Have you ever met a person who’s been on the moon? There are only four of them left. Within a decade or so, the last will be dead and that astonishing feat will pass from living memory into history, which, sooner or later, is always questioned and turned into fable. It will not be exactly like the moment the last conquistador died, but will lean in that direction. The story of the moon landing will become a little harder to believe.
I’ve met three of the twelve men who walked on the moon. They had one important thing in common when I looked into their eyes: they were all bonkers. Buzz Aldrin, who was the second off the ladder during the first landing on July 20, 1969, almost exactly fifty years ago—he must have stared with envy at Neil Armstrong’s crinkly space-suit ass all the way down—has run hot from the moment he returned to earth. When questioned about the reality of the landing—he was asked to swear to it on a Bible—he slugged the questioner. When I sat down with Edgar Mitchell, who made his landing in the winter of 1971, he had that same look in his eyes. I asked about the space program, but he talked only about UFOs. He said he’d been wrapped in a warm consciousness his entire time in space. Many astronauts came back with a belief in alien life.
Maybe it was simply the truth: maybe they had been touched by something. Or maybe the experience of going to the moon—standing and walking and driving that buggy and hitting that weightless golf ball—would make anyone crazy. It’s a radical shift in perspective, to see the earth from the outside, fragile and small, a rock in a sea of nothing. It wasn’t just the astronauts: everyone who saw the images and watched the broadcast got a little dizzy.
July 20 1969, 3:17 P.M. E.S.T. The moment is an unacknowledged hinge in human history, unacknowledged because it seemed to lead nowhere. Where are the moon hotels and moon amusement parks and moon shuttles we grew up expecting? But it did lead to something: a new kind of mind. It’s not the birth of the space age we should be acknowledging on this fiftieth anniversary, but the birth of the paranoia that defines us. Because a man on the moon was too fantastic to accept, some people just didn’t accept it, or deal with its implications—that sea of darkness. Instead, they tried to prove it never happened, convince themselves it had all been faked. Having learned the habit of conspiracy spotting, these same people came to question everything else, too. History itself began to read like a fraud, a book filled with lies. To understand America, you can start with Apollo 11 and all that is counterfactual that’s grown around it; that’s when the culture of conspiracy, which is the culture of Donald Trump and fake news, was born.
The stories of a hoax predate the landing itself. As soon as the first capsules were in orbit, some began to dismiss the images as phony and the testimony of the astronauts as bullshit. The motivation seemed obvious: John F. Kennedy had promised to send a man to the moon within the decade. And, though we might be years behind the Soviets in rocketry, we were years ahead in filmmaking. If we couldn’t beat them to moon, we could at least make it look like we had.
Most of the theories originated in the cortex of a single man: William Kaysing, who’d worked as a technical writer for Rocketdyne, a company that made engines. Kaysing left Rocketdyne in 1963, but remained fixated on the space program and its goal, which was often expressed as an item on a Cold War to-do list—go to the moon: check—but was in fact profound, powerful, surreal. A man on the moon would mean the dawn of a new era. Kaysing believed it unattainable, beyond the reach of existing technology. He cited his experience at Rocketdyne, but, one could say he did not believe it simply because it was not believable. That’s the lens he brought to every NASA update. He was not watching for what had happened, but trying to figure out how it had been staged.
There were six successful manned missions to the moon, all part of Apollo. A dozen men walked the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972, when Harrison H. Schmitt—he later served as a Republican U.S. Senator from New Mexico—piloted the last lander off the surface. When people dismiss the project as a failure—we never went back because there is nothing for us there—others point out the fact that twenty-seven years passed between Columbus’s first Atlantic crossing and Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, or that 127 years passed between the first European visit to the Mississippi River and the second—it’d been “discovered,” “forgotten,” and “discovered” again. From some point in the future, our time, with its celebrities, politicians, its happiness and pain, might look like little more than an interregnum, the moment between the first landing and the colonization of space.
Kaysing put his theories in a book, self-published in 1976. His title is also his conclusion: We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. He believed he was playing whistle-blower, calling attention to a cover-up. The human mind has evolved to see patterns. You see a face in the clouds, hear God in the wind. Some people spot a cabal where others see nothing but bureaucrats. It’s not because they are stupid; it’s because they are smart. The same skill that would have made them a success in one age makes them a kook in another.
Kaysing catalogued inconsistencies that “proved” the landing had been faked. There have been hundreds of movies, books, and articles that question the Apollo missions; almost all of them have relied on Kaysing’s “discoveries.”
- Old Glory: The American flag the astronauts planted on the moon, which should have been flaccid, the moon existing in a vacuum, is taut in photos, even waving, reveling more than NASA intended. (Knowing the flag would be flaccid, and believing a flaccid flag was no way to declare victory, engineers fitted the pole with a cross beam on which to hang the flag; if it looks like its waving, that’s because Buzz Aldrin was twisting the pole, screwing it into the lunar soil).
- There’s only one source of light on the moon—the sun—yet the shadows of the astronauts fall every which way, suggesting multiple light sources, just the sort you might find in a movie studio. (There were indeed multiple sources of light during the landings—it came from the sun, it came from the earth, it came from the lander, and it came from the astronauts’ space suits.)
- Blast Circle: If NASA had actually landed a craft on the moon, it would have left an impression and markings where the jets fired during takeoff. Yet, as can be seen in NASA’s own photos, there are none. You know what would’ve left no impression? A movie prop. Conspiracy theorists point out what looks like a C written on one of the moon rocks, as if it came straight from the special effects department. (The moon has about one-fifth the gravity of earth; the landing was therefore soft; the lander drifted down like a leaf. Nor was much propulsion needed to send the lander back into orbit. It left no impression just as you leave no impression when you touch the bottom of a pool; what looks like a C is probably a shadow.)
- Here you are, supposedly in outer space, yet we see no stars in the pictures. You know where else you wouldn’t see stars? A movie set. (The moon walks were made during the lunar morning—Columbus went ashore in daylight, too. You don’t see stars when the sun is out, nor at night in a light-filled place, like a stadium or a landing zone).
- Giant Leap for Mankind: If Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, then who was filming him go down the ladder? (A camera had been mounted to the side of the lunar module).
Kaysing’s alternate theory was elaborate. He believed the astronauts had been removed from the ship moments before takeoff, flown to Nevada, where, a few days later, they broadcast the moon walk from the desert. People claimed to have seen Armstrong walking through a hotel lobby, a show girl on each arm. Aldrin was playing the slots. They were then flown to Hawaii and put back inside the capsule after the splash down but before the cameras arrived. This scenario was turned into Capricorn One, probably the best acting work of O.J. Simpson’s career. In that movie, which did as much as Kaysing to spread doubt, the capsule burns up on reentry, leaving NASA with no choice: they must kill the astronauts. O.J. escapes, runs across the desert, and shows up at his own funeral. This twist was said to echo another aspect of the conspiracy, the most chilling. Some attributed the fire that tore through the rehearsal capsule during preparations for Apollo 1, killing three astronauts—Gus Grissom, Edward White II, Roger Chaffee—was really part of a cover-up, a way to silence men who were about to go public.
At any other time, such theories would have been dismissed as a madman’s raving, but America was willing to doubt in the seventies. That’s when the dream faded, when everything we’d been told began to sound like a fairy tale. American history itself was questioned, rewritten. Were we in fact the good guys at Plymouth Rock? How was the West really won? It was all recast in the afterglow of the Vietnam War, which was escalated with lies, and Watergate, when the president operated in the way of Don Vito Corleone. In other words, the space program, which began in one era, the buzz-cut age of American exceptionalism, culminated in another. There was a new sensibility. We were all becoming conspiracy theorists, trained to see behind the screen, spot the hoax, suspect everything. That cynicism is the only thing many Americans still have in common. It used to be baseball; now it’s the certainty that we’re being tricked.
Of all the fables that have grown up around the moon landing, my favorite is the one about Stanley Kubrick, because it demonstrates the use of a good counternarrative. It seemingly came from nowhere, or gave birth to itself simply because it made sense. (Finding the source of such a story is like finding the source of a joke you’ve been hearing your entire life.) It started with a simple question: Who, in 1969, would have been capable of staging a believable moon landing?
Kubrick’s masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, had been released the year before. He’d plotted it with the science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke, who is probably more responsible for the look of our world, smooth as a screen, than any scientist. The manmade satellite, GPS, the smart phone, the space station: he predicted, they built. 2001 picked up an idea Clarke had explored in his earlier work, particularly his novel Childhood’s End—the fading of the human race, its transition from the swamp planet to the star-spangled depths of deep space. In 2001, change comes in the form of a monolith, a featureless black shard that an alien intelligence—you can call it God—parked on an antediluvian plain. Its presence remakes a tribe of apes, turning them into world-exploring, tool-building killers who will not stop until they find their creator, the monolith, buried on the dark side of the moon. But the plot is not what viewers, many of them stoned, took from 2001. It was the special effects that lingered, all that technology, which was no less than a vision, Ezekiel-like in its clarity, of the future. Orwell had seen the future as bleak and authoritarian; Huxley had seen it as a drug-induced dystopia. In the minds Kubrick and Clarke, it shimmered, luminous, mechanical, and cold.
Most striking was the scene set on the moon, in which a group of astronauts, posthuman in their suits, descend into an excavation where, once again, the human race comes into contact with the monolith. Though shot in a studio, it looks more real than the actual landings. It’s the shadow and light, the space and enclosure, the way people move. Also: No CGI, no computer-created effects. Everything is actual—models maybe, but actual physical objects. There really was a space station and it really did turn; there really was a “lunar” surface, covered with rocks. It gave everything a weight you don’t feel in newer movies. To conspiracy theorists, it made perfect sense that NASA, realizing it could not actually land a man on the moon, turned to Kubrick.
But why would he do it?
It could have been an act of patriotism, a citizen heeding the call of a nation in need. It could have been for money, enough to cover every production from here to Eyes Wide Shut. Or maybe they had something on him. We all know about Hoover and the FBI. It would have been an easy gig in any case, cheaper and quicker than making 2001 itself.
So, I ask: Where did Stanley Kubrick watch the moon landing? Was he in front of his TV at home, a viewer like everyone else? Or was he off camera but on set, five feet from Armstrong, imploring the astronaut, “Remember, you are not in a studio … you are on the ladder of a space ship, about to become the first man to ever step foot on another planet. You’re terrified but also awed … ACTION!”
As the years went by (I’m going with the premise here) Kubrick’s pride in his accomplishment (the bastards bought it) turned into second thoughts, then guilt, then shame. My God, what have I done? He felt the need to confess. But who could he tell? If he went public, he’d vanish as surely as had the numerous people who knew the truth about the Kennedy assassination. He would instead confess with the only medium he really understood: film. It would be a coded confession, hidden but there for those with the right kind of eyes. It would bookmark the work he had done on the Apollo landing. That was fiction disguised as history. This would be history disguised as fiction. What genre would he work in? He’d already made a war movie (Paths of Glory), a comedy (Lolita), a sun-and-sandals epic (Spartacus), and a political thriller (Dr. Strangelove). That left horror, which was perfect for the story he had to tell, the story beneath the story, which was a kind of nightmare. Theorists note the ways in which Kubrick changed his source material, Steven King’s novel The Shining, the story of a haunted hotel and its winter caretaker and his family. One example: In the novel, the room to be avoided, the epicenter of bad mojo, is Room 217. Kubrick changed it to Room 237. Why would you make a change like that? Maybe because the moon, on average, is 237,000 miles from the earth.
Most of the work that ties Kubrick and The Shining to the moon landing can be found on the internet, a prime example being the page on author and filmmaker Jay Weidner’s website called “Secrets of the Shining, Or How Faking the Moon Landing Nearly Cost Stanley Kubrick his Marriage and His Life.” To my mind, this is a work of literature and, as such, demonstrates the best thing about the conspiracy theories. It lets you experience The Shining, which was released in 1980, with a renewed sense of discovery—that is, all over again.
It starts with the Overlook Hotel. We are told the hotel stands for America. It was once grand, but has been allowed to dilapidate. The role of the caretaker, a novelist named Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)—an artist like Kubrick—is to maintain the fiction (we landed on the moon) while the foundation crumbles. The man who hires the caretaker sits behind a big desk with an American flag at his side and an American eagle behind him. He is the Establishment, and tells the caretaker an ugly truth: “The site is supposed to be located on an Indian burial ground, and I believe they actually had to repel a few Indian attacks as they were building it.” In other words, the hotel, like America, stands on the bones of its rightful owners. Later, the hotel is engulfed in a winter storm—that’s the Cold War which drove JFK to make that silly promise about putting a man on the moon. Meanwhile, Jack Torrance is writing, compiling a manuscript that turns out to be evidence of a collapsing mind. That’s what taking part in a lie does to the artist, and why he must confess.
Jack’s pages (it’s a terrifying discovery in the movie) consist of nothing but a single sentence written again and again: “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” To the ordinary viewer, it’s evidence of madness. To a conspiracy theorist, it’s a message. “All Work …,” “A L L” or A 1 1, as in Apollo 11? At one point, the caretaker’s son, Danny, racing his Big Wheel though the enormous maze of halls, a maze duplicated by the hedge maze outside the hotel, a maze in which the family is lost, in the way the nation is lost in a wilderness of mirrors, comes upon two twin girls (not in the book!), creepy specters, the ghosts of children killed by a previous caretaker. Why twins? Because Apollo 11 came after another fake, the Gemini mission. On the Zodiac chart, the symbol for Gemini is a pair of twins. The clincher comes when the Danny gets up from his tricycle and walks down the corridor, following a mysterious call, the sort that a government might make to a filmmaker in a time of crisis. The caretaker’s son is wearing an Apollo 11 sweater—weird, huh? It shows a rocket over the words Apollo 11. When he stands, it seems as if the rocket is blasting off, whereas of course it isn’t because it isn’t real. Danny walks, thus the rocket flies, until he finds himself outside Room 237. Danny, who stands for the child in Kubrick, the artist, has traveled to 237, that is, all the way to the moon. Only he hasn’t.
Is any of this real?
Of course not. It’s a face in the clouds. But it can feel more real than reality, as if you are finally seeing what’s always been hidden. That’s the thrill of conspiracy theory, why it can become an obsession, a way of being. It gives you a more interesting way to consume reality. It is literary criticism directed not at a text but at the world, which is a kind of text. It lets the reader understand that world in a new way. You feel the thrill you felt when you stumbled across the teachers’ edition in fifth grade. So here are the answers, all of the answers. You can finally see the truth behind the facade.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.