“It would have been harder to fake it than to do it,” astronaut Neil Armstrong once said. On July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. — two of NASA’s Apollo 11 astronauts — became the first human beings to ever walk on the moon. Orbiting above them at the time was the third member of their crew, aviator Michael Collins, who was busy piloting their command module.
Together, these three entered the history books. The lunar landing was a defining moment, a technical achievement made possible by centuries of scientific progress and the hard work of more than 400,000 people.
But according to a 2013 poll, 7 million Americans think the entire thing never happened. And a more recent 2016 British poll found that more than half (52 percent) of Brits think that the Apollo 11 moon landing was faked (and an astonishing 73 percent of Brits aged 25-34 believe the entire thing was a hoax).
On Dec. 18, 1969, four months and 25 days after Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins returned to Earth, John Noble Wilford of The New York Times ran a story about “a few stool warmers in Chicago bars” who’d gone on record to claim that all the Apollo 11 moonwalk footage was fake and must have been secretly filmed somewhere out in the Nevada desert. The popularity of this misguided belief mushroomed during the Watergate scandal, an actual government conspiracy that seems to have left people more susceptible to believing other big government coverups were plausible.
In 1974, writer Bill Kaysing self-published a pamphlet called We Never Went to the Moon. Kaysing’s writings alleged that any sort of lunar landing would’ve been impossible to carry out in 1969. NASA, he concluded, staged the moonwalk in a makeshift studio and then swore the astronauts to secrecy. (Later, he added that the Challenger explosion wasn’t an accident, either. Kaysing accused NASA of sabotaging the spacecraft before the crew of seven got the chance to expose the Apollo 11 coverup.)
His pamphlet gave the so-called “lunar truther” movement its first manifesto. Deniers like Kaysing saw their cause enjoy a modern renaissance in 2001, when the Fox Network aired a documentary called “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on The Moon?” A 47-minute special, the program featured interviews with Kaysing and other Apollo 11 skeptics. One of them was Bart Sibrel, a filmmaker who’s released two documentaries of his own on this subject. The Fox program enjoyed great ratings, as did a rebroadcast of the show that aired again a month later. However, scientists overwhelmingly denounced the one-sided special.
The turn of the millennium also saw an explosion of internet conspiracy sites, which furthered the spread of “lunar trutherism.” All that negative attention was bound to generate some uncomfortable moments for the Apollo 11 crew.
Neil Armstrong and NASA
In 2000, Neil Armstrong was celebrating his 70th birthday. One of the cards he received came from a schoolteacher, who wrote “Dear Mr. Armstrong … I would like to point out that you, and the other astronauts, are making yourselfs [sic] a worldwide laughing stock, thanks to the internet.” From there, the author encouraged Armstrong to visit a favorite conspiracy website. Armstrong forwarded the card to NASA, asking if the agency had ever publicly refuted these allegations. “I occasionally am asked questions in public forums and feel I don’t do as good a job as I might with more complete information,” the astronaut said.
In fact, NASA had rebuffed the claims way back in 1977. That June, a press release from the organization dismantled Kaysing’s major arguments. After the 2001 Fox special, the space agency reissued the document. Still, the doubters weren’t satisfied.
Buzz Aldrin Fights Back
While making one of his movies, Bart Sibrel and a cameraman ambushed Armstrong at a 2001 EDO Corporation (now ITT) aerospace event in New York City. James Smith, then the president of EDO, recalls that Sibrel held up a Bible and demanded that Armstrong place a hand on it and swear that he’d really gone to the moon. The conspiracy theorist was swiftly ejected.
This wasn’t the only time Sibrel filmed himself accosting an Apollo veteran. He issued the same spontaneous Bible challenge to many other space travelers, including Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell. And as Michael Collins told Air and Space Magazine in 2016, the conspiracy peddler once tried to corner him in a supermarket. For the record, Collins says that he finds lunar hoax theories laughable.
Buzz Aldrin, on the other hand, sure wasn’t amused when Sibrel and a cameraman ran up to him outside a Beverly Hills hotel in 2002. Sibrel had lured Aldrin under the false pretenses of an interview. Once Aldrin arrived (with his stepdaughter in tow), Sibrel started poking him with a Bible and unleashed a torrent of insults. Finally, the 72-year-old had enough. With a swift left hook, Aldrin punched Sibrel in the jaw. Sibrel, who quickly fled the scene, tried to sue Aldrin for assault, but the charges were dropped. To his credit, the filmmaker has since apologized for his behavior.
In 2012, Armstrong gave what was to be his last interview before his death at age 82. During a taped exchange with Australian CEO Alex Malley, the first man on the moon talked about everything from his Ohio childhood to NASA’s future. Perhaps inevitably, Armstrong was asked — point blank — if the moon landing had been a hoax. “People love conspiracy theories,” he replied. “I mean, they are very attractive. But it was never a concern to me because I know one day, somebody is going to fly back up there and pick up that camera I left.”