PARIS: Thirty years after Man last walked on the Moon, the lunar landings are struggling to shake off rumours that they were nothing but a monstrous hoax.

To the vast majority of people, the six Apollo missions were among the most magnificent achievements of all time — and testimony from the astronauts, the lunar rock samples, photos and film footage root the landings in indisputable fact.

Not so for a tiny band of diehards, who have made it their goal to expose the missions as a gigantic con, mainly aimed at persuading Moscow that America had beaten it in the race to the Moon.

“The astronauts never made it beyond Earth orbit,” Bart Sibrel, a self-described investigative journalist, declares on his website (www.moonmovie.com).

“The goal was to fool the Soviet Union about US strategic ability during the height of the Cold War.”

French “independent investigator” Philippe Lheureux has published a book, “Lumieres sur la Lune” (Lights on the Moon), which insists that images released by NASA were doctored.

Typical of the skeptics’ contentions is that the US flag, planted in the lunar dust, is flapping in a breeze, which of course would be impossible on the airless Moon.

(The reason, says NASA: the flagpole was made of light, springy aluminium, and the astronauts had to twist it to get it into the soil, a movement that made the fabric ripple in the low lunar gravity.)

“The claims made by these conspiracy theorists are actually all wrong, and some are laughably so,” says Phil Plait, an American university teacher of physics and astronomy whose site (www.badastronomy.com) shoots down scientific arguments put forward by the debunkers.

In a bizarre confrontation at a Beverly Hills hotel last September, Sibrel cornered Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, and demanded that he swear on the Bible that he had in fact walked on the Moon.

Exasperated, the 72-year-old Apollo 11 astronaut punched Sibrel’s face (Sibrel was unhurt and police did not press charges).

The “hoax” allegations find an echo in other modern myths, such as crop circles and the supposed finding of extra-terrestrial bodies at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947.

And the allegations are equally persistent and equally capable of breeding suspicions of Masonic coverups and discoveries of aliens.

A classic hoax theory is that the landings were staged by spacesuited actors on a set in a hangar on a secret military base — a notion that chimes with the 1978 movie “Capricorn 1” about a faked mission to Mars.

Scientists may snigger at them, but the skeptics have made headway. In the Internet, they have found an inexpensive global platform with which to air their views and many succeed in getting television airtime.

They have featured in a one-hour documentary aired twice on the US channel Fox TV, while Lheureux was interviewed by the French channel France-2 for his book launch.

The NASA finds itself in a cleft stick, not least because it is preparing to fete the anniversary of the Dec 7-19, 1972, mission of Apollo 17, Man’s last trip to Earth’s satellite.—AFP

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