Buzz Aldrin punched a guy.
It happened in 2002 when a man confronted the history-making astronaut on the street outside a Los Angeles hotel with a Bible, asked him to swear on the book that he walked on the moon, and called him a liar when he refused.
It’s been more than 50 years since NASA’s Apollo 11 mission brought Aldrin and other astronauts to the moon in what many consider to be man’s greatest achievement. Yet, a small but vocal group of “moon hoaxers” have tried for decades to prove that it was all an expensive ruse orchestrated by the United States government. The attempt to get Aldrin to validate these theories turned violent after several minutes of contentious questioning.
Aldrin declined to participate in this report, but was not charged with any crime because authorities said video of the incident shows, and witnesses said, he was provoked.
“He was being personally called a liar,” said Rick Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society. “[That] is different than saying, ‘There were no stars in the photos from the lunar surface, so I don't believe you took those pictures from the lunar surface.’ That's not what was being said. What was being said is, ‘You didn't really go to the moon. You're a liar.’
Fienberg said he doesn’t condone violence, but agreed it can be frustrating to deal with moon hoaxers. He once participated in a televised discussion with the man who is credited with creating the moon landing hoax movement. Bill Kaysing’s 1976 book, “We Never Went to the Moon” details his arguments to support a theory that NASA launched an empty rocket that fell back to Earth when it was out of public view. He also claims the video of the moon walk was produced on an artificial lunar landscape that was created at Area 51.
Kaysing and Fienberg, who was working toward his graduate degree in astronomy at Harvard at the time, agreed to discuss Kaysing’s theories on a local television show for WBZ-TV in Boston in 1981. “The astronomy department got a call from a local TV station that said, ‘Hey, we got this guy coming on our show saying that the moon landing was faked. Do you have somebody you can send over to debate with him?’” Fienberg says as he recalls how he reluctantly got roped into doing the show. “None of the faculty wanted to touch it so they said, ‘What about that grad student? He seems kind of talkative.’
Once they got into the discussion about Kaysing’s theories, Fienberg says he wasn’t fazed. “I realized that he was just raising a bunch of arguments that were easily debunked if you knew science and engineering and something about space flight,” Fienberg says, which made him wonder why anyone would entertain Kaysing’s theories in the first place. “The problem is that he had worked in the space industry and so he appeared to have some credibility.”
According to a tribute website dedicated to Kaysing, who died in 2005, he worked in the jet propulsion laboratory of Rocketdyne in the 1950’s where he was a technical writer, translating the company’s work into layman’s terms to procure government grants. “He was not a scientist or an engineer himself by training,” Fienberg said. “But he worked for aerospace companies, and as a result...he seemed like somebody who should be credible.”
Fienberg said the televised discussion did little to convince Kaysing to stop parroting his theories to willing audiences. While his book was never a best-seller and didn’t turn Kaysing into a rich man, it did get him on television and radio shows in the years following its publication. It also inspired some to take up his cause convincing others that man never actually made it to the moon.
Moon hoax theories have been a source of entertainment. Hollywood has taken these fringe ideas and turned them into money. In 1978, “Capricorn One” hit theaters across the U.S. and seemed to be a direct take on Kaysing’s book. The film starred O.J. Simpson and many well-known actors at the time, including Elliot Gould, James Brolin, Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston and Telly Savalas.
In the film, NASA scraps the first mission to Mars by pulling the astronauts out of the spacecraft moments before it is launched into space. The astronauts are then taken to a secret television studio where they pretend to carry out their mission for the cameras. The plan hits a snag when the empty spacecraft burns up upon re-entry into the atmosphere and government officials engage in further coverup efforts, which include a plan to kill the astronauts. “It's really great, great stuff,” Fienberg said of the film, which he admitted he enjoyed.
In the 1970’s, the timing seemed ripe for the moon hoax conspiracy to take root, as recent events caused many to lose trust in the government. “In 1978 we didn't have Netflix and everything else so if you wanted to go out and get entertained you went to the movie theater,” Fienberg said. It was a major studio release that a lot of people went to see because of the lack of entertainment options available today.
“We didn't have multiplexes with 16 theaters,” Fienberg added. “You went to the theater and you saw what they were showing and so a lot of people saw ‘Capricorn One,’ they saw Bill Kaysing on television, they had a recent memory of Nixon's resignation and Watergate and the dismal embarrassing end of the Vietnam War for the Americans.”
While this conspiracy theory has longevity, it doesn’t have much public support. Polls consistently show around 95% of people believe the Apollo 11 mission was not faked. And those looking for more information about the Apollo 11 mission can visit NASA’s website.
Fienberg said moon hoaxers haven’t had any significant impact on the space industry, but that doesn’t mean that their work is harmless. “If you distrust the government and you don't believe anything they say, and you distrust science, then you make poor decisions because your decisions aren't based on reality,” he said.
As he learned during his discussion with Kaysing, Fienberg said arguing with conspiracy theorists seems to be fruitless. When confronted with these ideas, he says he tries to take an inquisitive approach.
“It's a question of, ‘Why do you think that? Can you give me some examples of some evidence of that or other things?’ I don't try to turn people into scientists,” he said. “I just try to get them to question what they're suggesting or what they're reading, what they're believing, and some do and some don't.”