Thursday, March 12, 2009

Were The Moon Landings Faked?

A couple of nights ago I was talking to a workmate during a break while a full moon lit up the sky. We commented on it, and he asked me, "do you believe they [the Americans] really went to the moon?" I replied in the affirmative, because this very question came up on an Internet forum some time ago, and I did some research on it. So I was kind of surprised that the myth of the faked moon landings still persists. Perhaps it's also time to resurrect this subject as on July 20 this year it will be 40 years since the first moon landing, and debate is sure to again arise, if my workmate’s question is any indication. I saw that first landing live on TV, less than two months before my 15th birthday. How time flies!

First some background. Bart Sibrel , an amateur film-maker, claimed that the moon landings between 1969 and 1972 were hoaxes (one wonders why he didn’t go all the way and claim that all space travel was a hoax). Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, wasn’t amused. According to Wiki:

The most infamous incident involved Apollo 11 crew member Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. According to Aldrin, he was lured to a Beverly Hills hotel under the pretext of an interview on space for a Japanese children's television show. When he arrived, Aldrin claims Sibrel was there demanding that he swear on a Bible that he had walked on the moon.
When Aldrin refused, Sibrel called him a coward, a liar, and a thief. Aldrin punched Sibrel in the jaw and the incident was captured on video. Sibrel later attempted to use the tape to convince police and prosecutors that he was the victim of an assault. However, it was decided that Aldrin had been provoked, and did not actually injure Sibrel, and so no charges were filed. Many talk show hosts aired the clip, making Sibrel the butt of jokes.


The BBC reported:

Mr Aldrin responded by punching Mr Sibrel, but said he merely struck out to defend himself and his stepdaughter, who was with him at the time.
Beverly Hills police investigated the incident, which occurred 9 September, but said that the charges were dropped after witnesses came forward to say that Mr Sibrel had aggressively poked Mr Aldrin with the Bible before he was punched.

'False pretences'

Witnesses also told police that Mr Sibrel had lured Mr Aldrin to the hotel under false pretences in order to interview him.
Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Ratinoff told Reuters news agency that a videotape shot by a cameraman hired by Mr Sibrel had shown the film-maker follow Mr Aldrin, calling him a "thief, liar and coward".


According to Sibrel, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon NASA perpetrated a fraud, says he. The footage of the moon mission was all faked, Hollywood style. Sibrel isn’t the only one clinging to this conspiracy theory either, it’s gets rather complicated. You can spend a day or two going through all of the Moon Landing Hoax Conspiracy Theories

It isn’t my purpose here to go through all of the details, but I’ll be focusing on Bart Sibrel and his motivations for the conspiracy theories. An article in the New York Times by Jack Hitt, published on February 9, 2003, give us much insight into the man behind the hoax theory. Hitt’s Lunar-tics article informs us (all further emphasis is mine):

Sibrel is part of a new generation of conspiracy mega-theorists. They don't toy with the small stuff. Ever since the passing of that sweet, simpler time -- when the Trilateral Commission ordered the hit on John Kennedy and the Queen of England managed the drug cartels -- the narratives of big suspicion have been distorted by the same force that has reshaped our partisan politics, action movies and morning TV talk shows: outrage inflation. To be noticed now, a theory must be of a scope only Stephen Hawking could measure, and it must be promulgated by an amiable spokesman who can deftly juggle often absurd contradictions. Sibrel is not your father's conspiracy theorist -- some grumpy autodidact with a self-published book raging at the gates of the establishment. Sibrel came of age in the post-Watergate era. He has absorbed the real lesson of the last two decades: push for belief in ever bolder and more unlikely ideas. Plus, he knows how to make decent television.


In my previous post on forwarding email hoaxes, this line from Chicken Little comes in handy here: "If you tell a lie, don't tell a little one - tell a big one" . And it seems there are more than enough willing believers out there. I’m not sure what it is that motivates people like Sibrel, maybe boredom, or the need for attention. Later on we’ll see, however, the genesis of his raison d'être.

From the Wiki entry on Sibrel:

Sibrel's first documentary, ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon,'' is a 47-minute feature contending that what people saw on their television screens that famous July night in 1969 was in fact filmed on a back lot. (Sibrel says he believes that it was probably directed by Stanley Kubrick and shot at Area 51 in Nevada.)


No, really, he is serious.

But:

Statistics are vague, but somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of Americans say they don't believe astronauts ever landed on the moon. That percentage is growing, in part because conspiracy theorists now have easy access to media tools -- jump cuts, dissolves, special effects, studio-quality voice-over, zippy credits -- that bolster their theories with something they've never had before: the elegant formatting of television truth.
(See the Related Link at the end of this post for updated figures.)

And the mythmakers continue to flourish (seems like Sibrel started something “big”):

Since 2001, when FOX aired a television show called, "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?" the myth that the Apollo Moon landings were faked has become part of the cultural fabric. As an indicator of the sagging level of scientific literacy in the United States, it is akin to the efforts to teach creationism alongside evolution. BadAstronomy.com has a point-by-point rebuttal of the arguments from the Fox program, but since most of the 300 million Americans don't read Phil Plait's blog, the Mythbusters' program is a welcome champion of scientific inquiry.
Many people want to understand the science behind the rebuttals because the hoax believers appeal to people's intuition and they know there must be a simple answer. The good news is there is. Stars don't appear in pictures because the lunar surface is too bright, just like a baseball stadium at a night game. The flag is waving because the astronaut is moving shaking the pole as he is assembling the apparatus. The top bar did not extend all the way out on the flag, creating a wrinkle that makes it look like it's waving. The cross hairs "disappear" because a bright white object drowns out the black crosshair on the film. Etc. etc. (Wired Science, August 20, 2008)



Jack Hitt continues. NASA’s response to faked moon landing theories:

NASA has been confounded by these questions, though not because the agency is unable to answer them. Rather, the old science geeks believe it is beneath their SAT scores to respond at all. As James Oberg, a noted space writer, recalls: ''NASA put out this press release in 2001 that said something like: 'There's a debate about whether we went to the moon. We did.' End of press release. They are hampered by their own conceit.'' While NASA may have the facts on their side, in terms of understanding how the contemporary media work, the space agency is light years behind Bart Sibrel.
The nasa.gov Web site, for example, refuses to debunk hoaxers directly. Rather the tone is often one of child's play, including suggested classroom exercises to demonstrate rumor-mongering and truth demolition: ''Hoax Cuisine! The Proof is in the Pudding! -- Students can make a delicious hoax right in the classroom! Chocolate pudding, chocolate crumbs, gummy worms . . . is it something from the fishing-supply store or the kitchen?''


James Oberg on the lack of critical thinking in the public, and “undoing the truth”:

But not long after Oberg was hired, NASA was embarrassed by press reports of the assignment and panicked at the thought of being seen as surrendering intellectual equivalence to the hoaxers. ''We canceled the program,'' a spokesman, Bob Jacobs, told me. ''There is no book deal. We are not taking on the hoaxers.'' Oberg was fired, and NASA returned to its old posture of benign neglect.
''I'm writing the book anyway, and now commercial publishers are interested,'' Oberg said from his home. ''We live in a time teeming with conspiracy theories, and people, especially teachers, have little to help train students in critical thinking.'' Oberg is driven, in part, by the achievement of Sibrel's documentary. With its British-accented narrator, winking Letterman sensibility and occasionally ominous tone, the documentary is technically masterly at undoing the truth of the past. ''It's the best piece of propaganda since Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will,''' Oberg says.


Hitt on Sibrel’s motivation:

At that point, Sibrel said: ''I believed there was a 25-percent chance we didn't go to the moon. It was a gradual thing.'' Sibrel's got his credibility chops down. No flash-of-light epiphany for him; his change of heart was slow, in the way of science, occurring after the labored accretion of evidence. As he fit the pieces together, Sibrel began to tell and retell himself this new version of history enough times that he came to seriously doubt that men had landed on the moon.
His new understanding emerged against the backdrop of an era of perpetual scandal in Washington. Each administration seemed destined to have one. Watergate, Billygate, Iran-contra, B.C.C.I., Monica -- each usually attended by failed cover-ups. By the time of the frenetic scandal- and rumor-mongering of Clinton's second term (sex, perjury, job-fixing, land deals, missing records, murder, mayhem, drug dealing -- have I left anything out?), Sibrel had broken on through to the other side. He'd embraced the paradox that beats at the heart of all government conspiracy theories: in order to cover up their incompetence, the feds had to be extraordinarily competent. There is only one achievement more technically complex than a real moon landing: a fake one.


Sibrel and the “Jesus factor”:

What drove him to this new level of understanding, Sibrel said, was not simply the mounting evidence. It was Jesus. Just before his lunar revelation, Sibrel explained, he had been carrying on a chaotic life of wenching and drugging. He gave up his party days, broke off a relationship devoted to ''fornication'' and became friends with the Lord. It made perfect sense that the new clarity with which he saw his own life might also be good for the nation. Then and there, all the pieces of the hoax finally added up. The greatest achievement of a great nation was a debauched lie. America was what Sibrel had once been: a wretched sinner.
''I remember that I cried and cried,'' Sibrel said of his new faith (moon-hoax, that is). ''And I thought, Oh, the wickedness of humanity.''


The weariness of Phil Plait on this subject:

There are now several Internet sites unaffiliated with NASA that struggle to answer the questions raised by the new conspiracy theorists. One, called badastronomy.com, is run by Phil Plait, an astronomer with Sonoma State University in California. If you get him on the telephone and ask him to run through the paces of the evidence, the weariness in his voice is audible.
No landing crater? ''The module came in slow and sideways to touch down with not much more pressure per square inch than you create jumping up in the air and landing in your shoes. Sure, it can fire 10,000 pounds of thrust. And your car can go 75 miles per hour, but not in the driveway.''
Nonparallel shadows: ''Ever seen parallel railroad tracks out to the horizon?''
Waving flag: ''No, a flag wrinkled from three days of being packed tight, hanging from a horizontal rod like a bunched-up curtain.''
No stars: ''Go out tonight and take a picture of a friend beneath a bright streetlight. Then look for the stars.''


The influence of the Fox documentary on the public:

Obviously, the process of chipping away at something as iconic as the moon shot can't be done alone. It requires the assistance of other news media. Just as Matt Drudge published every possible rumor about Bill Clinton, permitting the half-baked ones to seep upward by a kind of capillary effect into, say, the pages of Newsweek, the Fox documentary ''Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?'' borrowed heavily from Sibrel's work, smoothing away the uglier, more libelous stuff and leaving only the fancy edits and the questions about fluttering flags. ''The Fox show did incredible damage,'' Plait said. ''After it aired, a new kind of doubt was created. I had a geology major at my college tell me she was no longer sure that all the pictures were real.''


Some astronauts did take the Bible oath:

In Sibrel's second documentary, he expands on his previous work by borrowing a mainstream tactic: the ambush interview. With cameras rolling, he has confronted nine astronauts, shoved a Bible at each one and challenged them to swear to God that they had been to the moon. Although some of the astronauts in fact did take the oath, Sibrel doesn't like to talk about them. Like any good TV producer, he knows where the action is.


On that Aldrin punch:

On this second encounter, Aldrin tried to brush Sibrel aside several times. When that failed, the astronaut launched his fist in a graceful parabola that landed, without any guidance from Houston, right between Sibrel's eyes.


Jack Hitt’s final analysis. To be great, according to Sibrel, America must face its “national wretchedness”. “Only once we confess that we never went to the moon will we truly be able to get there.”

All religious conversion is about coming to believe what once seemed impossible, and the greater the distance between the old degraded story and born-again revision, the more credible the teller of tales. Now this mode of revelation has visited our politics. It's no coincidence that the on-camera purveyors of an evangotainment tape insinuating that Clinton slaughtered eight people were Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Sibrel's story is just another variation of this, another story of our national wretchedness.
To NASA, Sibrel is a media leech, gaining attention by faking the fakery. But to others, he's making reality TV exposing the greatest lie since Eve explained her new diet plan to Yahweh. As public policy, the conversion format may never take hold in Washington. But beneath the mainstream radar, it's fueling a new kind of acceptable anti-Americanism. It is a secular faith that believes the country's true self has been bloated by taking pride in lies. Its credo holds that America must be humbled by the facts of its weakness before its actual greatness can be revealed. Only once we confess that we never went to the moon will we truly be able to get there.


Maybe America can, and often does, produce “the best and the brightest”. But there’s little doubt that in cases like Sibrel, it can also produce the weirdest and wackiest.


Related Links:

1) According to a report published on 14 February, 2009, in Mirror.co.uk, 22 percent of Americans now believe the moon landings were faked. If this figure is accurate, it means that more than 66 million Americans believe the moon landings were faked.

2) Buzz Aldrin Website

3) "Sibrel was arrested for trespassing on Armstrong's property after Armstrong refused to grant him an interview. Would you grant more interviews to an idiot that kept calling you a liar and kept coming out with nonsensical and false accusations based on nothing more than a twisted and fertile imagination and without a single supporting fact to back it up? I think not!"

Bart Winfield Sibrel

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