05/03/2011 01:30 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2011

50 Years Later: The Alan Shepard Freedom 7 Flight

From the start, exploring space was all about the race, the competition between two superpowers, each flexing their nation's brains and brawn. Who would reach space first? Who would reach the moon first? Rife with feints and obfuscation, claims and counterclaims, the 1960s quest for the heavens had been equal parts chess match, spy game, and schoolyard brawl. Though the Soviets struck first -- Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth three weeks before Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 flight, which celebrates its 50th anniversary May 5 -- the United States won the big prize by reaching the moon, the crowning achievement of the Cold War rivalry and an accomplishment that ranks among America's proudest moments, if not mankind's.

Yet, there were those who immediately cried bullshit, insisting that Neil Armstrong's giant leap occurred in some remote desert while a film crew captured the fakery. One enduring theory had Stanley Kubrick as the director, and a documentary, Conspiracy Theory: Did we go to the Moon?, implied that potential whistleblowers were killed.

Shouts of fraud and trashy "Moon Landing was Hoax" headlines have diminished as America's manned space program, at least in its current form, nears closure with this summer's final space shuttle launch. But, just like birthers and climate change deniers, a vocal minority continues clinging to the belief that they, that we all, were scammed. (At the White House correspondents dinner last week, President Obama ribbed Donald Trump for finally resolving the matter of the president's birth certificate so he can "finally get back to issues that matter, like: Did we fake the moon landing?")

I've been accused of perpetuating the scam.

In 2004, I wrote a biography of Shepard (first man in space, fifth on the moon) and received a few snarky emails telling me I had been duped. "We did not land on the moon," said one. More recently, while researching the upcoming anniversary of the day Shepard became the first American in space, a Google search unexpectedly coughed up recent "Hoax!" stories, evidence that the theorists are alive and well. One story making the rounds featured a Canadian writer who analyzed images and film footage of Shepard's 1971 Apollo 14 lunar mission and found two curious film frames -- one with the American flag pointed to the right, another with the flag pointing left. (The Fox News online version of the story, headlined "Canadian Publisher Fuels Argument That Apollo 14 Lunar Missions Were a Hoax," was removed after it was pointed out that the writer actually belonged to the debunking-the-conspiracists camp. Fox admitted that its original story "incorrectly portrayed Robert Godwin's position.")

As someone who has interviewed a dozen astronauts, including two moonwalkers, I still find it amazing that anyone believes former combat aviators and test pilots would allow themselves to serve as actors on a set, to be bossed around by a Stanley Kubrick type, and keep quiet about it for decades. Shepard died in 1998 before I started his biography, so I never spoke with him about achieving the longest moonwalk (9 hours) or being the oldest moonwalker (47). But I did speak with Shepard's partner, Edgar Mitchell, who chain smoked as I sat in his Florida home listening to him describe in detail his thirty-three hours on the moon, how he and Shepard tried to sleep in their capsule after the first day on the surface but kept whispering like boys on a camping trip. I also met with Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, who told me that his 1972 Apollo 17 lunar mission had been "the climax of my life." If the landings were a hoax, Mitchell and Cernan had been well scripted.

Both Mitchell and Cernan have been confronted by the most persistent and annoying conspiracy theorist, Bart Sibrel, a Nashville man who created the 2001 documentary A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon, which aired on Fox. Sibrel spent years interviewing and sometimes ambushing astronauts, demanding that they confess to their role in the fraud or swear on the bible that they had truly touched the moon. At Sibrel's urging, Cernan put his hand on a bible and swore "under penalty of perjury, treason, and eternal damnation that I walked on the moon." Mitchell was less accommodating. He called Sibrel an asshole and kicked him out of his house. (Here's the video.)

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin responded with his fist when Sibrel approached him in 2002, waving his bible and calling Aldrin "a coward, a liar, and a thief." Aldrin delivered an impressive right hook to Sibrel's face. (Officials refused to charge then 72-year-old Aldrin. You can watch the video here). Sibrel, who now works as a cab driver, told the New York Times in 2009 that his crusade had left him financially ruined, barred from visiting his son, and expelled from churches. When I spoke with him by phone, Sibrel told me his pursuit was "a matter of justice ... it's a matter of being deceived by the government."

Over the years, an equally aggressive group of scientists has fought back with point-by-point refutations of claims made by Sibrel and his predecessor, Bill Kaysing, author of We Never Went to the Moon and a contributor to Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?, which first aired on Fox in 2001 and has enjoyed a long shelf life. (Kaysong died in 2005). Among the more persistent claims is that astronauts could not have safely passed through the Van Allen belt, the band of radiation encircling Earth, and that no stars appear in many photographs of astronauts on the moon. In astronomer-author Philip Plait's book Bad Astronomy (and at his blog) and at Jay Windley's, the experts have explained away the conspiracies as if talking patiently to a kindergartener. (For example, the astronauts were inside a capsule and passed quickly through the Van Allen belt). In 2008, Mythbusters devoted an entire episode to debunking a few moon hoax theories.

Of course, common sense says that in this age of tell-all books and reality TV, of the thousands of people employed by NASA in the late-60s and early-70s, at least one would have stepped forward and spilled (and would surely have earned a lucrative book deal, or at least an interview on Fox).

But now, all that energy seems even more ridiculous and sad. Fifty years ago, Shepard launched the space era and prompted President Kennedy to commit the United States to reaching the moon. We did it. Then we did it five more times. And while the coming transition from a massive, government-funded space program to a private, entrepreneurial one has promise and merit, one thing's for sure: no one will be walking on the moon any time soon.