This week’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing brought back memories of watching the event “live” in a Berkeley, California, coffeehouse during that fateful year of 1969. Not that we really saw it: CBS News had set up an animated approximation of what was happening 238,000 miles out into space. As the simulated lunar lander drew ever closer to the moon surface, Walter Cronkite removed his glasses.
When Walter Cronkite took off his horn rims, you knew it was going to be big. He’d done it six years earlier to announce President John F. Kennedy’s death in Dallas. Now Cronkite was positively giddy. He’d cut his reportorial teeth covering the depths of human depravity at the Nuremberg trials, but he was still the son of a Midwestern dentist who’d grown up with the wonder of the intergalactic exploits of Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and the rest.
“Oh, boy,” America’s most trusted man exclaimed. “Oh, boy. Man on the moon!”
Back in Berkeley, drinking our espresso, flush with the shaggy bloom of youth (I’d just turned 21, everyone had just turned 21), we were unimpressed. It wasn’t that we’d grown up indifferent to the “Space Program.” When I was 9, the fact that the Soviet Sputnik was circling the globe while U.S. rockets fizzled on the launchpad haunted my dreams. When JFK made his famous speech in 1962, exhorting a packed football stadium at Rice University in Houston, “We choose to go to the moon … not because it is easy but because it is hard,” it was an article of faith. As John Glenn orbited the Earth, I walked home from junior high school feeling exalted. “We” had a guy up there, a shining light in the darkness of space.
To go to the moon would be the next logical step in the grand progression of the Enlightenment, the completion of a cycle of human art and science that began with Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton—who published his Philosphiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687—a glorious forward march from the clerical dark ages that included the founding of the American republic itself. Kennedy’s modernizing masterstroke was the challenge to complete the great task “by the end of this decade” (our decade!), thereby unleashing a narrative principle the entertainment industry calls “the ticking clock.” As with any great saga, there were ups and downs. In 1967, a launchpad fire killed three astronauts. But then, in the virtual bottom of the ninth inning, with barely six months left in the slain leader’s visionary timeline, Neil Armstrong declared, “The eagle has landed.”
But on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue on July 20, 1969, time had run out on Apollo 11. Too much had happened. Only months after Kennedy’s speech came the Cuban missile crisis, the planet one depressed button away from nuclear disaster. This was followed by the president’s assassination, the killing of the messenger, the still-unsolved crime of the century. (Find someone who believes the Warren Commission report that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.) Then there was the Vietnam War, the death of 56,000 Americans and untold Vietnamese, an event that laid the roots of division that continues to bedevil the country today.
By 1969, we knew Werner von Braun, hero of the space program, the man who “aimed at the stars,” was really Hitler’s favorite rocket man, the developer of the V-2 missile, the Reich’s “vengeance weapon.” Piano-playing satirist Tom Lehrer adopted the persona of the former SS man to sing “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down?” Beyond that was Gil Scott-Heron’s song, “Whitey On the Moon.” “Taxes takin’ my whole damn check. Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,” Scott-Heron sang. “The price of food is goin’ up. And as if all that shit wasn’t enough, a rat done bit my sister Nell. But whitey’s on the moon.”
Perhaps the worst of it was the marker left near the Sea of Tranquility by the Apollo astronauts. “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind,” read the inscription, signed by the three astronauts. There was another signature, too. The plaque could have been signed by Artemis, the virgin lunar goddess tragically tricked into killing her beloved Orion by her imperious sun-god brother, Apollo. It could have been a Mayan pyramid builder, a Rajput astronomer in Jaipur. It could have been Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats, Billie Holiday, or anyone else who ever rhymed “moon” with “spoon.” It might have mentioned the ocean’s tides, controlled by the moon’s gravity.
But no. It was signed by Richard Nixon, who had been elected president only the year before by claiming he had a secret plan to end the war, but that was a lie. Even now, 45 years since Cronkite reported on his last days in the POTUS bunker during Watergate, Nixon’s name remains on the moon. With no erosion from rain, sleet, snow, or wind, it is likely to be there forever, one hell of a tombstone for a universal dream.
In the hoopla attending the run-up to 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11, little has been said about the mission’s aftermath, which is mostly a tale of retreat from Kennedy’s lofty rhetoric. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough money in it. Columbus bumped into the wrong continent, but he returned an empire on the investment of his Spanish retainers, Isabelle and Ferdinand, then busy overseeing the Inquisition. Apollo brought back a box of rocks little different than the ones in your backyard. By 1972, after the night launch of Apollo 17, the program was canceled; humans have not traveled beyond Earth’s orbit since.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the Space Shuttle program in the 1980s that I began to miss Apollo. Compared with the grand reach of the Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins mission, the Space Shuttle seemed little more than an 18-wheeler with wings. Not that many seemed to care. Once so dominant in the popular imagination, the moon was relegated to an afterthought, too picked-over and insufficiently far-flung for the dullest Star Trek episode. Indeed, most of the noise on the internet about the Apollo flight has come from people claiming it never happened in the first place. I’m a sucker for a well-turned conspiracy theory (new angles of the JFK shooting, 9/11 “truth”—bring it on). But I’ve never understood why so many Americans continued to believe the Apollo 11 mission, arguably the greatest feat of human ingenuity in recorded history, was fake.
There aren’t any recent polls as to the exact extent of hardcore moon denial (a 1970s Knight-Ridder survey put the number at more than 30 percent). But in the current age of mistrust, where any government story is immediately suspect, the urban legend puissance of the notion remains formidable. Pretty much everything you need to know can be found in We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle, a 1976 self-published pamphlet by Bill Kaysing, a sun-blasted libertarian author of aeronautics manuals and off-grid living guides like The Dollar a Day Cookbook and The First Time Farmer’s Guide (put out by Rolling Stone’s Straight Arrow Press). Kaysing lays down the moon-denier bullet points: the idea that NASA lacked the technical chops to send a man to the moon in 1969, the inability of the Apollo craft to withstand the intense heat as it passed through the Van Allen radiation belt, the lack of stars in the sky in lunar photographs supposedly taken by the astronauts, the seeming “waving” of the American flag in a place where there was no breeze. Kaysing also argued darker points, claiming that government officials murdered Gus Grissom and his crew during the Apollo 1 fire because the veteran astronaut warned of the coming government cover-up.*
These tropes gained narrative traction with the release of Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One. In a role similar to Warren Beatty’s in Alan Pakula’s ’70s paranoia classic The Parallax View, Elliot Gould plays a typically shambling reporter who stumbles onto the story that the Capricorn One mission (whose astronauts include a young O.J. Simpson) never really went to Mars. The whole thing was staged by Hollywood film crews in an abandoned military base somewhere in the Mojave Desert.
Part satire, part antic action flick, chock-full of soon-to-be conspiracy staples like black helicopters, Capricorn One is notable for identifying the National Aeronautics and Space Association as the perfect historical villain of the Moon hoax story. As dedicated viewers of The X-Files know, the agency, founded in 1957 to take charge of the American space effort in the wake of the Sputnik disaster, became the government’s chief cover-up artist when it came to the alleged extraterrestrial presence on Earth. NASA (the initials are said to stand for “Never A Straight Answer”) did more than suppress information—it censored the soul. If you saw something in the sky, if your life had been turned upside down by a spiritual encounter with an entity you knew in your heart came from another planet or dimension, the NASA man-in-black was there to say it was nothing but swamp gas, the product of a runaway imagination. NASA blocked access to the supernatural, shackled the mind to the work-a-day hamster treadmill of consensus reality. Ultimate of hypocrites, NASA was just the sort of public deceiver to fake a moon landing.
More recent additions to the denier canon include the eyebrow-raising assertion that the faked lunar footage was actually the work of pantheon director Stanley Kubrick. Long the favorite cineaste of the conspiratorially minded (largely owing to his dirty old man, Illuminati-themed final picture, Eyes Wide Shut), Kubrick supposedly shot the phony landing while making 2001: A Space Odyssey, which includes a sequence of the enigmatic monolith being dug up on the moon. According to man-on-the-moon rejectors, Kubrick attempted to “confess” to his part in the deception by having Danny, the clairvoyant son of the murderous Jack Nicholson in The Shining, wear an Apollo 11 sweater as he peddles his big wheel through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel.
With this kind of “independent research” it could be said that the highlight of moon-denying occurred when Buzz Aldrin punched out so-called investigator Bart Sibral. Sibral had been hounding the Apollo 11 astronaut, demanding he swear on the Bible that he’d really walked on the moon. When Sibral called Aldrin, accompanied by his wife at the time, “a coward and liar,” the old flyer let him have it. Yet still the trope remains a hardy perennial, if only because “conspiracy” has become just one more show biz revenue stream as witnessed by the work of Shane Dawson, whose soft-core moon denial You Tube video has racked up more than 7 million views.
Seeking deeper insight, I emailed John Lear. A seminal figure in the roots of modern conspiracy, Lear, son of the Learjet inventor, knows a fair share about leaving terra firma. A pilot of the old-school daredevil variety, Lear once held 18 different air speed records. During the Vietnam War he put in time delivering supplies to CIA clients in the Laotian jungle. He is also the author of the “Lear Hypothesis,” a 1987 mega-speculation that roiled the then-nascent internet by claiming that even as NASA was saying flying saucers didn’t exist, the agency was making secret deals with representatives of rogue extraterrestrial races, “selling out the American people to aliens from another world.”
Many think Lear, now deep into his 70s, is out of his mind. He doesn’t deny it, cheerfully offering visitors to his Las Vegas home a Reynolds-wrapped “Official John Lear Tin-foil Hat,” which at $20 is his lone piece of merch. I asked Lear whether he thinks the Apollo mission was fake. About an hour later, I got back an email listing “25 Reasons We Couldn’t Have Gone to The Moon in 1969.” Lear offered a few newish wrinkles to the standard rap, contending that the Saturn V that supposedly propelled the Apollo crew into space “never worked.” What the public saw was the less powerful Saturn IB “dressed up to look like a Saturn V.” There was also the matter of the moon’s gravity, which Lear fixed at “61.71%” of the earth, not the standard 16 percent as most everyone, NASA included, said it was. Still, it wasn’t until we talked on the phone that we got anywhere.
Lear was going on about the Van Allen belts, the radioactive particle fields that surround the planet moon-deniers say would have caused the Apollo 11 to burn up. “NASA claimed they just flew around them,” Lear mocked. This was impossible, he said, because the Van Allen belt was no natural phenomena. They had been “purposely” placed at 500 to 25,000 miles above the Earth by a superior civilization of ETs that served as custodians of the universe. There was to be no flying “around” these Van Allen belts, no passing through them, certainly not by Apollo 11 or any other resident of the planet. The ET “make sure we don’t go anywhere,” Lear said. “They don’t want earthlings like us contaminating the solar system.” This was the way it would stay, Lear continued, “until humanity learns to live without envy, hate and greed.”
Was Lear saying NASA had to fake the moon landing because the ET won’t let us into space? Yes, he replied, that’s what he was saying. We couldn’t go because we did not deserve to. All the powers that be could offer was this miserable fake to keep the masses entertained.
Herein, I thought, Lear cut to the heart of the matter. Taking issue with the sociopolitical wisdom and expense of the moon landing in a Berkeley coffeehouse during 1969 was one thing. To suggest that the species was morally unfit to be allowed off the planet was another issue altogether.
I couldn’t agree with Lear, and it wasn’t because I doubted his ET philosopher king cosmology. The Prometheus in me rejected this low-ceilinged supposition that the species lacked the smarts, free will, or self-esteem to fly to the moon. It struck me as an insult to the intelligence born in Eden, developed through evolution, or both.
Not to be a Pollyanna, but the older I get the more I am repelled by the dystopic dialog of the times. When was the last time you saw a movie or a TV show in which tomorrow was portrayed as better than yesterday? The bad future is a reflex no more credible than the assembly line of phony happy endings rolled out for decades. I was a grandfather now, I felt it was my duty to take a stand for the human condition, to defend not only the future but the relevant past, the Apollo 11 mission very much included.
I was thinking about this just the other night, when I walked outside my Brooklyn home to peer up at the sky. Just a few moments before I’d been watching the local TV newscast which took a break from covering hit-and-runs in the Bronx and Trump’s most recent utterance to take notice of the landing’s 50th anniversary. “Can you believe it, that people actually went to the moon?” the anchor said with a sudden burst of wonder. She wasn’t denying; rather, she was in awe that humans so much like ourselves had once pulled off such a feat. Up above me the moon, made of green cheese or not, was at three-quarters full. It was time to tip a hat to that not-so-distant past when space was the place, where it was good to go.
Correction, July 18, 2019: This article originally misstated that Gus Grissom and his crew died in a fire on the Apollo 7 mission. It was Apollo 1.