CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Is that the moon or a studio in the Nevada desert? How can the flag flutter when there's no wind on the moon? Why can't we see stars in the moon-landing pictures?
For three decades, NASA has taken the high road, ignoring those who claimed the Apollo moon landings were faked and part of a colossal government conspiracy.
The claims and suspicious questions like the ones cited here mostly showed up in books and on the Internet. But last year's prime-time Fox TV special on the so-called "moon hoax" prompted schoolteachers and others to plead with NASA for factual ammunition to fight back.
So a few months ago, the space agency budgeted $15,000 to hire a former rocket scientist and author to produce a small book refuting the disbelievers' claims. It would be written primarily with teachers and students in mind.
The idea backfired, however, embarrassing the space agency for responding to ignorance, and the book deal was chucked.
"The issue of trying to do a targeted response to this is just lending credibility to something that is, on its face, asinine," NASA chief Sean O'Keefe said in late November after the dust settled.
So it's back to square one -- ignoring the hoaxers. That's troubling to some scientific experts who contend that someone needs to lead the fight against scientific illiteracy and the growing belief in pseudoscience like aliens and astrology.
Someone like NASA.
"If they don't speak out, who will?" asks Melissa Pollak, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation.
Author James Oberg will. The former space shuttle flight controller plans to write the book NASA commissioned from him even though the agency pulled the plug. He's seeking money elsewhere. His working title: "A Pall Over Apollo."
Tom Hanks will speak out, too.
The Academy Award-winning actor, who starred in the 1995 movie "Apollo 13" and later directed the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon," is working on another lunar-themed project. The IMAX documentary will feature Apollo archival footage. Its title: "Magnificent Desolation," astronaut Buzz Aldrin's real-time description of the moon on July 20, 1969.
While attending the Cape Canaveral premiere of the IMAX version of "Apollo 13" in November, Hanks said the film industry has a responsibility to promote historical literacy. He took a jab at the 1978 movie "Capricorn One," which had NASA's first manned mission to Mars being faked on a sound stage.
"We live in a society where there is no law in making money in the promulgation of ignorance or, in some cases, stupidity," Hanks said. "There are a lot of things you can say never happened. You can go as relatively quasi-harmless as saying no one went to the moon. But you also can say that the Holocaust never happened."
No Holocaust debate
A spokesman for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington says there will always be those who will not be convinced. But the museum does not engage them in debate.
The spokesman acknowledges, however, that if a major news channel was doing a program that questioned the authenticity of the Holocaust, "I'd certainly want to inject myself into the debate with them in a very forceful way."
Television's Fox Network was the moon-hoax purveyor. In February 2001 and again a month later, Fox broadcast an hourlong program titled "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?"
Roger Launius, who agreed to Oberg's book just before leaving NASA's history office, says the story about the moon hoax has been around a long time. But the Fox show "raised it to a new level, it gave it legs and credibility that it didn't have before."
Indeed, the National Science Foundation's Pollak says two of her colleagues, after watching the Fox special, thought it was possible that NASA faked the moon landings. "These are people who work at NSF," she stresses.
The story went -- and still goes -- something like this: America was desperate to beat the Soviet Union in the high-stakes race to the moon, but lacked the technology to pull it off. So NASA faked the six manned moon landings in a studio somewhere out West.
Ralph Rene, a retired carpenter in Passaic, N.J., takes it one step farther. The space fakery started during the Gemini program, according to Rene, author of the 1992 book, "NASA Mooned America!"
"I don't know what real achievements they've done because when do you trust a liar?" Rene says. "I know we have a shuttle running right around above our heads, but that's only 175 miles up. It's under the shield. You cannot go through the shield and live."
He's talking, of course, about the radiation shield.