What’s afoot on the moon would have been dismissed as lunacy by the world just a few years ago. The rovers of two Asian powers puttering about on the regolith? Must be fakes. The allegation would not have been novel. The Apollo 11 landing 50 years ago had spun off a flourishing industry of conspiracy theories, with at least 20 authors and filmmakers alleging fakery.
They included Bill Kaysing (1922-2005), the top technical writer at Rocketdyne, which manufactured the engines of the Saturn V rockets which propelled Apollo to the moon. America was ripe for conspiracy theories. There were public suspicions about the US government, which was bumbling over Vietnam, was secretly bombing Cambodia and would soon face Watergate. Besides, the Kennedy administration had announced the moon mission in 1961, when the science for the project was yet undeveloped. To see astronauts frolicking on the moon just eight years later must have stretched credulity. On the other hand, a government that could send men to the moon must be capable of anything, even hiding the truth from the people.
After America, the race to the moon has pivoted to Asia, and the landing of Chinese craft on the moon in the Chang’e missions rekindled stories of American fakery. A widely circulated story by the World News Daily Report, a repository of the strange, quoted the Beijing Daily Express (which does not exist) to the effect that 2,000 Communist Party officials had signed a petition seeking a clarification from the US, because Chinese missions had found no evidence of American landings on the moon.
The funnies that have been running for 50 years are entertaining, and have matured well. In 1980, the Flat Earth Society suggested that the Apollo 11 mission was a Stanley Kubrick production, scripted by Arthur C Clarke and promoted by Disney. And, sometime in the Nineties, a story began to circulate about Neil Armstrong’s first words as he set foot on the moon. “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” had echoed around the world, in the most widely watched live TV transmission of that time. There was also radio chit-chat between the Eagle lander, the Columbia command module in lunar orbit and Nasa Mission Control in Houston. In the midst of all that, a brief aside was interpolated, a whispered message to a person unknown: “Good luck, Mr Gorsky.”
These words are missing from the Apollo 11 transcripts (conspiracy-wallahs would allege that it had been expunged), and people hearing the story assumed that it was a sarcastic message for a Russian competitor, whom Armstrong had beaten to the moon. But there was no Gorsky in the Russian space effort, either. Nevertheless, the Gorsky story circulated unabated, and the imaginary man’s back story was soon available.
Apparently, when Armstrong was a child in Ohio, playing baseball in the yard, the ball landed under the window of the neighbours, the Gorskys. As he picked it up, he heard Mrs Gorsky shouting at her husband for raising a demand of a conjugal adventure: “You want that? You’ll get it when the kid next door walks on the moon!” As Armstrong’s space boot sank into the lunar dust, back on earth, Mr Gorsky’s time had come.
As the story travelled, its anti-Semitic roots became obvious. Mr Gorsky’s name was replaced by others and they all sounded East European or Russian Jewish, communities stereotyped as conservative and timid. One version was actually credible — it dropped the whispered aside and only reinterpreted what Armstrong had said: “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for Manny Klein.” Klein and his desires remain as obscure as the facts about Gorsky’s existence. Armstrong himself heard the story only in 1995, 26 years after Apollo 11. Since he heard it from a comedian, he did not bother to refute it.
The more serious conspiracy theories suggested, like the Flat Earth Society, that the moon landing was a cinematic production. It was a prestige mission, and if Washington could produce it cheaper in Hollywood, why not? Assuming, of course, that the 4 lakh scientists, technicians and administrators who worked on the biggest public project of all time could be relied upon to support the lie. Another set of allegations claimed that the US government had falsified data from the project for national security. Dark Moon: Apollo and the Whistleblowers claimed that Nasa technicians ordered to doctor images had intentionally inserted obvious evidence of tampering.
This is tame stuff, compared to apocryphal stories about Armstrong setting foot on the moon to find that an Indian chaiwalla had already set up shop there. This story has been circulating from the Eighties, decades before the act of tea-selling acquired political heft. Now that India is making itself at home on the moon, we look forward to a rich crop of future fictions.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.