men on the Moon, at the heart of conspiracy theories for fifty years

“Is it humanly possible to go that far? (…) We are going to go very far, as far as no human being has ever gone far from the Earth. »

All it took was a short sentence from French astronaut Thomas Pesquet on France 2, Tuesday August 30, about future Artemis missions, to awaken a classic conspiratorial argument that humans would never have set foot on the Moon.

These words were thus shared out of context on Twitter by controversial figures such as essayist Idriss Aberkane, lawyer Fabrice Di Vizio or former RT France columnist Alexis Poulin. “But why do we have to waste precious time on this again: of course yes, the human went to the moon during the Apollo missions. And we’re going back there.” replied Thomas Pésquet.

His statement indeed referred to the future orbits around the Moon, planned in the Artemis II mission, which will be much further away than those of the Apollo missions. But for some suspicious commentators, the astronaut admitted that the Americans would never have set foot on the moon. This conspiracy theory, thought to be out of fashion, is actually almost as old as the Apollo missions themselves.

Old theses that have remained in the minority for a long time

In December 1969, five months after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the Moon, the New York Times raised the doubts of the members of an association who claimed that the feat of NASA would have been carried out in the middle of the Nevada desert. It was not until 1976 that an unknown person, Bill Kaysing, accused the space agency of having organized a hoax, in a short self-published book, We Never Went to the Moon.

This man without scientific training, employed at Rocketdyne, a NASA subcontractor, between 1956 and 1963, affirms that the engineers of this engine company of the Saturn V rocket, would have entrusted to him their doubts on the technical possibility of going on the moon and return safely. He also develops there the first great classical arguments which will be popularized later (absence of stars in the lunar sky visible on the pictures, absence of craters dug by the breath of the engines, etc.). Emmanuel Kreis, a CNRS conspiracy historian, explains it this way:

“The idea, for Bill Kaysing, is to prove that it is a scam of “30 billion dollars” and that we financed at great expense a project that does not exist. »

“At a time when these theories are spreading the most, Americans have proof, with Watergate, that the government is lying to them” – Romy Sauvayre, sociologist of science

His accusations did not meet with much response at the time but contributed to increasing mistrust of American federal power, in a political context conducive to suspicion. As Romy Sauvayre, sociologist of science and belief at Clermont Auvergne University and CNRS, reminds us:

“At a time when these theories are spreading the most, Americans have proof, with Watergate, that the government is lying to them, and distrust of institutions is growing. »

It is also in this context that in the cinema, in 1978, Capricorn One, a fiction that features a space mission to Mars whose images are shot by NASA in a hangar. Six years earlier, Hollywood studios still refused to produce it, but Watergate returned its theses “more acceptable”estimated the New York Times when the movie comes out.

The thesis of a NASA hoax is gradually emerging from the shadows. “When I came to the United States [en 1992]it is a subject that was discussed between astronauts », recalls former astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. But the credibility of these theses has long remained weak in American public opinion. Two polls carried out in 1995 and 1999 estimated that 6% of Americans believed that man had never walked on the Moon.

Renewed interest in the 2000s

At the beginning of the XXIe century, these theories are nevertheless gaining popularity, following two documentaries. The first, broadcast in February 2001 by Fox TV, Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?, revives Kaysing’s theses by pointing out anomalies in the photos taken on the surface of the Moon. Highly commented on in the United States, they have been refuted by many players in space and astronomy.

The following year, a very different “documentary” was released in France, Operation Moon. Directed by William Karel and broadcast on Arte, it first supports the hypothesis of a hoax orchestrated by the CIA and filmed by Stanley Kubrick, before revealing at the very end that the documentary itself is a hoax and its speakers actors. The parodic character of the approach nevertheless escapes part of his audience.

Anti-American sentiment, which grew in the 2000s after the invasion of Iraq, also helped popularize these narratives.

The gain in popularity of these theses coincides with the launch of the ambitious Constellation lunar program in early 2004. “At that time, in the United States, we talk a lot about Apollo. I think it helped to get people talking about the conspiracy theory and the Apollo missions again at the time.”recalls Jean-François Clervoy.

Finally, anti-American sentiment, which grew in the 2000s after the invasion of Iraq, also helped popularize this narrative that denied the technological feat of Apollo-11. “The highest rates of support for this theory are observable in four countries that harbor feelings of mistrust towards the United States such as Mexico (31%), Turkey (28%), Saudi Arabia (28%) and Egypt (27%), as for the conspiracy theory on the attacks of September 11”recalls Rudy Reichstadt, director of ConspiracyWatch.

Lots of parodies

However, the majority of the population does not take them seriously. They are even a recurring object of ridicule. In the early 2000s, MoonTruth.com, a parody site, posted a humorous video in which members of the film crew appear in the sequence of the first steps on the Moon. “This clip is bogus, it’s not an excerpt from a top secret NASA reel”, ended up revealing its authors. From 2017 to 2020, on the bubbling Reddit forum, the sub-community of “Moon Truthers” (“lunar truth seekers”) also made a specialty of making fun of conspiracy arguments. Ironically, a lot of this parody content ends up being taken over the top.

These theories have however been the subject of very numerous and precise refutations by scientists over the past twenty years, who have had no difficulty in dismantling the so-called proofs of a staging. “There is a huge list of arguments [complotistes], but the main ones start from a misunderstanding of how the laws of physics work”summarizes Romy Sauvayre.

The countless demystifications published in the 2000s and 2010s were not enough to disabuse the convinced. “Guys don’t listen anyway, they speak the truth but choose things that suit them and ignore the rest”was annoyed Thomas Pesquet on Twitter Wednesday, August 31.

A suspicion that has settled

One would have thought these theories had fallen into disuse. Before this episode, on Twitter, the speeches denying that we had walked on the Moon were, from a quantitative point of view, “truly minority, even tiny”, notes Romy Sauvayre, unlike the speeches on the vaccine or 5G. They were confined to the edges of the Internet, on radical platforms like CrowdBunker or BitChute. And again, their audience there was ultra-confidential, often made up of the last few “platists” (followers of the theory that the Earth is flat) not to have migrated to the QAnon mythology. “It’s a theory that has lived, at least as far as countries like France or the United States are concerned, believes Rudy Reichstadt. Perhaps because the conquest of the Moon is of less political importance compared to the time when Washington made it a lever of prestige in the ideological war with the Eastern bloc. » It is also less mobilizing than more recent events, such as September 11 or the Covid-19 pandemic.

This does not mean that it has disappeared, as was already shown in the spring by the diversion of elliptical remarks by Buzz Aldrin. It just settled down, and suspicions about the 1969 lunar expedition now extend to other space initiatives. In 2021, several conspiracy theorists claimed that the images of Mars had been taken in Greenland, Bulgaria or even Canada.

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