How ephemeral is memory?
Memory experts tells us that, counter-intuitively, the least reliable memories are the ones that we remember most vividly and think about most often. By contrast, the purest and most pristine memory—the one that is least contaminated by misremembrance, repetition, and inadvertent distortion—is the one that is never accessed, like an amnesiac’s. (For all the good that does you.)
I was born in 1963, just before John Kennedy was assassinated, and I spent my early years in the shadow of the space program that he famously promised would put an American on the moon before the end of the decade. Like many children of my generation—and adults, for that matter—I was enthralled by that effort. I thrilled to the sight of the Apollo missions, which we watched in school, moments so historic that our teachers actually wheeled in a mammoth “portable” black & white television for the occasion. (A TV in the classroom! Almost as astonishing as a man on the moon!) I followed the moonshots religiously, idolized those space travelers (imagine a little tiny Tom Hanks), and played astronaut in a pretend silver spacesuit that my grandmother sewed for me.
So naturally the Apollo 11 moon landing, which took place fifty years ago this Saturday, when I not quite six years old, is burned into my memory. I distinctly remember watching it in our basement apartment in Platte City, Missouri. I remember every detail, clear as day, as if it happened yesterday.
Except we didn’t move to that apartment until 1970.
My memory of the first moon landing is obviously conflated with my memory of a later Apollo mission. I must have watched Apollo 11 from our previous and equally crummy apartment in Columbus, Ohio where we were living in July 1969, though I have no memory of doing so. (My father wasn’t able to watch it at all from Nha Trang, Vietnam, and tells me now that he can’t even remember if he listened to it on Armed Forces Radio.)
How can I, a boy obsessed with the space program, not accurately remember watching its absolute apex, one of the most momentous events in human history?
I dunno. But I don’t.
But I guess that’s OK, considering that NASA itself can’t find the original high-res videotapes of the transmissions from the moon, and suspects that they were taped over and re-used. Because, you know, tape is expensive and you can’t just let it sit there doing nothing.
(Stay tuned for reports that the Beatles’ original masters were recycled for Badfinger demos in 1970.)
YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS
When I was in film school almost thirty years after the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility, I made a short student documentary called Live From the Surface of the Moon, featuring a local Santa Cruz man named Bill Kaysing, a retired technical writer for Rocketdyne who had come to believe that the moon landings were faked.
This urban myth is so seductive and durable that it is in some way the ur-conspiracy of all modern conspiracy theories, emerging as it did in the sordid twilight of Vietnam, when public confidence in the US government had taken a pounding, and pre-figuring Watergate to come, after which anything seemed possible. (Cut to November 2016.)
Whence comes this theory? The obvious assumption is that a moon landing is an achievement of such head-spinning magnitude, an idea out of science fiction so beyond the realm of normal human comprehension, that many people simply cannot fathom it, even now. Ironically, they find an almost comically elaborate hoax more believable.
(The missing NASA tapes don’t help. Pix or it didn’t happen.)
For any of these conspiracies to be true, they would have to be vast in scale, ruthless in implementation and strikingly efficient—with no leaks from conspirators. Apollo sent 24 astronauts to the vicinity of the moon and 12 walked on it, and not one of them has revealed their big secret.
The moon-fakers are allegedly so competent they can fool the whole world (but not so competent that they can actually put humans on the moon)….
But conspiracy theory in general has an inherently beautiful, perfect circle-like symmetry to it: the less evidence there is to support a given theory, the more successful its advocates will claim the conspiracy is. Every argument used to refute it instead becomes inverted as more “proof” to support it.
Or as Donald Rumsfeld might say, “Absence of evidence is evidence.”
Bill Kaysing was recommended to me by one of my instructors, the great and wise Kristine Samuelson. I later learned that he was not just a propagator of the moon landing conspiracy theory, but credited as its originator. That was especially ironic, since once we got to know each other, Bill admitted to me that he had gotten into the subject as a joke, and only later began to believe it.
To my knowledge that has never been reported—although he alludes to it in the film—but I’m here to tell you it now. Judge for yourself what that says about the theory (if in fact you think it requires further debunking). That is fodder for a PhD dissertation all by itself.
Although Bill had worked for Rocketdyne, maker of the Saturn V rocket that carried the Apollo astronauts into space, he was not a scientist or engineer and left the company in 1963, well before the Apollo program began. Still, his arguments can sound surprisingly convincing, especially when consumed without cross-examination: the angle of the shadows, the perfect lighting, the lack of stars, the absence of a crater. That is, until you hear NASA’s point-by-point rebuttals, which obliterate each one in turn.
Bill also believed that 2001: A Space Odyssey, released one year before Apollo 11, was a dress rehearsal for the hoax, which he claims NASA hired Stanley Kubrick to direct. I politely held my tongue when he told me that, which is where my tongue was lodged during most of production. Then, three years later, when Kubrick died, I was reading a piece in American Cinematographer in which his director of photography John Alcott described shooting Barry Lyndon (1975), which famously featured night scenes lit entirely by candlelight, an idea everyone thought was impossible until “Stanley finally discovered three 50mm t/0.7 Zeiss still-camera lenses which were left over from a batch made for use by NASA in their Apollo moon-landing program.”
I almost dropped my cappuccino.
Like many conspiracy theorists, Bill subscribed to a kind of unified field theory of the invisible hand. He even had a theory about how the OJ Simpson murders—which had only recently happened at the time of our filming—were tied into the moon hoax via OJ’s co-starring role in Capricorn One, a 1978 movie about a faked Mars landing. (In short, the idea was that the US government commissioned the film to cover its tracks on Apollo, and the Juice was framed for murder when he threatened to blow the whistle. This makes Bill Kaysing one of the few old white people who thought OJ was innocent.)
I read Bill’s famous self-published book, We Never Went to the Moon (bottom line upfront), as well as books by other prominent hoax theorists he recommended, including his acolytes Bart Sibrel and Ralph Rene. Bill’s was far and away the best, although it’s a sliding scale. One of them—I can’t remember which—repeatedly veered off topic while the author insisted he was definitely not gay. (I’m not! I’m not! I’m not!)
Bill himself was in a legal battle with former astronaut Jim Lovell, whom he unsuccessfully sued for slander after Lovell called him “wacky.” Lovell’s frustration was understandable, as the lunar hoax obsessives made a point of hectoring astronauts at public events. Buzz Aldrin actually punched another lunar conspiracy theorist—Bart Sibrel—in the face after Sibrel publicly called him a liar, a coward and a thief. (Bill, by contrast, praised Aldrin as a man of integrity, arguing merely that he had been brainwashed.) Buzz was much more patient in a filmed interview with Ali G, who inquired whether man would ever walk on the sun—perhaps in winter, when the sun is cold.
In making the film I spent a fair amount of time with Bill, who was a very gentle, grandfatherly man, making his radical, anti-corporatist conspiracy theorizing all the more cognitively dissonant. He was a polymath—I also read his book Great Hot Springs of the West—and had a real poignancy about him. His wife was suffering from Parkinson’s at the time I knew him, and in keeping with his iconoclasm, he was exploring alternative treatments—some of them very mystical—in hopes of treating her.
You won’t be surprised to know that he was eccentric. When I went to his home to show him the finished film, he watched the first few minutes—it’s only 12 minutes total—then got up from his chair, announcing, “Well, this is the best thing that’s ever been done on me,” and left the room while the film was still playing to go dig out some more of the articles he had collected over the years that he wanted to show me.
Normally the human ego is sufficiently large that if someone bothered to make an entire documentary about you, even a student film, you might want to watch it all the way to the end. I suppose the fact that Bill didn’t was a either a testament to his humility, or to his short attention span, or maybe just evidence that I was a shitty filmmaker.
But I glimpsed some darkness as well. Once we were discussing Jackie Onassis, who had recently died, and Bill was praising her elegance, when he suddenly went off on a matter-of-fact but highly racist jag about her marrying that “greasy, garlic-smelling Greek.”
Which brings us to the, uh, dark side of conspiracy theory, as it were.
THE CON’S PIRACY
These days, conspiracy theory doesn’t seem so amusing as it once did, what with a conspiracy-spouting racist crackpot sitting in the White House with his finger on the nuclear button. Achenbach again:
Long before he ran for president, Trump stoked the “birther” belief that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and was not constitutionally eligible to serve as president….Trump has repeatedly called global warming a “hoax.” He has hinted that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died of foul play. While running for president, he claimed that, before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the father of his leading rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), had met with Lee Harvey Oswald….. For years, Trump endorsed one of the most dangerous conspiracy theories: that vaccines cause autism….
Conspiracy theories may seem strange and fringe, but they are not harmless. They often transmit racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic beliefs. In their most toxic form, these theories have led to violence, including mass shootings. Behind many conspiracy theories lurks a pervasive rage. Many researchers and communicators who deal with fringe conspiracy theories endure venomous and misogynistic threats and harassment.
Of course, Trump has also trafficked in some other toxic lies, like the idea of a “Deep State” conspiracy to overthrow him, and even flirted with the QAnon (or at least QAnon adjacent) theories about Comet Pizza, Comey, Mueller, Soros, and all things Benghazi. On that count, Achenbach quotes Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami professor and co-author of the book American Conspiracy Theories: “I could say, with some degree of certainty, that he uses conspiracy theories to motivate his core supporters. Whether he believes them or not is a completely different question.”
For my money, it’s probably both.
Bill Kaysing has a fair amount to answer for with the insults he leveled at the good people at NASA, especially given his confession that it all began as a lark. But I am less willing to hold him responsible for his contribution to the conspiracy-soaked world that he didn’t live to see in full, poisonous flower, but in which the rest of us are now steeped.
His involvement in the lunar hoax theory was a shame, because his broader Chomskyite worldview was very cogent. At the end of the film, he says this:
In the context of government falsehoods, Apollo is just a very small part of it. The government lies to us about taxes, about Social Security, about food, about healthcare. There are so many things—dating back to, say, Pearl Harbor—where the government has lied to the people that Apollo becomes simply a lever to open up the Pandora’s box of government deceit and duplicity.
And when I say “government,” I really mean the corporate establishment. Because they’re in the business of getting people to work, and make things, and then buy them, and live their lives according to what I call the “corporate imperatives.” So Apollo is just one aspect of what had become a total unreality in America. We do things that we don’t like to do, for money that flies away almost instantly. What we’re living in is a sort of giant coast-to-coast Disneyland, and the Apollo hoax is just another film.
For all his other faults, he’s not wrong about the lies, or the corporate imperative, or the giant Disneyland. But it is a bitter irony that the kind of conspiracy theory that he helped pioneer—“truthtelling,” as he saw it, but what we would now call a false narrative, or more crudely, “fake news”—has become not a corrective to that unreality but an integral part of perpetuating it.
Bill Kaysing is deceased now: he died in 2005, nine years after the film was completed. I offer it here for what it’s worth. Please excuse the student-caliber filmmaking and low res technical quality, as the movie is itself now 23 years old—almost as far in the past as the lunar landing was when I made it.
GIANT STEPS ARE WHAT YOU TAKE
There are only four human beings left alive who have set foot on the moon (Aldrin, Scott, Duke, and Schmitt) and they are all over 80 years old. As Ross Anderson writes in The Atlantic, “In their waning years, the Apollo astronauts now face a new kind of loneliness, as the last of a peculiar tribe formed by a truly rarefied set of experiences. We’ll ask what it will mean if and when the Earth is once again without moonwalkers.”
A film about the lunar landing conspiracy might seem a weird tribute to these men and the Apollo project, but I present it to you with anything but disrespect. Very much the contrary. Even now, fifty years later, the effort to put men on the moon still stirs awe in me (Gil Scott-Heron’s valid critique notwithstanding). The technological contributions to modern life that it directly made or indirectly set in motion are nearly infinite. But much more than that, it stands as one of the most inspirational accomplishments in human history, literally celestial and nearly religious in terms of what mankind can achieve—one giant leap, as someone once said. Perhaps that is why some people even now cannot get their heads around it.
The space program as a whole, and Apollo specifically, represent the very best of America, which—even with the unreliability of memory—is worth remembering at a time when, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on down, we are witness to some of America at its very worst.
Click below to watch:
Featuring Bill Kaysing
Running time: 12 min
President Richard Nixon visiting Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in quarantine on the USS Hornet in the South Pacific after their return from the moon.