July 20 marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first space mission to land on the Moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s words - “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – arguably depict one of the finest moments in U.S. history. The landing was the culmination of a massive collective effort by the U.S. government, scientists, engineers, and countless others fulfilling the goal of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to land a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s decade.
When I decided to do a Google search on the event, I was taken aback by seeing a number of results discussing the possibility that the lunar landing was an elaborate hoax staged by NASA. Some groups and individuals believe the Apollo astronauts never landed on the Moon, with NASA intentionally fooling the public by tampering with evidence, including photos, satellite transmissions, and rock samples.
If you find that theory unbelievable, take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the subject, “Apollo Moon Landing hoax conspiracy theories.” The entry on this subject runs 28 pages long - twice the length of the 14-page entry on the Apollo 11 mission itself. I’m not going to get into a full-blown discussion of all the hoax theories here, but one theory says the Apollo 11 crew faked their orbit around the Moon and their Moon walk using trick photography, and that NASA sent robot missions because space radiation levels were lethal to humans.
Hoax theorists contend the Moon landing was faked to preserve the country's prestige during a politically turbulent decade marked by the lengthy Vietnam War and strained relations with the Soviet Union.
Conspiracy theories abound for historical events such as the assassinations of President Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. But to think for even a second that people wound consider the lunar landing– or for that matter any of the space missions – a hoax is impossible for me to fathom, given the stakes involved.
How would the U.S. have possibly been able to pull off such an elaborate scheme with thousands of talented people representing various scientific disciplines and interest groups putting in countless hours of work? How much money would it have cost to pay off those involved to stage this enormous cover-up? And, how would NASA have been able to fabricate and manipulate lunar landing evidence to make it believable that a moon landing occurred?
I cannot begin to imagine the amount of ingenuity that would have been required to stage such a complicated hoax as conspiracy theorists suggest.
As a longtime technology journalist, I maintain a dose of skepticism as I sift through a never-ending stream of data and claims by companies and research labs. However, I firmly believe the U.S. space program, despite well-publicized problems, continues to represent some of our best efforts in scientific research by some of the brightest minds around. With proper direction and support, it will continue to yield future dividends in both theoretical and practical scientific knowledge.