Yes, we actually landed on the Moon. No, aliens didn’t crash land at Roswell. What is it about space exploration that leads to so many conspiracy theories? We’ll try to get to the bottom of these conspiracy theories, poke holes in their ridiculous ideas and help you build your baloney detection kit.
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Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast episode 339: Space Conspiracy Theories. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe today. And, with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing?
Fraser Cain: Great. Now first I need to wish happy birthday to me, and not me specifically, but to Universe Today. Which, as of March 23, 2014, is 15 years old.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Dang.
Fraser Cain: I know, right? 15 years I’ve been running Universe Today. And, for the last seven, almost eight, we’ve been doing Astronomy Cast.
Dr. Pamela Gay: We’re like the old people of the internet. It’s kind of terrifying to think about. People keep claiming, “That internet thing, that’s for the youth.” It’s like, “No.”
Fraser Cain: And then one other thing is to – Let’s give another shout out, we’ll probably be doing this every week, for the Hang-out-athon that’s coming up in a month.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So, April 26th, 27th, we are going to produce 36 straight hours of content. Everything from discussing space and politics, to education, to live episode of Astronomy Cast, live episode of the Virtual Star Party, not that those aren’t live generally. But, special episodes during the Hang-out-athon. And the goal is to raise money to keep all of our humans employed, because eating is good and doing science is good and the federal government doesn’t fund things that are good, necessarily.
Fraser Cain: One last time, what’s the date?
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s April 26th, 27th.
Fraser Cain: Perfect. All right, let’s get on with today’s episode.
Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand, and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at www.8thlight.com. Just remember, that’s www.8thlight.com. Drop them a note. 8th Light; software is their craft.
Fraser Cain: Yes, we actually landed on the moon. No, aliens didn’t crash at Roswell. What is it about space exploration that leads to so many conspiracy theories? We’ll try to get to the bottom of these conspiracy theories, poke holes in their ridiculous ideas, and help you build your bologna detection kit.
Where to start, where to start? Do you want to start with older ones, newer ones, most ridiculous ones? And then we’ll try and undercover the philosophy. Pick one at random. Give me a space conspiracy theory that you think is hilarious.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Crop circles.
Fraser Cain: Good one. So what are crop circles?
Dr. Pamela Gay: So basically there’s all these images generally taken either from up on a hill, or taken from an aircraft, or something else, and they show these often amazing geographic this, that, and the other thing circles, circles and triangles and squares, fractal patterns. And, the claim is that it is not possible for humans to create such patterns overnight. And, the reality is, yeah it is. It just requires rope and wood and, really, it’s not that hard. Get over yourselves.
Fraser Cain: Well, and I think the most hilarious part about this is that the team of people who actually created these crop circles and kind of invented it in the first place just couldn’t take the rampant conspiracy theories anymore, and demonstrated how they did it. They took full responsibility, they showed all of their tools, they made crop circles for people, and people still don’t believe them.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s really kind of amazing. And, what I love is if you go to Avebury, the standing stones that aren’t Stonehenge in England, the gift shop that’s at the part of Avebury where the park is and where the pub is has this entire wall of pictures of crop circles that were taken all throughout the United Kingdom.
And, last time I was there, they had this little handwritten sign saying something along the lines of, “We are not condoning that this was done by aliens.” But, the fact that they are there causes people to think, “Oh, it’s aliens,” because Avebury standing circles, fairy magic, all of this somehow gets tangled together.
Yeah, it’s kind of confusing.
Fraser Cain: So I think I want to put one little nugget of that into the psychology conversation that we’re going to have a little bit later, which is that even though it’s been completely and totally debunked by the people who started the scam, it doesn’t slow down. It’s been increasing.
Okay, so crop circles is great. And man, that is just boiled down to its perfect essence. It’s simple, it’s easy to explain. That’s a space conspiracy theory. So let’s keep going.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, along the same lines, and this wasn’t on the list I remembered to send you ahead of time, but you just made me think of it, is the pyramids. The Stargate theory that the pyramids all around the world, pick a culture that built a pyramid, they had the help of aliens. And no.
Fraser Cain: No, they did not.
Dr. Pamela Gay: We’re still not entirely sure how the pyramids were built, but that’s mostly a problem of that we prefer not to think that that many slaves got killed. But, that’s a personal problem.
Fraser Cain: Well, I know that the pyramids are, in some way, I mean, they’re very carefully aligned; north, south. So the way they’ve been structured, the way they’ve been placed, there’s clearly some thought about geography. And, there’s some theories that they match the belt stars of Orion.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And I’m actually good with that being true, because the Egyptians were master geometrists, and the idea that they would align them perfectly north south so they could get all of the pyramids completely symmetric. I don’t know about you, but I am the, “Everything must align,” person when it comes to doing things in Illustrator or someplace that allows me vector art.
Well, this is like the masonry version of vector art. They just made sure everything aligned with what they had to align it to, which was the north pole. So no big deal on that. Why not make them look like the belt of Orion if you believe that there’s deities in the heavens?
I’m good with that part, I’m just not good with the whole notion of, “It required an alien space ship to come down and say, ‘Thou shalt,’ and provide the technology.” No, that didn’t happen.
Fraser Cain: And it’s funny because you get this situation and, again, this is another part of the conversation for the psychology discussion, which is that you can have a situation that you’re not certain how they did a thing. It is unknown. How exactly did the Egyptians move those stones from dozens of kilometers away, the rock from the quarry, to get it across the desert, to get into position, to get it up the hill, to get it in place? Was it a great big earthen ramp? Was it some kind of scaffolding system? Was it cranes? Whatever.
We don’t know exactly how they did it, and they didn’t provide good explanation. But, just because you don’t know how something was done, then doesn’t require the leap to, “Aliens did it.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And people do stupid things that you wouldn’t naturally figure out how they did it. So, for instance, on Failblog yesterday I saw a photo of a big forklift holding a smaller forklift holding a smaller forklift, and this stack of forklifts lifting forklifts, the smallest of the forklifts was carrying up the stuff they needed to get to the second story.
I, personally, if I knew what set of forklifts they had available, would never have considered stacking forklifts, because that falls into the, “Not exactly safe,” category of things to do.
Fraser Cain: But a forklift is just a weight, right? And so a forklift can carry a weight.
Dr. Pamela Gay: They can carry a weight, but that whole calculating center of mass thing I know didn’t occur. So, it just seems rather unsafe. So I’m sure there’s ideas that they came up with, given the tools that they had on hand, that we simply haven’t come up with, and that’s cool.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. So that’s good. This is great. I would love to unpack the rationale and the direction of the ones you’re picking, but please continue. What else is a space conspiracy theory?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, the rationale simply went from stone circles to pyramids seemed to be related in my head. Why not?
Fraser Cain: Are you sure that it’s not the secret NASA money, the government cover-up that’s making sure that you don’t speak about the alien cover-up?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, you mentioned, initially, oldest to newest, so I wasn’t too worried about that. If you want a NASA conspiracy the, I think, most tragic NASA conspiracy is actually involving Apollo 1, where Scott Grissom, Gus Grissom’s son and one of the engineers involved with the mission, had made sad, tragic claims that the fire on Apollo 1 was actually purposefully caused because they didn’t want Gus Grissom to be the first person to the moon.
And, the idea that his son would be part of that is just heartbreaking. The idea behind that conspiracy theory is the short that caused the fire on Apollo 1, it was an oxygen rich environment, combusted, everyone inside died. They didn’t have enough to really get the door open. It was just horrifying, death by fire. I think it’s got to be the most horrendous way to die. And the claim is that the switch that was switched that caused the short, the short was something that purposefully occurred because things just weren’t constructed correctly.
Fraser Cain: I mean, it was a bunch of things, right? There was a high pressure of oxygen in the capsule, the door was difficult to release, that they had flammable material in it, they weren’t kind of trained for fire in the situation, it was difficult for them to get out of their harnesses. After the fire, they went back and completely redesigned everything they did inside the capsule with this risk in mind, because you can just imagine how terrifying and awful it would be if they were actually in space when that happened. You would get a repeat of this disaster.
And, I’ll be honest, this conspiracy theory is completely new to me. So there is the theory that the fire was started intentionally?
Dr. Pamela Gay: That NASA was so insert expletive that the Mercury capsule that Gus Grissom had gone up in had been lost at sea because he opened the door wrong and there was panic involved, that they didn’t want him to be the first person on the moon.
And, because they were [inaudible], okay, there I went and used the expletive, you can beep that Preston. The conspiracy theory is that NASA was so determined, because they were upset that they’d lost one of the Mercury capsules, that they essentially killed off Gus Grissom rather than let him get the attention for going up to the moon.
Yeah. Isn’t that the most tragic – And the conspiracy theory is coming from his son, and it just breaks my heart.
Fraser Cain: Yeah. Well, okay, let’s move on. That’s just awful and wrong.
Dr. Pamela Gay: You wanted a NASA conspiracy theory.
Fraser Cain: I didn’t want one that was so – No, I wanted them all. I want all of the conspiracy theories. I mean, I don’t even know what to say, so let’s just move on. So let’s talk about, while we’re talking about Apollo projects, let’s just talk about the moon landings.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So my favorite, and this isn’t one of the standard debunked, but it’s nonetheless my favorite moon hoax. Or, moon conspiracy theory. It’s not a hoax. A moon conspiracy theory is that the Soviets, back in the days when it was the Soviet Union, had launched an astronaut to the moon with one of their standard missions, and it wasn’t an unmanned space craft, but rather one that had a cosmonaut on it that they had absolutely no way of getting home.
And, there was a mission launched right before the first Apollo mission, and the idea is that you have Buzz Aldrin standing there, digging up rocks, doing his rock collecting thing, and up over the horizon comes a dehydrated, half-starved cosmonaut going, “Hey, guys? Can I have a ride home? Please?”
Fraser Cain: And they left him there?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I don’t know how the rest of that story plays out other than there’s absolutely no evidence for conspiracy theory of cosmonaut on the moon. And, this one goes into the whole, “The Nazis had a lunar base on the far side of the moon,” and there’s also the theory that there were, depending on which set of conspiracies you read, anywhere from one to three cosmonauts that died on takeoff prior to Yuri Gagarin successfully making it into space.
And, the thing with that one is, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, I think all of us were willing to say, “Yeah, that sounds like it could be true. We’re good with that one. Can’t go either way.” But James Oberg, who is a really great space researcher, he does investigative reporting, he’s actually pretty good with Russian.
He went over and did a great deal of research after the collapse of the Soviet Union, digging into the now open archives, and found evidence of at least one cosmonaut dying during training, but none dying during takeoff that we didn’t already know about. But the fact that it’s now been Russia for so long, so many things have been released, so many cosmonauts have gone ahead and written histories, written their versions of The Right Stuff, and we haven’t seen any of them and we haven’t seen any now released records indicating to there being corpses of cosmonauts orbiting the planet or anything like that.
So, I think that one we can sort of say, propaganda from Cold War, that we can now say, “No, actually, they didn’t kill anyone off.
Fraser Cain: Okay. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily say it sounds believable, but the fact that Oberg went and dug into this, that if anyone could hide such a thing, you can imagine a very secretive, totalitarian government might try and take a shot at that.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, totally agree. So, I’m pretty sure we can write that one as, “No.”
Fraser Cain: Yeah. So let’s talk about the moon landings, because I think this is where a lot of this is leading. So the theory goes that we didn’t actually land on the moon, that the entire moon landings were done on a set somewhere –
Dr. Pamela Gay: By Stanley Kubrick.
Fraser Cain: By Stanley Kubrick, and that nobody actually went to the moon. Now, there is a classic Mitchell and Webb skit, comedy skit, and you can look it up on YouTube. Just look for Mitchell and Webb moon landing. And, the gist of the skit is that they’re planning the conspiracy and they’re saying, “Well, we’re going to save all this money because we won’t need a massive moon rocket.”
And one of the researchers says, “No, we’re going to need a massive moon rocket, because people are going to wonder, ‘How did they get to the moon?’ They went in that massive rocket.” “Okay, fine.” And so the conspiracy is hilarious, because, all of the pieces were in place to literally get – They had to launch a rocket capable of the moon. The astronauts had to return in a capsule. They brought moon rocks back.
Dr. Pamela Gay: There had to be something that the amateur astronomers could watch flying toward the moon and track on its way back.
Fraser Cain: And now the lunar reconnaissance orbiter is taking pictures in high resolution of the surface of the moon, including all of the lunar landing sites. No Nazi secret base, no dead Russian cosmonaut, only the landing sites as we are aware of them.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So I have heard a really interesting twist on this theory, and I’ve asked to be shown more information on it. Chris Judge, who was on Stargate, one interesting argument he put forward was Stanley Kubrick did film, because he had a camera that matched one of the NASA cameras, did film the entire landing segment that was shown on television.
But the actual landing occurred, and the real issue was we didn’t yet have trustable technology to do live television. And, one of the arguments that he used was – I think it was the Super Bowl that year had failure in its live broadcast. So the concern was, here is the biggest moment in history, and this is a global history. Everyone around the globe embraces the moment that humans first landed on the moon. And, this moment couldn’t be trusted to the technology of the time.
So, yes there were astronauts, yes everything that theoretically happened actually did happen, but the broadcast that was shown on television was actually pre-recorded by Kubrick. That one intrigues me. I’m not saying it’s real. I’m saying, “It intrigues me. Please tell me more.
Fraser Cain: I’m calling nonsense, because there were gigantic dishes set up. There’s a whole big room called, “The dish,” in Australia, that was receiving the signal, and the hijinks that happened for them to be able to receive the signal from the landing that that’s where the broadcast came from, was the general direction of, I don’t know, the moon.
So, yeah, no, absolutely not. I’m calling total nonsense on it.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And –
Fraser Cain: Called it. Nonsense.
Dr. Pamela Gay: And what I’m saying is, part of me, the part that all of us have that wants to believe in random insert-now, there’s this, “I wonder if they actually filmed a backup just in case, well, things failed down in Australia?” That would amuse me to no end. I’m not saying it’s true. I’m saying, “It intrigues me. Tell me more.”
Fraser Cain: I’m going to add that to my psychology collection here. Let’s keep going. So, let’s talk about aliens. Let’s talk about the fact that there are aliens all among us, aliens in the skies, and they are visiting us on a regular basis.
Dr. Pamela Gay: So I think my favorite aliens visiting earth book of all books that I’ve read is John Scalzi’s, Ancients to the Stars, and the, not giving away the punchline, adapted from the publisher’s summary version of this book is stinky, smelly, not particularly cute aliens come, recognize that they can’t really befriend the humans without terrifying them, or at least deeply offending them with their body odor, and so they find a Hollywood agent to help them come up with a plan for introducing themselves to the human race.
And, the thing that gets pointed out in this particular book is there’s pretty much no way to enter the atmosphere without getting noticed. And, the problem is NORAD, all the countries with military radar – Now, if you come in over the ocean, who are you going to abduct? You may not get noticed, as we’ve recently learned with the tragedy of flight MH370.
But, when it comes to entering populated zones, populated zones are covered with radar, and they’re also covered with people with dashboard cams and phones. And, as has recently been pointed out over and over and over by the Meteorite Man, when rocks come down, which they do on a regular basis, and rocks are way smaller than spacecraft, they’re easy to spot. Everyone takes video of them, and we can go figure out where they landed and look for the fragments.
When the space shuttle came in for a landing at night, it was the most amazing thing because you could see the ionization of the gas in the atmosphere and you could hear the sonic boom caused by the deceleration. It was just fabulous. There’s no other way to put it.
You can sort of imagine an alien race coming up with a form of powered landing that would prevent the sonic boom, but you can’t, at least I can’t, come up with a way to do this that isn’t very bright.
So, how are they getting here that not one Russian dashboard cam has caught it?
Fraser Cain: Well, for me, I think it’s more of a logical conversation. Like, I think about the Fermi paradox, and we’ve talked about this quite a bit in the past, this idea that there must be some explanation for why we’re not visited by aliens. Because if you end up with aliens in any one part of the entire Milky Way, within about a million years, like mold on a sandwich, you end up with aliens everywhere.
And so, if you’ve got all of these little places all the way through the Milky Way on 400 billion stars, you might get the alien that shows up with their super advanced space drive and they quietly come in, and they look just like us, and they blend with humanity, and they talk to the government, and they join forces to oppress humanity.
But, for every one of those, you’re going to have 1,000 that come in with their great big Independence Day spacecraft, hover over cities, and bully us. So, you know, you’re just going to end up with hundreds of thousands of these aliens showing up in all manner of spacecraft, and so you can’t guarantee –
Dr. Pamela Gay: So you have certain pre-conditioned notions in this. So a very interesting – One of the things that pops –
Fraser Cain: But their monoliths and their pyramids –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Shush.
Fraser Cain: I got shushed. Only Neil Degrasse Tyson has been shushed, and Lawrence Krauss, the shush heard around the world. I feel like I’m a part of an esteemed collection. Please, continue.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Okay, so I’ve been on a science fiction reading binge, but trying to find science fiction that isn’t necessarily astronomy. I’m looking for the other sciences. And one of the books that I stumbled upon was, the cruise you and I were on a couple of years ago, there was author Robert Sawyer on it. And I have to admit, and I hate to admit, I hadn’t read any of his books prior to the cruise.
So I’ve been working to fix that, because he was such a nice guy. So it’s like, “Okay, can I read all the books of the nice guy?” And one of his books is called Calculating God, and the idea behind it is a pair of alien races come to earth on the same spacecraft and they’re not here to talk to our politicians. They kind of refuse to talk to our politicians.
They’re here to talk to different segments of society, including a paleontologist at, I believe it’s one of the Toronto museums. He’s a Canadian writer. And, all of the aliens believe in God, which is where the name comes from and, of course, the Canadian scientist doesn’t.
But one of the things that comes up as a theme in this book is the reason that the universe isn’t swarming with spacefaring races is, as soon as they can, societies reach the point, technologically, of transferring their intelligence from the body, which has a finite life, to the digital realm, where souls, psyches, whatever word you want to have, personalities, pick a noun, that essence of who we are can be digitally transferred into a virtual world where these non-biological people can live forever.
And, once they’ve transferred themselves into this digital reality, they go to all sorts of extremes, from locking up the tectonics of their planet to whatever to protect these computers, but they’re no longer spacefaring, because they’re now memory-based life forms instead of physically-based life forms.
So imagine that the part of the Drake equation that says the number of intelligent species out there that we can detect is bound by how long the spacefaring race is out there isn’t only capped by how long until they’re destroyed by disease, war, whatever, but also by how long before they digitize themselves.
It was just an interesting premise I’d never thought of before.
Fraser Cain: And for every mold that digitizes themselves, and there will be 5,000 molds that end up colonizing the entire sandwich. All I’m saying. So, let’s please continue, because we’re running out of time. So one of our viewers actually just suggested a good one, which was the face on Mars. Right?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh geez. That one’s been totally debunked. Thank you, Mars high rise.
Fraser Cain: Yes. The short version is that the original images from the, was it the Mars, the Viking program?
Dr. Pamela Gay: Mariner?
Fraser Cain: Mariner, yeah, released an image of a mesa on Mars that looked like a face, like kind of a –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Due to lighting.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, it was due to lighting. And so people thought that that was evidence that there was aliens on Mars, a big cover-up, that there were Martians on Mars, and big cover-up. And, then the later on high resolution images showed it was just a hill. What a big surprise.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. Hills happen.
Fraser Cain: Yeah, and it wasn’t this ancient region on Mars with a Martian civilization. Okay, so we’ve got a few more minutes left. I just want to talk about the psychology. So why space? Why space as such a fertile conspiracy theory place?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I think it’s because society’s decision on where magic comes from has migrated, and by magic, I mean anything sufficiently advanced that we can’t explain it with modern science can be conceived of as something reverent. So it used to be, in Chinese lore, you had the spirit that would come sit on your chest. And, this was something to be feared. And, now the same – And I think you’ve mentioned you suffer from this. The same physical issue that causes you to wake up with your body still paralyzed when you go to sleep, your body releases a chemical that essentially paralyzes –
Fraser Cain: Yeah, sleep paralysis.
Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, and this way you don’t generally beat up whoever you’re sharing a bed with when you have a bad dream. You can wake up while still in that sleep paralysis, and it used to be, and Amy Tan has this in some of her books, wrapped in quite nicely as a plot element. People would wake up, and there was this ghost sitting on their chest, or witch sitting on their chest if it was European lore.
And now, it’s the aliens have paralyzed you. So it’s your body grasping at straws and trying to find a supernatural way, and I’m classing aliens in the supernatural here, to explain something that otherwise can’t be explained, because people don’t know psychology.
Fraser Cain: And, I mean, we have literally – There is so many more. There is the reptilian aliens, there’s Planet X, there’s Nibru –
Dr. Pamela Gay: Little grey men.
Fraser Cain: Little grey men, the early ancient astronauts with the Aztecs and the Mayans, it just goes on and on and on with these conspiracy theories.
Dr. Pamela Gay: It generally boils down to people trying to explain something that they don’t have the intellectual tools to explain using science. They either lack enough facts, or lack enough understanding of science. And, there’s very little that we haven’t figured out how to explain by having enough people dedicated to pulling on ropes and using something as wheels, pulleys, etc.
Everything from the standing stones on Easter Island, that people have blamed on aliens, the Mayan gods, where they say there is the white man who came, like literally a man who was white, not white man like Caucasian. All of these things get blamed on aliens, but then when you look at, “Okay, what technology did they have?” And you get enough of your buddies and your undergrads and your colleagues to pull on ropes, you can recreate how they moved those things.
Standing stones at Stonehenge, all of these things.
Fraser Cain: All right. Well, this was fun. Thank you very much, Pamela.
Dr. Pamela Gay: My pleasure.
Fraser Cain: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astro Sphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google Plus.
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