Conspiracy theorist Bart Sibrel's principal work is his original
film entitled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon.
Recalling the the Sondheim stage classic of similar name involving a
tangled web of deception, the film is built around a clip of videotape
allegedly proving that the Apollo astronauts never left Earth orbit,
and therefore had to fake their telecasts showing the distant Earth in
But that's at the end of the 46-minute film. Before we're
treated to a few carefully-selected snippets from Sibrel's claimed
hour of telltale "backstage" NASA footage, we must sit through all his
Bible-thumping, his blatantly emotional rhetoric, some irrelevant
allusions to other conspiracy theories, and ham-fisted attempts at
historical analysis and scientific criticism. Normally a smoking gun
doesn't require half an hour of intense emotional setup; it usually
speaks for itself.
To make matters worse, the film is so liberally endowed with
Mr. Sibrel's personal interpretations that little room is left for the
viewer to draw any other conclusion. A Funny Thing treats its
baseless claims as if they were foregone conclusions and repeats them
as often as possible. Little wonder that Sibrel can claim 75% of the
people who watch his video believe it.
While many conspiracy theories try to rewrite history, A Funny
Thing elegantly ignores it. Historians of the space program find
it difficult to write about Apollo without also writing a little about
Mercury and a lot about Gemini. Bart Sibrel spends five seconds on
the former and doesn't mention the latter at all. It's not surprising
then that Apollo comes across in his treatment as a miraculously
successful program that just sprung out of nowhere. It's easy to call
something suspiciously successful if you just don't bother to
investigate how it was done.
Below and on the following pages we present a detailed review and
rebuttal to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon.
The film begins not with one or two, but with three
quotations from the Holy Bible and the Sunday School story of fallen
angels and wars in heaven. This slides smoothly into scenes of
modern-day nuclear brimstone and war on earth, which the narrator
suggests is inevitable to the human condition. Consistent with
Mr. Sibrel's conservative and outspoken Christian views, humankind is
portrayed as depraved and arrogant in the face of God.
The Tower of Babel
portended the loss of RMS Titanic, billed as the ship "God
himself could not sink."
Fig. 1 -RMS Olympic, the White Star liner and
sister ship of Titanic that God forgot to smite, shortly
before her retirement in 1935.
Fig. 2 -Titanic sister ship RMS Britannic
in her hospital livery before being sunk mysteriously.
And here we run up against Mr. Sibrel's first arguable allegation
of fact. Although widely attributed after the tragedy to White Star
Line owner J. Bruce Ismay, that defiant statement is one of many urban
legends surrounding the loss of the famous ship. And although the
liner was billed by some third parties as "practically unsinkable" and
"virtually unsinkable", the Line never advertised Titanic that
way. Those qualifiers -- "practically" and "virtually" -- are
important. The public naturally forgot them. But they leave room for
such things as acts of God and thus rob Sibrel of the hubris he
intends to pin upon them.
Mr. Sibrel similarly ignores the dissimilar and ironic fates of
Titanic's two nearly-identical sister ships, Olympic
(Fig. 1, built before Titanic) and Britannic (Fig. 2,
built to replace Titanic). Olympic served a long and
illustrious career as the flagship of the White Star Line -- starting
even before Titanic -- until she was retired in 1935, all
without being smitten by God. She was so like her doomed sister that
films of Olympic are still often shown to the public as
Titanic footage. Britannic, on the other hand, was
serving as a hospital ship in 1916 when she mysteriously exploded and
sank. If God smote Titanic for the (disavowed) arrogance of
her builders, why not also Olympic? And why, apparently, did
God smite Britannic on her errand of Christian mercy? The film
portrays this loss as ironic justice, but the only irony is in
Sibrel's highly selective view of history and his arbitrary
interpretation of it.
The Soviets had five
times more hours in space than the U.S.
No doubt this was true at some point, but Sibrel neglects to
mention when and for how long. Because the film relies on the
unsupported contention that there was no hope for the U.S. to catch up
to the Soviets, Sibrel doesn't want the reader to know that nearly a decade elapsed between this 5-to-1
advantage and the Apollo landings.
Neither an early interview with Wernher von Braun nor a statement
from John F. Kennedy supports Sibrel's skepticism that the gap could
not be closed. Yet the film from this point on takes it as a given
that the U.S., once behind, would always be behind. The witnesses are
upbeat and optimistic, but Sibrel sees only inevitable failure.
Von Braun said, "Only the future will tell." His future is our
past; we can see what the future held. According to the recorded figures by early 1969 the Soviets'
five-to-one advantage had been soundly reversed to a three-to-one
shortfall. Simply put, the Soviets fumbled. But all Sibrel's viewers
see of this is a brief reference to a last-ditch Soviet effort to
retrieve a moon rock using an unmanned probe, after abandoning their
plans for a manned lunar landing. They hear nothing of the
stepping-stones in Project Gemini, nor the early Apollo qualification
flights. They hear only instead that the U.S. suddenly and
suspiciously landed on the moon.
TUGGING AT THE
HEART WHILE FOGGING THE MIND
The length to which A Funny Thing goes to distract its
viewer from real history is much longer than its three-minute montage
of rocket crashes, almost none of them related in any way to NASA.
Instead of a statistical analysis of failure rates or anything else
that might help the viewer objectively understand just how successful
NASA rockets were, the viewer gets only 1950s Air Force fireballs
accompanied by Dinah Washington's "Destination Moon". And the
emotionalism picks up again for two and half minutes as scenes from
Apollo 11's launch are intercut with shots of starving children and
war atrocities underscored with somber music. Such obtrusive
emotional manipulation should make the savvy viewer wonder what he's
being distracted from.