At the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, one of the biggest tourist attractions is ironically, the least seen. It is of course the well-known "Antigravity Room," located in Building 29. Officially designated the Variable Gravity Training Facility (VGTF), it is used for training astronauts for upcoming space missions. Film and video footage of these exercises is generally released to the news agencies, through the NASA Public Affairs Office (PAO), just prior to a mission. However, since the technology of gravity control is classified, the room is off-limits to the public.
Ñ NASA Public Affairs Office Press Release The Variable Gravity Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas, was built in the late 1950s and played a key role in one of the grandest hoaxes in history: the US-USSR "race to the moon." Discovery of the principles behind gravity control can be traced back to atomic energy research conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission. The findings were secretly reported to then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. However, nothing was done with it until November of the following year.
The Soviet Union's launch of Sputniks 1 and 2 in rapid succession shocked the American public out of complacency and sparked demand for an American space program. Eisenhower, while not enthusiastic about space exploration, knew he had to act soon or suffer in the polls. He met with AEC officials and with Wernher von Braun's contingent of German rocket scientists. The American rocket program, directed by the U.S. Army, had so far yielded dismal results. Rockets could lift small payloads, weighing up to a ton into orbit, but were unreliable and far too risky for human space exploration. Real progress was decades away. When advisors suggested combining the new technique of gravity control with advances in motion picture technology to fake space travel, Eisenhower jumped at it. The "space race" was on.
Operation Stardust, irreverently dubbed "Green Cheese," commenced in 1958. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a cover for Stardust activity, but continued in its previous role in aeronautics testing. Spurred on by Soviet space successes, Stardust went into high gear, producing its first results in 1962, in the form of the Mercury "flights." Spaceflight footage was produced by the brilliant young director Stanley Kubrick, whose use of stark lighting would later prove ideal in imagining the lunar landscape. He was succeeded in 1966 by George Lucas, then just out of the University of Southern California film school. Lucas's brilliant special effects are responsible for the successes of the Gemini and Apollo "missions." Both Kubrick and Lucas made use of the then brand-new IMAX technology, which enabled them to create breathtakingly realistic views of space, including the famous "oasis in a dark sea of space" photograph of the earth. Complementary footage of crew operations was shot inside the VGTF, using primitive film and video cameras, for a grainy, "jerky" effect. The majestic vistas of "space" combined with grittily realistic footage on the human scale (especially effective for the "moon landings"), yielded a spectacle that dazzled the world for a full decade.
Kubrick and Lucas reaped huge benefits from the program. They were paid handsomely by a grateful United States government and were allowed free use of the film production technology when it was declassified. Kubrick used expensive government facilities and equipment for many of his later movies (most notably the 1969 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey). Lucas used the special effects technology to set up his own company, Industrial Light and Magic, which he used when filming his first Star Wars trilogy. Very few knew just how much 2001 and Star Wars really owed to the American "space program." In 1973, as public interest in space exploration waned, Stardust quietly wound down, its purpose fulfilled. The Skylab "missions" were conducted to expend resources for which the government no longer had any use. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz project was a signal to the Soviet Union that the Americans were bowing out of the "space race." (As early as 1964, the US had known of the Soviet Union's own fake space program (codenamed "PROJECT POTEMKIN"), and was based on similar technology that had arisen from Soviet atomic research. By that time, however, Stardust was well under way.) Most of the famous props used in the space spectaculars were dispersed among science museums, and the book was quietly closed on an unusual chapter in US history.
The benefits of the US "space program" are many. So-called "space spinoffs," advances in science and technology that touch our lives in so many ways, are actually spinoffs of the enormous technology base required to support the greatest hoax in the history of mankind. The "Space Race" sparked a more science-intensive education for American children. Most importantly, "Operation Green Cheese" bought America the time it needed to build a real space program. The US government realized that it could not continue to "sell the sizzle without the steak" forever, and would eventually have to produce real results. Due to the growth of mass communication and the more ready availability of information, space travel was much harder to fake in the 1980s than in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the leaders of Project Stardust began to see a real need for an American presence in space. Therefore, NASA was reorganized as a true space agency in 1970, and quickly responded by designing a reusable manned space vehicle capable of carrying relatively large payloads to orbit. (The Soviet Union reached a similar conclusion, and developed their own space program along these lines.) The result is the first true manned spacecraft, the Space Shuttle, which has operated successfully (excepting the Challenger accident) throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
In July of 1999, America celebrated the 30th anniversary of an event that never happened. Millions of tourists have visited Houston's Johnson Space Center and Florida's Cape Canaveral to relive "history." The VGTF, behind an anonymous door in Building 29, is today used for training atronauts for extravehicular activity ("spacewalks") that they faked nearly thirty years ago.