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The Unexpected Influence of Capricorn One

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A small but noticeable segment of the American public firmly believes that the 1969 NASA moon landing was nothing but a sham. This belief is part of a widespread tendency to interpret modern life through the lens of conspiracy theory. But while the moon landing hoax and similar ideas are now familiar, it is interesting to recall how a Hollywood movie helped secure such beliefs in the landscape of American popular culture thirty years ago this summer.

The people who don't believe official accounts of the 1969 Apollo moon mission may be in the minority, but their numbers are not insignificant. A public opinion poll conducted by the Gallup organization, for example, once showed that more than five percent of Americans believed the 1969 Apollo moon landing was an elaborate deception.

Of course, if the moon landing was a fraud, it would constitute perhaps the greatest and most complicated conspiracy in history. To pull off such a feat, the conspirators would have needed tremendous knowledge and technical competence, in addition to extraordinary access to the many resources that such a hoax would require. More than that, they would have needed to an iron-clad plan for maintaining secrecy as they proffered their faux version of space exploration.

Belief in a moon landing hoax was bolstered by a seemingly minor film, which premiered thirty years ago in the summer of 1978. Director Pete Hyams’ Capricorn One was an entertaining diversion, featuring a cast that included Elliott Gould, James Brolin, Sam Waterston, Hal Holbrook, Brenda Vacarro, O.J. Simpson, and others. It told the seemingly outlandish story of deception and intrigue. Few people probably thought it would have much of an impact on American popular culture.

But Capricorn One proved to be much more influential than original audiences might have expected. Its unlikely plot told a story in which rogue NASA personnel convincingly faked a mission to Mars. In the movie a worldwide audience is deceived using modern technology (by 1978 standards) and television fakery.

The movie’s main theme — that conspirators could succeed with a scheme of grand proportions — was not completely new. Even in the 1970s some people did not believe official accounts of NASA’s moon landing in 1969. There had even been a somewhat obscure book with the attention-getting title of We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. But most people regarded such suggestions as improbable, fringe ideas. They thoroughly accepted the moon landing as fact.

Then came Capricorn One. The movie is mostly a pleasant entertainment, portraying high-tech deception in an action-thriller package. But the underlying conspiracy subject matter was more memorable than other aspects of the film. And though Capricorn One was not the first introduction of the NASA hoax idea, its mainstream packaging of it brought that theme to a wide audience of movie-goers. As a result, Capricorn One did much to put the notion of a huge NASA conspiracy on the map of American popular culture.

As it turns out, many of the most popular ideas in contemporary conspiracy theory have connections to fictional accounts in movies and television. The Capricorn One story is only one part of a much bigger picture, in which Hollywood has often mixed fact, conjecture, and fiction. Indeed, as the forthcoming book Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics discusses, movies have played a large part in spreading conspiracy theory ideas for more than six decades.

Of course, the idea of a NASA hoax pales in comparison to more recent conspiracy theories involving the events of 9/11. Yet, it is easy to wonder if belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories would have been taken hold as quickly as they did if the idea of the moon landing hoax had not already been implanted in popular culture. And it’s also easy to wonder if the notion of a moon landing hoax would have become so familiar without the help of a similar story that was told in Capricorn One.

Some reports indicate that Capricorn One may be re-made in the near future. Whether or not a new version comes to screen near you, the original is worth a look, both as an entertaining example of 1970s pop culture and for its role in reinforcing conspiratorial ideas in the American mind.

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