11.2 Did Buzz Aldrin see a UFO?

IN A NUTSHELL: No. He saw a discarded part of the Apollo spacecraft. He said so immediately upon returning to Earth, but conspiracy theorists and unscrupulous documentary makers ignore or even edit out his explanation.

THE DETAILS: This remarkable claim stems from a statement made by Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11) in the documentary First on the Moon: The Untold Story (2005). Here’s what he says verbatim:

There was something out there that was close enough to be observed... and what could it be?... Mike [Collins] decided he thought he could see it in the telescope, and he was able to do that, and when it was in one position it had a series of ellipses. But when you made it real sharp it was sort of L-shaped. That didn’t tell us very much... Obviously the three of us were not gonna blurt out “Hey, Houston, we’ve got something moving alongside of us, we don’t know what it is, you know, can you tell us what it is?” We weren’t about to do that! ’Cause we know that those transmissions would be heard by all sorts of people, and who knows what somebody would have demanded that we turn back because of aliens or whatever the reason is. So we didn’t do that, but we did decide we’d just cautiously ask Houston where... how far away was the S-IVB... And a few moments later, they came back and said something like it was six thousand miles away because of the maneuver, so we really didn’t think we were looking at something that far away, so we decided that after a while watching it, it was time to go to sleep, and not to talk about it anymore until we came back, in debriefing.

Figure 11-5. Buzz Aldrin recounts his “UFO” encounter in First on the Moon: The Untold Story (2005).

Aldrin’s expression clearly reveals his amusement (Figure 11-5) as he tells this anecdote; he doesn’t speak in the solemn tone that one might expect for such a world-shaking revelation as an alien encounter. Nevertheless, the documentary dwells on his words and also shows a blurry image of an object (not the one seen by Apollo 11, but another one observed during another Moon trip) while the narrator states that the object seen by Aldrin was never identified certainly.

At first sight, it would seem that an Apollo astronaut is claiming that he saw an extraterrestrial spacecraft and decided, together with his crewmates, to keep quiet about it. That’s the way many UFO sites present this story. But a little fact-checking reveals that the conspiracy of silence was perpetrated not by the astronauts, but by the authors of the documentary, perhaps seeking a dramatic scoop.

The most likely and thoroughly non-extraterrestrial explanation of the sighting had in fact been given directly by Aldrin during the interview he recorded for the documentary, but it was cut, as Aldrin told David Morrison of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Ask an Astrobiologist, July 26, 2006). The astronaut explained to the documentary makers that the object that was chasing them was quite likely to be one of the four fairing panels that enclosed the Lunar Module, as shown in Figure 11-6.

During liftoff from Earth and for the initial part of the trip to the Moon, the Lunar Module sat on top of the S-IVB stage (the cylinder at the bottom left in Figure 11-6) and below the command and service module, protected by these four panels.

Figure 11-6. Extraction of the Lunar Module. Detail of NASA drawing S-66-5107.

As the spacecraft continued its voyage toward the Moon, the command and service module separated from the S-IVB stage and turned around to face the stage. The fairing panels opened out and detached from the S-IVB and then the command and service module docked with the lunar module and pulled it away from the stage.

The docked command and service module and the lunar module (the actual Apollo spacecraft) then moved away from the S-IVB, which was commanded from Earth to fire its engines to set it on a trajectory that avoided any risk of collision with the spacecraft.

The fairing panels, however, were already uncoupled from the S-IVB stage and therefore were not affected by the trajectory change and diligently obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, continuing by inertia along the same path as the Apollo spacecraft, like seagulls trailing a ship, until the spacecraft fired its main engine to change course, as shown also in Figure 10-9.

Aldrin subsequently confirmed the true nature of the sighting on several occasions, for example on the Howard Stern Show of August 15, 2007. In a TV interview for the Science Channel he asked for the opportunity to explain to the viewers that he had not seen an alien spacecraft, but the TV channel refused his request. The tale of the astronaut who says he saw a UFO is too good to be put down and so it continues to circulate unchecked, despite the fact that the matter had already been clarified and discussed thirty-five years earlier during the debriefing mentioned by Aldrin, as recorded on pages 6-33 to 6-36 of the Apollo 11 Technical Crew Debriefing of July 31, 1969.

It’s quite ironic that the astronauts, during their flight, chose not to discuss the issue over the radio because they were concerned that their remarks might be misinterpreted but this choice was then construed as evidence that they were hiding something. Just as they expected, their words were grossly misunderstood.