As humanity gears up to return to the Moon, more and more people may deny that we ever went there in the first place.
Just a small sliver of the American populace currently believes the Apollo moon landings were faked; polls consistently put the number at around 5%, said Roger Launius, who served as NASA’s chief historian from 1990 to 2002. But that sliver may expand considerably in the coming years.
“The thing that concerns me more and more about this is, as time passes and the Apollo landings are farther into the past and fewer people remember them, it might be easier to embrace these kinds of ideas,” Launius, who worked as a senior official at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., before retiring in 2017, said this month during a presentation with NASA’s Future In-Space Operations working group.
The moon-hoax conspiracy really got legs when the internet came online, he added. Like-minded people who had previously printed out pamphlets and flyers in relative isolation were suddenly able to connect with each other quickly and get their ideas out into the world — abilities that further mushroomed with the advent of social media in the past decade or so.
The hoax claim should not spread on merit; the evidence cited by the deniers is, “in every single case, ridiculous,” Launius said. (For a good rundown of these claims and why they don’t hold up, see this classic 2001 piece by astronomer Phil Plait. To give just one example from Plait’s article: No stars are visible in photos taken by Apollo astronauts on the lunar surface because the explorers set their cameras to have fast exposure times, and stars were simply too faint to be picked up.)
Launius also stressed that the Apollo landings occurred during (and largely because of) a space race with the United States’ Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. And Soviet officials didn’t make any hoax claims.
“They had both the capability and the desire to disprove this, if it was true — you know, if we hadn’t landed on the moon but were faking it,” said Launius, who discusses the moon-hoax conspiracy and many other topics in “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings,” which will be published next month by Smithsonian Books. “And they never said a word. That’s a pretty strong element to me.”