Whether you’ve already seen “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” – the highly-anticipated third installment of Michael Bay’s epic action franchise – or you’re planning to check it out over the holiday weekend, you’re probably already aware of the film’s general premise.
No, we’re not talking about Autobots versus Decepticons versus Shia LaBeouf, with a hot chick thrown in the mix. Though it’s got that, too. We’re referring to the fact that the movie re-imagines the history of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, presuming that – instead of a science-based plight – a highly secretive mission was forged to investigate a mysterious robot-laden spacecraft that crashed on the lunar surface one year prior to Neil Armstrong’s infamous “one small step.”
This got us thinking about moon landing conspiracy theories. So we contacted Roger Launius, Senior Curator of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Not only does Roger have a Ph.D. in history, but he’s been an aerospace historian since 1982, and he was a NASA chief historian between 1990 and 2002 before joining the Smithsonian in 2002. He’s also written or edited over 20 books about aerospace history.
Roger’s insights about the nature of historical conspiracy theories, the psyche behind them, and the way that Hollywood gets it right (and wrong) are completely fascinating.
MTV: How exactly did the conspiracy theories about the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing creep into popular culture – is there something particular that may have triggered it?
Roger Launius: Well, Americans love conspiracy theories. The American Revolution was sparked by a conspiracy theory!
MTV: So specifically in history in the mid to late 60’s or even in the early 70’s, was there something going on that caused more paranoia than usual?
Launius: No, not really. And paranoia is the wrong term – conspiracy theories are convenient ways of simply explaining something that is difficult to understand. And when you peel them back – in almost every case – they are not the malevolent, broad-based things that people envision them to be.
I mentioned the American Revolution, which was predicated upon a conspiracy theory that the British were attempting to rob Americans of their rights, their liberty. And they responded to that with a violent overthrow of the British government in America.
The other 20th century one, for instance, is the so-called “Back Door to War” in 1941 in which Roosevelt was said to have known in advance that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor and that he withheld that information from the Pacific fleet so that he could get into a war with Germany. And is there anyone around who doesn’t believe that JFK involved some kind of conspiracy? And – by the way – I’m one of them who doesn’t, the evidence is pretty clear.
MTV: It seems like the Apollo 11 mission is the one that keeps getting picked on in popular culture.
Launius: Of all the conspiracies that are out there it’s the one that got the least amount of support. The public opinion polls said in the early 1970’s that only 4 or 5% of the public believe that it was faked. Today it’s still about 4 or 5%. So it’s a pretty small sample that actually believes this stuff. There are some segments of the population in which it’s much higher, and there are important reasons why that might be the case. But generally speaking of the population as a whole, it doesn’t ring. On the other hand, you look at something like the JFK assassination conspiracy and you’re going to see a steady upward tick of people who believe there was a conspiracy.
This moon landing conspiracy theory is more fun than anything else for lots of people – not a serious thing – but conspiracies are mostly built around this need to and this desire to explain very simply something that is complex. It’s also built around – in the case of things like the JFK or the moon landing – a disbelief in and a distrust of authority.
MTV: Is it true that there’s a moon landing conspiracy theory involving Stanley Kubrick and his footage from “2001: A Space Odyssey”?
Launius: Yes, that’s actually a very late theory – that didn’t come until after the turn of this century. Nobody said anything about it earlier – not I’ve been able to find. People point to that and they talk about this secret deal between Stanley Kubrick – by the way, there’s not a shred of evidence to support that idea [laughs], but that doesn’t keep someone from spinning it. And that’s part of the interest, and maybe it’s part of the fun of this, too, is that you can spin whatever theory you want. And these theories all conflict! So, why is that one is believable and other ones are not? Or for that matter – why are any of these believable and a story of the moon landings propagated by a team of hundreds of thousands of people, witnessed by millions of people could not be acceptable?
MTV: It’s surprising that the Kubrick theory came out after the turn of this century, since the movie was released in 1968 – one year before the Apollo 11 mission. When exactly was this moon landing conspiracy at its height of popularity?
Launius: It was never a huge conspiracy – it’s not very broad based. Occasionally you’ll find a news story, but it’s not until 1974 that there is the first published statement. When Bill Kaysing wrote his 50-page booklet that he self-published, laying out his theory for the denial of moon landings – that was, for a number of years, the only thing that people looked at. And then other people got into it. It’s become a cottage industry – you’ve got a few of these guys who are out there producing this stuff. Bart Sibrel is someone who’s making videos and selling them. There are some people who I think are generally convinced of this and there are others who I think are charlatans who are just trying to make a buck.
MTV: Do you think this curiosity around these people and what they say is the reason we keep seeing this poking fun at or rewriting of the moon landing mission come up in popular culture?
Launius: Well how often do they come up in film and popular culture in terms of re-writing? There are the conspiracy theory folks who do their thing – that doesn’t reach very many people, to be perfectly honest, and is not accepted in society. And then in terms of feature films I’m not aware of very many – if any – that have really re-written the moon landing story in any way at all. I mean, this one that’s coming out [“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”] is the only one I can think of off the top of my head.
MTV: “Capricorn One” was about a fake NASA mission to Mars, not the moon, but I think “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” may indeed be the first one to really re-write it. Though “National Treasure 2” mentioned that the details of the Apollo hoax were in a book of secrets. There are a few that are referential like that.
Launius: You see these kind of references periodically in pop culture but they’re almost throwaways – they’re not parts of the plot, and they’re these just kind of one-liners that are passed by.
MTV: So for people who still may doubt it – is there irrefutable evidence that we did in fact land on the moon?
Launius: Well, the no-brainer is that the Americans engaged in this activity in a space race with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had both the capability and the desire to expose that the landing had it been faked, and they never said a word. In fact, they congratulated the Americans over and over again. They knew what we were doing – they were watching everything that we were doing and quite frankly if we had tried to fake it they would’ve sounded the alarm everywhere in the world. I also don’t understand how you overcome the fact that you’ve got 400,000 people working on this program – how you keep a secret in that context.
MTV: Maybe it’s easier for people who weren’t alive at the time to swallow some of these conspiracy claims?
Launius: I have this theory that we divide time as human beings into three segments. One segment is the things we see ourselves, and we mark our lives by these great events that take place in the world around us. We all know where we were when we first heard about the Twin Towers on 9/11. And that’s the dominant event in the history of millenials. The second segment of history is things that we didn’t witness but that people around us who we love – our parents or our grandparents – tell us about. It has more immediacy for you because of those personal connections to it that you gain not for yourself, but from those who are around you that you care about and you trust and love. And then there’s everything else. Half of the world has been born since we stopped going to the moon – and for those people, it’s fast becoming that third phase of history, that they certainly didn’t witness first-hand, and in some cases their parents and grandparents didn’t witness it either. And so it has equal value in most people’s minds as things that happened hundreds if not thousands of years ago. It doesn’t have that same immediacy, so it’s easier to believe the misinformation if you don’t spend the time to really try to find out.
MTV: You just brought up a really interesting point, because most of the target audience for this newest “Transformers” movie is basically in that third segment when it comes to the 1969 moon landing. Not to say they’ll swallow the whole alternate reality, but they have a better suspension of disbelief.
Launius: Yes. And I’m a little concerned because I’m sure we’re going to get tons of questions from people about this “Transformers” movie and the conflation of reality and fiction, and we’ll have to spend the time unraveling that for people.
MTV: Is there any subject – scientific, historical or otherwise – that you’d rather see Hollywood re-theorize or re-imagine, or would you prefer that they just left it all well enough alone?
Launius: Hollywood – they’re a dream factory. It’s a term that’s been used many times. And they’re very good at that. And some of the things that they do are really quite excellent, but the films that they produce that are historical tend not to be very good most of the time, in terms of their attention to the realities of the history. And there are some films coming out of Hollywood that have tried to depict events that have actually taken place in ways that actually do illuminate.
MTV: What are a couple examples?
Launius: To use a space example – I think “Apollo 13” is a pretty good characterization of an actual event. It’s not perfect – individuals are kind of mushed together, there are technical difficulties and not everything is accurate, but they did a pretty good job with it. I think a movie like “Gettysburg” does a similar decent job of telling a historical story – it’s relatively accurate. So there are films that I think are good in terms of depicting actual events. There are other films that I think do a very fine job of recreating an era even though they’re fictional films – you can point to classics like “Casablanca” in that category. It captured a mood and a spirit in the early 1940’s in an entirely fictional film but it did it really well. “Cold Mountain” is an interesting film that can be used quite effectively to evoke a mood and a culture of a Civil War hero.
MTV: So where has Hollywood gotten it wrong?
Launius: Film is such a powerful medium that it just tends to dominate what you think about something after you see one of these renditions. And I think filmmakers need to pay more attention to the millions of people they’re going to reach when they’re telling them a particular story, because people believe that’s the way that it was. I’ve used JFK a couple times in terms of the assassination and the conspiracy, but the "JFK" movie that was made with Kevin Costner just has dominated a whole generation’s worth of thinking about this, and of course it’s utter nonsense.
I believe it can be very dangerous, and that’s part of the problem. My favorite whipping boy is "The Patriot" – that Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution. Basically he’s a southern planter who has no slaves. OH COME ON! [laughs] They’re all freed men who work for him and they’re paid a wage and all that nonsense, and he’s got African Americans who are coming to volunteer to be a part of the Revolution. It’s a travesty in terms of the history. And it does an injustice to a past that we need to understand and not try to reinterpret in a way that we find more comfortable.
MTV: So I guess there can be two types of films to consider here – the ones that project themselves as being historically accurate even though they’re not, like “The Patriot,” and the ones that are blatant about their historical inaccuracies in that they simply use history as a re-imagining and a device to move a plot forward, like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” Obviously this never did happen – there aren’t giant robots on the moon.
Launius: So you say! [laughs] What makes you think they’re not there?
MTV: Oh really? Are you starting to do enough research that you’re perhaps doubting the validity of the USA’s trips to the moon?
Launius: No no, I’m not [laughs] – and if there’s one message I hope to get across, it’s that you should look at these things – I mean, enjoy “Transformers” – I’m sure the film’s very enjoyable – but when you walk out of the movie, make sure you actually question and – at this point – you should actually engage your disbelief instead of suspending it and critically think about the things that you saw, and don’t conflate reality with fiction.
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