On September 9, 2002, Bart Sibrel earned a punch in the face from Buzz Aldrin.
Sibrel had tricked the Aldrin into meeting him in the lobby of a Beverly Hills hotel and dared the septuagenarian astronaut to swear on a Bible that he had really gone to the moon.
Sibrel poked Aldrin in the chest with the Good Book. Aldrin responded with a righteous right hook.
This exchange took place thirty-three years after Aldrin followed Armstrong's one small step for mankind, and represents a surreal, ongoing phenomenon: despite the overwhelming scientific and circumstantial evidence to the contrary, there's a dedicated crowd of crazy people who still believe the greatest achievement in the history of human engineering was produced entirely on a soundstage in the middle of the desolate Nevada desert.
For moon truthers like Sibrel, all that NASA can do is hit them with the facts and hope they buzz off.
Honestly, why would you screw with Buzz Aldrin?
Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. It provided the scientific and national pinnacle of a decade defined by upheaval. And like the Kennedy assassination and the ongoing machinations of the Cold War, the Apollo 11 mission provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories in the decades to come. In 1974, two years after Apollo 17 blasted off from the Taurus-Littrow Valley, Bill Kaysing authored We Never Went To The Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle, the first canonical text of the lunar landing hoax conspiracy.
Kaysing had worked as a technical writer for Rocketdyne (who, coincidentally, would contract to build the Apollo missions' rockets after Kaysing left the company in 1963) before striking out on his own as a freelance writer. According to an interview Sibrel filmed towards the end of Kaysing's life, the genesis of the book came from a junkie Vietnam Vet who was living in Kaysing's houseboat in the early 70s. Reading the text now, Kaysing's vision of the entire Apollo Space Project working in totally covert locations while still being able to get away for martinis and black jack on the Sunset Strip reads like Borroughsian science fiction. We Never Went To The Moon is out of print (score your own copy on the used market for about $500), yet Kaysing's ideas continue to form the backbone of moon truthers' arguments that Apollo never left the Earth's orbit.
If Kaysing is lunar landing deniers' Shakespeare, Bart Sibrel is their Orson Welles. When not getting punched in the face by ex-astronauts in their 70s, Siebrel makes movies to advance his own set of theories about the great lunar fake. His most notorious flick, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Moon, takes Kaysing's assertions and illustrates them with a surreal pastiche of newsreel footage, Latin chanting, and lots of screen dissolves of Bible verses. Together with Kaysing's book, Sibrel's film provides the fodder for the conspiracy theories that populate online forums and direct-mail newsletters around the world.
The conspiracy theorists point to the hazards of the Van Allen belts, two donut-shaped belts of radiation that encircle the Earth, as the first major impediments to a lunar mission. Traveling through both of the belts, they claim, would have exposed Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins to lethal doses of energetic protons. NASA knew about these belts from prior unmanned space missions, thankfully, and timed the Apollo launch to coincide with the lowest-intensity interval of Van Allen radiation. NASA even produced this middle-school science worksheet to demonstrate how much radiation reached the astronauts on their mission.
In total, the Apollo astronauts spent roughly an hour in the belts, which would have exposed the Apollo rocket to approximately 13 rads. Of course NASA anticipated this and made sure the astronauts inside were insulated well enough that, according to NASA's published biomedical account of the Apollo mission, the average skin dose for the Apollo 11 crew over the course of their 12-day mission was just 0.18 rads.
Conspiracy theories also point to the lack of a blast crater from either the descent or takeoff of the lunar excursion vehicle. Surely 10,000 pounds of thrust would hollow out a significant bowl of regolith, right? In fact, this theory fails on two fronts. Firstly, the LEM didn't need to make a performance stop in the Sea of Tranquility—the pilot used the bulk of that force to deorbit and then hit the throttle, touching down with less than a third of that firing power. Secondly, in an environment with no atmosphere, the four-and-a-half-foot engine nozzle on the LEM distributed its energy in a vastly more diffused manner than it would on Earth.
More than any other supposed scientific gotcha, moon truthers point to the American flag as proof-positive the whole thing was faked. In the video from the landing, the flag waves back and forth after Aldrin and Armstrong planted it in the lunar soil. Flags don't wave in a vacuum, but they might wave on a soundstage in the in the Nevada desert, right? Well, NASA has answered this one a lot.
Not every waving flag needs a breeze–at least not in space. When astronauts were planting the flagpole they rotated it back and forth to better penetrate the lunar soil (anyone who's set a blunt tent-post will know how this works). So of course the flag waved! Unfurling a piece of rolled-up cloth with stored angular momentum will naturally result in waves and ripples–no breeze required!
Over 500 million people tuned in for Apollo 11's landing via television, the medium that exponentially extended the experience of the moon landing around the world. It's this coverage that has spurred many of the more outlandish dimensions of lunar landing hoaxes, such as the assertion that this moon rock is in fact a prop labeled with the letter C.
The most ridiculous of these assertions, however, holds that the federal government, impressed by Stanley Kubrick's work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, recruited him to direct the fake moon landing. This rumor has proved so pervasive that Kubrick's daughter Vivian felt compelled to defend her father's creative integrity on Twitter this past July. Yes. This is still happening.
In it, Kubrick put these speculators in check with a statement that gets to the heart of these supposed hoaxes: to sustain a conspiracy so vast for so long is beyond the pale of credulity. And that is where applying a little science to the moon truther mentality will shed some light on why this conspiracy refuses to die.
Ironically, Karl Popper—the philosopher of science whose tenet of falsifiability shows up in funhouse variations in the writings of Sobriel and other conspiracy theorists gives the best assessment of this enduring mentality in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies:
The conspiracy theory of society cannot be true because it amounts to the assertion that all results, even those which at first sight do not seem to be intended by anybody, are the intended results of the actions of people who are interested in these results.
As long as some people find more consolation in limitations than exploration, scientists will have to play interstellar whack-a-mole with moon truthers. If the stars are in our favor, we'll have Aldrin around to be our muscle just a little longer.
Made possible by Operation Avalanche. In theaters September 16th.