The “Fake” Moon Landing

I was about to write a blog post about the symbolic interpretation of the conspiracy theory on the moon landings being faked when I remembered that I already wrote it. Sigh. It’s even a pretty good post. You probably should read it instead of this post. Or perhaps read it then read this post.

That said, the one thing that I have to add is that I suspect that most everyone into the “fake moon landings” conspiracy theory is probably a fan of science fiction, as they are the people who would feel most betrayed by us never going back to the moon. Science fiction, especially in its heyday, was largely bound up with the idea of the progress of technology. This was by no means its only theme and it often has just been “fantasy in spandex,” but it arose during the era when technology was constantly changing the world and people could not predict how the world would be but it was fun to guess. For various reasons, some of them historical contingency, science fiction—and especially hopeful, non-dystopian science fiction—been about space travel. We would, in the words of the Star Trek opening narration, “explore strange new worlds… seek out new life and new civilizations… boldly go where no man has gone before!”

With the Apollo missions culminating in landing a man on the moon, it looked, to science fiction fans, like the future they’d read so much about was finally here. We went to the moon! We explored a strange new world! Granted, there was no life and no civilization on it, but we had boldly gone where no man has gone before!

Then we stopped.

It turned out that the future they’d read so much about was not here. It was still in the future.

So, in a sense, the moon landing was a hoax. It may not have actually been filmed on a sound stage, but it has no more practical significance to the life of someone who dreamed about serving on a star ship than all of the TV shows filmed on sound stages. That is, to these people, it might as well have been filmed on a sound stage for all the good it did them. It was, to the science fiction fan, just one more dream that will never come true (for them).

I suspect that this state of affairs has gotten even more galling as time has progressed. Fifty years later our technology has advanced significantly and yet here we still are, no more able to be captain of a star ship than people were fifty years ago. That glorious and shining future of exploring strange new worlds is no closer, which means that it’s fifty years further away than it was (that is, seemed) back when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. His most famous words, “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” were wrong. It wasn’t even a step for mankind. Mankind gingerly tested the ground, then pulled its foot back and stayed put.

Addendum: I think that when companies like SpaceX end up making moon missions again because they’ve brought the price down far enough that it’s worth it as something other than a flex on the Russians, this conspiracy theory will probably die out because its symbolic value will go away. So hey, it’s a falsifiable prediction!

The Symbolism of Conspiracy Theories

In his YouTube channel The Symbolic World, Jonathan Pageau has an interesting video about the symbolism of conspiracy theories:

It’s a very interesting video and very much worth watching. He talks about how conspiracy theories have a tendency to be symbolically true (at least from the vantage point of the conspiracy theorists) even though they tend to be factually wacko.

For example, consider the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. Actually executing such a conspiracy in a way that would usefully fool the Russians (who were the primary audience for the moon landing) would be absurdly difficult. This Mitchell & Webb sketch isn’t terribly accurate, but it will suffice for my present purpose, and as a bonus it’s funny:

The idea that the moon landing was faked on a sound stage is ridiculous if you try to think it through, but it’s interesting what it means if you take it symbolically. Doing the moon landing on a sound stage symbolizes that going to the moon was not a real capability. Not in the literal sense that we couldn’t do it, but that we couldn’t keep it up. And, indeed, we couldn’t. Going to the moon was a cold-war flex on the Russians designed to try to win that war without resorting to nuclear weapons. If you want to know why, in 48 years, we haven’t been back to the moon, the real reason is obvious if you just look at a picture of NASA’s budget over time (moon landings took place from 1969-1972):

Going to the moon is extremely expensive. Absent dunking on the Russians, it’s really hard to justify spending a ton of money on it. Following the few years where we did it to dunk on the Russians, we in fact haven’t spent a ton of money on it. So, was the whole “We can go to the moon! We can do anything!” thing a lie? Yes. In a sense, it was.

There are an awful lot of things that we, as a society, could do if we decide to allocate a large fraction of our national resources to it. We could bell every cat to protect the song birds. We could build high speed trains connecting every city with at least ten thousand people in the country. We could give every person their own pet robot elephant, if we wanted to. However, none of these things—and many others—are worth the trouble. There is some technical sense in which we could do these things, but we can’t do them in the very practical sense that we won’t do them. We don’t want to do them. We might airily daydream that they would be nice. Especially the robot elephants. But when it comes to the actual things rather than merely a passing thought about them—we don’t want them if we’d have to actually do them in order to get them.

And so it is with going to the moon. It is possible that in another decade or two SpaceX and its competitors will have brought down the cost of massive rockets enough that someone will consider the few hundred million dollars it will probably cost worth it. If so, it will not really change things; going to the moon was supposed to usher in the space age. Instead, we’ve stayed firmly on the ground because, quite literally, there’s nothing in space and therefore no reason to go there.

In short, there were people who hoped that the moon missions meant that we’d soon be building these:

The conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked basically means that we aren’t. And that part—the practical part—is right. We’re not building a Stanford torus anytime soon.

There’s no earthly reason to.