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What If America Faked The Moon Landing?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Ben Welton
Written by Ben Welton The moon landing proved one of the pivotal moments of the 20th century, and in modern human history. Neil Armstrong's 'one small step' was seen all around the world, and remains an iconic piece of footage for scientists, astronauts and star-gazers alike. However, conspiracy theorists forever insist that the achievement was a fake. So, how would the world be different if it was?

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What If America Faked the Moon Landing?

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. A little past four p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins looked out over the lunar landscape and reported back to NASA, the American people and the entire world exactly what they saw. A TV audience of millions watched the historic moment unfold. But what if none of it ever actually happened? What if, instead of landing on the moon, the United States government actually did fake the whole thing? How would history have played out differently?

Before diving head-first into that alternative timeline and surrounding ourselves with conspiracy theories, here’s the official Apollo 11 story. For two hours and thirty-one minutes, the three NASA astronauts toured the moon after landing at the Sea of Tranquility. Eventually, Armstrong became the first man to ever walk on the moon, speaking the immortal lines “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. As such, Apollo 11 is still seen as arguably the ultimate expression of American success, technological achievement, and its then-superiority over the Soviet Union.

But, we should also remember that the mission would never have happened had not the Russians beaten America into space, in general. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1. This 184-pound satellite, launched from a Soviet base in modern-day Kazakhstan, dazzled and frightened US citizens in equal measure.

The fact that the Soviets – their Cold War foes – were the first to make it into space galvanized the U.S. government to undertake a massive funding campaign for their own exploration endeavors. School officials and proud parents worried that Soviet children were becoming intellectually superior to American kids – especially in science and math – which led to massive education funding. Indeed, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 was one of the first major school funding programs specifically designed to make American students more internationally competitive in science, math and technology. And so, the “Space Race” had started, as an extension of the Cold War. It was fought in the classrooms first, then in the engineering labs, and, ultimately, in the great beyond.

Apollo 11’s success is often seen as the final battle of the Space Race, with the triumphant Americans finally erasing any embarrassment that Sputnik 1 may have caused them. But, partly because of the geopolitical implications of 1969’s moon landing, many conspiracy theorists have long suspected that the whole thing was engineered to generate some indisputable, pro-American PR.

Popular theories often point to supposed evidence obtained from the pictures and videos of the moon landing itself. Some suggest the image of a fluttering American flag is impossible because there would have been no breeze. The counter-argument says that the astronauts inserted a strong wire into the flag’s fabric, to make erecting it easier – and that caused the ripple. Other hoax claims question the shadows on the moon, but this effect was reportedly caused by the artificial lights of the space module itself. And then there’s the since-debunked apparent impossibility of leaving footprints on a water-less surface.

Today, Russia seems especially determined to keep the moon landing rumor mill turning – perhaps understandably. One Russian theorist, the activist Yury Mukhin, has actually spent years trying to prove that all of America’s lunar missions were in fact forgeries. Mukhin also says he’s an expert on nuclear science, but there’s no verifiable evidence for that claim, either.

However, a cynical space race spectator could argue that there were logical reasons for the United States faking the landing. By 1969, America’s war in Vietnam had become increasingly unpopular at home and abroad. Growing discontent over the conflict plus America’s struggle to actually defeat the North Vietnamese Army eventually led to decades of tentative foreign policy - known collectively as the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. So, space race success provided an effective and appropriate distraction from the problems elsewhere.

Closer to home, some organizations in the civil rights movement, including those advocating for more welfare for single mothers and minorities, actively protested against the Apollo 11 mission – with some demonstrators showing up in Florida, on the day of the launch. For them, it was a waste for Washington to put so much money into space travel, when they should be helping the poor.

Thanks to the eventual success of the mission, lots of Americans have forgotten how divided their country was at that time. But if Apollo 11 had failed, qualms about government spending would’ve felt even more justified, and anger over the ongoing Vietnam War could’ve reached even greater heights. Worse still, if the moon landing had been uncovered as a fake, the government would’ve suffered a seismic loss of integrity – and public trust would’ve plummeted to all new lows. There would’ve been no definitive moment in history to swell national pride, but rather a monumental blunder belying a sense of shame, embarrassment and outrage.

So, in a reality where the famous director Stanley Kubrick really did have a hand in faking the footage – as per a particularly well-pedaled theory – then, because of the impact it would’ve had, it would’ve stood as probably the greatest and most emotionally effective film he had ever made. And he made some good’uns!

But, even with Neil Armstrong’s “one small step”, by the early ‘70s left-wing opponents were denouncing America and American capitalism as ‘neo-fascist’. So, throw in a blatant attempt to con the entire world by lying about their lunar accomplishments, and international faith in the US government could’ve disappeared completely, too. America’s place at the top table of global politics might never have developed as it has done today, while Soviet power and influence might’ve far outstripped their rival’s, on the other side of the Atlantic.

It’s easily forgotten now, but after the Communist victory in Vietnam, many American pundits argued that Washington had best learn to accommodate Marxist-Leninism – as Vietnam, China, Laos, the USSR, Cuba, Cambodia and the entire Warsaw Pact were all Communist states. Left-wing and center-left parties were on the rise in the West, too. So, an exposed moon landing hoax right about then, could’ve meant increasing support for Communist ideas – or at least anything that was anti-American. More and more voters might’ve come to the same conclusion that journalist Lincoln Steffens did, all the way back in 1919. He famously said about Soviet Communism, “I have seen the future, and it works!”

Of course, it could also be said that Apollo 11, whether real or fake, had little bearing on the ultimate fall of the Soviet Union. After all, the USSR continued on until the early 1990s, and only collapsed because of a costly war in Afghanistan, rampant corruption, and an ongoing inability to keep up with American military spending. A popular summary might read that American administrations outfoxed the Soviets in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and thanks to a succession of short-lived leaders, Moscow seemed to steadily weaken. For many, the decline of the USSR was only a matter of time. But the moon landing could still be listed as an early catalyst, gaining America a lead that it never relinquished. However, our hypothetically proven hoax might’ve triggered an early shift significant enough to change the course of the Cold War, and the shaping of European and global politics.

Regardless of its diplomatic influence though, a moon landing hoax would have truly angered the American people. Not only would it have provided the Soviets – and everyone else – with enough anti-US propaganda material for decades, but it would’ve sensationally shattered the already stretched relationship between the White House and the people. And the far-flung fakery would’ve etched a permanent stain onto American history.

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