In September 2002, astronaut Buzz Aldrin was leaving a hotel in Beverly Hills, California when he was approached by Bart Sibrel, a conspiracy theorist known for his theory that the six Apollo moon landings were stagings orchestrated by NASA and the CIA. “You’re the one who said you walked on the moon when you didn’t,” Sibrel snapped at Aldrin, before accusing him of being a “coward” and a “liar”. The response of the astronaut was not exactly diplomatic: he gave Sibrel a right hook to the jaw.
When Aldrin followed his partner Neil Armstrong outside the Eagle module of Apollo 11 to tread on the lunar surface for the first time, on July 21, 1969, neither of them could have imagined that their achievement would give rise to one of the most popular and durable conspiracy theories of modern history. While the estimated number of proponents of the so-called lunar conspiracy varies in different countries, a recent survey in Russia puts the figure at 57%. And this is despite the fact that, at the time, the losing power of the space race did not question the success of its rival, as corroborated by the Russian cosmonaut Georgy Grechko: “When we were receiving signals from the Moon, we were receiving them from the Moon, not from Hollywood.”
The truth is that few historical events of such transcendence are as widely and solidly documented as the arrival of human beings on the Moon. Paradoxically, this may be a factor that has fuelled conspiracy theories, in the personal opinion of planetary scientist David Williams, who deals with the archiving of lunar data —including those of the Apollo missions— in the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: “An event that is so overwhelmingly documented just allows more opportunities to look for supposed anomalies in the photographs or data,” he suggests to OpenMind.
A signal that came from the Moon
The communications that Grechko cited are just one piece of evidence, which can also be attested to by Spaniard Carlos González Pintado, former head of operations of the Apollo Station in Madrid (Spain). The mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston had a tracking support network composed of three stations located in Madrid, Goldstone (California) and Canberra (Australia); the three locations were separated from each other by 120 degrees in longitude, so that at least one of them always had a line of sight with the Moon for communications.
During the lunar landing of Apollo 11, the Moon was only visible from the Madrid station, so Gonzalez and his companions were the first to hear from Armstrong: “Houston, Tranquillity base here. The Eagle has landed.” And like Grechko, González confirms that the signal came from the Moon: “Our parabolic antennas are extraordinarily directional. A deviation of only 0.15 degrees from the origin of the signal would cause it to be lost, and in order to receive signals from the Apollos, our antennas had to point to the Moon,” he explains to OpenMind.
Meanwhile, in Houston, engineer Jerry Woodfill was responsible for the alert systems of all the Apollo missions. It is worth remembering that, although the lunar conspiracy usually focuses on Apollo 11, five more missions repeated the same feat. “If you manage to deceive the whole world with Apollo 11, why repeat it five times?” González points out. Only one of the missions failed: Apollo 13. Woodfill was the first person who, at 21:08 on April 13, 1970, saw the main alarm indicator light up on his console, just before his headphones reverberated with the troubling words from the astronauts: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” That spacecraft did not end up conquering the Moon, but it was able to return its three crew members safely to Earth.
“Had the Apollo missions been faked, so should the entire Apollo 13 mission, mishap and rescue,” Woodfill tells OpenMind. However, the explosion of the oxygen tank of Apollo 13 was observed and photographed from Earth. “Likewise, there are countless pictures of Apollo spacecraft reentering Earth’s atmosphere as flaming comet-like projectiles,” adds Woodfill. “Can you imagine NASA faking such a comet-like re-entry to produce such a fake phenomena? To do so would be much more difficult than landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth.”
The images are perhaps the most obvious and accessible evidence of lunar missions. Scores of professional and amateur astronomers around the world followed and photographed the route of the spacecraft in the sky. In subsequent decades, other probes have also collected valuable photographic evidence. According to Steve Garber, analyst and head of the NASA History Division website, “the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged the Apollo lunar landing sites.” In the images one can see artefacts and footprints left by astronauts and rovers. The Japanese SELENE/Kaguya, the Indian Chandrayaan-1 and the Chinese Chang’e 2 have also captured evidence of missions and lunar landscapes identical to those photographed by their crew.
But for Williams, “the single most convincing evidence that we really did go to the Moon are the lunar samples, hundreds of kilograms of rock and soil.” The scientist argues that it would have been impossible to collect such an amount of material with robotic probes. Also, the entire collection process was photographed. “How this could have been faked is beyond me, but add to that the fact that we gave samples to the Soviet Union for their scientists to examine almost immediately.” And none of them protested, although Williams suggests that “they would have loved to have dismissed the samples as fake to claim we didn’t win the race; they agreed that these were actually from the Moon.”
Scientific data collected
To all this, Williams adds more than seven years of scientific data collected from the Moon, authentic and consistent data that could not have deceived the hundreds of researchers around the world, who have since used them in their studies. For decades, scientists have used the retro-reflectors deposited there by astronauts, mirrors that serve to reflect laser beams fired from Earth in order to measure the distance to the Moon. “The sheer number of people with scientific training who would have to be involved in such a deception boggles the mind,” Williams concludes.
For his part, Woodfill puts figures to this immense amount: “half a million scientists, engineers, astronauts, flight controllers, and industrial workers who contributed to the Apollo Moon landings.” Gonzalez adds, “A lie of that calibre could be kept by a single person, but not by 400,000.” And not only would this huge mass of conspirators have had to jealously guard the secret for five decades without a single leak, but innumerable scientists who today work on the data of those missions had not even been born then. Woodfill jokes that “they would have to be descendants of those original hoaxers pledged to continue as a league of ancestor conspirators.”
In short, it is difficult to reproach Aldrin for his reaction towards Sibrel when he and his companions risked their lives to complete that “giant leap for mankind,” in the famous words of Armstrong. Three astronauts even lost their lives, the crew of Apollo 1. Yet despite everything, this conspiracy theory is unlikely to go away. “My pastor emailed me this week wanting me to refute a group misusing Scripture and saying that the Earth is flat,” says Woodfill. “If so, we’d never have reached the Moon, and I’d have had no job for the past 53 years.”