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)

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The Moon landing conspiracy theory has endured for more than 40 years, thanks in part to a thriving cottage industry of conspiracy entrepreneurs—beginning in 1974, when technical writer Bill Kaysing produced a self-published book, We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.

Arguing that 1960s technology was incapable of sending astronauts to the Moon and returning them safely, authors and documentary filmmakers have claimed, among other things, that the Apollo missions were faked to avoid embarrassment for the U.S. government, or were staged to divert public attention from the escalating war in Vietnam.

Perhaps one reason for the durability of the Moon hoax theory is that it is actually several conspiracy theories wrapped up in one. Each piece of “evidence” has taken on a life of its own, including such accusations as: the astronauts’ film footage would have melted due to the extreme heat of the lunar surface; you can only leave a footprint in moist soil; and the American flag appears to be fluttering in the non-existent lunar wind.

The scientific debunking of these and other pieces of evidence can be found at NASA’s website—or, at least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe.

4. “During the 1990s, NASA deliberately destroyed its own Mars space probes.”

Mars is the planetary equivalent of Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree. During the 1990s, NASA lost three spacecraft destined for the Red Planet: the Mars Observer (which, in 1993, terminated communication just three days before entering orbit); the Mars Polar Lander (which, in 1999, is believed to have crashed during its descent to the Martian surface); and the Mars Climate Orbiter (which, in 1999, burned up in Mars’ upper atmosphere).

Conspiracy theorists claimed that either aliens had destroyed the spacecraft or that NASA had destroyed its own probes to cover-up evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization.

The most detailed accusation of sabotage appeared in a controversial 2007 book, Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA, which declared “no cause for the [Mars Observer’s] loss was ever satisfactorily determined.”

Dark Horizon “came within one tick mark of making it onto the New York Times bestsellers list for paperback non-fiction,” bemoaned veteran space author and tireless debunker James Oberg in the online journal The Space Review. In that same article, he points out the book’s numerous errors, including the idea that there was never a satisfactory explanation for the probe’s demise. An independent investigation conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory concluded that gases from a fuel rupture caused the Mars Observer to enter a high spin rate, “causing the spacecraft to enter into the ‘contingency mode,’ which interrupted the stored command sequence and thus, did not turn the transmitter on.”

NASA did have a noteworthy success in the 1990s, with the 1997 landing of the 23-pound Mars rover, the Pathfinder. That is, of course, if you believe it landed on Mars. Some say that the rover’s images were broadcast from Albuquerque.

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