The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Face on Mars
(credit: T. Warchocki)

The truth, it is out there…

The classic movie A Christmas Story—currently in heavy rotation on cable—features a subplot involving the hero, Ralphie, who is excited to finally receive his Lil’ Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring. He has been waiting forever to join the exclusive fraternity of people who have access to the secret knowledge broadcast to everybody on the radio. But when he decodes his first message he is stunned to learn that it is a commercial for Ovaltine. He swears and throws it in the trash.

That kind of intense disappointment must greet conspiracy buffs virtually every day. They’re looking for some great secret message, something that gives them access to the hidden world that they know is out there. But what they often get is lame, stupid, boring—a commercial pitch to “buy my book.” Most of them are so thrilled to be part of the club that, unlike Ralphie, they don’t realize that they’re being had.

Now I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any stretch. I think Oswald acted alone, a balloon crashed at Roswell, Nostradamus was a crank, men walked on the Moon, Bill Clinton was not a drug dealer, and Arab terrorists flew a planeload of innocent people into the Pentagon. But still I decided to attend Richard Hoagland’s press conference “NASA Coverups Continue” on October 29 where he announced his amazing new evidence of a NASA conspiracy to cover up the existence of giant extraterrestrial structures on the Moon.

Conspiracy buffs are looking for some great secret message, something that gives them access to the hidden world that they know is out there. But what they often get is lame, stupid, boring—a commercial pitch to “buy my book.”

If Hoagland’s name sounds vaguely familiar that’s probably because during the 1980s he wrote several books and lectured about the so-called “Face on Mars.” Wisely, he switched topics shortly before better cameras arrived in Mars orbit. He has been banking off of the fact that during the Apollo program he was one of several “science advisors” to Walter Cronkite, where he was known as “Moonbeam” by the staff. He even has an ID card to prove it, with the typical thick head of hair one would expect for a journalist in the early 1970s. For people like Hoagland, having credentials is important, even if their credentials are not that impressive.

The reason I went is simple: The Weekly World News folded. I used to have a subscription (honest) and I loved reading about the adventures of Batboy, the alien P’Lod, and Bigfoot (Actual headline:“Bigfoot Rescues Baby From Burning Camper—‘He stinks, but he’s my hero,’ says mom.”).

I thought the press conference might be amusing. It wasn’t. It was long and tedious and filled with the kind of tortured logic that turns out to be rather common for conspiracy theorists who take disparate pieces of data and insist that they’re connected and that they make more sense than, well, more logical explanations. It shared many traits with other conspiracy theories, whose proponents claim that the holes they have identified in existing explanations prove that vast, mysterious, malevolent forces are at work, but who fail to realize that their own elaborate theories are as structurally sound as Swiss cheese.

Worst of all, it was lame. Really lame. I went hoping for pictures of Bigfoot, and instead what I got was 95 minutes of dull exposition and grainy photographs. Plus, they didn’t provide snacks.

I needed snacks.

The event was held in the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Of course, the reason that people like Hoagland pick the Press Club of the nation’s capital is because it sounds more prestigious than, say, the Algonquin Room of the Des Moines Hilton. But it proves (as if proof was necessary) that anybody can rent a room there as long as they have a credit card. It’s not free speech, it’s commerce.

Hoagland has been talking for quite awhile about giant extraterrestrial structures on the Moon that nobody else is able to see. In early 2006 he spoke about it on “a special edition” of The Space Show, but that was radio, so his visual aids were not very useful. But this story goes much farther back than that: he held a press conference similar to this one at the same spot in March 1996, where, the Washington Post reported, about fifty worldwide media organizations showed up. He has fallen mightily since then, because nobody is paying any attention anymore. As far as I could tell, there was no actual “press” at the press conference. There were about 23 people in the room, including three speakers, myself, and two or three cameramen. There were three cameras there, from (I think) two different film companies—okay, maybe they technically qualify as “press.” One of the cameramen was there on behalf of a Russian media client. The other was apparently there on behalf of a documentary media client that may have been hired by Hoagland’s company. From a brief snippet of conversation that I overheard between them, they apparently thought that the assignment was bullshit.

My suspicion was that most of the people there were Hoagland supporters and did not think it was bullshit. I base this on the fact that when Hoagland was introduced about a dozen people clapped politely, something that reporters never do. Somebody later told me that Hoagland has a small group of disciples who apparently all live together in some kind of peaceful communal arrangement. Sort of like the Heaven’s Gate cult but older, and hopefully without the jumpsuits, the castration, or the suicide pact. I will say this: their hygiene and grooming are pretty good. Most of the attendees were in their late forties or early fifties, nicely dressed, in business attire. If you saw them on the streets of Washington you would have thought they had just walked out of a lobbyists’ convention, and been unable to tell that they are stark raving mad.

In fact, listening to Hoagland talk, you also cannot immediately tell that he’s nuts either. He is actually rather distinguished-looking. He has a full head of white hair and a well-trimmed beard. He wears a nice suit. And he is reasonably erudite. He could easily pass for the chairman of the chamber of commerce of a large East Coast city. It is only after he talks for several minutes that you start to realize that he believes some pretty weird things.

Before he started, an attractive woman in her fifties (Hoagland apparently is followed by a number of attractive women in their fifties, so he’s clearly a middle-aged stud of some sort) announced that she was going to “de-grease” him. Yes, that’s what she actually said, before proceeding to apply his makeup. Hey, maybe he’s a robot! I thought, before settling down again. Alas, he doesn’t appear to be a robot. A robot would be more entertaining.

Hoagland was introduced by Cheryll Jones, a fetching former CNN reporter (also apparently in her fifties) who has been doing the UFO and paranormal speaking circuit for awhile now, like Hoagland using her “former newswoman” credentials to establish credibility (keeping in mind that this is CNN we’re talking about). Jones informed the audience that she has a degree in meteorology, although she did not explain why this was relevant, because nobody discussed the weather.

Hoagland opened his talk with the NASA meatball logo and some great rhetoric: “Behind the meatball is forty years of lies,” he said. Good dramatic soundbite, I’ll admit. But then he segued into a story about how Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber from the 1983 movie The Return of the Jedi was carried aboard the recent space shuttle mission. That mission, Hoagland noted, was launched despite various safety concerns, at precisely 11:38 AM on October 23. Hoagland then noted that Star Wars was created by George Lucas, whose first movie was [pause for dramatic music] THX 1138. THX 1138—11:38 AM Get it?!

Neither did I.

Maybe Cheryll Jones knew what he was talking about. Me, I'm sitting there baffled. They took a light saber on the space shuttle?! A real light saber?! Those things are dangerous! I mean, astronauts like to goof around a lot. What if one of them accidentally turned it on and let go? It would go spinning around, cutting off arms and heads, and maybe slicing a hole in the wall. It could ruin our entire space program! What was NASA thinking?!

Hoagland could easily pass for the chairman of the chamber of commerce of a large East Coast city. It is only after he talks for several minutes that you start to realize that he believes some pretty weird things.

Hoagland then continued on with his main point, which is to sell his book, Dark Mission. He talked briefly about the Apollo program and the “virtually unknown” story that President Kennedy had approached the Russians about cooperating on a lunar mission—this story has been virtually unknown since it was first reported in The New York Times back in 1963 and in several books since then (see also “Murdering Apollo: John F. Kennedy and the retreat from the lunar goal (part 2)”, The Space Review, November 6, 2006). He also talked about President Bush’s plans to return humans to the Moon and showed an image of the last man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, scowling. Cernan’s scowl was evidence of something. What? He did not explain. But I understood. I stood up and said “Now I get it! It all makes sense! The light saber! The scowling astronaut! The dwarf in my book club who steals my opinions!”

Okay, I didn’t say that. I sat there and listened, hoping that eventually Hoagland would roll out the big revelations and amuse me. Instead, he introduced Ken Johnston, a former employee of a contractor at the Johnson Space Center who saved a collection of duplicate Apollo film from destruction back in the 1970s (and is therefore a hero in Hoagland’s opinion).

Johnston spent most of his time trying to prove that he had actually once worked at Johnson Space Center by showing various letters and memos written by his bosses to him. These are monumentally uninteresting and include things like Neil Armstrong’s signature on a piece of paper that Johnston submitted with his own astronaut application (surprise, he wasn’t accepted into the astronaut corps… maybe answering the application form question “Why I want to be an astronaut” with “to see space aliens” was not the best strategy). Johnston also talked about how he was recently “pressured to resign” from a voluntary program where he used to talk to schoolkids about how neat space is. (Hoagland’s website claims that he was “fired,” but Johnston was a volunteer and therefore “fired” seems a bit strong.) Then he related the story about how NASA had a bunch of spare copies of Apollo film that they no longer needed and they threw most of them out, but Johnston saved a set for himself, which he later donated to a university. Hoagland said that this act preserved a rare set of “early generation” film, meaning that they were not copies of copies of copies of copies, but perhaps only a copy of a copy of a copy. Anyway, it’s supposedly more pristine than anything else available to the general public. Except that other equally good copies exist, so the importance of Johnston’s act of dumpster diving seems a little overblown.

Allow me an aside for a moment: Johnston’s verbal explanation of what happened with the film is far less dramatic than a written version—or Hoagland’s interpretation—makes it out to be. By Johnston’s account, the “destroyed Apollo film” was surplus, and what he saved was a surplus copy. He was not claiming a coverup with the destruction of the original film, although Hoagland later mentioned how the high quality videotape of the Apollo 11 moonwalk was “mysteriously lost” by NASA. Some conspiracy theorists allege that this was done to cover up the fact that astronauts never walked on the Moon. Hoagland disagrees—they did walk on the Moon, he says; the coverup was of what they saw there.

Hoagland’s conspiracy theory goes something like this: in 1959 a report by the Brookings Institution warned that encountering extraterrestrial intelligence could lead to the “collapse of our civilization.” (Hoagland never explained why anybody in the government would have believed such a ridiculous statement, or, more importantly, how this would actually happen. Psychic shock leading to massive riots? People losing the will to live? Considering that a lot of people on this planet already believe a lot of crazy things and don’t riot over them, I fail to see how this would change anything.) John F. Kennedy then told NASA to send a man to the Moon, supposedly to beat the Russians. Then—proving that beating the Russians was not the real motive—Kennedy decided to “give Apollo to the Russians.” After initially rejecting this offer, Nikita Khrushchev accepted it in early November 1963, as recounted by his rocket engineer son, Sergei Khrushchev, in his memoirs. Two weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated (apparently with NASA involvement). The Beatles then took America by storm. NASA sent astronauts to the Moon, where agency leaders expected to find evidence of giant alien structures that rise several miles above the surface. In fact, the visors of the astronauts’ spacesuits were gold-coated to enable them to see better in the ultraviolet where they could see these structures, which are made out of glass. The astronauts then returned to Earth and their memories were altered or erased, just like that movie Men in Black, with the little blinky devices. Any photographic evidence of these structures was also eliminated. NASA has not launched any more missions to the Moon since then in order to not produce any more evidence, because obviously this would lead to the collapse of our civilization. It all makes perfect sense.

Sadly, I am not making this up.

(Okay, the Beatles thing I made up. They don’t have anything to do with this conspiracy. Except for Yoko, who’s clearly not from this planet.)

page 2: traits of a good salesman and a lousy salesman >>