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A small punch for a man, one giant blow for common sense

  • Just like Holocaust deniers and flat earthers, moon conspiracists think there’s enough evidence to support their theories.
  • But the questions barely scratch the surface

Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the US flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
Buzz Aldrin poses for a photograph beside the US flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. (Photo: AP)

Sure, his colleague took that famous “one small step for a man", but Edwin, or “Buzz", Aldrin may once have landed a punch heard around the world. If you have ever thought of astronauts as a calm, professional, unflappable breed, you should watch the clip of Aldrin lighting into Bart Sibrel in September 2002. Aldrin is in his 70s, but you can nearly feel the weight in that punch, the anger behind it.

Sibrel, you see, is semi-famous for being a moon landing conspiracy theorist. We are celebrating 50 years since Neil Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on our cosmic satellite, but Sibrel believes that never happened. Instead, he believes, US space agency Nasa used movie sets, doctored film footage and more to pull off the greatest hoax in the history of mankind.

And why would Nasa do such a thing? Sibrel would say it was part of the overall US plan to win the Cold War against the Soviets. This was what prompted then president John F. Kennedy (JFK) to promise, in 1961, that the US would put men on the moon by the end of the decade. But this was, as JFK himself pronounced, a hard task. So why not resort to propaganda to “win"?

The truth, according to Sibrel and many fellow conspiracy theorists, is that no man has ever walked on the moon.

Now Sibrel and Aldrin had met once earlier. That was in Aldrin’s office, when Sibrel showed him footage that he claimed “proved" that the moon landings were faked. Aldrin listened and remonstrated—calmly, that time—and when he realized there was no reasoning with this man, terminated the interview.

But that day in 2002, Sibrel confronts Aldrin at a hotel in Beverly Hills. “Do you think you can get to heaven without repenting?" he asks. “Why don’t you swear on the Bible that you walked on the moon?" Aldrin refuses to rise to this nonsensical Bible bait and walks away, asking a hotel security guard to get Sibrel to leave. Sibrel merely steps around the guard and challenges Aldrin again. “You are the one who said you walked on the moon when you didn’t!" he says. “You are a coward, a liar and a thief!"

At which point, calm no longer, 72-year-old Aldrin uncorks his right fist.

How do people fill their minds with this stuff? The Apollo missions are fact, no doubt you think, taught as science and history every day to children around the world. Like the spherical shape of the Earth, like the Holocaust, maybe soon like climate change, and who would think to question those... hmm, wait a second. Yes indeed, we have cohorts of Holocaust deniers, climate change deniers and flat earthers. So why should we not have moon landing deniers?

Just like all of them, moon conspiracists think there’s plenty of evidence to support their theories. Or really, plenty of questions to ask, to which they appear to smugly believe there are no answers. That apparent lack of answers counts, in these circles, as “evidence".

Aldrin speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, in 2017.
Aldrin speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, in 2017. (Photo: Bloomberg)

In the photographs Armstrong and company took on the moon, how come we don’t see stars in the night sky? There’s no breeze on the moon, so in the TV footage, why is the American flag flapping? In the photograph of Aldrin descending the ladder on the Lunar Module’s leg, he’s clearly in the shadow of the Module that the sun casts—so how can we see him then? Then there’s the Van Allen radiation belt that surrounds Earth, that any path to the moon must traverse, and the radiation there can kill—so how did Armstrong and company survive and reach the moon? The astronauts’ footsteps on the surface of the moon are startlingly well-preserved: how? Why, despite using a powerful rocket as it descended to the moon’s surface, did the Lunar Module produce no crater?

Believe me, those questions only scratch the surface, if you will forgive the pun. There are many more in the fevered minds where those originated. Ask some of the questions together, as some fevered TV shows have done, and you build a case that might fool even the gullible among us. Ask them without touching on the reasonable explanations for each, and maybe even the slightly less gullible will nod their heads when they hear Sibrel calling Aldrin a “liar".

And what are those reasonable explanations? There’s space here to consider only a few, but you will find the others in about as long as it takes you to type “moon conspiracy theories" into your nearest Google search bar.

So yes, why don’t we see the stars in those photographs from the moon? The conspiracists believe it’s because they were shot on Earth. If they did contain stars, they claim, any halfway-decent astronomer could examine them, do a few calculations and conclude that the photographs were indeed taken on Earth. To pre-empt that, somebody at Nasa edited out the stars.

Persuasive, right? Well, not really. For one thing, sunlight on the moon is as bright as it is during the day here on Earth. Have you seen stars in any of your daytime Earth photographs? Well, that’s why you don’t see them in those moon photographs. For another, we also have long-exposure shots taken on an ultraviolet camera that Apollo 16 ferried to the moon. Those show stars, and in fact the Earth as well, exactly as you might expect them to be as seen from the moon (we can calculate that too).

Next, the Van Allen belt. There are actually two belts, the inner and the outer, and there’s no question they can be dangerous to humans, especially the inner one. Why didn’t the Apollo astronauts die as they passed through the belts, and since they did not, isn’t that conclusive proof that they never actually left Earth?

Not really, again. The trajectories the Apollo missions took to the moon were drawn to nearly skirt the inner belt. Even so, the aluminium shielding on the spacecrafts protected the astronauts from any radiation. And, in any case, the radiation levels the astronauts received were low indeed; one estimate is that they were comparable to what an average Mumbaikar gets, just by going through his days, over three years. Not quite fatal.

And why on earth was the US flag flapping? Could it be because Aldrin and Armstrong were actually on Earth? Was there a fan cooling them down as they went about their fakery, and is that how the flag flapped?

Actually, there was no flapping. The flag was attached to a rod shaped like an inverted “L". One corner hung free at the bottom, and swung from side to side as the astronauts set up the flag. Once they were done, it stayed perfectly still, just as you would expect in an airless environment. Somewhere online, you will even find an animation made from two photographs taken after the setup. It shows Aldrin moving, but the flag not at all. No fakery.

As such things go, all these count as pretty mundane explanations. But correct too, as it happens. Still, none of them is quite as sexy to some as the suggestion of a gigantic Nasa conspiracy to claim victory in the space race against the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Which is why the Sibrels of this world keep peddling fantasies where they can. Like so many other conspiracy theorists, they pay no attention to evidence. So there is little sense in trying to offer them any.

I am not sure they are deterred by punches either. But damn, how satisfying it is to watch Aldrin’s fist find the spot.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai.

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