Some 600 million people around the world are glued to their TV sets as the Apollo 11 lander makes its final descent to the Moon on July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong takes humanity’s first historic step onto the lunar surface, closely followed by Buzz Aldrin. But not everyone accepts the truth of this momentous achievement – indeed the whole enterprise has spawned a legion of bizarre conspiracy theories. And, years later, Aldrin revealed some surprising facts about his time on the Moon.
Aldrin’s revelations about his Moon trip in a 2016 interview centered on one of the color shots taken on the mission by Armstrong. In fact Armstrong took all of the still photos on the Moon’s surface for the simple reason that he was the one wielding the camera. The many famous shots he got were captured with a high-performance Hasselblad.
Of course, the astronauts captured a whole gallery of extraordinary images from this first manned Moon-landing expedition. That’s hardly a surprise given the momentous accomplishment of those two men setting foot on the Moon. For example, there’s the amazing shot of Aldrin standing by the Stars and Stripes, saluting his country’s flag flying improbably on the Moon’s surface.
A single photograph of Aldrin’s bootprint in the moondust is another unforgettable shot. Then there’s what’s known as the visor image. In that picture of Aldrin facing the camera we can actually clearly see Armstrong in reflection in the former’s helmet visor. Also visible in the reflection is the lunar landing module, Eagle.
Indeed, one of the many topics Aldrin addressed in an interview staged at the Science Museum in London, England in 2016 was the photography from the Moon mission. And as he answered questions he let slip what we might seem to be a rather startling admission. He went so far as to say that an aspect of the moon landing had been “so well staged.”
Aldrin and Armstrong’s successful landing on the moon – with Michael Collins in orbit in the return vehicle – was actually the fulfillment of a commitment made by President John F. Kennedy back in 1961. He’d told a joint Congressional session that America would land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Sadly, Kennedy had been dead for nearly six years by the time this dream came true. Nevertheless, it was a stirring example of American ambition and know-how.
This high-level commitment to expand the U.S. space program came in the context of the Cold War. This conflict between the U.S. and her allies and the Communist bloc led by the Soviet Union was a clash of ideologies which sometimes spilled onto the battlefield; one such example was the Korean War. Aldrin actually fought in Korea as a fighter pilot, flying on 66 missions and bringing down two enemy MiG jets.
Another Cold War front on which the opposing sides competed was the Space Race. By the time Kennedy had announced the intention to travel to the Moon, the Soviets had twice already stolen a significant march on the Americans in space exploration. In 1957 they had launched the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik. Then in 1961 the first man into space had been the Russian Yuri Gagarin. It was clearing that the U.S. was lagging behind in this Space Race.
The presidential pledge led to an acceleration of NASA’s space program, with the Gemini missions running through the 1960s. In fact, Aldrin was one of the astronauts who flew on Gemini XII, the project’s final mission in 1966. In less than two years, the program had perfected various operations and maneuvers that would be essential to a future Moon-landing project.
The next step in the plan to put a man on the Moon was NASA’s Apollo program. It did not get off to the best of starts. The three-man crew that was to launch aboard Apollo 1 were all killed when a take-off practice drill in January 1967 went disastrously wrong. But by October 1968 things were back on track.
The next crewed mission, Apollo 7, successfully launched with its three-man crew and orbited the Earth 163 times. This mission was notable as the first American spaceflight to transmit live TV pictures back to the public. The next Apollo missions, 8, 9 and 10, moved closer to the ultimate goal of landing on the Moon.
As we know Aldrin, along with Armstrong and Collins, were the astronauts for the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong was the mission commander and Collins was the command module pilot. This command ship was the spacecraft that would return the three astronauts back to Earth. Aldrin was the pilot of the lunar module. It was down to him to land it on the moon’s surface – and return safely to the command module.
Powered by its 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket, Apollo 11 took off from Cape Kennedy in Florida on July 16, 1969. It was one of four sections that made up the spaceship with the other three being the command module, Columbia, the lunar module, Eagle and a service module. Hundreds of thousands had gathered at the base, today known as Cape Canaveral, to watch the three astronauts blast off into space.
Once the spacecraft had left Earth’s atmosphere it headed for the Moon, using the thrust of the last of the three sections that made up the Saturn V rocket. The first had launched them from the ground and remained there while the second had powered them through the stratosphere. They were on their way.
Less than three hours after launch came a crucial part of the mission – the separation of the Apollo modules from the Saturn V rocket. The Columbus module also had to separate from the lunar module Eagle to maneuver the two into the correct configuration. The two parts of the spacecraft then successfully docked back together, and set off towards the Moon. A little more than two full days of space travel later, the astronauts were in lunar orbit.
By now it was the morning of July 20, and Aldrin and Armstrong clambered into Eagle, leaving Collins on his own in lunar orbit. The pair prepared to start flying the lunar module down to the Moon’s surface. They’d circled the Moon nearly 12 times and it was time to start their descent to the surface.
The first step to the Moon landing was to maneuver the lunar module from a standard orbit to an elliptical one that would bring them as near to the surface as 50,000 feet. At that point, the astronauts used Eagle’s engine to start the final controlled descent. At 500 feet from the Moon’s surface, Armstrong switched the craft to manual control.
At last, the lunar module landed. Armstrong announced this in his immortal message, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The original flight plan had called for a four-hour rest break before Aldrin and Armstrong prepared to leave their capsule. However, once on the surface they quickly began to make ready to emerge.
In fact, the preparations to leave Eagle took nearly four hours. Finally, a little short of 110 hours after leaving Earth, Armstrong stepped onto the rocky terrain of the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. He now radioed another message which has become a central part of the Moon landing story. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the heat of the moment he actually forgot the “a” which he’d intended to include.
About 20 minutes after Armstrong had disembarked from Eagle, Aldrin followed him down the small ladder to step onto the Moon’s surface. Armstrong had already set up the TV camera so that the hundreds of millions of viewers on Earth could witness these extraordinary events on the Moon. The two astronauts now began to explore the lunar landscape around Eagle, spending about two-and-a-half hours outside before returning to the lunar module.
In the end, the two astronauts spent nearly 22 hours on the surface of the Moon before taking off to dock with Columbus. During their time outside Eagle, they’d taken many outstanding photos, a number of which are published again and again in the press and online. And some of those who claim that the Moon landings never happened use so-called anomalies in the photos as evidence to support their contentions.
Self-styled “Moon truthers” have repeatedly used the photos taken by Armstrong to try and prove that the entire Moon landing mission was staged. One example of this is an image that shows shadows on the ground which are apparently not parallel. Those that question the truth of the Apollo 11 mission say this indicates the use of studio lighting. But experts roundly reject this allegation.
The website of London’s Royal Museums Greenwich quotes the words of Professor Anu Ojha, the British National Space Academy’s director. Speaking about the parallel shadows claim, he explained, “This is on the surface of the Moon, but we can reproduce this effect any time we want to on Earth. You have all seen this phenomenon yourself, where, because of perspective, parallel lines appear to be non-parallel.”
Ojha continued, “If you are trying to reduce onto a two-dimensional plane a three-dimensional situation, you can make lines do all sorts of weird things. Artists have been using this for centuries.” And he goes on to debunk another Moon-landing trope involving a photo. In this claim, “truthers” say that photos from the Moon mission which include the sky show no evidence of stars, proving that the astronauts were not really in space.
However, the explanation for the lack of stars in the photographs is really quite simple. When the shots were taken, it was daytime on the Moon. The light of the Sun means that stars are not visible. Another claim relates to a picture in which the Stars and Stripes is visible and apparently ruffled by a breeze. The conspiracy theorists say that there’s no wind on the Moon, proving the photo is a fake.
But the truth is that the flag has a stiffening pole set along its top. And the apparent wrinkles in it are easily explained. Ojha nails it with, “All the wrinkles are there because it’s literally been screwed up for four days en route to the Moon.” And as he says, “We find ourselves awash in an ocean of information online… The only tools we have to navigate through this maelstrom are the critical-thinking skills that we are trying to develop in people as scientists.”
Ojha takes a coolly analytical approach to the claims of the “Moon truthers”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone is so dispassionate in their reactions. One of those who can become irritated and even angry is Buzz Aldrin. When he was confronted by one Moon-landing denier, Aldrin’s temper boiled over altogether.
The man in question was Bart Sibrel, 37 at the time of the incident, standing 6’2” tall and weighing in at 250 pounds. It’s worth noting that the much-smaller Aldrin was 72 when the episode happened in September 2002. The astronaut had been falsely enticed to visit a hotel in Beverley Hills, California purportedly for an interview with a Japanese TV channel.
But when Aldrin arrived at the hotel he was confronted by Sibrel, a notorious conspiracy theorist. Sibrel demanded that Aldrin swear on the Bible that he had really traveled to the Moon, a stunt he had pulled with other Apollo astronauts. But this time he got an answer he probably hadn’t anticipated. Aldrin punched him in the face.
Afterwards, Sibrel was good enough to tell Florida-based newspaper the St. Petersburg Times that, “I was very surprised that he hit me. I thought it was very foolish of him to do it in front of two video cameras. He has a good punch. It was quick, too. I didn’t see it coming.” Beverly Hills police decided to treat Aldrin’s punch as an act of self-defense and no charges were laid.
However, February 2016 found Aldrin in a much more affable mood as he was interviewed before a live audience at an event staged in London, England. The venue was the Science Museum and the interviewer was Brian Cox. He’s a popular science TV presenter and particle physics professor at England’s University of Manchester.
During the interview, Cox and Aldrin came on to the topic of an especially well-known photo from the Apollo 11 mission, the visor picture, which we mentioned earlier. You’ll recall that it’s an image of Aldrin standing in the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility with a clear reflection in his helmet visor of Armstrong taking the picture.
Cox is clearly blown away by this singular image. In YouTube video footage recorded at the event, he says, “it’s probably the most famous picture from the surface of the Moon, I would say.” But he goes on to highlight a widespread misconception about the photo. “Many people say that’s Neil Armstrong,” Cox says to Aldrin, “but in fact it’s you with Neil in the reflection.”
And Cox goes even further in his praise for the image, adding, “It’s probably the most iconic picture in human history.” Aldrin then elaborates on the story of the helmet image. “Neil’s such an excellent photographer,” he generously points out. “See, I was walking along like this,” he continues, as he waggles two fingers to mimic a man walking.
Aldrin recalls, “Armstrong said, ‘Hey, stop!’ So I stopped and looked at him and he took the picture right away. You can identify that I was moving just a little. But people ask me about it – because it’s so well staged – and we call it the visor picture because the reflection in the visor shows the landing craft and the white-suited astronaut, Neil, who took the picture.”
Aldrin goes on to say, “People have asked me why is that such a perfect and iconic picture and I’ve got three words. Location, location, location.” That quip raises a hearty laugh from the audience. It’s easy to suspect that this may be a line that Aldrin has used before. Over the years he’s had every opportunity to become an accomplished public speaker, after all.
Now, that single phrase, “it’s so well staged” of course can quite easily be taken out of context and used as fuel for the delusions of the conspiracy theorists.Indeed, the British tabloid newspaper The Daily Express headlined a July 2020 article with “‘It was so well staged!’ Buzz Aldrin’s Moon landing confession revealed after 50 years.”
If you rip Aldrin’s words from their context at that Science Museum interview, you could claim that he’s admitting that the entire Moon mission was faked on a sound stage somewhere. But you’d have to be steeped in the delusions of conspiracy theory to believe that Aldrin was admitting to the preposterous tale that the entire Apollo 11 mission, from start to finish, was entirely faked.
In fact, Aldrin fell victim to the conspiracy theorists’ fantasies in earlier years. According to the fact-checkers at Snopes, the prank website Huzler published a piece in 2014 asserting that Aldrin had admitted to the fakery of Apollo 11. Huzler claimed to quote Aldrin’s words, “Apollo 11 was not real, none of it was. I am ashamed to say this but I cannot hide it any more, it was a set-up, like the ones they use in Hollywood films.”
Enthusiastic “Moon truthers” started spreading these supposed words of Aldrin’s on social media, apparently completely failing to notice that Huzler is a self-proclaimed prank site. So those that believe the Moon landings were a hoax, were themselves embarrassingly hoaxed. And if you believe that the Moon landings never happened, don’t mention it to Buzz Aldrin – unless you enjoy being punched in the face.