Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins took off from Cape Canaveral in a Saturn V rocket as tall as a football pitch is long. Five days later they stepped out onto the surface of the moon, the first humans ever to do so.
While the Apollo programme’s success was clearly a huge win for the United States in the geopolitical context of the time, it is possible to read the historic mission in other ways too.
For some, the lunar missions are prime example of the capitalist West beating the communist East, of democracy triumphing over tyranny. For others, they are proof that government intervention can achieve things that the private sector is still yet to match.
But half a century on it’s interesting to consider those people with a entirely different view: that it never really happened at all.
Moon landing conspiracy theories are the sort of thing you’d associate with the darkest corners of today’s internet, but they’ve actually been around for far longer. Ever since (and perhaps even before) Bill Kaysing self-published an influential pamphlet in 1976 entitled “America’s $30bn swindle” there have been those who have doubted the greatest of scientific achievements.
The questions raised vary. Sometimes it’s the crosshairs in the photos, sometimes it’s pseudo-technical stuff about radiation from the Van Allen belts. Occasionally it’s even the strange idea that someone else must have been present to film Neil Armstrong climbing down from the Lunar Module (because even though such things as computers and TV satellites existed, NASA couldn’t possibly manage mechanical arms on which to mount TV cameras).
But how many people actually believe the moon landings were just a big hoax? And who are they?
A few weeks ago, Number Cruncher Politics polled 1,000 adults in Great Britain on this, among a list of other familiar conspiracy theories. Respondents were asked which, if any, they thought were true, and could selects as many as applied.
Only 5% selected “The moon landings between 1969 to 1972 were faked and humans have not really been to the moon”. This put it in last place on the list of six.
The most-believed conspiracy theory was “regardless of who is elected, there is a group of people who secretly control everything” on 32%, narrowly edging out (and within the margin of error of) the government hiding the truth about immigration levels on 29%.
The anti-vaxxers came in third on 11%, with alien encounters and the 9/11 inside job theory tied on 8%.
41% did not believe any of the conspiracy theories listed.
It’s worth noting that these results are at least somewhat sensitive to how the question is asked. YouGov also asked about the lunar landings, but using a four-point scale from “definitely true” to “definitely false” found a larger proportion – 16% – on the sceptical half of the scale, although only four per cent thought the missions were “definitely” staged.
What distinguishes these non-believers? The only thing approaching a pattern is that younger people in both polls were likelier to have doubts than their elders. It might seem intuitive that people alive at the time of Apollo would be less open to conspiracy theories about it. But older people were also less likely to believe conspiracy theories generally, so this age effect isn’t unique to the moon landings.
That aside there isn’t that much of a correlation with anything. University graduates were only fractionally less likely than non-graduates to think it was all done in a studio. In terms of politics, current (though not 2017) Labour voters and people who don’t vote were likelier than average, and Lib Dems less likely than average, to believe the hoax theory. There was no discernible difference by gender or by EU referendum vote.
What all of this says is that although it may attract a small number of science sceptics, lunar landing conspiracy theories are among the least believed. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise – there are many things that a government would find it easier to do than keep 400,000 employees quiet for fifty years, convince the Soviets and fake footage that looks convincing even today. For the US, actually going to the moon was probably one of them.
It seems that in the UK, as elsewhere, there are a handful of people who are simply attracted to conspiracy theories, and they exist within every demographic, geographic and political column. But they are a tiny minority in all of them.
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