Let’s all just agree on one thing: the moon is weird.
It’s in the sky. It glows. Sometimes it’s big, and sometimes it’s small. It also causes tides, somehow, for some reason, though if you’re looking for an in-depth explanation as to how it does this and why, you are encouraged to look elsewhere. To top it all off, in all of human history, only 12 people have actually been to the moon and experienced it firsthand; for context, this is less than the number of kids in the Duggar family.
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With all of this in mind, it’s unsurprising that the moon would generate so many myths and conspiracy theories. For centuries, people have posited such batty ideas as the moon is made of cheese, or that women’s menstrual cycles are affected by the lunar cycle (it is not, and they are not). And while you would think that us actually landing on the moon 50 years ago would curb these theories, it has not. If anything, speculation about the moon has ramped up in the decades years since Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Third Guy (who, to be fair, only orbited, and did not land) made their historic Apollo mission on July 20th, 2019, to the degree that some people, including NBA superstar Stephan Curry, didn’t believe that we landed on the moon at all. (He retracted his comments after a literal astronaut called him up to tell him otherwise.) To that end, people have come up with a wide range of explanations for the iconic footage of Armstrong walking on the moon, some of which involve director Stanley Kubrick and a 1970s thriller starring O.J. Simpson as an astronaut.
In celebration of the moon’s weirdness, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, here’s a brief guide to where moon landing conspiracy theories come from, and why they’ve had traction for so long.
What is the origin of moon landing conspiracy theories?
According to a piece outlining the history of moon-related conspiracy theories in the Paris Review, the chief figure behind lunar landing hoax conspiracy theories was a man named William Kaysing, a former technical writer who briefly worked at a company that made rocket engines. After the first lunar landing in 1969, Kaysing called bullshit, claiming that the United States simply hadn’t yet developed the technology for such a mission. In 1976, he self-published a book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle, which argued that the government faked the moon landing and shot it at a studio in Area 51, basically as a way to stick it to the Soviets. The primary basis for his argument was that stars were not visible in the photos of the Apollo 11 landing. (The most likely explanation for this, as many moon landing debunkers-debunkers have since pointed out, is that the camera’s aperture was not wide enough to capture the light from the stars).
We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle gained a fair amount of cultural prominence, to the degree that it became something of the Eat, Pray, Love for the conspiracy theorist set. In the wake of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the release of the details of the MKUltra CIA mind control project, the public was well-primed to be skeptical of the U.S. government, creating the ideal circumstances for Kaysing’s ideas to take hold and gain traction. According to one 1976 Gallup poll, nearly 28% of Americans thought the moon landing was faked — a sizable number, especially when you consider that according to a recent poll, only about 5% of Americans believe that vaccines cause autism, an arguably much more prevalent (though equally inaccurate) conspiracy theory than the idea that the moon landing was a hoax.
Unfortunately, the propagation of Kaysing’s theories didn’t stop with the publication of his book. The 1978 release of a film called Capricorn One — which told the story of a journalist (a young and sexy Elliott Gould) who uncovers a government hoax about astronauts landing on Mars — did much to promote the idea that the moon landing was staged. It didn’t matter that the film was fictional, nor that it was poorly reviewed, nor that O.J. Simpson played one of the astronauts: the film had the effect of propagating Kaysing’s theories, to the degree that footage from Capricorn One continues to be used in “documentaries” suggesting that the moon landing was a hoax.
In 2002, the moon landing conspiracy theory community came face-to-face with those behind the moon landing themselves — and it did not go well! Bart Sibrel, a prominent moon landing conspiracy theorist, approached Buzz Aldrin outside a Beverly Hills hotel, accusing him of being a liar and a coward; Aldrin promptly punched Sibrel in the face. Although getting punched in the face by an American hero would’ve been enough to make anyone think twice about their life choices, it did not appear to sway Sibrel, who told Florida Today earlier this week he maintains his belief the moon landing was faked.
How did Stanley Kubrick get involved?
While the original source of the claim is a bit unclear, many moon landing deniers have suggested that Stanley Kubrick directed the footage for the staged moon landing, after being approached by NASA based on his work in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. One source claims that Kubrick initially declined the offer, only relenting when NASA threatened to out his little brother as a member of the Communist Party (though this would have been in the late 1960s, nearly a full decade after the height of the Red Scare). The story goes that Kubrick spent 18 months on a soundstage shooting the footage for the Apollo 11 and 12 moon missions, and that his 1980 film The Shining serves as a sort of apology for having snookered the American public (the basis of this specific claim appears to be that the kid playing Jack Nicholson’s son wears an Apollo 11 sweater at one point, which, OK, fine).
Because Kubrick has been dead for nearly 20 years, he was not available at press time to comment on this theory. His daughter Vivian, however, has publicly denied it, saying in a 2016 Facebook post that the idea that her father helped the U.S. government stage a moon landing is “manifestly a grotesque lie.” All we can really say is that, if Kubrick did indeed have the technical skill to fake the moon landing, then Eyes Wide Shut should’ve been an infinitely less boring movie.
Do people still believe moon landing-related conspiracy theories?
Moon landing conspiracy theories aren’t nearly as popular as they used to be: recent opinion polls suggest that between 5-6% of Americans currently believe the moon landing was staged, a far cry from the nearly 30% in the 1970s. But given the increased level of skepticism toward mainstream media narrative, coupled with the rapid spread of fake news on giant social media platforms, it’s not surprising that lunar landing conspiracy theories have found a home on that bastion of internet misinformation, YouTube. Shane Dawson, for instance, a hugely popular vlogger with more than 22 million subscribers, has a video in which he promotes the idea that the moon landing was faked by the government: while he doesn’t explicitly say he believes NASA faked the moon landing, he does say that it would not be “a shock, because the government fakes so much shit. I mean, we’ve talked about 9/11, we’ve talked about crisis actors. Why wouldn’t the moon landing be fake? Why wouldn’t we fake that, just to win over other countries? It makes you wonder, have we actually ever been to the moon?” And this video has been profitable for Dawson: according to Vox, he may have earned anywhere between $3,500 and $28,000 on it based on ad revenue.
Although YouTube has vowed to curb the spread of content promoting conspiracy theories by, among other things, demonetizing such videos and including a link to a summary of the Apollo Space Program atop such videos, it’s clear that stirring people’s skepticism about things they don’t quite understand, up to and including the moon, is still big business. For this reason, it’s unlikely that moon landing conspiracy theories — or any other type of conspiracy theories, really — will go away anytime soon. But just to sum up, the moon exists, we landed on it, and Stanley Kubrick was almost certainly not involved in the process.
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