This is the 43rd in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
The United States sent astronauts to the Moon, they landed, they walked around, they drove around, they deployed lots of instruments, they packed up nearly half a ton of Moon rocks, and they flew home.
No silly conspiracy was involved.
There were no Hollywood movie sets.
Anybody who writes about Apollo and talks about Apollo is going to be asked how we actually know that we went to the Moon.
Not that the smart person asking the question has any doubts, mind you, but how do we know we went, anyway?
It’s a little like asking how we know there was a Revolutionary War. Where’s the evidence? Maybe it’s just made up by the current government to force us to think about America in a particular way.
How do we know there was a Titanic that sank?
And by the way, when I go to the battlefields at Gettysburg—or at Normandy, for that matter—they don’t look much like battlefields to me. Can you prove we fought a Civil War? World War II?
In the case of Apollo, in the case of the race to the Moon, there is a perfect reply.
The race to the Moon in the 1960s was, in fact, an actual race.
The success of the Soviet space program—from Sputnik to Strelka and Belka to Yuri Gagarin—was the reason for Apollo. John Kennedy launched America to the Moon precisely to beat the Russians to the Moon.
When Kennedy was frustrated with the fact that the Soviets were first to achieve every important milestone in space, he asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson to figure it out—fast. The opening question of JFK’s memo to LBJ:
“Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the Moon, or by a rocket to land on the Moon, or by a rocket to go to the Moon and back with a man. Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”
Win. Kennedy wanted to know how to beat the Soviets—how to win in space.
That memo was written a month before Kennedy’s dramatic “go to the Moon” speech. The race to the Moon he launched would last right up to the moment, almost 100 months later, when Apollo 11 would land on the Moon.
The race would shape the American and Soviet space programs in subtle and also dramatic ways.
Apollo 8 was the first U.S. mission that went to the Moon: The Apollo capsule and the service module, with Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell, flew to the Moon at Christmastime in 1968, but without a lunar module. The lunar modules were running behind, and there wasn’t one ready for the flight.
Apollo 8 represented a furious rejuggling of the NASA flight schedule to accommodate the lack of a lunar module. The idea was simple: Let’s get Americans to the Moon quick, even if they weren’t ready to land on the Moon. Let’s “lasso the Moon” before the Soviets do.
At the moment when the mission was conceived and the schedule redone to accommodate a different kind of Apollo 8, in late summer 1968, NASA officials were worried that the Russians might somehow mount exactly the same kind of mission: Put cosmonauts in a capsule and send them to orbit the Moon, without landing. Then the Soviets would have made it to the Moon first.
Apollo 8 was designed to confound that, and it did.
In early December 1968, in fact, the rivalry remained alive enough that Time magazine did a cover story on it. “Race for the Moon” was the headline, and the cover was an illustration of an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut, in spacesuits, leaping for the surface of the Moon.
Seven months later, when Apollo 11, with Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin aboard, entered orbit around the Moon on July 19, 1969, there was a Soviet spaceship there to meet them. It was Luna 15, and it had been launched a few days before Apollo 11. Its goal: Land on the Moon, scoop up Moon rocks and dirt, and then dash back to a landing in the Soviet Union before Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong could return with their own Moon rocks.
If that had happened, the Soviets would at least have been able to claim that they had gotten Moon rocks back to Earth first (and hadn’t needed people to do it).
So put aside for a moment the pure ridiculousness of a Moon landing conspiracy that somehow doesn’t leak out. More than 410,000 Americans worked on Apollo, on behalf of 20,000 companies. Was their work fake? Were they all in on the conspiracy? And then, also, all their family members—more than 1 million people—not one of whom ever whispered a word of the conspiracy?
What of the reporters? Hundreds of reporters covering space, writing stories not just of the dramatic moments, but about all the local companies making space technology, from California to Delaware.
Put aside as well the thousands of hours of audio recordings—between spacecraft and mission control; in mission control, where dozens of controllers talked to each other; in the spacecraft themselves, where there were separate recordings of the astronauts just talking to each other in space. There were 2,502 hours of Apollo spaceflight, more than 100 days. It’s an astonishing undertaking not only to script all that conversation, but then to get people to enact it with authenticity, urgency, and emotion. You can now listen to all of it online, and it would take you many years to do so.
For those who believe the missions were fake, all that can, somehow, be waved off. A puzzling shadow in a picture from the Moon, a quirk in a single moment of audio recording, reveals that the whole thing was a vast fabrication. (With grace and straight-faced reporting, the Associated Press this week reviewed, and rebutted, the most popular sources of the conspiracy theories.)
Forget all that.
If the United States had been faking the Moon landings, one group would not have been in on the conspiracy: The Soviets.
The Soviet Union would have revealed any fraud in the blink of an eye, and not just without hesitation, but with joy and satisfaction.
In fact, the Russians did just the opposite. The Soviet Union was one of the few places on Earth (along with China and North Korea) where ordinary people couldn’t watch the landing of Apollo 11 and the Moon walk in real time. It was real enough for the Russians that they didn’t let their own people see it.
That’s all the proof you need. If the Moon landings had been faked—indeed, if any part of them had been made up, or even exaggerated—the Soviets would have told the world. They were watching. Right to the end, they had their own ambitions to be first to the Moon, in the only way they could muster at that point.
And that’s a kind of proof that the conspiracy-meisters cannot wriggle around.
But another thing is true about the Moon landings: You’ll never convince someone who wants to think they were faked that they weren’t. There is nothing in particular you could ever say, no particular moment or piece of evidence you could produce, that would cause someone like that to light up and say, “Oh! You’re right! We did go to the Moon.”
Anyone who wants to live in a world where we didn’t go to the Moon should be happy there. That’s a pinched and bizarre place, one that defies not just the laws of physics but also the laws of ordinary human relationships.
I prefer to live in the real world, the one in which we did go to the Moon, because the work that was necessary to get American astronauts to the Moon and back was extraordinary. It was done by ordinary people, right here on Earth, people who were called to do something they weren’t sure they could, and who then did it, who rose to the occasion in pursuit of a remarkable goal.
That’s not just the real world, of course. It’s the best of America.
We went to the Moon, and on the 50th anniversary of that first landing, it’s worth banishing forever the nutty idea that we didn’t, and also appreciating what the achievement itself required, and what it says about the people who were able to do it.
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).