In response to IFLScience’s recent article about the announcement of the Artemis II crew, author Dr Alfredo Carpineti received an email claiming: “Before we can go BACK to the moon we would have had to have gone there before. WE DID NOT.” Plenty of comments under the article on social media carried similar messages, although it's hard to tell the genuine disbelievers from those engaging in irony or trolling. If even a tiny fraction of these comments are from people who genuinely believe the landings were faked, it’s time to outline the mountain of evidence that Kennedy’s promise was fulfilled.
The idea the landings were faked goes back almost as far as the actual events, but it has taken off in recent years. Perhaps that’s partially because the generation awed by watching the “one small step” in real-time is now a minority, but the main reason is a declining trust in authority. Having been lied to about everything from Watergate to Weapons of Mass destruction, many people are no longer inclined to simply take the word of a US Government agency.
However, instead of applying some skeptical rigor to the question, some have responded by believing everything a random individual on Reddit says, particularly if they have a Youtube video to go with it.
One problem with debunking the faked landings myth is that it's not one conspiracy theory but a host of related ones. In some versions, the entire project was faked and no astronaut left Earth. In others, they went into lunar orbit but never touched down. In still others the Moon, like the Earth, is flat and landing is presumably impossible. As Dr Carpineti joked in response to the message: “Bold of you to assume the Moon is real.” Disproving a specific version can be a game of whack-a-mole.
Nevertheless, here is an overview of the problems with most or all variations of the idea the Moon landings – all six of them, because people tend to forget there was more than just one – were faked.
Too many people
It's easy to conduct a conspiracy for two. Both probably stand to gain a lot from keeping the secret, and if it leaks the one who did their part knows who to blame. It’s harder with a dozen conspirators, but we know it has happened, although even then someone often has a crisis of conscience, blabs while drunk, or is sloppy with incriminating evidence. However, the Apollo missions were one of the largest endeavors in human history. It is estimated 400,000 people were employed at some point on the project.
Not all of these would have needed to know if the missions weren’t real. The people who designed and made the space suits, for example, could have been left to think their work would be used, although the precision that went into making them fit for the task would certainly have added to the cost.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people would have needed to be in on the secret, from the astronauts themselves to the filmmakers who would have had to fake the images and the clean-up crew for the returned command module.
Most people have very little awareness of how many people were required for every piece of that first mission. For example, the film The Dish portrays the images from Neil Armstrong’s steps as being collected by a team of four at the Parkes Observatory, Australia. In fact, the Parkes team involved around two dozen people, each of whom would need to have been let in on the secret, lest they discover the signal was not coming from the Moon and reveal the truth. Moreover, the famous images were collected by a separate team at Honeysuckle Creek, while the Moon was too low in the sky for the larger Parkes facility, requiring even more people to be in the know. Other facilities worldwide were on standby.
The returned Moon rocks
The Apollo missions brought back 380 kilograms (840 pounds) of rocks and dust from the surface of different parts of the Moon. Any geologist with a promising-sounding research project can request a sample and many do. Projects that require large amounts of lunar material tend to be rejected, but those who can do the analysis they need using small slices are frequently granted access, and publish their results.
These slices have been exposed to lasers, reacted with reagents, and run through mass spectrometers. The results consistently demonstrate the rocks formed in an airless and largely waterless environment unlike anything on Earth, and have spent billions of years directly exposed to the solar wind. Unless thousands of geologists worldwide have been in on the scam, the rocks would have needed to be faked in a way that would be far beyond modern technology, let alone what was around 50 years ago.
It’s unlikely anyone could have even predicted the composition required to fake a Moon rock before the landing. Yet the samples returned by China’s Chang’E-5 are a good enough match, allowing for their different locations, to indicate both came from the same celestial object. One geologist has stated it would have been harder to fake the rocks than to actually go to the Moon.
Others were watching
Although the lunar missions were scientific expeditions, national pride played a huge part. President John F. Kennedy was desperate to wipe off the embarrassment of the Soviet Union beating America with the first satellite and the first man in space. The Soviets would have loved nothing better than to see the US fail. If they’d had the slightest evidence Apollo 11 didn’t land, it’s absurd to think they would have kept it quiet. Their radio telescopes tracked each mission and would have had plenty of opportunity to pick up if the signal was coming from anywhere other than the Moon.
The objects left behind
Three Apollo missions left mirrors on the lunar surface off which lasers have since been bounced to measure the Earth-Moon distance with exceptional precision. At the time robot missions lacked the capacity to install them.
NASA’s robotic lunar orbiters have photographed objects left behind at each landing site, but such evidence is considered fake by those who don’t accept the original evidence. However, in 2008 the Japanese SELENE probe observed the blast crater left behind by Apollo 15, expanding the list of people who would need to be in on the conspiracy still further.
The risk of faking it
A successful Moon landing was a huge boost to American national pride, but NASA and the entire US government knew there was a risk of failure. President Nixon famously prepared a speech in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin died on the Moon.
Embarrassing as their deaths would have been, it would have been nothing compared to the discovery hundreds of billions were spent on a fake. Everyone in the chain of command from the President down to the astronauts would have known the consequences of a conspiracy being exposed. How many would have been mad enough to go along with the idea knowing that failure to perform any part of the charade perfectly would reveal the truth?
Why it matters
Studies of believers in conspiracy theories have shown that those willing to swallow one will believe others. This even applies to directly contradictory theories. People who believe Princess Diana was murdered on the direct orders of the Queen are more likely to also believe she is still alive somewhere, having faked her own death.
Though believing in claims the Moon landings were faked sounds harmless, they can be a gateway to more dangerous conspiracies with real-world consequences, from anti-vaccination beliefs to global warming and climate change denial.
Sadly, however, there may be no evidence that will shake the hard-core conspiracy theorists’ certainty. The only hope is to reach those who have yet to fall down this particular rabbit hole.