Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'The Moon landing - a giant leap or just one big lie?'

Reach for the sky: Buzz Aldrin leaving footprints on the Moon, which are there to this day
Reach for the sky: Buzz Aldrin leaving footprints on the Moon, which are there to this day
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

As we approach next week's 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, it's no surprise to see the TV schedules stuffed with documentaries and interviews marking the momentous event.

And it was a momentous event.

In fact, it remains, without a single shadow of a doubt, the single greatest achievement in human history.

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Obviously, landing the Pathfinder on the surface of Mars was an astonishing piece of ingenuity, while the pictures sent back from the edge of the solar system by the Hubble telescope are truly awesome, in the original meaning of the word.

But sending men to the Moon in a ship, which had less computing power than the modern washing machine, remains a mind-blowing, humbling feat of courage, ingenuity and quick thinking, and remains our greatest example of the wondrous curiosity of mankind.

Frankly, even today, it is almost unbelievable. Almost unbelievable? Or actually unbelievable?

Certainly the facts, from the very start, are almost enough to give you a headache.

One of the most incredible aspects of the Moon landing goes straight back to the first ever powered flight by man.

The Wright brothers changed the world when they flew the Wright Flyer just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903.

That first flight, which covered less distance than the length of a jumbo jet, seems almost hopelessly rudimentary these days. But one of those delightful factoids about the Wright brothers' achievement really puts the Moon landing into a fascinating context. That's down to the fact that when Orville Wright died in 1948, the man who would become the first human to land on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, was already 17.

From a field in the boondocks to the Moon in six decades. That's one hell of an evolutionary leap when you think about it, and an amazing example of the speed of the technological progress when it comes to manned flights.

It's also one of the reasons why many scientists are now convinced that the first human to land on Mars has already been born.

Of course, there are those who simply refuse to believe that within the space of the shared lifetime between Wright and Armstrong, we could go from flying a plane made out of plywood for a hundred yards to landing on the Moon and then, even more improbably, returning safely to terra firma.

I made this point - and I do find it one of the most amazing examples of the speed of human ingenuity - to an acquaintance a few months ago, and he harrumphed that "when something seems too good to be true, then it probably is".

His argument was that such an undeniably interesting quirk simply proved that the whole Apollo 11 missions was, to put it politely, rather bogus.

Like many of the smarter conspiracy theorists - if that's not an oxymoron - he was at pains to emphasise that he didn't automatically dismiss the whole mission.

Instead, he claimed "we haven't been told all the answers".

Then, moving swiftly into full tinfoil helmet territory, he said he "was just asking questions".

That's the go-to position for many of those who still doubt the landings - they're savvy enough to know they'll be laughed out of town by rational people, so they couch their doubts in quasi-journalistic fashion, claiming they merely want answers.

But the problem with those Moon-landing theories, like all other conspiracy theories, is that the person who holds those views already thinks they have all the answers, so they try to come up with the questions which will suit those answers.

It's the precise opposite of the scientific method, and while theorists may try to adopt a veneer of rationality, they're simply engaging in a secular form of religious devotion, ignoring the facts and clinging on to ideas that aren't backed up by any evidence.

The assassination of JFK and the Moon landings were the mother and father of all conspiracy theories until 9/11 happened (or did it?).

Post 9/11, those conspiracists, who used to dwell in the shadows, came out and tried to legitimise their irrationality, usually by accusing everyone else of being either 'sheeple' or actual government stooges.

And just as the 9/11 conspiracy theories collapse under the weight of their own inherently irrational contradictions, so it goes for the Moon landings.

For starters, thousands of people worked on the Apollo 11 mission. That's asking a lot of people to keep a secret.

The lack of a blast crater from where they landed? That's simply physics in the vacuum of space.

The lack of stars in the photographs taken from the Sea of Tranquility? Due to time exposures on the cameras.

Such questions were at least legitimate, because they centred around the anomalies that occur in zero gravity.

But then there's the real wackadoodle stuff involving Stanley Kubrick faking the whole thing.

The only value of that particularly daft idea is that if someone mentions it at a party, you know you need to immediately move away and talk to someone else.

Of all the conspiracy theories out there, the Moon landing is probably the most benign, and it can be an undeniably diverting parlour game - after all, nobody trusts governments anymore, so it makes sense to second guess the official narrative.

But it's also a complete waste of time and energy when you consider how the truth of that mission is so much more fascinating than the rumours.

Every teenage boy will have laughed at the fact, for instance, that the main problem faced by the astronauts was the constant farting - the water they were drinking became unexpectedly fizzy and they suffered from "extreme flatulence".

Numerous satellites have taken pictures of the surface of the Moon - and those first human footprints on another celestial object are still evident to this day - and will be forever.

But perhaps the best rebuttal of them all is aimed at the admittedly plausible theory that the Yanks were desperate for a win in a Space Race they had been comprehensively losing against the Soviets.

Yet Russian cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, who was in a secret Soviet base listening in to the whole operation, has recalled: "I swear to God, we sat there with our fingers crossed. We hoped the guys would make it. We wanted this to happen. We knew those who were on board and they knew us, too."

I mentioned that to my doubting friend.

His response? "Did you actually see him saying that or is it more fake news?"

Honestly, sometimes you just can't win.

Yet, if someone insists on believing in such theories, the Moon hoax is the most harmless of them all.

Better that than the dangerous anti-vax nonsense, any day of the week.

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