Illustration: Seth Thompson

The Moon Landing Hoax Theory Started as a Joke

How a freelance writer sowed doubts about the Apollo mission — now 50 years old — laying the groundwork for 9/11 truthers, birtherism, Pizzagate, and QAnon

Darryn King
Published in
15 min readJul 18, 2019

InIn December 1969, NASA’s public affairs chief, Julian Scheer, made a presentation to a group of aviation experts gathered in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Speaking six months after an estimated 650 million people watched a televised feed of the first Apollo moon landing, Scheer showed a series of films depicting cavorting astronauts and scientific equipment on what appeared to be a lunar landscape. The footage, Scheer revealed, was entirely terrestrial, shot during simulation exercises at NASA’s space-training facilities, including a rock quarry in Michigan. “You can really fake things on the ground — almost to the point of deception,” Scheer said, before inviting his audience to “come to your own decision about whether or not man actually did walk on the moon.”

Scheer’s talk was a goof, a winking thought experiment prepared for the 10th annual meeting of the Man Will Never Fly Memorial Society. The society, a satirical social club “dedicated to the principle that two Wrights made a wrong at Kitty Hawk,” comprised a group of hard-drinking pilots and airline executives who liked their booze served with irony and vice versa. (Motto: “Birds fly, men drink.”)

Scheer’s absurdist presentation was a sign of just how unthinkable it was to suppose that the moon landing was an elaborate hoax that had been conjured at the highest levels of the U.S. government. At the time, according to the New York Times, the notion was mostly confined to “a few stool-warmers in Chicago.” Within a decade, however, the idea would gain so much traction that NASA would find itself compelled to issue an earnest, and somewhat aggravated, fact sheet to debunk the conspiracy theory. “Did U.S. astronauts really land on the Moon?” the 1977 document began. “Yes. Astronauts did land on the Moon.”

The unlikely instigator of that reversal was a vagabond writer named Bill Kaysing. A free spirit with a healthy tan and the winning smile of someone who had it all figured out, Kaysing seems a peculiar figurehead for the movement he set in motion. But it was his…