the real reason why moon landing conspiracies endure

The idea that the lunar landing was faked has by now been debunked by just about everyone and their twice removed sister-in-law's grandma. So how and why is it still around?

soviet lk lander
Render of a planned Soviet single cosmonaut landing on the lunar service

According to a frequent joke, conspiracy theorists are right that the Moon landing was staged, it’s just that NASA hired Stanley Kubrick who was such a perfectionist, he insisted on shooting on location. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of that famous one small step, which could have actually survived the takeoff of the lunar module in the shade of its immobile base, one would think that raving Moon hoaxers insisting that one of the most important events in all of human history never actually happened rises almost to the level of sacrilege. Why try to erase history for some harebrained statement about government corruption and lies?

Well, Popular Mechanics decided to ask that same question and found an important and often repeated, but seldom discussed motivation behind Moon landing denialism. It’s not just that the theorists are so focused on proving themselves right that in their obsession over how a shadow fell in some photos they forget that on an alien world with no atmosphere, no liquid water, and just a sixth of the gravity, things work very differently. It’s not just that they read volumes of meaning into every stray phrase or even pause to trumpet that they’ve found a confession from the astronauts or NASA engineers.

It’s that they can’t believe humanity was able to accomplish such a massive leap into the future and then just stopped. Just consider the quote below from conspiracy theorist and filmmaker Bart Sibrel, famous for shoving a Bible into Buzz Aldrin’s face demanding the astronaut swear that he walked on the Moon with his hand on it, and getting his clock cleaned in response. In this short quip, he paradoxically reveals both his ignorance about how space travel works, and a very valid question at the same time.

Fifty years after the first atomic bomb, do you know how much more powerful they were? Ten years later, they were a hundred times more powerful! If they went to the moon with 1969 equipment, we should be in another solar system by now. We should have been on Mars 40 years ago.

Now, there is a great deal of naivete in this diagnosis because technology can’t always advance at an exponential pace, especially when it’s tackling the laws of physics. Getting to the Moon is relatively easy compared to a mission to Mars which is 143 times farther away at its closest approach to Earth. Other solar systems? Chemical rockets will always mean thousands of years of travel to our closest stars and other propulsion methods are bumping up against the limits of our knowledge of high energy physics. But we could have been using the Moon as a proving ground for decades and sending crews to Mars over the last ten years or so in the best-case scenario, which we all know didn’t happen.

Conversely, the reason why nuclear weapons were a hundred times more powerful ten years after the first ones were used is because the government poured immense resources into the research and development of new generations of such bombs. Imagine that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki there were a few more tests showing how reliable we could make future nukes, then President Truman told the various scientists that these weapons are no longer a priority and their funding would play second fiddle to other policy concerns. Yes, the plans for a two-stage fission-fusion device from Teller and Ulam are lovely but will have to wait for now.

Would we even have a working thermonuclear device today, much less have to seriously consider what would happen if we unleased a hundred of them during a geopolitical conflict? Maybe a few prototypes would be built and one or two of them tested to study their general feasibility, but we certainly wouldn’t have ICBMs and miniaturized warheads which, along with developing and building the bombs themselves cost $5.8 trillion. That’s nearly ten times what the United States government invested in space research and exploration. The hypothetical scenario of Truman smothering the nuclear program after its biggest accomplishment laid out above seems bizarre, but that’s exactly what happened to NASA with President Nixon.

Why don’t we have bases on the Moon? Why aren’t we landing on Mars? Because after the Apollo missions, NASA was told that big project like this were done and having won the race to the Moon, the country will be focusing its energies elsewhere. The agency would no longer be special, it would compete with other agencies and departments for every scrap of funding and may not get its wish list. In politicians’ minds, the rocketry that got astronauts to the Moon was started as precursors to ICBMs and now that the mission was accomplished, they could get back to the business on making ICBMs and nukes.

In short, we sacrificed bases on the Moon and Mars for 25,000 nuclear warheads pointed at the other side of the world, and the Soviet Union did the same after the epic failure of its N1 rocket. Conspiracy theorists on both sides don’t want to live in such a sad world ruled by such paranoid and small-minded gerontocrats, and so they justify this state of affairs by claiming we simply didn’t go to the Moon and lack the technology, which is why we’re not launching missions to it today, or we did and were scared off by aliens so we’re afraid to return.

These thoughts are a lot less painful than knowing we could be exploring the solar system for the price of the last round of tax cuts for the 1% and Fortune 100 companies and chose to just hand over more cash to those already holding 45 cents of every dollar on Earth. But the fact of the matter is that it’s exactly what happened and if we’re ever going to change the current situation, we have to recognize it for what it is rather than embrace a reality we find more comforting and less absurd.

# space // conspiracy theorists / moon landing / space exploration

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