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By COLETTE BANCROFT, Times Staff Writer
It was one small punch for a man, but it made the news.
On Sept. 9, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, 72, one of the two men who made the first landing on the moon in 1969, landed a fist on the jaw of filmmaker Bart Sibrel, 37.
Aldrin had gone to a hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., for what he had thought was an interview with a Japanese TV show. Instead, he was confronted by Sibrel, who operates a video production company in Nashville and has made a career out of perpetuating the notion that NASA's Apollo moon missions were hoaxes.
As he's done before to several Apollo astronauts, Sibrel tried to get Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he had really been on the moon.
Aldrin's lawyer, Robert O'Brien, said the next day that the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Sibrel forced Aldrin up against a wall and refused to let him leave, so Aldrin launched the punch in self-defense. (On Sept. 21, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office announced it would not file charges against Aldrin, saying that he had been provoked into hitting Sibrel.)
Sibrel told reporters he had confronted Aldrin twice before but didn't expect to get clocked this time.
"I was very surprised that he hit me. I thought it was very foolish of him to do it in front of two video cameras," Sibrel said. "He has a good punch. It was quick, too. I didn't see it coming."
About those video cameras: Sibrel's stock in trade is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon, a "documentary" sold in VHS and DVD on his Web site (www.moonmovie.com/). The movie expounds on the theory that the moon landings weren't moon landings at all but special-effects movies shot in terrestrial studios and broadcast to a duped world as the astronauts circled the earth in low orbit until time for splashdown.
When Sibrel ambushed Aldrin in Beverly Hills, he was shooting footage for his next film. That punch was likely the stuff of Sibrel's dreams.
Sibrel is hardly the only person who believes the moon landings were a hoax. The rumor was born by the time Neil Armstrong got both feet on the lunar surface, and it has persisted over the years.
In 1978, it was an inspiration for the movie Capricorn One. Notable mostly for starring both of Barbra Streisand's husbands (James Brolin as a space mission commander and Elliott Gould as a pesky investigative journalist) as well as future slow-speed chase subject O.J. Simpson, the movie was a thriller about a faked landing on Mars.
For a couple of decades, the rumor faded and was revived in cycles. But like so many urban legends, Lunargate found its natural habitat on the Internet. A Yahoo search on "moon landing hoax" turns up more than 7,000 hits.
Many of them lead to sites that rehash the same hoax evidence, most of it supposed anomalies in photos taken on the moon. Lots of painstaking argument over parallel shadows, light sources, placement of objects in different shots -- you haven't seen photos this closely scrutinized since the most conceited girl in your high school class chose her senior portrait.
Along with the photo analysis come the conspiracy theories: The landing was faked by NASA and/or the government and/or the Freemasons (and maybe some Nazis) in order to (a) divert money to secret projects, (b) psych out the Russians and deter them from developing space-based weapons, (c) distract Americans from the debacle in Vietnam and political unrest at home, and/or (d) cover up a shadow space program that was much more advanced because the conspirators were in cahoots with aliens. (That one sounds familiar, doesn't it, Mulder?)
That a conspiracy like this would have involved thousands of people, all of whom would have had to agree to participate -- and keep silent about it for more than 30 years -- doesn't seem to faze the believers. Especially the ones who have a video or book to sell.
Fighting back with footnotes
Conspiracy theories and urban legends are as common as popup ads on the Web. What's interesting about the moon landing hoax is how many sites refute it.
Hell hath no fury like a scientist scorned, and it seems every one of those furious scientists has gone online to blast the moon hoax believers. These are sites with footnotes, by god. And they take no prisoners.
The Bad Astronomy site (www.badastronomy.com) is run by Philip Plait, who is on the faculty of the physics and astronomy department at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. Among other examples of bad astronomy, he takes on Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? The program, which rounded up many of the hoax believers, first aired on the Fox TV network in February 2001 and has been rerun several times.
Plait's rebuttal is so thorough, he has set up a table of subarguments, and he minces no words in his evaluation of the show's breathless credulousness: "From the very first moment to the very last, the program is loaded with bad thinking, ridiculous suppositions and utterly wrong science."
Plait updated his site after the Aldrin-Sibrel fracas to provide comment and links. He also promises a general debunking of the moon hoax theories but says they're so convoluted it will take him a while to counter them all. In the meantime, his site offers links to others on both sides of the argument.
The Moon Base Clavius site (www.clavius.org), named for the base in Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, is "an organization of amateurs and professionals devoted to the Apollo program and its manned exploration of the moon. Our special mission is to debunk the so-called conspiracy theories that state such a landing may never have occurred."
The site includes conspiracy, photography, environment, technology and gravity in its breakdown of hoax theory. One feature is a point-by-point countering of the "Top 10 Reasons Why No Man Has Ever Set Foot on the Moon" found on Sibrel's site.
The scientists with the most at stake have entered the fray as well. Last year NASA added to its Web site a page on "The Great Moon Hoax" (science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast23feb_2.htm). Ron Koczor, who oversees the site for the Science Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., says, "To be honest, we would have preferred to ignore" the hoax theories, but the Conspiracy Theory program brought them new attention.
"The reason we decided to do (the Web page) was we noticed we were getting a lot of e-mail from kids, from teachers, from parents, just from ordinary people saying, 'How can Fox be saying this?' "
Koczor says the hoax idea has been around since "almost as soon as the moon landing ended. I think that movie (Capricorn One) had a lot to do with it. A lot of people confuse science and science fiction."
The power of images
The Internet is just one of several factors in the persistence of the moon hoax theory, Jeffrey Hyson says. Hyson teaches American popular culture and history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and he is addressing similar issues in a new course on history and memory that examines how our recollections of events are shaped and changed over time.
"So much of it is the media," Hyson says, particularly the power of images, whether on television or the Web.
"There are many people who are completely convinced they saw John F. Kennedy shot on TV," Hyson says, even though the assassination was not broadcast. "They've seen the Zapruder film," shot by an amateur and widely shown, so many times that it has shaped their memory of what they saw on Nov. 22, 1963.
Media and our reactions to them are in turn shaped by historical context, he says, citing the panic raised by the broadcast in 1938 of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds. Many listeners thought the radio play, presented in realistic docudrama style, was a news report of an actual invasion by Martians.
That reaction wasn't just a result of the cast's and writer's skills, Hyson says. World War II was looming, and Americans feared invasion by earthly armies. That emotional climate made Welles' tale of spaceships in Grovers Mill, N.J., seem more plausible.
Recent events, especially the terrorist attacks, probably contribute to the renewed interest in Lunargate and other conspiracy theories, he says. "Despite or because of the war on terror, there's once again suspicion about what our government is doing," and that suspicion ranges across the political spectrum.
Changing political climates have shaped images of the moon missions over the years, he says. Capricorn One, made in wake of Watergate and Vietnam, imagined a landing on Mars as not only phony but part of a murderous government conspiracy. Its images "gave credence to how it could have been done for those who thought the moon landing was a hoax," Hyson says.
Seventeen years later, Apollo 13 offered a very different vision. It depicted a space program marked by "human ingenuity, technological know-how and can-do American power," Hyson says. "It said, not only can we land a man on the moon, we can get three guys almost there, and when everything goes wrong, we can get them back."
Internet images shape history in many new ways, Hyson says. Most of the moon hoax sites focus on deconstruction of photographs. "When images are isolated, replayed, analyzed over and over," almost any kind of interpretation can develop, "whether it's Kennedy, the Challenger, the Rodney King beating." Looking at an event frame by frame is a very different experience from looking at moving film or the event itself, he says.
The number of Web sites debunking Lunargate doesn't surprise him: "That's such a current kind of response." It happened after the Sept. 11 attacks when a photo began to circulate on the Web of a cheerful tourist standing atop one of the World Trade Center towers while a jet filled the sky just behind him.
The phony photo was a brief sensation, but, Hyson says, countless people went online to discredit it, picking apart everything from the story that the film had been found undamaged in a camera at ground zero to the methods used to fabricate the image.
The Internet creates a kind of dialectic about history we haven't seen before, one in which not just historians and governments but a huge, diverse group of people have a voice. How that democratization will affect history in the long run is anyone's guess, but it's custom-made for a nation of skeptics.
We are, after all, a country born because our ancestors questioned authority, and now we can question it online, where a click can be heard round the world.
The dialectic between those who think the landings were a hoax and those who think the landings were real has created humor, if not history.
The hoax believers take a mooning from several satiric sites. Zoyx's Club Lard Investigative Reports (home.kurtmayer.com:8001/moon/default.shtml) sends up the photo-analysis angle with skillfully doctored shots of the first lunar landing that reveal a pizza box perched on a rock behind the landing module and a TelePrompTer reflected in Neil Armstrong's visor, scrolling up the words, "One small step for man, one giant leap . . ."
A slide show at the Site With No Name (www.dc8p.com/html/moonhoax.html) offers a view of the famous footprint on the lunar surface with a Nike logo in its center and analyzes the nonparallel shadows thrown by the landing module and a set of patio furniture next to it.
The Project Galactic Guide (www.galactic-guide.com/articles/8S12.html) has a deadpan riff on the theory the moon shots were filmed on earth, explaining that director Stanley Kubrick was hired to shoot all three landings because conspirators admired his 1968 film version of Clarke's book 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Kubrick directed the first two landings, the story goes, but quit "because NASA officials rejected his screenplay in which the Apollo 13 mission fails. Kubrick insisted that a dramatic failed mission from which the astronauts were safely returned to Earth would ultimately prove to be NASA's 'finest hour.' ...
"Ironically, NASA later decided to use the failed mission scenario, for which Randall Cunningham -- a little known but highly respected British director -- was recruited to direct."
Hm, Randall Cunningham. Never heard of him, can't find him on the Internet Movie Database, but . . . sounds like Richie Cunningham . . . who was played by Ron Howard, who directed . . . Apollo 13. The 1995 movie, not the 1970 mission. I think.
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