“Moontalk” – By Markus Heidingsfelder


If we had to choose one event in recent history able to illustrate the power of the mass media, it might well be the first lunar landing. This TV broadcast won the so-called Cold War for the USA. Arguments were unnecessary—victory and defeat were decided by the power of images alone. According to Herodotus, Darius determined the form of Persia’s new government through the power of dispute. His arguments for a monarchy may not have been better than those of the others, but they were stronger. All the USA needed to conquer socialism was a few blurry and shaky images of men in spacesuits hopping around on a dusty surface that looked like the moon.

Philologists today disagree over whether Herodotus made up the story of the founding of Persian Empire’s new government. Did he put the arguments into the Persian nobles’ mouths? Or did the situation at the time actually stir this or a similar debate? We have no way of knowing. We were not there. But Herodotus did accomplish one thing: he turned our attention to the difference between speaking and doing, the tension between spoken words and the pattern of events that follow them.

For some time now, there has also been debate about the reality of the moon landing. This is all the more remarkable when we call to mind that the event’s power of persuasion was based primarily on one thing: the fact that millions of TV viewers were eyewitnesses; they were all “there.” They saw “it.” But what exactly did they see? Not the lunar landing itself, but filmed black-and-white images that claimed to document that event. They all heard the men. But what exactly did they hear? Sentences obviously meant to show one thing: We are on the moon. We are really here. Even the first step itself was cloaked in words, words that not even Herodotus could have improved upon. Was the reality of the staging confused with social “reality”? Or with the supposed technological supremacy of the USA? If the Americans were not really on the moon, a television broadcast perhaps saved us from one of those “bloody detours” that Darius also feared. And perhaps even ended the Cold War before it could become hot. That would be an extraordinary achievement in no way inferior to landing on the moon.

Doubts about the lunar landing to date are based mostly on the images. And of course we should look at the way in which these images have contributed to the construction of the reality of the moon. Not as a means of criticizing the USA and even less as a way of proclaiming the “truth” about the moon landing. “Did we fake the lunar landing?” (Barack Obama) That is not the question, because we have no way of answering it. But the lunar landing can help us to find out which conditions need to be met so that we believe a media event is real as opposed to the unreality of made-up fiction. If the moon landing had been presented as staged from the start, as “scripted reality,” than some critics might have pointed out inconsistencies in the directions of the shadows or within the narrative, but they would not have claimed that the director was lying. One of the main characteristics of fiction is that the recipient is willing to accept a lie as true. With George Spencer-Brown we could even speak of a “re-entry”—the return of the barred truth into the lie.

Just as interesting as the question posed by the images is however the question posed by the words. And however carefully NASA may have chosen Neil Armstrong’s first words—which decisively prefigured our perception—not all the words spoken on the moon (or wherever) were weighed as judiciously.

With the live coverage of the lunar landing, the USA took the whole world hostage. Everyone who watched a TV screen became an eyewitness able to vouch for the truth of the narrative. I too was woken by my parents in the middle of the night at the age of six so that I could participate in this mass event. But as is usual in history, temporal distance from the event allows us to see it better. “Whether someone is born earlier or later” we might paraphrase Koselleck, “affects the perspective, not the quality.” As does whether one belonged to the victors or the vanquished. The USA was the winner of this conflict. The question of whether this victory was based on a lie is actually secondary. It could however endanger the USA’s claim of superiority—in a situation in which it is already under threat and noticeably waning.

But why is a once credible narrative suddenly doubted? Why do so many now believe the moon landing was a—extraordinarily flawed and crude—forgery? Because our viewing habits have changed. We have lost our naivety about media. In general, we no longer trust media images. This mistrust of the media, a kind of academic-level conspiracy theory, plays a key role in media theory. When we look at the moon landing today, we integrate an old story into our own, new and different, experiences as viewers. It is a question of compatibility. And of uncovering connections that people were unable to perceive at the time. That is to say it is also a question of a theory of media that did not exist at the time, but was, when Armstrong took his great step, taking its first baby steps and searching for its subject (and some media theories are still searching).

Why do people believe that the Americans were really, ‘factually’ there? Our answer will, as said above, ignore the very American question of the truth—did it happen? We cannot answer that question, since none of us were there. But one thing did take place that no one in their right mind has doubted: The TV broadcasts about the landing. These broadcasts are all we have at our disposal. And they are also all we need. The moon landing is to us media theorists as the starry sky is to constructivists—both are beyond our direct grasp. The latter offers luminous points through whose movements we can calculate the origin of the universe, the former murky moving images that we can interpret as a representation of a real event—the conquest of earth’s satellite.

Paradoxically, the bad optical quality of the TV images is the first thing that makes them seem authentic and convincing. The quality contrasts greatly with the photos supposedly made of the moon’s surface—accredited to state-of-the-art Hasselblad technology. The latter, due to their excellence, awaken viewers’ doubts, because many do not look like lucky shots made by astronauts, ignoring for the moment all problems of lighting.

Bad quality seems to be one of the best filmic techniques for creating reality. The Dogma films are the best example for fiction: not lighting a scene becomes testimony to its reality, since in real life there are no floodlights standing around. One of the most well-known photographs of media history profited from this phenomenon—Robert Capa’s American soldier at the Normandy landing, first published by Life on June 19, 1944. It is in particular its bad quality which makes this photo “good,” and which contributed to its incredible impact. It is not important to our argument that the bad quality was due less to the hectic during the landing, or the chaotic and life-threating situation in which both soldier and photographer found themselves, and more to mistakes made during development in the darkroom (although this fact is understandably what interests media theorists most more than fifty years after the fact). Whether or not it was Capa’s intention, the “static” or blurriness is what gives this picture its authentic character. It lends an immediacy which transmits realism. The second Gulf War, with its jittery blurry images of war correspondents, was also able to fulfil viewers’ desire for this kind of reality. They guaranteed truth and reality, while the clinical infrared images of bombings during the first Gulf War—which were just as real—seemed “unreal.” Sweat, dust, and tears are, it seems, better able to convey reality than aerial pictures and distance to suffering on earth.

On the level of meaning or interpretation, the greater the importance, the more something seems real. And hardly anyone will deny that the moon landing was an important event. A further key factor is the attractiveness of an event. How attractive was the lunar landing? Very. And since cause and effect are important at the narrative level, the images needed in particular to communicate a certain “weightlessness” or “moonness.”

The fact that the moon landing could be taken in by two senses also helped viewers to perceive the film as a “real” event. Whereby the audio track used only language to prove the factuality of what was shown; the sounds of the lunar landing for example cannot be heard, it is completely silent on board.

The speech itself seems to serve mostly one purpose: to certify the authenticity of the action of landing, while also helping to create the event. For example, the astronauts continuously corroborate that, first, they see something (or they tell the others to also look), second, that it is impressive (“incredible”; “beautiful”; “spectacular”), and, third, that it is real (“really”), even if it does not seem to be (“unreal”). Reading the protocols, I was often reminded of a short dialogue from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull when Jones and his son enter a secret chamber: “This is incredible.” – “Unreal.” The function of such dialogue in a feature film is clear. Did the astronauts have similar motives?

The first sentence spoken about the event of the landing is, not accidently, reminiscent of military voice procedure and is rather harmless: “The eagle has landed.” If I’ve just landed on the moon, I can proudly state this fact—even if everyone just saw it. Yes sir, Major, I confirm: landing successful. But if I’m “really” on the moon, do I need to continuously use language to assert that it is so? That reality is really real? Shouldn’t landing on the moon take my breath away? Even if I’m American and silent awe is not exactly in my cultural repertoire? And in fact one of the astronauts did falter more than once, unable to find words (see below). Is this proof of the genuineness of the event? Or just due to the fact that none of the astronauts had a vocabulary large enough, not to mention their lack of scientific skills, to lend authenticity to a simulation on the linguistic level.

It is remarkable how often, as mentioned above, the words “real” and “unreal” were used. One astronaut compared the moon landscape to an American desert, only to immediately add: “It’s different, but it’s very pretty up here.” Because if you are faking a moon landing in an American desert, it is maybe better not to tip anyone off. These are sentences that at least arouse suspicion and suggest the fruitfulness of analyzing the language rather than the images of the moon broadcasts. We must of course take cultural differences into account. It is completely possible that Americans just speak this way. That if you have been socialized in a certain way, you might refer to the improbably experience of zooming over the moon’s surface as a “rock’n’roll ride” (“I would speak exactly like that,” an American colleague has told me). And we should be careful about putting too much emphasis on certain phrases, such as “really.” On the other hand it does no harm to put particular emphasis on—and take seriously—the function of phrases that are generally regarded as “everyday” expressions. “You know” is more than just a habit or a formality; it is, literally, meaningful. (Or as George Spencer-Brown once said to me: “Ridiculous. To tell people what they know.”) The following are some striking dialogues, chosen according to the criteria delineated above, from the lunar missions Apollo 11, 14, 15, 16, and 17. Talking on the moon: Which sentences refer to the construction of moon reality?

“Yes, the moon is there, boy – in all its splendor.” – “Man, it’s a …” – “Plaster of Paris gray to me.”- “Man, look at it.”

“Something really peppered that one [a crater—M.H.]. There’s a lot less variation in color than I would have thought, you know, looking down now?” – “Yes, but when you look down, you say it’s brownish color?” – “Sure.” – “Well, there’s no doubt that this is a little smaller than the earth …” –  “That’s not how I’d like to spend my lifetime, but – picture that. Beautiful!” – “Yes, there’s a big mother over here, too.”- “Come on, now, Buzz, don’t refer to them as big mothers. Give them some scientific name.” (my favorite; a dialogue that itself deserves the label “beautiful.”)

“Gosh, it’s just beautiful. That is the most beautiful sight.”

“Hey, we’re really going up a hill, I’ll tell you.”

“Wow, what a sight. What a view, isn’t it, John?” – “Absolutely unreal.”

“We’re really coming up here, uh, Tommy, it’s just spectacular … I’ve just … I have never seen … All I can say, it’s spectacular. I know you’ll all think of that word. But … my vocabulary is so limited.”

“Oh boy, what a view. What a fantastic sight. Oh, this is really profound. I tell you this is absolutely mind-boggling here.”

“Oh look at that. Oh look back there, Jim. Look at that.” – “Beautiful.”  – “That is spectacular.” – “This is unreal. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Guess what we just found.” – “I think we found what we came for.” – “Yes, sir. You better believe it.”

“Sure this crater is a goldmine.” – “And there might be diamonds in the next.” – “Yeah, babe.”

“Now, that’s a beautiful sight.”

“Boy, the beauty of this place is absolutely incredible.”

“Oh, look at the mountains today, Jim, isn’t it beautiful.” – “Really is.”- “Just super, you know. Unreal.”


Markus Heidingsfelder

School of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Habib University

Karachi, Pakistan



Picture: Wolfgang Volz. It shows ‘the biggest moon on earth’, a giant model that was part of the 2010 exhibition Sternstunden – Wunder des Sonnensystems by the DLR (German Center for Aviastion & Spaceflight) and the Gasometer Oberhausen GmbH.