LOS ANGELES – Was man walking on the moon a Hollywood hoax?
That theory has floated for years but it was prompted by network television’s desire to have visuals when Neil Armstrong made that first small step.
“The networks set up a big sound stage and lit it so it looked like the moon,” says Director Robert Stone. “They had actors dressed up and…CBS hired Douglas Trumbull, Stanley Kubrick’s special effects whiz on ‘2001,’ to help do all this.”
The “staged” landing was just a backup plan in case video cameras didn’t work.
In “Chasing the Moon,” a three-part look at the space program, Stone says there was no visual imagery of the moon landing “until they got down on the surface and took out a video camera. There was no live TV for a short period of time.”
The “faked” idea “got extrapolated out.”
“Conspiracy theories are about everything,” Stone says. “Something like 10 percent of the American population believes they have been abducted by aliens. Ten percent is like one of those baseline numbers.”
Some even believed the faked landing was taking place at Houston’s Astrodome, says Mark Bloom, a New York Daily News reporter who covered the Apollo missions.
“What’s amazing,” Stone adds, “is the Russians never claimed it was hoax.”
Instead, they were very interested in the race to the moon.
“The Americans’ space technology eclipsed the Russians’,” Bloom says. Even before the landing, “the Russians had fallen behind quite dramatically in what they were able to do, what they were able to launch.”
In the PBS “American Experience” miniseries, many who were closely associated with the U.S. space program weigh in. The idea that it was a race between the United States and Russia was merely a way to get money to fund it. “It didn’t exist,” Stone says of the competition. “It was only the Americans’ (Wernher) von Braun telling everybody, ‘We’ve got to beat the Russians.’”
The idea that billions were being spent on the program bothered many Americans. “It almost went off the rails several times,” says Susan Bellows, senior producer of “American Experience.” “It took a lot of perseverance and persistence and sacrifice.”
It also required help from the media, Bloom says.
To position astronauts as heroes who had perfect families and perfect lives, public relations officials often ran interference. They followed some of the astronauts at night and got them out of trouble, making sure their stories didn’t get into the press.
“We should have written about it,” Bloom says. “But we did not. It was why you didn’t write about presidential peccadilloes at the time. We protected them and we probably should not have. I guess we didn’t feel that that was pertinent to going to the moon.”
John Glenn, Stone says, “was the one guy who actually lived up to the Life magazine profile.”
“The story we were covering was how well they performed as astronauts, not how well they performed late at night,” Bloom says.
In other areas, NASA was extremely open, Stone says. “If a rocket blew up, a rocket blew up. If there was a success, there was a success, which is contrary to what the Soviets did. They would only announce their successes.”
A cabin fire during the launch of Apollo 1, the first crewed mission of the program, killed its three astronauts. That shook NASA leadership, Stone says, and they “circled the wagons. They went against the advice of the PR people and created a degree of mistrust…that ended up erupting into a whole lot of negative press. It’s a great example of how to manage an enterprise like this, which is, ‘Get it all out there. The coverup is worse than the crime.’”
By the time NASA got to Apollo 11 and that moon landing, some of the thrill was over.
“I was fully aware that when they landed on the moon on the first try, the balloon had been punctured,” Bloom says. “It was not going to be as great a story anymore.”
Because the moon landing was such a huge accomplishment, there was a big sense of pride around the world, says Poppy Northcutt, the first woman at NASA’s mission control. “That was a singular event that they all remembered and took pride in – that humans had made this achievement.”
The story, Stone says, demonstrates it’s possible to solve any kind of technological problem. “If we’re going to solve something as big as climate change, we’re going to have to do something probably similar to the Apollo project,” he says. “There was a lot of public opposition to it. (But) everybody felt they had a personal connection to the whole. Now, more than ever, (there’s) a real hunger to come together and do something big.”
“Chasing the Moon” airs Monday through Wednesday on PBS.