Buzz Aldrin Has Opened Up About That Iconic Moon Landing Photo

Do you remember where you were when we first landed on the Moon? If you’re old enough, you were probably glued to the TV, gazing in wonder as Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind. Now, over 50 years later, Buzz Aldrin – one of the men on the famous Apollo 11 mission – has opened up about one of the most iconic images of the Moon landing. And the truth behind that photograph is changing everything.

Aldrin’s revelations about his Moon trip centered on one of the color shots taken on the mission. Neil Armstrong captured the image – and took all of the still photos on the Moon’s surface. This was for the simple reason that he was the one wielding the camera, a high-performance Hasselblad. That is, of course, if you believe that Aldrin and Armstrong actually made it to the Moon.

The main evidence that the astronauts did land on the Moon is their gallery of extraordinary images. For example, there’s the amazing shot of Aldrin standing by the Stars and Stripes, saluting his country’s flag flying improbably on the Moon’s surface. There’s the famous one of the first human footprints on the Moon. And, naturally, there are portraits of Aldrin. All that you would expect from the first people to visit the Moon, right?

But the so-called visor image is the one that has got people hot under the collar. In that picture of Aldrin facing the camera, we can actually clearly see Armstrong in the reflection of Aldrin’s helmet visor. Also visible in the reflection is the lunar landing module, Eagle. Yet when Aldrin was asked about this particular photo, he let slip the inconvenient truth.

The interview took place at the Science Museum in London in 2016. It was a wide-ranging Q&A, but one of the topics was the photography from the Moon mission. And as Aldrin answered questions, he let slip what felt to many like a rather startling admission. Yes, Aldrin went so far as to say that an aspect of the Moon landing had been “so well staged.”

If this means what the conspiracists think it means, then the Moon landing was a hoax a long time in the making. The event was actually the fulfillment of a commitment made by the president back in 1961. He’d told a joint Congressional session that America would land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. So it was a stirring example of American ambition and know-how... wasn’t it?

Or maybe it was just a way to get back at the Soviets. Because the high-level commitment to expand the U.S. space program came in the context of the Cold War. This conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and their various allies) was a clash of ideologies that sometimes spilled onto the battlefield. In fact, Aldrin actually fought in the Korean War as a fighter pilot. And another Cold War front was the Space Race.

But by the time the U.S. announced its intention to travel to the Moon, the Soviets had twice already stolen a significant march in space exploration. In 1957 they had launched the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik. Then in 1961 the first man into space had been the Russian Yuri Gagarin. It was clearing that the U.S. was lagging in this Space Race. So America arguably had the motivation to get to the Moon – or make it look like it had.

Anyway, the presidential pledge led to an acceleration of NASA’s space program. The Gemini missions ran through the 1960s. In fact, Aldrin was one of the astronauts who flew on Gemini XII, the project’s final mission in 1966. In less than two years, the program had perfected various operations and maneuvers that would be essential to a future Moon-landing project. That’s if you choose to believe the official story...

The next step in the plan to put a man on the Moon was NASA’s Apollo program. It did not get off to the best of starts. The three-man crew that was to launch aboard Apollo 1 were all killed when a take-off practice drill in January 1967 went disastrously wrong. But by October 1968 things were back on track.

The next crewed mission, Apollo 7, successfully launched with its three-man crew and orbited the Earth 163 times. This mission was notable as the first American spaceflight to transmit live TV pictures back to the public. The next Apollo missions, 8, 9 and 10, moved closer to the ultimate goal of landing on the Moon. And then came the historic Apollo 11 mission.

As we know Aldrin, along with Armstrong and Michael Collins, were the astronauts for the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong was the mission commander, and Collins was the command module pilot. This command ship was the spacecraft that would return the three astronauts to Earth. Aldrin was the pilot of the lunar module. It was down to him to land it on the Moon’s surface – and return safely to the command module.

Powered by its 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket, Apollo 11 took off from Cape Kennedy in Florida on July 16, 1969. It was one of four sections that made up the spaceship. The other three were the command module, Columbia, the lunar module, Eagle, and a service module. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered at the base to watch the three astronauts blast off into space. But some folks were determined to prove that their eyes must have deceived them.

Once the spacecraft left Earth’s atmosphere, it headed for the Moon using the thrust of the last of the three sections that made up the Saturn V rocket. The first had launched them from the ground and remained there while the second had powered them through the stratosphere. They were on their way. Or so it seemed to the watching public.

Less than three hours after launch came a crucial part of the mission: the separation of the Apollo modules from the Saturn V rocket. The Columbus module also had to separate from the lunar module Eagle to maneuver the two into the correct configuration. The two parts of the spacecraft then successfully docked back together and set off towards the Moon. A little more than two full days of space travel later, the astronauts were in lunar orbit. The story really is incredible, isn’t it?

By now it was the morning of July 20, and Aldrin and Armstrong clambered into Eagle, leaving Collins on his own in lunar orbit. The pair prepared to start flying the lunar module down to the Moon’s surface. They’d circled the Moon nearly 12 times, and it was time to start their descent to the surface. It was make or break time.

The first step to the Moon landing was to maneuver the lunar module from a standard orbit to an elliptical one that would bring them as near to the surface as 50,000 feet. At that point, the astronauts used Eagle’s engine to start the final controlled descent. At 500 feet from the Moon’s surface, Armstrong switched the craft to manual control.

At last, the lunar module landed. Armstrong announced this in his immortal message, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The original flight plan had called for a four-hour rest break before Aldrin and Armstrong prepared to leave their capsule. However, once on the surface they quickly began to make ready to emerge. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Yet the preparations to leave Eagle took nearly four hours anyway. Finally, a little short of 110 hours after leaving Earth, Armstrong stepped onto the rocky terrain of the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. He now radioed another message that has become a central part of the Moon landing story. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the heat of the moment, he actually forgot the “a” that he’d intended to include.

About 20 minutes after Armstrong had disembarked from Eagle, Aldrin followed him down the small ladder to step onto the Moon’s surface. Armstrong had already set up the TV camera so that the hundreds of millions of viewers on Earth could witness these extraordinary events on the Moon. The two astronauts now began to explore the lunar landscape around Eagle, spending about two-and-a-half hours outside before returning to the lunar module. That was their story, anyway – and most people choose to believe it.

In the end, the two astronauts spent nearly 22 hours on the surface of the Moon before taking off to dock with Columbus. During their time outside Eagle, they’d taken many outstanding photos, many of which are published again and again in the press and online. And some of those who claim that the Moon landings never happened use so-called anomalies in the photos as evidence to support their contentions.

Self-styled “Moon truthers” have repeatedly used the photos taken by Armstrong to try and prove that the entire Moon landing mission was staged. One example of this is an image that shows shadows that are apparently not parallel on the ground. Those who question the truth of the Apollo 11 mission say this indicates the use of studio lighting. But experts roundly reject this allegation.

Professor Anu Ojha, the British National Space Academy’s director, spoke to London’s Royal Museums Greenwich about the shadows. He explained, “This is on the surface of the Moon, but we can reproduce this effect any time we want to on Earth. You have all seen this phenomenon yourself, where, because of perspective, parallel lines appear to be non-parallel.” But that wasn’t enough for some people.

Ojha continued, “If you are trying to reduce onto a two-dimensional plane a three-dimensional situation, you can make lines do all sorts of weird things. Artists have been using this for centuries.” And he goes on to debunk another Moon-landing trope involving a photo. In this claim, “truthers” say that photos from the Moon mission that include the sky show no evidence of stars, proving that the astronauts were not really in space.

But there is an explanation for the lack of stars in the photographs. When the shots were taken, it was daytime on the Moon. The light of the Sun means that stars are not visible. Another claim relates to a picture in which the Stars and Stripes is visible and apparently ruffled by a breeze. Some theorists say that there’s no wind on the Moon, proving the photo is fake.

But the truth is that the flag has a stiffening pole set along its top. And the apparent wrinkles in it are easily explained. Ojha said, “All the wrinkles are there because it’s literally been screwed up for four days en route to the Moon.” And as he says, “We find ourselves awash in an ocean of information online… The only tools we have to navigate through this maelstrom are the critical-thinking skills that we are trying to develop in people as scientists.”

So Ojha takes a coolly analytical approach to the claims of the “Moon truthers.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, not everyone is so cool-headed when confronted by conspiracists. And one of those people who can become irritated and even angry is Buzz Aldrin. When he was faced by one Moon-landing denier, Aldrin’s temper boiled over altogether.

The man in question was Bart Sibrel. Sibrel was 37 at the time of the incident, standing 6'2” tall and weighing in at 250 pounds. It’s worth noting that the much-smaller Aldrin was 72 when the episode happened in September 2002. The astronaut had been falsely enticed to visit a hotel in Beverley Hills, California, purportedly for an interview with a Japanese TV channel.

But when Aldrin arrived at the hotel he was confronted by Sibrel. Sibrel demanded that Aldrin swore on the Bible that he had really traveled to the Moon. It was a stunt Sibrel had pulled with other Apollo astronauts. But this time he got an answer he probably hadn’t anticipated: Aldrin punched him in the face.

Afterward, Sibrel was good enough to tell the St. Petersburg Times, “I was very surprised that he hit me. I thought it was very foolish of him to do it in front of two video cameras. He has a good punch. It was quick, too. I didn't see it coming.” Beverly Hills police decided to treat Aldrin’s punch as an act of self-defense and no charges were laid.

But February 2016 found Aldrin in a much more affable mood as he was interviewed before a live audience at an event in London, England. The venue was the Science Museum and the interviewer was Brian Cox. He’s a popular science TV presenter and particle physics professor at England’s University of Manchester. And that’s when Aldrin made his “staged” remark.

During the interview, Cox and Aldrin came on to the topic of an especially well-known photo from the Apollo 11 mission. This was the visor picture, which we mentioned earlier. You’ll recall that it’s an image of Aldrin standing in the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility with a clear reflection in his helmet visor of Armstrong taking the picture.

Cox is clearly blown away by this singular image. In YouTube video footage recorded at the event, Cox says, “It’s probably the most famous picture from the surface of the Moon, I would say.” But he goes on to highlight a widespread misconception about the photo. “Many people say that’s Neil Armstrong,” Cox says. “But in fact it’s you with Neil in the reflection.”

And Cox goes even further in his praise for the image, adding, “It’s probably the most iconic picture in human history.” Aldrin then elaborates on the story of the helmet image. “Neil’s such an excellent photographer,” he generously points out. “See, I was walking along like this,” he continues, as he waggles two fingers to mimic a man walking.

Aldrin recalls, “Armstrong said, ‘Hey, stop!’ So I stopped and looked at him and he took the picture right away. You can identify that I was moving just a little. But people ask me about it – because it’s so well staged – and we call it the visor picture because the reflection in the visor shows the landing craft and the white-suited astronaut, Neil, who took the picture.” Hmm... Interesting turn of phrase there, Buzz!

Aldrin goes on to say, “People have asked me why is that such a perfect and iconic picture and I’ve got three words. Location, location, location.” That quip raises a hearty laugh from the audience. It’s easy to suspect that this may be a line that Aldrin has used before. After all, he’s had every opportunity to become an accomplished public speaker over the years. But what about that “it’s so well staged” phrase?

It can, of course, quite easily be taken out of context – and used as fuel for unbelievers. The British tabloid newspaper The Daily Express headlined a July 2020 article with “‘It was so well staged!’ Buzz Aldrin’s Moon landing confession revealed after 50 years.” Can you see what they did there?

If you rip Aldrin’s words from their context at that Science Museum interview, you could claim that he’s admitting that the entire Moon mission was faked on a sound stage somewhere. But was Aldrin really admitting to the tale that the entire Apollo 11 mission, from start to finish, was entirely faked? It does seem highly unlikely.

The whole thing reminds us of a prank from 2014. According to the fact-checkers at Snopes, the website Huzlers published a piece asserting that Aldrin had admitted to the fakery of Apollo 11. Huzlers claimed to quote Aldrin’s words, “Apollo 11 was not real, none of it was. I am ashamed to say this but I cannot hide it anymore, it was a set-up, like the ones they use in Hollywood films.” Obviously fake, yes?

Well, enthusiastic “Moon truthers” started spreading these supposed words of Aldrin’s on social media. Apparently, they completely failed to notice that Huzlers is a self-proclaimed prank site. So those who believe the Moon landings were a hoax were themselves embarrassingly hoaxed. Oh, and if you do believe that the Moon landings never happened, don’t mention it to Buzz Aldrin – unless you enjoy being punched in the face.

And bear in mind that space exploration is still going strong today. The launch of SpaceX’s Demo-2 test flight was, for example, a truly history-making event. It was the first time a commercially constructed and operated spacecraft had taken astronauts to the International Space Station. And engineers had grappled with every potential danger in planning the mission. Or so they thought. Even the brightest minds hadn’t envisaged one threat that came about as the mission unfolded. A potentially deadly threat, too.

This was a mission of firsts. It was the first time in the history of American space exploration that the Gulf of Mexico had been used as the location for a landing. It was also the first time that U.S. astronauts had launched into space from home soil since 2011, when the nation had retired its space shuttle program. But perhaps most significant of all was the commercial element to the mission. And it’s possible that this final factor contributed to the dangers the astronauts faced on their return to Earth.

Never before had a private company – in this instance, SpaceX – launched humans into orbit. Yes, while the mission was conducted in unison with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the hardware used was developed by SpaceX. No wonder, then, that the company’s president Gwynne Shotwell declared the operation “extraordinary.”

Shotwell, who has a dual role as both SpaceX’s chief operating officer and president, was effusive in her praise for the mission. “This is really just the beginning. We are starting the journey of bringing people regularly to and from low Earth orbit, then onto the moon and then ultimately onto Mars,” she stated. Those are some big ambitions, and we can only hope that they haven’t been too badly dented by the events that took place off Florida’s coast.

As you probably know, SpaceX was started by famed entrepreneur Elon Musk. A pioneering company, it now employs over 6,000 people. And the firm’s Dragon spacecraft, which carried two astronauts into space, is a special feat of engineering. “It is the only spacecraft currently flying that is capable of returning significant amounts of cargo to Earth and is the first private spacecraft to take humans to the space station,” SpaceX’s own website declares of Dragon.

But it’s not only SpaceX that has lofty ambitions – NASA does too. In fact, the space agency’s administrator Jim Bridenstine summed up the objectives of the program in a statement shortly after lift-off. “The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars,” he remarked.

This particular mission – officially labelled SpaceX Demo-2 – involved the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which would be facilitated by a Falcon 9 rocket. And so, as hairs stood on end and goosebumps appeared on arms, the craft lifted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, May 30, 2020. U.S. astronauts Robert ‘Bob’ Behnken and Douglas Hurley were both on board.

The objective of the flight was clear: show that SpaceX can transport humans to the International Space Station. That meant being able to launch a spacecraft that could orbit Earth before successfully docking at the station. And, crucially, Crew Dragon had to prove that it could also safely bring those same humans back to terra firma.

As the name would suggest, SpaceX Demo-2 was the second test flight of the Crew Dragon. However, it was the first with actual astronauts on board, making the occasion a landmark one. And the launch was part of a greater objective for SpaceX: to achieve certification under the NASA Commercial Crew Program for future trips to the International Space Station.

NASA’s website stated the bold intentions of the project. “[The] Commercial Crew Program (CPP) was formed to facilitate the development of a U.S. commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and low Earth orbit.” We told you they were aiming high.

SpaceX’s enigmatic founder, Musk, spoke with clear pride after the launch. “This is a dream come true for me and everyone at SpaceX,” he said. “It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work by the SpaceX team, by NASA and by a number of other partners in the process of making this happen.” Musk also claimed that around “100,000 people” had been involved in some way on the project – either directly or indirectly.

So, the launch of the SpaceX flight was clearly a seminal moment in the history of space travel. But it wasn’t without its hitches. In fact, the launch should have happened three days earlier, but it was ultimately postponed owing to adverse weather conditions in Florida. Man may be able to travel to space, but controlling the weather right here on Earth is another matter entirely.

Thankfully, on May 30, 2020, the spacecraft successfully took off from the Kennedy Space Center. It also docked at the International Space Station the very next day. But the arrival was just the start of Behnken and Hurley’s mission in space. Now the astronauts would live and work aboard what NASA describes as an “orbiting laboratory.”

As well as installing research equipment, the two astronauts added self-shot photographs to a project known as the Crew Earth Observations study, among other tasks. “Together, [Behnken and Hurley] spent more than 100 hours assisting or conducting science and technology demonstrations on station,” the NASA website explained.

Once their tasks were done, however, the two astronauts had to get home. And while SpaceX Dragon had successfully taken people into space on its maiden voyage, could it bring them back to Earth? That was no easy feat. “From the laws of physics standpoint, we’re only halfway done,” former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman told The Verge before the astronauts returned. “All that energy you put in [during launch], you have to take every bit of that energy out when you come home.”

The splashdown location of the astronauts’ capsule, which the crew had nicknamed “Endeavor,” was a site just off Pensacola, Florida. This had been identified as the safest option from seven possible landing sites. And on August 2, 2020, after around two months in space, Behnken and Hurley reached the Earth’s atmosphere at an eye-watering speed of 17,500 miles an hour. So, how do you get something that is essentially free-falling to slow down?

Well, during the capsule’s return, it shed its 6,400-pound disposable trunk. Then, upon reentry, the shuttle experienced drag, which took its speed down to a mere 350 miles an hour. Parachutes then further slowed the capsule so that it could safely land in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Everything had gone perfectly to plan. Or had it?

Despite the shuttle having successfully been into space and back again, problems only actually arose when it returned to Earth. You would have thought that of all the potential risks, handling those thrown at the mission by our very own planet would have been the easiest for engineers to anticipate and accommodate. But, apparently, that’s not the case...

So what went wrong at this precise moment? In one word: people. To those watching the landing on television – and there were many – it must have been an incredibly surprising sight to see the returned capsule almost immediately surrounded by pleasure boats. Lots of them. One was even able to display a flag in support of Donald Trump.

Given that this was, for all intents and purposes, a commercial exercise, an argument could be made that this level of attention should have been expected. But it certainly took NASA by surprise. “That was not what we were anticipating,” administrator Jim Bridenstine declared in a briefing that was held soon after the capsule’s return. “After they landed, the boats just came in.”

The landing had actually been a success up until that point. The crew had, fortunately, faced no adverse effects on the way down. The U.S. Coast Guard had reportedly cleared the declared landing zone without issue, too. And the predetermined recovery ship, Go Navigator, was on the scene within roughly half an hour. All exactly as planned.

No one had anticipated the sheer number of craft that would flock to the area, though. And Bridenstine later admitted some surprise at how events had unfolded. “That capsule was in the water for a good amount of time, and those boats just made a beeline for it. There are things that we’re going to look at, that we need to do better at, for sure,” he added. But the rubberneckers weren’t the only thing making the recovery crew’s job harder than expected.

SpaceX staff eventually managed to disperse the onlookers and get access to the capsule. As the team worked to extract the astronauts from the capsule, however, boats were still hovering incredibly close by. People were, of course, angling for a better view. But little did the unwitting observers know that they were putting themselves in danger. Serious danger.

You see, toxic fumes surrounded the returned capsule. And these fumes had the potential to self-ignite or even kill a person if inhaled. This unexpected occurrence, combined with the unwelcome pleasure craft, could have spelled disaster to the recovery crew, astronauts and the people aboard the surrounding boats. But where had these dangerous gases come from?

Well, the toxic substance detected is actually used as a propellant for the capsule as it descends into Earth’s orbit. Brown in appearance, it is nitrogen tetroxide, or sometimes nitrogen peroxide. And to up the ante even further, it is a form of hypergolic fuel, meaning that it is self-igniting. A terribly unpredictable hazard, in other words.

Nitrogen tetroxide can even kill a person if only a tiny amount is inhaled, as it causes fluid to build up in the lungs. And as soon as the recovery boat approached the returned capsule, it detected the presence of the oxidizer outside of the craft. The recovery team purged the area, then, and bided their time before attempting to extract the astronauts.

But the team did not have full control of the unwanted spectators who had sailed out to see the capsule. Nor, for that matter, did the U.S. Coast Guard. It could have been a potentially life-threatening situation, even though Steve Stich, manager of the Commercial Crew Program, declared the quantity of fumes to be “within limits.”

Stich admitted that some kind of fault had contained the substance around the outside of the capsule. “We think there may be some mechanism where it’s getting trapped into the service section from thruster firings during entry,” the NASA manager said. “We’ll go figure out a way to handle it better on the next flight, perhaps starting with a purge as soon as we get on the vehicle.”

Fortunately for all concerned, no tragedy unfolded. But Bridenstine confirmed that the uninvited sailors had diced with danger. “What is not common is having passersby approach the vehicle close range with nitrogen tetroxide in the atmosphere. That’s not something that is good,” the NASA administrator said. “And we need to make sure that we’re warning people not to get close to the spacecraft in the future.”

The U.S. Coast Guard also criticized the errant sailors. “With limited assets available and with no formal authority to establish zones that would stop boaters from entering the area, numerous boaters ignored the Coast Guard crews’ requests and decided to encroach the area, putting themselves and those involved in the operation in potential danger,” a statement from the service read.

Even the astronauts chastised the pleasure-seekers who had sailed too close to the returned capsule. “Just a word to the wise for folks who have ideas of coming that close again in the future,” Behnken stated, “We take extreme precautions to make sure it is safe, and we do that for a reason.” Words of wisdom, don’t you think?

And SpaceX president Shotwell acknowledged that there were improvements to be made for next time. “The lesson learned here is that we probably need more Coast Guard assets – and maybe more SpaceX and NASA assets as well,” Shotwell said. At the same time, though, she confessed that there were always going to be issues during a first attempt.

“This was a demonstration mission,” Shotwell conceded. “This is the time that you go learn about these things, and we’ll certainly be better prepared next time.” It’s hard to argue with that logic. And as so often proves in life, people are the unpredictable factor in so many scenarios. You can plan a mission to space, but you cannot plan for how folks will behave when you return to Earth.

Certainly, there were a few mistakes made. And during NASA’s live feed covering the landing, SpaceX engineer Kate Tice admitted as much when she offered, “Maybe next time we shouldn’t announce our landing zone.” It was a valid point, especially as that landing zone was close enough to shore for boats to make it out there.

As well as the risks posed to themselves, the people aboard the boats created a potentially life-threatening situation for the astronauts. You see, even before starting their return journey, Behnken and Hurley were well aware that any delay in getting the recovery boat to the capsule could have been catastrophic. “The ground teams are fully aware of the challenges of the water landing and what it does to the human body,” Hurley said.

And since this water landing was NASA’s first experience of such a splashdown in nearly half a century – 45 years, to be precise – you could understand if there were some butterflies in those bellies. But Hurley seemed confident that everything was as prepared as possible, adding, “We’ve got the flight surgeons on board that will be able to help us as well. So all those things are in place.” They just didn’t account for the human factor.

But all’s well that ends well. Despite the problems that were encountered during splashdown, it was ultimately a successful trip and landing. “Today we really made history. We are entering a new era of human spaceflight,” Bridenstine said at the news conference to mark the return to Earth of the two astronauts.

Yes, it was mission accomplished for Demo-2. That means the scene is now set for SpaceX to carry out fully operational manned flights in the future. And it won’t be the only private company to do so. Boeing will also launch crewed missions, although its Starliner capsule is planned to ultimately land on solid ground.

You may be wondering what the astronauts themselves thought of the experience. Well, they were just happy to be coming home. “We’re really excited to see our families,” Behnken said, speaking while still in space. “My son is six years old, and I can tell from the videos that I get, talking to him on the phone, that he’s changed a lot – even in the couple of months that we’ve been up here.” It must have been an emotional reunion with one very proud six-year-old.