- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Is that the moon or a studio in the Nevada desert? How can the flag flutter when there's no wind on the moon? Why can't we see stars in the moon-landing pictures? . For three decades, NASA has taken the high road, ignoring those who claimed the Apollo moon landings were faked and part of a government conspiracy.
The claims and skeptical questions like the ones cited here showed up mostly in books and on the Internet. But last year's prime-time Fox TV special on the "moon hoax" prompted schoolteachers and others to plead with NASA for factual ammunition to fight back.
A few months ago, the space agency budgeted $15,000 to hire a former rocket scientist and author to produce a small book refuting the disbelievers' claims. It would be written primarily with teachers and students in mind.
The idea backfired, however, when critics said NASA would only legitimize claims of a moon hoax by officially denying them. The agency scrapped the book deal.
"The issue of trying to do a targeted response to this is just lending credibility to something that is, on its face, asinine," NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in late November after the dust settled.
So it's back to square one ignoring the skeptics. That is troubling to some scientists, who contend that someone needs to lead the fight against scientific illiteracy and the growing belief in pseudoscience like aliens and astrology.
Someone like NASA.
"If they don't speak out, who will?" asks Melissa Pollak, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation.
Author James Oberg will. The former space-shuttle flight controller plans to write the book commissioned by NASA even though the agency has pulled the plug. He is seeking money elsewhere. His working title: "A Pall Over Apollo."
Tom Hanks will speak out, too.
The Academy Award-winning actor, who starred in the 1995 movie "Apollo 13" and later directed the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," is working on another lunar-themed project. The IMAX documentary will feature Apollo archival footage. Its title: "Magnificent Desolation," astronaut Buzz Aldrin's real-time description of the moon on July 20, 1969.
While attending the Cape Canaveral premiere of the IMAX version of "Apollo 13" in November, Mr. Hanks said the film industry has a responsibility to promote historical literacy. He took a jab at the 1978 movie "Capricorn One," which had NASA's first manned mission to Mars being faked on a soundstage.
"We live in a society where there is no law [against] making money in the promulgation of ignorance or, in some cases, stupidity," Mr. Hanks said. "There are a lot of things you can say never happened. You can go as relatively quasi-harmless as saying no one went to the moon. But you also can say that the Holocaust never happened."
A spokesman for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington says there always will be those who will not be convinced. But the museum does not engage them in debate.
The spokesman acknowledges, however, that if a major news channel was doing a program that questioned the authenticity of the Holocaust, "I'd certainly want to inject myself into the debate with them in a very forceful way."
Fox was the moon-hoax purveyor. In February 2001 and again a month later, Fox broadcast an hourlong program titled "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?"
Roger Launius, who agreed to Mr. Oberg's book just before leaving NASA's history office, says the story about the moon hoax has been around a long time, but the Fox show "raised it to a new level, it gave it legs and credibility that it didn't have before."
Indeed, the National Science Foundation's Miss Pollak says two of her colleagues, after watching the Fox special, thought NASA could have faked the moon landings. "These are people who work at NSF," she says.
The story went and still goes something like this: America was desperate to beat the Soviet Union in the high-stakes race to the moon, but lacked the technology to pull it off. So NASA faked the six manned moon landings in a studio somewhere out West.
Ralph Rene, a retired carpenter in Passaic, N.J., takes it one step further. The space fakery started during the Gemini program, said Mr. Rene, author of the 1992 book "NASA Mooned America."
"I don't know what real achievements they've done, because when do you trust a liar?" Mr. Rene says. "I know we have a shuttle running right around above our heads, but that's only 175 miles up. It's under the shield. You cannot go through the shield and live."
He is talking about the radiation shield.
Alex Roland, a NASA historian during the 1970s and early 1980s, says his office used to have "a kook drawer" for such correspondence and never took it seriously, but there were no prime-time TV shows disputing the moon landings then and no Internet.
Still, Mr. Roland would be inclined to "just let it go because you'll probably just make it worse by giving it any official attention."
Within NASA, opinions were split about a rebuttal book. Mr. Oberg, a Houston-based author of 12 books, mostly about the Russian space program, said ignoring the problem "just makes this harder. To a conspiracy mind, refusing to respond is a sign of cover-up."
Phil Plait, a Sonoma State University astronomer who picks apart the moon hoaxers' claims on his "Bad Astronomy" Web site (www.badastronomy.com), agrees that NASA should have followed through with the book but understands why it hasn't.
"It became, as things like this do, a media circus. And by circus, I mean more like carnival," Mr. Plait says, toot-toot-tootling like a calliope. "There's a lot of anti-scientific thinking, and if this stuff is allowed to continue it's going to spell doom for our country."
Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell does not know what else, if anything, can be done to confront this moon madness.
"All I know is that somebody sued me because I said I went to the moon," says the 74-year-old former astronaut. "Of course, the courts threw it out."
The authorities also threw out a case involving Apollo 11 moonwalker Mr. Aldrin in September.
A much bigger and younger man was hounding the former astronaut in Beverly Hills, Calif., calling him "a coward and a liar and a thief" and trying to get him to swear on a Bible, on camera, that he walked on the moon. Mr. Aldrin, 72, a Korean War combat pilot, responded with a fist in the chops.
Compare this with the gentle disbelievers of yesteryear.
For its last manned moon shot 30 years ago this month, NASA invited Charlie Smith, a former slave reputed to be 130 years old. Mr. Smith was impressed by the nighttime liftoff of Apollo 17, but said afterward he still did not believe the astronauts were flying to the moon. "It just can't happen," he said.
Ron Howard's grandfather also did not believe men went to the moon. Mr. Howard grew up to become the director of "Apollo 13."

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