Ten Enduring Myths About the U.S. Space Program

Outer space has many mysteries, among them are these fables about NASA that have permeated the public’s memory

The Moon landing conspiracy theory has endured for more than 40 years, thanks in part to a thriving cottage industry of conspiracy entrepreneurs. (NASA)

1. “The U.S. space program enjoyed broad, enthusiastic support during the race to land a man on the Moon.”

Throughout the 1960s, public opinion polls indicated that 45 to 60 percent of Americans felt that the government was spending too much money on space exploration. Even after Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind,” only a lukewarm 53 percent of the public believed that the historic event had been worth the cost.

“The decision to proceed with Apollo was not made because it was enormously popular with the public, despite general acquiescence, but for hard-edged political reasons,” writes Roger D. Launius, the senior curator at Smithsonian’s divison of space history, in the journal Space Policy. “Most of these were related to the Cold War crises of the early 1960s, in which spaceflight served as a surrogate for face-to-face military confrontation.” However, that acute sense of crisis was fleeting—and with it, enthusiasm for the Apollo program.

2. “The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is part of NASA.”

The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization consisting of three research centers. The program is not part of NASA; nor is there a government National SETI Agency.

NASA did participate in modest SETI efforts decades ago, and by 1977, the NASA Ames Research Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) had created small programs to search for extraterrestrial signals. Ames promoted a “targeted search” of stars similar to our sun, while JPL—arguing that there was no way to accurately predict where extraterrestrial civilizations might exist—endorsed a “full sky survey.”

Those plans came to fruition on October 12, 1992—the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Less than a year later, however, Nevada Senator Richard Bryan, citing budget pressures, successfully introduced legislation that killed the project, declaring that “The Great Martian Chase may finally come to an end.”

While NASA no longer combs the skies for extraterrestrial signals, it continues to fund space missions and research projects devoted to finding evidence of life on other worlds. Edward Weiler, an astrophysicist and associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, told Smithsonian magazine: “As long as we have water, energy and organic material, the potential for life is everywhere.”

3. “The Moon landing was a hoax.”

According to a 1999 Gallup poll, 6 percent of Americans doubted that the Moon landing actually happened, while another 5 percent declared themselves “undecided.”

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