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.