One giant leap for conspiricists

It’s a key belief of conspiracy theorists that the state has shady powers, and so it was remarkable to be told this week that Britain’s head of state may share such fears. After the crown’s role in halting Paul Burrell’s trial, many suspected that the Queen might be the instigator of a conspiracy, but the butler now helpfully presents her as the possible victim of one. The claim by Princess Diana’s ex-Jeeves that the Queen warned him about ”powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge” suggests that conspiracy theorists have infiltrated the very heart of British power.

If she really is a counter-historian — the term that doubters of the official public version of history prefer — then Elizabeth II, while she’s waiting for that phone call from former President Kennedy on the Hawaiian island where ”they” keep him, will be keen to read the 30 000-word book that Nasa is preparing to answer the frequent allegations in the US that the moon landings were an anti-Soviet publicity stunt filmed in a Hollywood studio.

For three decades, the space industry chose to ignore mutterings about alleged inconsistencies in the footage of the moon landings — the absence of stars in the sky, the fact that the American flag ripples when planted although there’s no wind in space — on the basis that no sensible person thought Apollo 11 was a trick. But in the world of counter-history, silence is taken as guilt and polls now show that 20% of Americans believe Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were faking it.

Alternative versions flourish because recent White Houses have so often been caught lying: it’s unfortunate for Nasa that the great fraud, Nixon, was the most powerful man on earth at the time the astronauts claimed to have seen it from space. But there are several other reasons why dissent has gathered around this particular event. The first is that the size and mystery of space naturally encourages speculation. The theory that the moonshots happened in a studio is only the second most popular conspiracy theory in the US; the top one is the belief that the American government in the 1940s covered up the landing of extraterrestrials in the New Mexican desert. In the false logic favoured by counter-historians, if the government is capable of pretending that nothing came from space, it’s perfectly capable of lying about what went the other way.

A second trigger to scepticism is that, because the space race was abandoned, the lunar walks have left almost no cultural footprints: it’s sometimes as if they never happened. Even those of us who watched it on television now sometimes feel as if we dreamed it all. For the paranoid, it’s a short step from that perception to the suggestion that perhaps they never did.

Finally, in the topsy-turvy world of the theorists, it’s often held that popular fiction contains the facts which the authorities are suppressing, and a successful film — Capricorn One — posits the Apollo hoax. One of its stars was OJ Simpson and, if you’re a real grade-one wacko, you believe that the actor was later framed by the LA cops because he was about to reveal that Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind occurred on a California lot.

Nasa’s volume will take on each of the myths in turn. The absence of stars in the sky? The brightness of the earth and moon prevent these smaller light sources showing on photos. The wind-rippled flag? Aldrin and Armstrong had to corkscrew the pole into the hard moon rock and the fabric is still reacting to this force.

The problem is that these explanations sound so unlikely and unscientific that it’s almost more rational to uphold that the moonshot was a movie shoot. And, unfortunately, Nasa will find that it is impossible to change the minds of counter-historians, who work by a convenient double bind in which state authorities which refuse to respond to questions are guilty of a conspiracy of silence, while those who answer back are indulging in a cover-up. The Apollo-Moonies will simply shake their heads in wonder at the sheer energy and expense which the guardians of the space race are putting into sustaining their fiction. The appearance of the book will convince them only that Nasa is badly rattled.

For 34 years after what the American media presented as the assassination of President Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, it was common to observe that Britain lacked any such great public mystery of its own. There doubtless are people in Britain who believe that aliens landed at New Malden in 1947, but the rumour has never taken off in the way that the New Mexico one did. By dying in a car crash which could be regarded by those of such mind as an MI6 assassination aimed at preventing the young princes acquiring a Muslim stepfather, Princess Diana gave the UK its own Dallas ’63. Now, through the trial of her butler, she’s handed us a potential native Watergate as well. Perhaps it was also Diana’s belief that she was being bugged by the security services which turned her former mother-in-law into the conspiracy theorist that she is now claimed to be.

But, you know, I have to say that what worries me is that this whole Nasa book thing is an attempt to distract our attention from what really went on in the Burrell trial. Those rocket scientists will stop at nothing. – Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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