It is perhaps the most iconic moment of the 20th century, watched at the time by an estimated 650m people around the world and ubiquitous for every generation since. On 20 July 1969, Eagle, the lunar module of the Apollo 11 mission, landed on the Moon, and American astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind”.


After nearly 22 hours on the surface, Armstrong and compatriot Buzz Aldrin took off again and reunited with their crewmate, Michael Collins, in the command module Columbia, before returning safely to Earth. By doing so, they were hailed as not just American heroes – with the Moon landing marking the United States as victors in the Space Race, which had gripped the world throughout the Cold War – but as ambassadors of humanity.

The efforts of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in accomplishing the feat were regarded as a technological, intellectual, political, and cultural phenomenon. Over the next few years, there would be six further Apollo missions to land on the Moon, ending with Apollo 17 in December 1972; humans have not yet gone back.

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Did Nasa fake the moon landing? What is the conspiracy theory?

Some conspiracy theorists would have it that NASA and the US government faked the whole thing. They were, so the idea goes, spurred by desperation to beat the Soviet Union in the Space Race and fulfil US President John F Kennedy’s promise made in a 1961 speech to land on the Moon “before this decade is out”. Such theories hold that Apollo 11 never reached the Moon, and the footage of Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface was actually filmed on an earth-bound set.

According to one claim, the renowned filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (famous for his sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey) was even involved. Prop rocks, suspicious shadows, and the lack of stars visible on camera are just some of the apparent clues to the Moon landings being faked.

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What is the source of the Moon landing conspiracy theory?

“There were some people who started talking about it even as the Moon landing was happening,” says Francis French, author and journalist specialising in the history of space flight. “But the theory really gained speed in the early to mid-1970s.”

The idea, French admits, does have some sense to it: amid Cold War tensions, but also secrets, espionage and deception, the US had utterly committed itself to the goal of putting a man on the Moon. Failure would have been deeply humiliating and a sign of national decline at a time when the two superpowers were vying for influence in other countries wavering between capitalism and communism. The US needed to succeed, which was why there was such a concerted national will in the 1960s, spanning numerous presidents and costing huge sums of money.

Why do people believe the Moon landing was a conspiracy?

In the 1970s, public trust in the US government and in the institutions of the country was being eroded. The Vietnam War showed that official reports did not necessarily match the photographs and films (as well as the tens of thousands of body bags) coming from the frontline, while the Watergate scandal eventually brought down the administration of President Richard Nixon.

French looks to the remarkable achievement of the Moon landing itself as helping the theory grow. “I think one of the reasons that people want to think it was a hoax is because it was so amazing. It’s almost a compliment to NASA that people cannot believe it was possible, given that before 1957 nothing had been put in space at all. How is it that 12 years after the first satellite [Sputnik 1, launched on 4 October 1957], humans were walking on the surface of the Moon?”

Then, after all that, NASA suddenly stopped going to the Moon in 1972. This has been seen not as evidence of a decline in funds and public interest in space flight, but as suspicious. Throughout the decades, scrutiny of the footage of the Apollo missions has put forward the most minute details and speculations as proof of camera trickery, while films like Capricorn One (1978), about a faked Mars landing, fuelled the imagination of the conspiracy theorists.

The evidence that debunks the Moon landing conspiracy theory

“The possibility of a Moon landing hoax is zero,” states French, as there was no way that such a colossal secret could have been kept. Hundreds of thousands of people worked on the Apollo programme and yet after half a century there has been no credible evidence from former NASA employees of anything being faked. “We know that from the conspiracies that have been proven to be true, this stuff leaks out very quickly.”

All the claims made about the footage can readily be explained or debunked: the lack of stars, for example, is simply a result of the brightly lit foreground washing out the detail of the background. There are things that happen in the footage, meanwhile, that would have been impossible to fake using 1960s technology, such as the dust being kicked up by astronauts’ feet or the lunar rovers, or when Apollo 15 commander David Scott dropped a hammer and feather at the same time and they fell at the same rate.

In 2009, an uncrewed spacecraft called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mapped the surface of the Moon, taking photographs of the landing sites of the Apollo missions: footprints, flags, tracks left by the rovers, were all still visible. As French puts it: “There are trails made clearly by people. Mirrors were left on the Moon to ping lasers from Earth, which still work, and rocks were brought back, which have been studied by scientists all over the world.”

A major thing to note, says French, “is that the Russians were America’s sworn Cold War enemies. They had the ability to track any spacecraft going to the Moon. They could read the same signals coming back as the US and other radio dishes around the world could.”

“They saw things go to the Moon, land, and come back,” he adds. “Clearly something was going to the Moon, and it would have been harder to fake a landing under automated circumstances than it would have been with people in.

“If you’re into that kind of conspiracy theory where the Russians were in on it, at the height of the Cold War, then we’re in territory that I don’t think any rational person can really stomach.”

What’s more, if embarrassment and humiliations made for a plausible reason to fake the Moon landing, that would have been nothing compared to the embarrassment and humiliation of being caught doing so. And the sheer scope of the conspiracy to pull it off leaves an unshakeable conclusion: it was easier to go to the Moon than it would have been to fake going to the Moon.


Francis French is an author and historian specialising in space flight


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.