Neil Armstrong and the Conspiracy Strong Arm

There is a young woman I work with who has some odd beliefs. She believes that behind each harmful habit a person can indulge in lies a demon, probably on a different plan of reality, whispering in our ears and manipulating us into doing whatever harmful thing it is, be it smoking or drinking – or whatever. I was unconvinced by her arguments, but – like most who at some level know their beliefs are garbage – she relaxed into the ‘you can’t you prove otherwise’ mode of thinking. When I hear something like this I know I am wasting my time discussing whatever topic it is, because, as we all know, you can’t reason someone away from a conclusion they didn’t use reason to arrive at.

We do discuss things other than the work of manipulative demons, however. For example we have suggested certain films the other should watch or books the other should read. One suggestion of hers was the movie Capricorn One. You just know what’s coming next.

‘It’s the movie which shows how they faked the moon landings,’ she said with breezy nonchalance which I found irritating.

‘The moon landings were faked?’ I asked her to confirm what I knew she had just said because I was checking she really meant it.

‘Yeah,’ she continued, unaware that that my estimation of her had just had its cable sliced-through and was now plummeting towards the basement, ‘they faked the moon landing to beat the Russians.’

I had, obviously, heard such tall stories before and knew very well about this and other conspiracy theories, but I had never believed the moon landings were faked; nor had I cared this way or that, but I knew enough to ask her one question which caused some interesting – and very quick – movements of her eyebrows, forehead and the muscles around her eyes.

‘Which moon landing was faked?’ I asked.

A slight hesitation. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, there were seventeen Apollo missions. The last seven were to land on the moon. We know about Apollo thirteen, so that leaves six moon landings. Which one was faked?’

The manifestation of several jumbled thoughts trying to get comfortable all at once, causing multiple facial expressions to flash across her face simultaneously and very rapidly, told me all I needed to know. She didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

So why did she believe this outrageous nonsense? What was the evidence for it?

She told me about waiving flags, dodgy pictures, missing stars, slow-motion film to suggest reduced gravity, computers with the power of calculators – all kinds of strange claims I hadn’t thought about before. So, just for the fun of it, I took a quick trip through some internet sites and every point she made was answered in five minutes. It seemed that nothing a moon-hoaxer could ask lacked an answer: the answers were simple, clear and utterly rational.

She did mention one thing which triggered a memory and suggested I might know a bit more about this than I had thought.

‘So, explain why Neil Armstrong became a recluse, then. If he was the first man on the moon why didn’t he become a famous celebrity, travelling the world making a fortune? He practically went into hiding because he was ruined by guilt.’

That had me searching my book shelves for something that evening. It was the Norman Mailer anthology – The Time of our Time. There was something I read in those pages which demanded to be found, and found it I did.

Mailer covered the Apollo 11 moon-shot for Life magazine, and his writing became the book, A Fire on the Moon. Extracts from this book are in The Time of our Time, and the part I wanted was the press conference where Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins met the hacks while sat in

a plastic box about twelve feet wide, ten feet deep and ten feet high. Blowers within this three-walled plastic room blew air from behind them out into the audience: thereby, the breath of the astronauts could enter the theatre but the airborne germs of the journalists would not blow back.

Such an odd set-up might have contributed to the mood in the room. Mailer suggests both the astronauts and the journalists were frustrated, though for different reasons. The Press because they

did not know how to push into nitty-gritty for the questions, the astronauts because they were not certain how to begin to explain the complexity of their technique. Worse, as if they did not really wish to explain, but were obliged out of duty to the programme, even if their privacy was invaded.

Having his privacy invaded was something Armstrong clearly hated, and Mailer describes Armstrong’s discomfort manifesting itself in a less than relaxed manner and style of delivery.

While the focus of attention was naturally on Armstrong for commanding the flight, he seemed in the beginning to be least at ease. He spoke with long pauses, he searched for words. When the words came out, their ordinary content made the wait seem excessive.

Mailer’s understatement in the final sentence makes it easy to forget, but it should be remembered. In Armstrong, then, was a fellow who was significantly uncomfortable while on public display. Uncomfortable to such a degree that Mailer observed Armstrong was ‘More wooden than young Robert Taylor, young Don Ameche, young Randolph Scott.’

As a speaker he was all but limp – still it did not leave him unremarkable. Certainly the knowledge he was an astronaut restored his stature, yet even if he had been a junior executive accepting an award, Armstrong would have presented a quality which was arresting, for he was extraordinarily remote.

Mailer’s last four words should be remembered. An obvious question presents itself. If Armstrong, while one of three in a press conference was uncomfortable, wooden of style and delivery, and remote to such a degree that it was described as ‘extraordinary,’ then what would happen to such a fellow after becoming the first man on the moon and the most famous man on the planet? What is more likely, that such a fellow struts his history-making stuff across the chat-show circuit – doing book-deals and adverts for aftershave along the way – or retreats from public life?

Mailer suggests that Armstrong, even while on public display, was hiding; hiding behind flat, expressionless words, phrases and technical jargon. Consider Armstrong being asked by a BBC man, James Gunn, what the plans are if the Lunar Module fails to fire-up and leaves two of the three stranded on the moon.

Armstrong smiled. His detestation at answering questions in public had been given its justification. Journalists would even ask a man to comment on the emotions of his oncoming death…At a press conference you answered questions. So Armstrong now finally said in answer to what they would do if the Lunar Module did not come up off the lunar surface, ‘At the present time we’re left without recourse should that occur.’

That Armstrong ‘became a recluse’ is evidence the moon-landing was faked if you are the type of person who does not know that Armstrong always was such a person, and that the moon-landing fame simply made him more so.

Of course, it was not the release of the movie Capricorn One which got the hoaxers started. Mailer sees the conspiracy coming and douses its spark with reason and logic thirteen years before the woman I work with was born:

The event was so removed, however, so unreal, that no objective correlative existed to prove it had not conceivably been an event staged in a television studio – the greatest con of the century…Indeed, conceive of the genius of such a conspiracy. It would take criminals and confidence men mightier, more trustworthy and more resourceful than anything in this century or the ones before. Merely to conceive of such men was the surest way to know the event was not staged.

Some conspiracies, though they are obvious nonsense, manage to attach themselves to the public mind and won’t let go. Not all of them require quotations from writers who were there at the time to put something into context.

Consider the belief that Flight 77 did not hit the Pentagon. This is a line taken by the 9/11 ‘truth movement.

One of its leading lights, a fellow called David Ray Griffin, won’t have it that the plane hit the Pentagon because, well, the crash site didn’t look right to him. He wrote a book in 2004 about this.  The hole in the wall didn’t ‘look right.’

David Aaronovitch, writing in Voodoo Histories, ruthlessly slays the entire argument with comical brilliance:

This idea seems to have been informed to an extent by Tom and Jerry cartoons in which the cat, Tom, when propelled through a wall, leaves his entire profile, whiskers and all, outlined in the brick.

The following is almost banal by comparison, but worth noting:

Fully 184 of 189 people known to have been aboard Flight 77 or killed in the Pentagon, were identified (mostly through DNA testing) from remains found at the scene.

Who wants boring facts like that when you could have a missile cloaked by holograms to look like a passenger plane? And how do you explain the passengers on the plane disappearing? That’s easy. The real plane was flown by remote control and dumped in the Atlantic.

Of course it was.

The young woman who still refuses to budge on the moon-shot hoax question is hardly alone in her refusal to accept reason, logic and plain facts. But why? Why are conspiracy theories so popular? The answer, Aaronovitch suggests, is quite simple, though I doubt many conspiracists will be quick to accept it:

The classic view of paranoia, the unwarranted belief that one is being persecuted, is that it is a wholly negative state. But what if paranoia is actually the sticking plaster that we fix to an altogether more painful wound? That of feeling ourselves to be of no importance whatsoever, and our lives (and especially our deaths) of little significance except to ourselves.

Aaronovitch, using an argument from psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, suggests that

paranoia may often be a defence against indifference, against the far more terrible thought that no one cares about you…The lonely person fears that there is a burglar or a murderer in the empty house waiting for them. Indeed, they may often perceive the real symptoms of such threats – the noises, the shadows, the displaced objects. These fears disguise the truly obliterating disaster, the often well-founded fear that no one is thinking about them at all.

If this creates paranoia, and paranoia creates conspiracy theories – and we know those theories are absurdly popular across the globe – then have we just learned something about human nature which is uncomfortable?

Religious belief, the idea you are watched by a supernatural being, is paranoia defined.

Could it be the case that the best and worst created by humans – whether it’s a charity or a suicide bomber – has its origin in a desire to be cared about?

That is a thought worth pondering, and it’s much more worthwhile a thing to consider than, for example, whether Diana was topped by rogue MI6 agents indulging in a bit of off-the-books wet work.

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