THE DETAILS: A statement made by US astronaut Terry Virts during a televised interview from the International Space Station in March 2015 (Figure 8.3-1) has been interpreted by some conspiracy theorists as an admission that no human spaceflight has ever reached the Moon.
Figure 8.3-1. Terry Virts (right) as he makes the allegedly controversial statement. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti is on the left. Source: YouTube/NASA.
The unseen and unidentified interviewer asks, “And what comes after the International Space Station, once its mission is over? How do we ensure the presence of humans in space?”
Virts replies verbatim as follows:
Well, that’s a great question. The plan that NASA has is to build a rocket called SLS, which is a heavy lift rocket. It’s something that is much bigger than what we have today, and it will be able to launch the Orion capsule with humans on board as well as landers or other components to destinations beyond Earth orbit. Right now we only can fly in Earth orbit, that’s the farthest that we can go, and this new system that we’re building is gonna allow us to go beyond and hopefully take humans into the Solar System to explore. So the Moon, Mars, asteroids... there’s a lot of destinations that we could go to and we’re building these building-block components in order to allow us to do that eventually.
Some conspiracy theorists claim that the astronaut’s words “we only can fly in Earth orbit, that’s the farthest that we can go” mean that we never went beyond Earth orbit. But Virts begins by specifying very clearly “right now”. He is not saying that we’ve never had crewed spacecraft capable of flying beyond low earth orbit: quite the contrary. He says “right now” to contrast the current situation with the past.
In April 2018 I emailed Terry Virts, asking if he’d like to personally clarify his words, and he kindly replied by email with the following answer, which I include with his permission:
Of course what I was saying was that in 2015/16/17/18 we are not able to send humans beyond low earth orbit. Hopefully in the near term, probably with commercial rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or even BFR, and perhaps with SLS/Orion, we will be able to do once again what we did in 1968-1972, i.e., send humans to the Moon. And I really hope that eventually we can send them beyond the moon, to Mars. Of course we did this in the 1960s and 1970s, but have not done it since, for a myriad of political reasons. I hope that this drought will come to an end soon.
In other words, this video doesn’t provide any proof of conspiracy, but it does prove how conspiracy theorists are willing to cherry-pick and distort other people’s words in order to adapt them to their preconceptions.
For context, the full interview with Virts and Cristoforetti is available in Figure 8.3-2. It is dated 13 March 2015 and the interviewers on the ground are WTOP Radio in Washington, DC, and Euronews.
Figure 8.3-2. The full interview with Samantha Cristoforetti and Terry Virts.