Alien Visitation and Kecksburg
More than a third of Americans believe that Earth is actively being visited by aliens, so it's no surprise that any given UFO report will find a base of believers who honestly and seriously interpret it as another case of alien visitation. It's no secret that this is both completely unevidenced and physically implausible, so the majority of us are often amazed that so many people could cling so dearly to such an untenable belief. Today we're going to look at one example of such a claim: the famous Kecksburg UFO of 1965, aggressively promoted for the past two decades by television science channels as a case of alien visitation. We'll look at the reports, then devise a methodology that even the true believers can use to see whether alien visitation is indeed the required conclusion.
First, the basic facts of the legend, as it's popularly reported — which, almost by definition, means that no skepticism has yet been applied. On December 9, 1965, a fireball of great brilliance and duration was reported over six of the United States and Ontario, Canada. It was also reported by at least 23 aircraft, and generated shockwaves powerful enough to be picked up on seismographs. A number of locations reported finds of metal debris. The woods outside Kecksburg, Pennsylvania were cordoned off by officials, and witnesses reported a large, acorn-shaped object being taken away on a flatbed truck. The object was emblazoned with what looked like strange hieroglyphic characters. The two leading theories for what it was were that it was either an alien spacecraft or the Nazi flying saucer called Die Glocke that we discussed in episode #293. The TV shows dubbed the event "Pennsylvania's Roswell''. These shows have included UFO Hunters, Close Encounters, Unsolved Mysteries, Nazi UFO Conspiracy, Ancient Aliens, and even a dedicated documentary hosted by Bryant Gumbel called The New Roswell: Kecksburg Exposed.
In more recent years, speculation has arisen that the object was the Soviet Kosmos-96 Venus probe, which had failed during its launch some two and a half weeks prior, and is known to have re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on the same day as the fireball was seen. In addition, in preparation for one its shows, the SyFy network engaged paranormal author Leslie Kean — a longtime advocate of alien visitation — to file a Freedom of Information Act request with NASA to force them to release their files on the Kecksburg event. NASA's response was that the documents had been lost, which added fuel to the fire of suspicion that NASA knew the Kecksburg object was an alien spacecraft and was covering it up. There have been other claimed IDs for the object too, but these have been the main ones.
Put that all together, and it makes a case that is — if not persuasive to a skeptic — at least difficult to form a simple, easy-to-accept argument against. Large numbers of witnesses and stuff being secretly hauled away by the military are exactly the types of story elements that persuade that one-third of Americans that their belief in alien visitation is well evidenced.
Luckily, there are two little axioms I like that are directly applicable to this story, both of which give us cause for grave concern about its accuracy. Simple axioms like these are easy to know and remember, and you don't have to put your nose to the grindstone and look up all the details about this case to learn what actually happened. I've done that for you anyway, and we'll get to that, but first we're going to apply these axioms to the story to put ourselves on more solid footing.
Axiom #1: NASA has nothing to do with UFOs.
NASA's job is not aliens or UFOs, not even enemy spy satellites. NASA's job is launching things into space, and all the attendant responsibilities that go along with that. They're not part of the military and they've nothing to do with defense. If you are looking for information on a UFO, or on an alien landing story, or whether a Soviet spacecraft re-entered, or debris that might have been collected after some mysterious object fell from the sky, NASA is not the place you should be inquiring. It is, however, quite likely that someone there will know, because a lot of the people most knowledgeable about space work there; and sometimes there's crossover and the information might be relevant to something that actually is NASA's responsibility; but you're usually better off sending your inquiry to the right agency. Often this is the US Air Force, because they're the ones whose job it is to worry about national security and defense and threats from the air. It's the Air Force, not NASA, that has branches devoted to intelligence and investigation of reports.
How this axiom helps us is in assessing the accuracy of the TV version of this story. The TV shows all talked about NASA covering things up. They filed a FOIA request against NASA. What this tells us is that the people telling this story — the TV networks — don't really know what they're talking about. Therefore, we should be pretty darn skeptical about their version of the story — just as we should of any TV program claiming NASA has secret information about UFOs or aliens. NASA doesn't care about those any more than the Department of Agriculture does.
Even a true believer in alien visitation can understand and apply this axiom.
Axiom #2: Wild stories tend to grow a lot over time.
Unless you are persuaded that TV shows like Ancient Aliens are there to downplay stories — to give us an understated, cooler-heads-prevailing, down-to-Earth, only-what-academics-agree-upon version of stories — you should understand that the reverse is usually true. Their job is to garner eyeball share, and they do that by presenting as sensational a story as possible. Many of my colleagues and I have appeared on these shows as expert talking heads, and the directors are constantly prompting us to say certain phrases, to repeat what we just explained but using a specific term that they want, in order to give them just the snippet of dialog that they can isolate and give viewers the impression that scientists all believe some wild alien explanation is the true one. The result is that every time a story like Kecksburg appears on a TV show, it is exaggerated more and more from the last time.
Often, ordinary people are the original eyewitnesses to some of these events, and this is the only opportunity they'll probably ever have to be in a TV show. Not only they are often eager for their 15 minutes of fame, they're less experienced working with directors who try to manipulate them. The result is that the carefully prompted and edited version of eyewitness testimony that appears on the TV show is nearly always more sensational than it was the last time.
I can think of at least two UFO cases that we've talked about here on Skeptoid in which the original reports at the time of the event included nothing more than lights or distant objects in the sky; but by the time TV shows had had their way with them, they'd grown into eyewitnesses claiming to have walked up to and even touched an alien spacecraft sitting on the ground. This was the case with both the Rendlesham Forest event of 1980 and the Westall event of 1966. My experience with TV shows accelerating the natural exaggeration of urban legends tells me to take the claim of a spacecraft being hauled away on a flatbed truck with a grain of salt.
This axiom, too, can be understood and applied by even the most hardcore believer in alien visitation.
What really happened
On the late afternoon of December 9, 1965, a hypersonic bolide streaked through the sky, just as reported. It was observed and studied by plenty of professional astronomers, and these reports were gathered and published in a scientific paper in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. All existing evidence supports that it was simply a natural meteor, as expected.
As often happens with such fireballs, witnesses all along its path reported many impact sites, and Kecksburg was no different. In an article about the event in the February 1966 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, geophysicist George Wetherill stated:
Two days after the fireball, the editors of the local newspaper summarized their staff's analysis of the whole episode: "Nothing at all seems to have happened."
The object being carted away on a truck turned out to have been reported by a single person, a 10-year-old boy, and then only 25 years after the fact, when he brought it up on the 1990 TV show Unsolved Mysteries. No accounts from 1965 ever mentioned anything being recovered.
After that episode was filmed, the Tribune-Review newspaper wrote that more than 50 residents (10% of the entire population) signed a petition to get the producers not to air the program on the grounds that it was patently false. Among them were nearly everyone claimed to have been implicated in the 1965 event, including Ed Myers, who had been the fire chief who was falsely claimed to have been involved in cordoning off an area of the woods. He said "It's killing me to know this is going nationwide, because there's absolutely no truth to it."
But lest we claim that nothing at all happened in Kecksburg, it does appear to be true that US Air Force personnel, having been given a heads-up that Kosmos-96 was going to de-orbit, and having gained useful intelligence in the past from other de-orbited Soviet spacecraft, did follow the reports from Kecksburg of the impacted fireball. State police did indeed close a couple of roads while Air Force personnel from a radar station a few hours west in Ohio tromped around with geiger counters for a couple hours, but according to all accounts, they soon left, having found no evidence of any impact. We now know they wouldn't have, because it turns out the orbit of Kosmos-96 would never have taken it near Kecksburg. Their search was a reasonable precaution, but was certainly far short of the absurd proportions the story has since grown into.
So although you can find out for a fact that nothing happened in Kecksburg if you're willing to invest the time going into old newspaper archives and do literature searches, it really takes nothing more than a couple basic axioms to give a pretty effective and reliable analysis of such a story. First, know that any source talking about NASA covering up UFOs almost certainly has no idea what they're talking about; and second, know that stories greatly exaggerate over time, especially if there's been a series of TV shows to accelerate the exaggeration. So armed, go forth, and seek out some more UFO urban legends.
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