Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the Apollo Space program (1961-1975) and was supposed to be the third lunar landing mission, but the three astronauts aboard never reached the moon. Instead the crew and ground control team scrambled through a hair-raising rescue mission. On April 13, 1970, an oxygen tank on board exploded. Ground control in Houston rushed to develop an emergency plan as millions around the world watched and the lives of three astronauts hung in the balance: commander James A. Lovell Jr., lunar module pilot Fred W. Haise Jr. and command module pilot John L. Swigert.
Apollo 13’s Mission
On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. On board were astronauts James Lovell, John “Jack” Swigert and Fred Haise. Their mission was to reach the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon and explore the Imbrium Basin, conducting geological experiments along the way.
“Houston, we’ve had a problem…”
At 9:00 p.m. EST on April 13, Apollo 13 was over 200,000 miles from Earth. The crew had just completed a television broadcast and was inspecting Aquarius, the Landing Module (LM). The next day, Apollo 13 was to enter the moon’s orbit. Lovell and Haise were set to become the fifth and sixth men to walk on the moon.
It was not to be. At 9:08 p.m.—about 56 hours into the flight—an explosion rocked the spacecraft. Oxygen tank No. 2 had blown up, disabling the regular supply of oxygen, electricity, light and water. Lovell reported to mission control: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The Command Module (CM) was leaking oxygen and rapidly losing fuel cells. The moon landing mission was aborted.
How the Crew of Apollo 13 Survived
One hour after the explosion, mission control instructed the crew to move to the LM, which had sufficient oxygen, and use it as a lifeboat. The LM was only designed to transport astronauts from the orbiting CM to the moon’s surface and back again; its power supply was meant to support two people for 45 hours. If the crew of Apollo 13 were to make it back to Earth alive, the LM would have to support three men for at least 90 hours and successfully navigate more than 200,000 miles of space.
Conditions on board the LM were challenging. The crew went on one-fifth water rations and endured cabin temperatures a few degrees above freezing to conserve energy. The square lithium hydroxide canisters from the CM were not compatible with the round openings in the LM environmental system, meaning the removal of carbon dioxide became a problem. Mission control built an impromptu adapter out of materials known to be onboard, and the crew successfully copied their model.
Navigation was also extremely complicated; the LM had a more rudimentary navigational system, and the astronauts and mission control had to work out by hand the changes in propulsion and direction needed to take the spacecraft home.
On April 14, Apollo 13 swung around the moon. Swigert and Haise took pictures and Lovell talked with mission control about the most difficult maneuver, a five-minute engine burn that would give the LM enough speed to return home before its energy ran out. Two hours after rounding the far side of the moon, the crew, using the sun as an alignment point, fired the LM’s small descent engine. The procedure was a success; Apollo 13 was on its way home.
The Farthest Distance From Earth Reached by Humans
On April 15, 1970, Apollo 13 was 254 km (158 miles) from the lunar surface on the far side of the moon—and 400,171 km (248,655 miles) above the Earth’s surface, meaning the crew of Apollo 13 set a Guinness World Record for the farthest distance from Earth reached by humans.
Apollo 13 Crew Returns to Earth
Lovell, Haise and Swigert huddled in the chilly lunar module for three long days. In these dismal conditions, Haise caught the flu. On April 17, a last-minute navigational correction was made using Earth as an alignment guide. Then the re-pressurized CM was successfully powered up. One hour before re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the LM was disengaged from the CM.
Just before 1 p.m. on April 17, 1970, the spacecraft reentered Earth’s atmosphere. Mission control feared that the CM’s heat shields were damaged in the accident and waited a harrowing four minutes without radio communication from the crew. Then, Apollo 13‘s parachutes were spotted. All three astronauts splashed down safely into the Pacific Ocean.
Apollo 13 Movie
Though Apollo 13 did not land on the moon, the heroism of the crew and the quick-thinking of mission control were celebrated widely as a success story. It was even made into the 1995 movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon.
A Brief History of Conspiracy Theories About the Moon Landing
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.
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.
How moon landing conspiracy theories began and why they persist today
Bill Kaysing was a former US Navy officer who worked as a technical writer for one of the rocket manufacturers for NASA’s Apollo moon missions. He claimed that he had inside knowledge of a government conspiracy to fake the moon landings, and many conspiracy theories about the Apollo moon landings which persist to this day can be traced back to his 1976 book, We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.
The basic template of the conspiracy theory is that NASA couldn’t manage to safely land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s as President John F Kennedy had promised, so it only sent astronauts into Earth orbit. Conspiracy theorists then argue that NASA staged the moon landings in a film studio and that there are tell-tale signs on the footage and the photos that give the game away. They claim that NASA has covered up the elaborate hoax ever since.
Moon landing sceptics point to supposed clues such as photos that appear to show the astronauts in front of cross hairs that were etched on the camera glass, or a mysterious letter C visible on a moon rock. These and many other seeming anomalies have been debunked, but moon landing conspiracy theories have persisted in the popular imagination.
The Eagle prepares to land on the moon. NASA
In the US, opinion polls indicate that between 5-10% of Americans distrust the official version of events. In the UK, a YouGov poll in 2012 found that 12% of Britons believed in the conspiracy theory. A recent survey found that 20% of Italians believe that the moon landings were a hoax, while a 2018 poll in Russia put the figure there as high as 57%, unsurprising given the popularity of anti-Western conspiracy theories there.
Ready to disbelieve
That Kaysing’s conspiracy theory took hold in mid-1970s America is in large part due to a wider crisis of trust in the country at the time. In 1971, citizens read the leaked Pentagon Papers, showing that the Johnson administration had been systematically lying about the Vietnam War. They tuned in nightly to the hearings about the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up.
A series of congressional reports detailed CIA malfeasance both at home and abroad, and in 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded – in contrast to the Warren Commission more than a decade earlier – that there was a high probability that there had been a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. These revelations had helped fuel a wider shift in conspiracy thinking since the late 1960s, from a belief in external enemies, such as Communists, to the suspicion that the American state was itself conspiring against its citizens.
Moon landing conspiracy theories have proved particularly sticky ever since. To understand their popularity we need to consider their cultural context, as much as the psychological dispositions of believers.
As with the Kennedy assassination, they formed a new kind of conspiracy theorizing. These theories reinterpret the publicly available evidence, finding inconsistencies in the official record, rather than uncovering suppressed information. Visual evidence is crucial: for all their skepticism, their starting point is that seeing is believing. In the realm of photo evidence, the assumption is that everyone can be a detective. In the conspiracy theory communities that emerged at the tail-end of the 1960s, the self-taught buff became central.
The moon landing conspiracy theories also brought to the mainstream the notion that significant events are not what they seem: they have been staged, part of an official disinformation campaign. The idea that tragic events are created by “crisis actors” employed by the government has become the default explanation for many events today, from 9/11 to mass shootings. This type of conspiracy theory is particularly harmful – for example, parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting have been relentlessly hounded by internet trolls claiming they are merely paid stooges.
However, the story that the lunar landings were staged also resonates with the more plausible notion that the space race itself was as much a Cold War spectacle as a triumph of the human spirit.
The 1978 Hollywood film Capricorn One did much to popularise moon landing conspiracy theories. Based on Kaysing’s book, it imagined that a Mars landing was faked in a film studio, tapping into conspiracy rumours that the moon landings themselves had been directed by Stanley Kubrick. This suggestive myth is based in part on the idea that special effects had become much more sophisticated with Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001 A Space Odyssey, although still far from the capabilities that the conspiracy theories suppose.
Even if they are far-fetched in factual terms, moon landing conspiracy theories nevertheless call up the more plausible possibility that in our media-saturated age reality itself is constructed, if not actually faked.