Moon fraud theories well rooted on Earth| Frederic Pouchot 16 Jul 2019
It was the biggest piece of supposed fake news before the term "fake news" was invented.
Millions of people across the world still believe that no one has ever walked on the moon and that the images NASA broadcast in July 1969 were shot in a Hollywood studio.
Thousands of internet sites are devoted to "proving" the landing never happened, or calling into question the whole Apollo 11 mission.
Some claim that NASA did not have the technological know-how to pull off such a coup, or that if it did that it wasn't done with a human crew, who would surely have been fried alive by cosmic rays.
Others tout possible alien involvement, which of course has been covered up - as has the lunar civilization the astronauts discovered! But almost all the conspiracy theories focus on supposed anomalies in the grainy photos and videos sent back to Earth.
Shadows in the footage show they were suspect as is the absence of stars in the sky in some images - theories which have long since been refuted by scientists.
Yet theories live on regardless of proof from the Lunar Orbiter in 2009 that show abandoned modules from Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16 and 17 still on the moon's surface.
When Apollo 11's lunar module touched down on the Sea of Tranquility in 1969, less than one in 20 Americans doubted what they were seeing on their television screens. By the turn of the century a Gallup poll found skepticism had only spread to 6 percent of the population.
In contrast, more than half of Russians - the old Cold War enemy - still refuse to believe the Americans got there first.
But surprisingly serious doubt is also rampant among some of Washington's closest allies, with a 2009 TNS survey showing a quarter of British people did not believe the landings happened, while 9 percent of French were also unconvinced, according to pollsters Ifop.
French academic Didier Desormeaux, who has written widely on conspiracy theories, says the more important an event the more likely it is to attract outrageous counter narratives.
"Conquering space was a major event," he says. "Undermining that can shake the very foundations of science and man's mastery of nature." And that makes it a target for conspiracists.
While earlier conspiracy theories also involved images - the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, for instance - "what is new about these rumors is that they are based on a minute deconstruction of the images sent back by NASA," Desormeaux insists.
For him it is has been the first time a "conspiracy theory was built entirely around the visual interpretation of a media event."
The same logic has been used to dismiss school massacres in the United States as fake, he adds, with conspiracists claiming the dead are played by actors.
"Images can anesthetize our capacity to think" when deployed with ever more twisted leaps of logic, he warns. "The power of such theories is a kind of evangelism, and so they can go on forever."
For former official NASA historian Roger Launius, "the fact the denials of the moon landings will not go away should not surprise anyone."
Launius says in his book Apollo's Legacy that deniers "do not accept the same rules of investigation and knowledge that all others live by. They have tapped into a rich vein of distrust of government, populists critiques of society and questions about the fundamentals of [scientific method] and knowledge creation."
For decades they have played on "our deepest and most secret fears" fed by America's defeat in the Vietnam War at home and by anti-Americanism abroad, he adds.
But Launius also blames media for fueling paranoia.
"Moon landings denials are fanned by competition for a new perspective on the events," he argues.