Apollo 18, out in theaters on Friday, blurs the line between documentary and feature film. Put simply, it's The Blair Witch Project on the moon: The film claims to contain footage from NASA's archives of secret and disastrous Apollo 18 mission. The film's premise should grab the attention of conspiracy theory enthusiasts, but here's the real deal on the end of the Apollo program.
First, yes, NASA did plan an Apollo 18. After Apollo 17, NASA scheduled three more missions to the Moon—18, 19 and 20—but those were subsequently grounded. The truth about why, however, isn't stranger than fiction. John Schuessler, a former NASA engineer who worked on the Gemini program that came before Apollo, tells PM that the enormously successful Apollo program was ended for mundane reasons such budget decisions and NASA's research goals. "They'd accomplished everything they were trying to do," he says. "Apollo was a proof that the United States was a leader in technology in space. That was the big gain."
Schuessler says NASA simply did not have the time or funds to fit in more moon landings after 1972. The agency had to plan visits in 1973 and 1974, as well as the in 1975. "They're always a shortage of money," he says. "Plus, there was a shortage of political support, and they were getting ready for the next program."
As for conspiracy theories about a secret Apollo mission, Schuessler is quick to dismiss them. "That's all baloney. You can't launch a Saturn Launch Vehicle without people knowing," he says "Secret missions like that are fun for sci-fi—I think Apollo 18 will be fun to watch—but there's no reality to it."
What about the other half of Apollo 18's premise: aliens on the moon? It's a titillating thought that the dark reaches of the moon hold secrets, especially because the Apollo landings explored such a small part of the lunar surface and humans haven't been back there in nearly 40 years. But Schuessler, who previously headed the Mutual Unidentified Flying Object Network, a UFO research group, doesn't believe it. "I don't think there's any reality to it whatsoever," he says. "I'm versed in the extraterrestrial side of things, the UFO side of things, and I can tell you that I've seen no evidence of any kind that there's extraterrestrial life on the Moon."
Yes, Apollo 18 is just a work of fiction. But Schuessler (along with perhaps folks at NASA who have dealt with moon hoax conspiracy theorists) worries that some might take the faux-documentary the wrong way. "You're going to see a lot of conspiracy theorists believe that it's real," he says. He advises viewers to take Apollo 18 with a large grain of salt. "There's really no connection between Apollo 18 and UFO's," he says. "Apollo 18 is a movie with a script that's written for the purpose of wow-ing people."
For much more of the real story of the program, check out PM's history of Apollo.