASA didn’t have anything like CGI or Photoshop back then. The TV cameras were primitive compared to the cameras of 2017, with HD and 360-degree perspectives. Though the fake moon-landing claims have been debunked on the internet, here are some of the most obvious reasons the Apollo moon landings could not have been faked.
1. 842 pounds of Moon Rocks
The astronauts on the six Apollo missions retrieved 842 pounds of moon rocks that were brought to Earth and shared with scientists around the world. If the rocks were from our planet and not from the moon, the scientists would surely have realized that and called NASA on its trickery. NASA still loans out sample moon rocks to educators and scientists from around the world. Could they all be in on the hoax across 50 years?
2. The Soviet Union Knew Apollo 11 Happened
The United States and former Soviet Union were in a “space race” to get to the moon first, supposedly to show the superiority of their socioeconomic systems. The Soviet Union easily tracked the Apollo spacecraft to the moon with its telecommunications satellites and picked up both the Apollo radio transmissions to Mission Control and all of the television broadcasts. The Soviets possessed such technologies because they too sent spacecraft to the moon in the 1960s (sans cosmonauts). If NASA didn’t really send astronauts to the moon, the Soviet Union would have certainly known and taken the opportunity to embarrass the United States on the “world stage” at the height of the Cold War. The possibility of the Soviets going along with such a hoax is far below zero (lower than the winter temperatures in Siberia!). Moscow’s Pravda newspaper even acknowledged the Apollo 11 moon landing with a front-page story.
3. Reflectors Left on the Moon
The Apollo 11 and 14 astronauts left behind mirror-like prisms on the moon (the lunar laser-ranging retroreflector array) that are targeted with lasers by scientists at the McDonald Observatory in Texas and other observatories around the world. The lasers accurately determine the distance from Earth to the moon, which is moving away from the Earth by about 3.8 cm per year. Could all the astronomers and scientists at the McDonald Observatory be in on the NASA hoax? What about astronomers from other observatories in other nations?
4. Tracks on the Moon
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has provided images of the Apollo landing sites, including astronaut tracks, moon buggies and their tracks, and the descent part of the lunar modules. In the 21st century, could the world’s scientists and astronomers be fooled by trick photos from NASA?
5. Could 400,000 Scientists Be Tricked?
Approximately 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians worked on the Apollo project for over a decade. They came from many countries and all over the US. It is patently absurd to think they all were all somehow tricked or part of a NASA hoax.
6. Why Land on the Moon 5 More Times?
The United States made six visits to the moon. Let’s consider for a moment that they were all staged. If the first “hoax” were successful, the United States would have defeated the Soviets in the race to the moon. Why risk faking five more visits and thus increase the chances of slipping up and getting caught by 500%? NASA would have had to fake the famed Apollo 13 mission, which was aborted on the way to the moon because of an on-board explosion; it was freaking scientific genius that enabled the Apollo 13 astronauts to orbit the moon and return safely to Earth. If NASA faked the moon landings, one time would have been enough. Along with the other reasons listed above, that’s why we can be certain Apollo landed on the moon and returned to Earth six times.
Apollo and the Attacks on Human Achievement
To me, it’s mind-blowing that pseudoscience and antirationalism are widespread in the global culture of the 21st century. Let’s be very clear what is stake here: truth, sanity, human achievement, and our place in the universe. The Apollo missions were incredible achievements, perhaps the greatest in the history of the human species. The Apollo program dramatically illustrated the incredible things humans can do when reason, science, creativity, cooperation, ambition, and bravado are applied to the pursuit of genuine achievement and enlightenment. Claiming Apollo was a conspiracy is not merely an attack on NASA, it’s an attack on human reason, achievement, and aspiration. What’s the underlying reason for the Apollo conspiracy theorists? Here’s my take.
NASA’s grandest achievements (Apollo and the Hubble Space Telescope) have collectively destroyed the pre-Copernican narratives humans use to explain their origins and destinies. In the wake of Apollo and the views of Earth from space, the tribalism (racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, etc.) and narcissistic delusions of cosmic centrality and our super-specialness are bogus beliefs and can no longer be taken seriously. Yet these views are running amok on Earth. NASA and Apollo have rocked our worldviews and much of society has yet to accept what it means, still clinging to sacred texts and YouTube videos claiming the moon landings were filmed by Kubrick. Even the Apollo 8 astronauts contributed to the rise of anti-science culture by reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon in 1968—an intellectual collapse of epic proportions, a crash on global TV. We are not special, not significant, not the center of the universe, and there’s no evidence that super-beings are looking after us and controlling our destiny, be they deities or ancient aliens.
To keep the dominant narratives alive back on Earth, the achievements and discoveries of NASA, Apollo, and the Hubble telescope must be neutralized, marginalized, or flat-out discredited. It’s like Galileo and Edwin Hubble never existed. In the end, those who deny the moon landings are waging an assault on sanity—an assault on logic, science, and basic rationality. More importantly, the deniers are attacking and undermining the great human achievement of Apollo, precisely because the real meaning of Apollo challenges the dominant narratives to which they are desperately clinging to out of sheer existential dread. The hoax was not perpetrated by NASA or Kubrick, but in the minds of the deniers and their pre-Copernican narratives. It’s not even remotely sane.
In the wake of Apollo and the Hubble telescope, we face the paradox of our greatest achievement. We humans have ventured to the moon and peered into a vast and ancient cosmos, a universe of two trillion galaxies stretching across 100 billion light years, a universe in which our species is not central or significant and perhaps even meaningless. As seen in the Apollo 8 photo above, the blackness of space shows there is no self-evident meaning or purpose to human existence. This poses the greatest intellectual challenge for humanity: to ground human purpose and meaning in something external to our existence, in a vast universe of which we are insignificant and inconsequential. Pseudoscience and Apollo conspiracy theorists have no answer for this challenge.
NASA’s great achievements suggest we practice a bit of cosmic humility along with developing a new philosophy for human existence. It’s like we need an Apollo program for secular philosophy. It’s time to abandon the superstitions and pseudoscience. It’s time to grow up.
If you want to read more about my overall space philosophy, essays are available “Explosion of Awareness” in Medium.
Barry Vacker is author of the Specter of the Monolith (2017), which explore the meaning of Apollo and films like 2001 and Interstellar, while outlining a new and entirely original space philosophy for the human species.