Mission Artemis: Men on the Moon, at the heart of conspiracy theories for fifty years

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“Is it humanly possible to get that far? (…) We will go very far, as far as any human being has ever gone far from Earth. All it took was a short sentence from French astronaut Thomas Pesquet on France 2 on Tuesday, August 30, about future Artemis missions, to spark a classic conspiracy argument that humans would never have set foot on the Moon. Thus, these words were shared out of context on Twitter by controversial figures such as the essayist Idriss Aberkane, the lawyer Fabrice Di Vizio or the former RT France columnist Alexis Poulin. “But why should we waste precious time on this again: of course yes, humans went to the moon during the Apollo missions. And we will go back,” replied Thomas Pesquet. His statement referred to in the future orbits around the moon, planned for the Artemis II mission, which will be much further than those of the Apollo missions. But to some skeptical commentators, the astronaut admitted that the Americans would never have stepped on the moon. This conspiracy theory, thought to be out of fashion, is almost as old as the Apollo missions themselves. The older theses remained in the minority for a long time In December 1969, five months after of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first steps on the moon, the New York Times raised the doubts of members of an association who claimed that NASA’s feat would have been done in the middle of the Nevada desert. It was not until 1976 that an unknown person, Bill Kaysing, accused ar the space agency of having organized a hoax, in a short self-published book, We Never Went to the Moon. This man without scientific training, employed at Rocketdyne, a NASA subcontractor, between 1956 and 1963, claims that the engineers of this Saturn V rocket engine company would have confided to him their doubts about the technical possibility of going to Moon and return safely. It also develops the first major classical arguments that will later become popular (absence of stars in the lunar sky visible in the images, absence of craters excavated by engine breath, etc.). Emmanuel Kreis, conspiracy historian at the CNRS, explains it like this: “The idea, for Bill Kaysing, is to show that it is a “30 billion dollar” scam and that we have financed at great cost a project that does not exist. “By the time these theories became more widespread, Americans had evidence, with Watergate, that the government was lying to them” – Romy Sauvayre, sociologist of science. His accusations did not have much resonance at the time but contributed to increasing mistrust. of US federal power, in a political context conducive to suspicion. As Romy Sauvayre, a sociologist of science and belief at the University of Clermont Auvergne and the CNRS, reminds us: “At a time when these theories are becoming more widespread, Americans have proof, with Watergate, that the government lies to them, and distrust of institutions grows. It was also in this context that in 1978 Capricorn One, a fictional film featuring a space mission to Mars, was released in cinemas, the images of the which were filmed by NASA in a hangar Six years earlier, Hollywood studios still refused to produce it, but Watergate made its theses “more acceptable,” the New York Times opined when it premiered the film. The thesis of a NASA hoax is slowly emerging from the shadows. “When I came to the U.S. [en 1992], it’s a topic that was discussed among astronauts”, recalls former astronaut Jean-François Clervoy. But the credibility of these theses has long remained weak in American public opinion. Two polls conducted in 1995 and 1999 estimated that 6% of Americans believed that man had never walked on the moon. Renewed interest in the 2000s At the beginning of the 21st century, however, these theories gained popularity following two documentaries. The first, broadcast in February 2001 by Fox TV, Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?, revived Kaysing’s theses by pointing out anomalies in photos taken on the surface of the Moon. Much discussed in the United States, they have been refuted by many players in space and astronomy. The following year, a very different “documentary”, Opération Lune, was released in France. Directed by William Karel and broadcast on Arte, it first supports the hypothesis of a hoax orchestrated by the CIA and filmed by Stanley Kubrick, before revealing at the end that the documentary itself is a hoax and its talking actors. The parodic nature of the approach, however, escapes some of its audience. Anti-American sentiment, which grew in the 2000s after the invasion of Iraq, also helped popularize these stories. 2004 “At that time, in the United States of America, there was a lot of talk about Apollo. I think it helped get people talking about the conspiracy theory and the Apollo missions again at that time.” , recalls Jean-François Clervoy. Finally, anti-American sentiment, which grew in the 2000s after the invasion of Iraq, also helped popularize this narrative that denied the technological feat of Apollo 11. “The highest levels of support for this theory are seen in four countries that harbor feelings of mistrust of the United States, including Mexico (31%), Turkey (28%), Saudi Arabia (28%) and Egypt (27 . regarding the 9/11 conspiracy theory,” recalls Rudy Reichstadt, director of ConspiracyWatch. Abundant subject of parodies However, the majority of the population does not take them seriously. Even are a recurring object of ridicule. In the early 2000s, MoonTruth.com, a parody site, published a humorous video in which members of the film crew appear in the sequence of the first steps on the Moon. “This clip is fake, it’s not an extract from a secret NASA tape,” its authors finally revealed. From 2017 to 2020, on the Reddit forum, the subcommunity of “Moon Truthers” (“seekers of the lunar truth” ) also specialized in mocking conspiracy arguments. Ironically, much of this parody content ends up being taken over. These theories, however, have been the subject of numerous and precise refutations by scientists over the last twenty years, who have had no difficulty in dismantling the so-called evidence of a staged performance. “There is a long list of arguments [complotistes], but the main ones start from a misunderstanding of how the laws of physics work”, sums up Romy Sauvayre. The countless debunkings published in the 2000s and 2010s were not enough to disabuse the convinced. “Guys don’t listen anyway, they tell the truth but pick the things that suit them and ignore the rest,” Thomas Pesquet fumed on Twitter on Wednesday, August 31. A suspicion that has settled You would have thought that these theories had fallen into disuse. Before this episode, on Twitter, speeches denying that we had walked on the moon were, from a quantitative point of view, “really in the minority, even minuscule”, notes Romy Sauvayre, unlike the speeches about the vaccine or the 5G. They were confined to the fringes of the Internet, on radical platforms like CrowdBunker or BitChute. And again, his audience there was ultra-confidential, often consisting of the last “platists” (followers of the theory that the Earth is flat) for not having migrated to the QAnon mythology. “It’s a theory that has lived, at least as far as countries like France or the United States are concerned,” says Rudy Reichstadt. Perhaps because the conquest of the Moon has less political significance compared to the time when Washington turned it into a prestige lever in the ideological war with the Eastern bloc. It is also less mobilizing than more recent events, such as 9/11 or the Covid-19 pandemic. That doesn’t mean it’s gone, as Buzz Aldrin’s elliptical commentary detour already demonstrated in the spring. It has just been established, and suspicions about the 1969 lunar expedition are now spreading to other space initiatives. In 2021, several conspiracy theorists claimed that the images of Mars had been taken in Greenland, Bulgaria or even Canada.
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