Ten years ago, Jay Windley was stuck on a bus with his fellow members of the Utah Symphony Chorus. They were headed from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a routine performance. But it wasn't long before Windley was annoyed (and not by his singing bus mates). He was perturbed by the man sitting next to him, the one insisting that American astronauts have never landed on the moon, despite the abundant photographic and physical evidence provided by the Apollo lunar landings—the first of which reached the moon 40 years ago this week. "He was spouting all this hoax nonsense," Windley says. "And he was clearly wrong, but I didn't have the research at that time to say that." (Story continued below...)
When Windley got back from his choral excursion, he founded clavius.org, a small Web site on which he has spent the last 10 years trying to prove the moon-landing deniers wrong. On the site, as well as on message boards that feature responses from astronomers, academics, and interested high-schoolers, Windley and his crew make their way through hoax myths, debunking them one by one. If deniers argue that the flag planted on the moon shouldn't be waving back and forth, then debunkers explain the theories of inertia as it applies to rippling fabric. Another argument—that the stars are missing from the backgrounds of the photographs—is easily explained: the exposure on the camera wasn't long enough to catch them. Sometimes, hoax believers argue that those astronauts who weren't ready to participate in the conspiracy were killed off. To that, the debunkers point out that NASA used a variety of consultants, contractors, and outside engineering firms, enough people that surely some word of a conspiracy would have leaked out, had there been one.
To this small group of space enthusiasts, it's not only incorrect to say that Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon, it's downright offensive. "These claims that we didn't land on the moon are made to fool laymen who don't know much besides what they see on television or learned in school," Windley says. "So it's unfortunate that these baseless claims get so much attention."
Despite the amount of evidence increasingly available online, a sizeable number of Americans still scream "hoax" when they hear about men on the moon. Polling by Gallup and other agencies continually shows that 6 percent of Americans think we've never made it to the lunar surface, with another 5 percent uncertain of their opinion. These numbers have been steady since 2001, when the Fox television network aired a straight-faced program called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? That show gave a publicity boost to the "Moon Hoax," as it's called, and it wasn't long before the alleged hoax entered the ranks of ludicrous things people believe after watching television (see also: Nostradamus prophesies, Mayan calendar). The backlash to the Fox program gave heart to the modern moon-denier debunkers, many of whom were inspired to provide information online after seeing the show. That same year, even NASA got in the game, releasing an article titled "The Great Moon Hoax" that argued that "Moon rocks and common sense prove Apollo astronauts really did visit the Moon."
These days, the government won't even bother addressing the subject. "In the year 2009, NASA typically avoids getting into conspiracy theories and hoax 'debates,' " John Yembrick, a NASA spokesman, wrote in an e-mail to NEWSWEEK. That's part of the reason that amateurs are stepping in and arguing on behalf of astronauts and scientists who are too professional to defend themselves. "NASA doesn't do this kind of debunking themselves, as well they shouldn't," says Philip Plait, an author of the popular blog Bad Astronomy, which deals with the Moon Hoax and similar subjects. "They have better things to do."
On those occasions when the men involved in the Apollo landings have been approached directly by deniers, it's led to calamity. Bart Sibrel, the filmmaker behind the Moon Hoax movie, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon, once approached Buzz Aldrin and taunted him, calling him a "coward," "liar," and "thief." Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, had one response: a punch in the face. Ed Mitchell, an astronaut on Apollo 14, reportedly kicked a denier in the rear once. Eugene Cernan, who flew on Apollo 17, had a more elegant solution, plainly saying, "Nobody can take those footsteps I made on the surface of the moon away from me."
Quotes like Cernan's filled Plait with pride about the moon landings even before he started Bad Astronomy. Though he was a child when the missions happened, he does remember them, and 40 years later, he's proud that his site might be aiding in keeping the legacy intact. After the 2001 hullaballoo around the Moon Hoax, Plait launched his blog to teach himself what he needed to know to prove deniers wrong. Since then, he's been heralded as an expert, and his blog is now hosted by Discover, a respected science magazine. "It fills me with disgust to see these guys saying it's all fake," he says. "But there will always be small-minded detractors of any great achievement, so it's my job to debunk them and move on." Personally, he's looking forward to the 100th anniversary of the moon landing. Then, standing on the moon's surface, he hopes the deniers will be able to see the footsteps themselves.