The Apollo 16 "flying saucer", compared with a view of the spolight boom from a different mission
Photo credit: NASA
It was 1962 and American John Glenn was orbiting the Earth in Friendship 7, his capsule on the Mercury-Atlas 6 flight. Ground controllers were mystified at Glenn's report of fireflies outside his window, strange bright specks that clustered about his ship. The first thought was that they must be ice crystals from Friendship 7's hydrogen peroxide attitude control rockets, but Glenn was unable to correlate their appearance with the use of the rockets. Astronauts on later flights reported similar bright specks, and eventually we learned enough about the space environment to identify what they were. Spacecraft tend to accumulate clouds of debris and contamination around themselves, and even though Glenn's rockets sprayed jets of crystals away from the capsule, many of the crystals would gather in this contamination cloud, where they reflected sunlight and interacted with other gases in the cloud. Experiments on board Skylab in the 1970's using quartz-crystal microbalances confirmed and further characterized this phenomenon. The case of John Glenn's mysterious fireflies was solved.
The stories of our humble explorations of the space around our planet tell of courage, danger, and adventure. But do they conceal another element as well? For as long as humans have had space programs, there have been darker tales flying alongside: tales of mysterious UFOs, apparently alien spacecraft monitoring our progress. These stories come from the early days of the Soviet launches, from the Mercury program, the Gemini program, the space shuttle flights, and perhaps most infamously from the Apollo flights to the moon.
Like pilots, astronauts are often given something of a pass whenever they report a UFO, a pass that presumes it's impossible for someone with flight training to misidentify anything they see in the sky. Most famously, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, has long maintained that most UFOs are alien spacecraft and that the government is covering up its ongoing active relations with alien cultures. Coming from a real astronaut, Mitchell's views are often quite convincing to the public.
NASA's reaction to Mitchell was anticlimactic, but highlighted that their business is launching things into space, not studying UFO reports:
"NASA does not track UFOs. NASA is not involved in any sort of cover up about alien life on this planet or anywhere in the universe. Dr. Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinions on this issue."
Edgar Mitchell is a longtime proponent of psychic powers and alternate models of reality. During his Apollo flight he even conducted private ESP tests with his friends back home, and later went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences that researches telepathy and other such things. Mitchell does not claim to have personally observed any of these alien craft; he says his views are based on things told to him by people who are in on the secrets.
But other Apollo astronauts did see strange things. Perhaps the best known comes from Apollo 11, when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins noted that a UFO paced along with them for most of their flight to the moon. Depending on how carefully edited are the parts of the story you're given, this can sound like a most compelling event:
"We did watch a slow blinking light some substantial distance away from us," said Armstrong.
"There was something out there, close enough to be observed," said Aldrin:
"Now, obviously the three of us weren't going to blurt out, 'Hey, Houston, we've got something moving alongside of us and we don't know what it is,' you know? We weren't about to do that, because we knew that that those transmissions would be heard by all sorts of people and somebody might have demanded we turn back because of aliens or whatever the reason is."
Documentaries have been made and books have been written promoting the idea that the episode was covered up by NASA or that the astronauts did not know what the mysterious visitor was, but in fact the period of uncertainty was quite brief. The astronauts and ground control were soon able to identify the object: It was one of four adapter panels that fit between the S-IVB third stage and the lunar module. As they were ejected from the S-IVB they were imparted with angular momentum, so as at least one panel continued along the same trajectory as the lunar module containing the crew, it rotated and blinked like a light as it reflected the sun.
As far the episode being "covered up" by NASA? More likely, little official recognition was made simply because it was not a relevant part of the mission.
One famous picture was taken by the crew of Apollo 16 looking back as it was leaving the moon. Four seconds of video showed a near-perfect Hollywood flying saucer leaving some kind of plasma trail behind it. For over thirty years, a frame from this video was touted by the UFO community as proof of alien visitation. But then a team from Johnson Space Center's Image Science and Analysis Group decided to take it seriously. Without too much trouble, they found that when viewed from the window through which the video was taken, the object in the film was exactly consistent with a small floodlight protruding from the side of the capsule on a boom. The floodlight looked precisely like a flying saucer from that angle, and the boom matched perfectly with the plasma trail. Even a couple of bolts on the boom are visible in the video. You can see images from this analysis on NASA's web site.
Another report that's much touted by UFO enthusiasts came from James McDivitt, command pilot of Gemini 4 in 1965:
"I was flying with Ed White. He was sleeping at the time so I don't have anybody to verify my story. We were drifting in space with the control engines shut down and all the instrumentation off (when) suddenly (an object) appeared in the window. It had a very definite shape -- a cylindrical object -- it was white -- it had a long arm that stuck out on the side. I don't know whether it was a very small object up close or a very large object a long ways away."
McDivitt took pictures, but was hampered by sun reflections on the window. There's a famously reproduced photograph described as "the tadpole", but according to McDivitt, that picture (selected by a NASA technician as the one he thought McDivitt was talking about) shows only the sun reflected on the window and is not what he saw.
In 1968, a study called the Condon Report was published. The Condon Committee, organized under physicist Edward Condon at the request of the US Air Force, studied UFO reports for the purpose of determining whether anything scientifically useful could be learned from them. McDivitt's report is famous in part because the Condon Report endorsed it as unidentified.
Common wisdom has always held that McDivitt's object was orbital debris from a rocket launch, either Soviet or American, even his own Titan II booster. One of Gemini 4's goals was to practice orbital rendezvous with the spent Titan II second stage, and though it corresponds closely with McDivitt's description of what he saw, McDivitt himself explains that he had spent two hours watching the Titan II stage as part of the exercise and was very familiar with its appearance. The object he saw, he insists, was not the booster he had grown to know so well.
Could McDivitt have been mistaken? Later in the same flight, Ed White radioed:
"We've got an object out in front of us. It's not flashing like it's the booster. It appears that it's that type of an object unless it's picking up some glow from the sun. It appears a very bright, very bright object... It was the booster. I can see the lights flashing on it now ... Just as it goes into darkness, the reflection of the sun on the booster causes a very bright image. That's the object I had seen earlier."
McDivitt has never doubted that what he saw was merely an unmanned satellite or some other orbital debris. Detailed studies by others have found that the Titan II booster was in the right place and was the right distance away and was almost certainly the object. A Congressman inquired with NASA and was told "We believe it to be a rocket tank or spent second stage of a rocket." Only UFO enthusiasts who weren't there claim that it must have been an alien spacecraft.
Gemini 4 was not the only such flight where something similar happened, and that was also endorsed as unidentified by the Condon Report. Six months later, Gemini 7 with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell made what's been called a "football" maneuver to get them into a position where they would make recurring close approaches with their Titan II booster stage every orbit. When they did, Borman reported the following:
"Bogey at 10 o'clock high... We have several, looks like debris up here. Actual sighting... We also have the booster in sight... Yeah, have a very, very many — look like hundreds of little particles banked on the left out about 3 to 4 miles... It looks like a path to the vehicle at 90 degrees... They are passed now — they were in polar orbit."
Lovell reported the booster also in sight, "slowly tumbling", along with its associated debris cloud. So Borman's "bogey" particles had to be something other than the booster or booster debris: They were in a different direction, traveling along a different trajectory. Right?
Not necessarily. According to later analysis, Borman's bogeys were ice flakes from leftover fuel spewed from the Titan II, traveling along a parallel path to it. Imagine riding a bicycle beside two widely-separated train tracks. A train passing along the far track is so distant that it seems to be hardly moving; while a train passing suddenly along the near track seems many times faster. If your bicycle path is at the right angle, the train's relative movement may appear to be 90 degrees from your own. The ice particles could not have been on a polar orbit, as Borman speculated, because they would have passed at far too many miles per second to have been perceptible. Instead, the orbit of the bogey flakes and of the Titan II was only slightly offset from that of Gemini 7.
As often happens with such tales, popular retellings greatly exaggerate the event. Articles written about the Gemini 7 bogey have described it as "a massive spherical object", or even that Borman and Lovell "photographed twin oval-shaped UFOs with glowing undersides." These are nothing more than untrue embellishments added by UFO writers. A hoax photograph was even made to fit this latter description, and has been widely distributed.
Always remember that "unidentified" does not mean "positively identified as an alien spacecraft", something that UFO proponents forget all too often. There's a lot of stuff in orbit, and a lot of stuff traveling alongside every manned and unmanned spacecraft; and we'll always have UFO reports so long as we have a space program. While it may be intriguing to wonder which planet the Little Green Men came from, my experience is that the more fascinating science is that of trying to better understand what's actually happening.