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13 Misconceptions Too Many People Have About NASA

Yes, NASA, which opened for business 60 years ago this October, is amazing. But it's also credited with things it didn't do—and lambasted for things some folks don't believe it accomplished at all.

apollo 11 moon landingCanadian Press/Shutterstock

Apollo 11 was a fake

This is perhaps the biggest doozie there is, and one that persists even 50 years after the first humans walked on the lunar surface. Conspiracy theorists have taken issue with the waving motion of the American flag—one of many items left on the Moon—the quality of shadows, and hundreds of other bits of “proof” that NASA staged the whole Moon landing, reports NASA has even debunked some of them—although, its scientists are doubtless tired of the “debate” by now.

nasa astronaut in spaceCanadian Press/Shutterstock

You’ll fry up in space

Astronaut and spacewalker Chris Hadfield took to the video waves for a Wired report in which he tackled such myths as: “you’ll immediately fry to a crisp by unfiltered…solar radiation” if you get sucked out of the airlock. His answer: It’s actually much worse than that. Your lungs will be instantly sucked flat and your blood will boil. What a way to go!

exercising in spaceShutterstock

Exercise or die

Another Hadfield-debunked myth: that NASA astronauts have to work out constantly while they’re in space or they’ll die. Hardly, says Hadfield, calling life in weightless space so “lazy” that you don’t even have to hold your own head up. The point of recommended exercise in space—about two hours per day—is so that the astronauts are fit enough to be healthy on Earth when they return.

buzz aldrinShutterstock

Buzz Aldrin saw aliens

As LiveScience reports, a statement that the second human to ever walk on the Moon made during a Reddit session about seeing something shiny outside Apollo 11’s window was utterly misconstrued. Aldrin thought the shiny thing was the sun reflecting off a panel from his own spaceship; a gullible segment of the population, egged on by a company called The Institute of BioAcoustic Biology, believed it was a UFO and that Aldrin couldn’t—or wouldn’t—wrap his mind around what he had seen. This isn’t the only UFO myths scientists wish you would stop believing.

columbia space shuttleUniversal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

The ill-fated Space Shuttle Columbia was carrying an Israeli spy device

The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, killing all seven people on board. One of them, Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, was at the center of an unfortunate conspiracy theory in which some claimed that his presence meant that tucked in with Columbia’s cargo was a top-secret, nuclear-powered devise that was some kind of spyware, according to NBC News.

astronaut visionEverett Collection/Shutterstock

NASA astronauts have perfect vision

Apparently, this is a persistent enough myth that NASA devoted a page to it and four others that people believe (wrongly) about who can and can’t go to space, including: all astronauts are pilots (not so), all astronauts have PhDs (hardly), all astronauts have military experience (not required), and that there are age restrictions to being an astronaut (NASA says this isn’t true, but also that its oldest-ever astronaut was 46).

mars roverAP/Shutterstock

Mars-bound spacecraft were destroyed by aliens

Referring to Mars as the “planetary equivalent of Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree,” Smithsonian Magazine reports that the crashes of three Mars-bound craft—Observer, Polar Lander, and Climate Orbiter—were thought by some conspiracists to have been carried out by NASA to cover up for an alien civilization, or were destroyed by those aliens themselves. An error-laden book from 2007 titled Dark Mission: The Secret History of NASA served to stoke those falsehoods. Still, research has found that a majority of Americans believe in extraterrestrials.

nasa space shuttleShutterstock

NASA exists to create space hoaxes

It’s a weird myth, to be sure, but some NASA disbelievers think the agency was created for the sole purpose of passing on lies about space to a gullible public, according to, claiming that even photos of Earth taken from space are a hoax. The truth: NASA was formed “to provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the Earth’s atmosphere”—it’s written right into the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. Dramatic photos like these of the Earth covered in snow as seen from space are a side benefit.

space foodMichael Stravato/AP/Shutterstock

NASA Invented Tang

Nope. It didn’t invent the space pen, either, or Teflon. What it did invent, a microalgae-based food that helped with the invention of infant formula; space blankets that are used during natural disasters and on marathoners, along with these 13 other things you had no idea were invented in space.

nasa buildingPaul Kizzle/AP/Shutterstock

NASA is expensive

Well, it is, but some haters would have us believe that it accounts for fully one-quarter of the annual U.S. budget. But as a article revealed, in 2015, NASA’s requested budget of $17.5 billion represented 0.5 percent of the U.S.’s overall budget for that year—and previous NASA allocations hovered around the 1 percent mark, with the highest ever recorded in the 1960s, at 4.4 percent.

alan shepard a-okayAnonymous/AP/Shutterstock

Alan Shepard invented the term “a-okay”

No, the famed astronaut did not use this turn of phrase in 1961 when he was aboard the first U.S. suborbital spaceflight, reports Smithsonian Magazine. That honor actually goes to Project Mercury’s public relations representative, Colonel John Powers, who strung those words together for the first time (that we know of), at a press briefing after the mission was over.

moonKIM LUDBROOK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

There are aliens on the Moon

Frankly, some folks believe that aliens are everywhere, no matter how many times NASA missions come back without evidence. The History Channel reports that the myth that “Lunarians” inhabited the Moon seems to have begun with a Bavarian astronomer named Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, who in 1820 claimed that he’d seen whole complicated cities on the orb’s surface through his telescope. The myth continued in 1935 with what eventually became known as the Great Moon Hoax, a falsified report that was unwittingly published by the New York Sun. Besides, these government UFO secrets have already been declassified.

nasa moon suitsSander Koning/EPA/Shutterstock

NASA exists to colonize space

Sci-fi lovers don’t want to believe it but NASA didn’t begin with a mission to set up cities and towns for human settlement way out there in space, as reported by TheWashington Post. Rather, it had a rather more Earth-bound (if not exactly noble) purpose: to show the Soviets, who’d already launched Sputnik, that the United States had “moral superiority” over Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, maintains NASA’s history site, who threatened to “bury” the United States at a meeting at the U.N. The former Soviet Union did send dogs to the Moon before NASA, but the U.S. won the overall space race.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.