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Even for rocket scientists, pulling hoax would be hard
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. While many conspiracy theorists allege the moon landing was staged, NASA experts say there's too much evidence proving it actually happened.


Listen as James Oberg talks about the dirt and dust on the moon's surface.

One Small Step. One Giant Leap. Man’s first moonwalk, 40 years later

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In every crowd, there's someone who guffaws in disbelief.

No matter how much evidence you show them, they'll still shake their heads, deliberate in their own opinion about what happened.

Take the moon landing, which for years had a quiet subculture of people who swear it happened on a Hollywood soundstage.

It's the kind of thing that makes former NASA rocket scientist James Oberg shake his head in his own disbelief. He has a term for it: "cultural vandalism."

"People believe strange things because it makes them feel superior," Oberg said in a phone interview with The Times. "There's a bit of cultural vandalism there where people will feel, to be blunt about it, people who have not been successful in their own real lives and often there's a resentment against other people who have done things successfully."

Oberg isn't the only moon buff we spoke with about the amount of evidence supporting the moon landing. Aaron Parrett, an English professor at University of Great Falls in Montana, specializes in writings about the moon both in ancient times and in the decades after the moon landing. He said when someone approaches him questioning his belief in the moon landing, he sees it as a reflection of an ignorant society.

One poll he cited showed as much as 25 percent of the U.S. population didn't believe in the moon landing, and 75 percent didn't believe in evolution.

"So you have a huge ignorant population," said Parrett, who received his graduate degree from the University of Georgia. "So it doesn't surprise me people don't believe they didn't land on the moon, but the evidence is overwhelming."

Among nonbelievers, Parrett said, many are of the generation who witnessed the moon landing as older adults. Younger Americans, he said, grew up with the space program and are more likely to take it as its word.

"They watched it on TV but they also realized it's pretty easy to fake things on TV," he said. "So the conspiracy theorists started right when it happened."

Flowery Branch resident Carol Bannister said her mother was part of that generation, too.

"My mom didn't believe it, but, now, you've got to remember when my mom moved from Dahlonega down to Gainesville, she moved in a covered wagon," she said. "To her, to imagine that somebody travel to the moon, uh huh. ‘But the moon's just a light that God put up there anyway,' that's what she'd say."

Oberg laid out a few pieces of evidence that show the moon landing wasn't faked.

First, there's the complaints about the picture of Neil Armstrong saluting the flag. Conspiracy theorists say the flag shouldn't be waving, the perspective is off, the lighting is all wrong.

Well, if it doesn't look right, Oberg said, it's because it shouldn't. It's on THE MOON.

"We have visual cues in things that we see that we are almost distinctive, in terms of illuminations, shadows, lights, all sorts of things," Oberg said. "And a lot of people observed correctly that the shadows and lights in these pictures from space didn't look right, and they're right, they don't look right. They're not on earth."

You have to rethink the way light is reflecting and the way depth is perceived in an atmosphere with no dust particles, he said. And, "You've got to overcome some of your instincts to understand some of this stuff."

To conspiracy theorists who say the shadows are all wrong in moon pictures, Oberg said it's because light reflects differently off moon rocks. Sand we see on earth has been tumbled and washed by water and wind. But dirt on the moon came about after millions of years of other space rocks smashing into it, and their surfaces are sharp.

"The lunar surface is very much reflective grains, like cat's eyes, where light is reflected backwards very strongly, and off the angle not as strongly," he said.

Then, take the entire culture of NASA scientists, whose many thousands are by their nature distrustful of large-scale operations. It's hard enough orchestrating a conspiracy that involves thousands of employees and multiple countries; it's even more difficult to organize scientists who are rebels in their own right.

"NASA culture was basically people in general who avoided service during the Vietnam War by being in NASA. They're not a bunch of draft dodgers but ... they're rambunctious and not just unorganized but anti-organized.

"So the biggest argument against the conspiracy is, it would be actually harder to pull off than actually going to the moon."