It’s important to be acquainted with these theories of secret flights and alien encounters, because they are part of the classic repertoire of hardcore conspiracy theorists and reveal clearly the typical errors of the conspiracist mindset. Most importantly, however, they’re very amusing to bring up in a Moon hoax discussion and then watch the ensuing colorful argument among the various factions of conspiracy theorists.
11.1 Are there UFOs in Apollo photographs?Some UFO enthusiasts claim that the photographs taken on the Moon by the astronauts are authentic and show the presence of alien vehicles. For example, Ufocasebook.com includes, in the section entitled The Best UFO Pictures Ever Taken, three photographs of the Apollo 16 mission (Figure 11-1).
The “UFOs” that can be seen in these photographs and in many other images from the Apollo missions are not flying saucers that NASA nonchalantly left in the pictures, hoping that nobody would notice them: they’re simply reflections of the Sun inside the camera lens. These reflections are known to photographers as lens flares and occur on Earth, too, although usually they are less noticeable because on Earth the sky is very bright when the Sun is up. On the Moon, the sky is black even when the Sun is above the horizon, so any lens flare stands out starkly against the blackness.
The photos shown in Figure 11-1 are, top to bottom, AS16-114-18423, AS16-114-18422 and AS16-109-17804, all from the Apollo 16 flight. They’re incomplete versions of those images, cropped so as to not show an important detail. It turns out that in the uncropped high-resolution original scans of these photographs, the “UFOs” are actually two in each image and are always aligned in the direction of the Sun, the position of which can be determined by tracing the directions in which the shadows converge. These are typical indications of a lens flare.
In the third photo, in particular, the lens flare would stand out unmistakably if someone hadn’t removed the upper part of the picture, because the second “UFO” is actually in front of the sunshade on the astronaut’s helmet (Figure 11-2). It’s rather hard to believe that the pictures were cropped so conveniently just by chance or that the vehicles used by aliens for their Moon trips are the size of horseflies.
The visual records of the Apollo flights include dozens of photographs affected by lens flares. In the color photos, the rainbow effect produced by the different refraction of the various colors inside the lens is an obvious giveaway that the alleged alien spacecraft is merely a byproduct of the camera lens and is not a real object.
However, not all the “UFOs” that can be spotted in the Apollo photographs are camera-generated. Some are real objects that are difficult to interpret correctly without knowing the technical context: for example, they are often parts of the spacecraft that were jettisoned after use or flakes of the vehicle’s covering that peeled off and traveled alongside it by inertia.
Fragment break-off was quite frequent. Figure 11-3 shows the S-IVB stage of Apollo 8 after its separation from the command and service module: note the swarm of bright debris that surrounds the jettisoned stage.
Figure 11-4 instead shows a piece of Mylar covering that detached from the Apollo 10 command module and floated outside the spacecraft. Astronaut John Young estimated it to be about 50 centimeters (a foot and half) long.
Without knowledge of this context and with no distance references to estimate the size of the object, it’s easy to imagine the flake to be a mysterious alien vehicle. It is not surprising that this is one of the most frequently mentioned Apollo images among UFO enthusiasts. However, a more thorough perusal of the Apollo archives reveals at least two more photographs (AS10-28-3989 and 3900) of the same fragment as it slowly turns. If these photos are combined to create a stereo pair, they clearly show that the object is small and close to the viewer.
It’s worth noting that these UFO enthusiasts claim that these photographs were really taken on or around the Moon, in contrast with “classic” conspiracy theorists, who deny the Moon landings. Putting the two groups of believers in the same room might turn out to be entertaining.
11.2 Did Buzz Aldrin see a UFO?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.
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.
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.
11.3 Did a secret Moon mission recover an alien spaceship?Another popular UFO-related claim is that there was a secret military mission to the Moon, named Apollo 20, that was performed by a joint Russian-American crew to recover an alien spacecraft found on the Moon.
A man named William Rutledge claims that he was one of the members of this crew together with US astronaut Leona Snyder and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. According to his tale, a Saturn V rocket departed in secret in 1976 from the Vandenberg military base in California and reached the far side of the Moon, where the photographic reconnaissance performed by Apollo 15 had discovered a giant extraterrestrial spaceship.
Evidence of this alien vehicle was said to be visible even in public photo atlases of the Moon, for example in the detail of NASA photo AS15-P-9625 shown in Figure 11-7. The alleged spaceship is the elongated sunlit shape at the center of the picture, surrounded by deep shadow.
This claim is highly suspicious: if the presence of an extraterrestrial vehicle on the Moon was so top secret that it prompted a covert joint Russian-American mission, then why was its picture released (for example in the LPI photo atlas)? Since images of the far side of the Moon were available at the time only if NASA or the Soviet Union chose to publish them, it would have been trivially easy to censor them and keep the secret.
Rutledge’s tale, however, continues with many technical details that appear quite plausible to the layperson and includes rather shocking videos, which even show a humanoid alien corpse (Figure 11-8) and close-ups of the extraterrestrial vehicle.
Many UFO researchers, however, have investigated Rutledge’s story and shown that it is just a well-orchestrated hoax created by French artist Thierry Speth, as detailed for example in the report published by the Italian UFO investigators of the Centro Ufologico Nazionale (National UFO Center). For example, the alleged video footage of the alien spaceship includes a very terrestrial-looking spring, and in one of the videos of the interior of the lunar module the background can be seen through an astronaut, revealing the fact that the astronaut was superimposed using visual effects. The alleged alien corpse turns out to be one of Speth’s sculptures.
In addition to these clear indications of fakery, it is technically absurd to think that a giant Saturn V rocket could depart from California without anyone noticing its thunderous liftoff and bright climb through the sky and without being spotted by the world’s professional and amateur astronomers as it flew to the Moon, as occurred for the other Apollo missions.
A launch from Vandenberg, on the west coast of the United States, would have entailed another problem: Moon rockets usually lift off along a west-to-east trajectory, in order to take advantage of the substantial speed boost provided by the Earth’s rotation (1470 kilometers per hour, or about 910 miles per hour at the latitude of the Kennedy Space Center). But a west-to-east Vandenberg launch would mean that the climb to space would be visible from the entire US and, most importantly, that the massive S-IC first stage, once spent, would fall somewhere in the continental United States, and any malfunction of the rocket would cause it to fall onto populated areas. That’s the reason why Florida was chosen as a launch site: any spent or malfunctioning boosters fall safely into the Atlantic Ocean.
An east-to-west trajectory, climbing over the Pacific, would not only entail the loss of the natural boost of the Earth’s rotation, but would cause an equivalent speed penalty, as the rocket would have to accelerate against the Earth’s motion. A polar orbit (to the north or to the south) would still have to do without the rotational boost and this would reduce considerably the Saturn V’s payload capacity.
As regards the alleged alien spaceship, the high-resolution original photographs (Figure 11-9) show that it’s just an elongated depression of the lunar surface. The appearance of a smooth, artificial-looking shape is an artifact of the low-quality copies often used by UFO enthusiasts and hoax perpetrators.
11.4 Did the astronauts find alien structures on the Moon?One of the many UFO-centered tales regarding the Apollo missions alleges that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the two moonwalkers of Apollo 11, found alien artifacts on the Moon. Overwhelmed by their discovery, they started reporting it excitedly to Mission Control over the public radio link, while Mission Control tried to shut them up and told them to switch to a secure channel.
According to the proponents of this story, the radio transmissions from the Moon had a built-in delay designed to allow censorship and so the discovery was never made public. Some radio enthusiasts, however, allegedly managed to intercept the direct radio signal from the astronauts and recorded it, and so the amazing extraterrestrial discovery was leaked. Here’s the transcript of the astronauts’ excited exchange, which is also available as an audio file:
Astronaut 1: Ha! What is it?
Astronaut 2: We have some explanation for that?
Houston: We have none, don’t worry, continue your program!
Astronaut 1: Oh boy it’s a, it’s, it, it is really something [garbled] fantastic here, you, you could never imagine this!
Houston: Roger, we know about that, could you go the other way, go back the other way!
Astronaut 1: Well it’s kind of [garbled] ha, pretty spectacular... God... what is that there?
Astronaut 1: It’s [garbled], what the hell is that?
Houston: Go Tango, Tango!
Astronaut 1: Ha! There’s kind of light there now!
Houston: Roger, we got it, we (watched it), lose communication, Bravo Tango, Bravo Tango, select Jezebel, Jezebel!
Astronaut 1: ...ya, ha! ... but this is unbelievable!
The claim is actually very easy to debunk. First of all, the voices in the recording are completely different from Armstrong and Aldrin’s. The beeps (formally known as Quindar tones) that separate the astronauts’ voices from the orders from Mission Control are different from the real ones, and so are the background noise and the type of distortion. Also, there’s no sign of the 2.6-second delay between the voice from Mission Control and the replies of the astronauts that inevitably occurs due to the round trip to Earth-Moon distance, covered by the radio signal at the speed of light.
Most importantly, it turns out that the original source of the alleged recording is actually a 1977 British parody documentary, Alternative 3.
Another version of this exchange was published by an American-Canadian tabloid, the National Bulletin, on September 29, 1969, under the title Phony Transmission Failure Hides Apollo 11 Discovery... MOON IS A UFO BASE! It’s not clear whether this was an attempt at parody like Alternative 3, but it certainly has the same implausible setting and is replete with meaningless technobabble such as “orbit scanned” or “In 625 to the fifth, auto-relays set”, which might be impressive to the layperson but are dead giveaways for experts in the field.
The issue of the badly faked beeps is a good opportunity to dispel some frequently repeated myths about them. First of all, the beeps could not be heard by the astronauts and were not used to indicate that it was the other party’s turn to talk. Instead they controlled the transmission of the radio signals from Earth via transmitters located in various countries, which were used as the Earth’s rotation brought them within line-of-sight reach of the spacecraft. They were linked to Mission Control in Houston, Texas, via analog telephone lines, which were affected by interference and noise, so it was necessary to mute the transmitter locally, at the transmission station, instead of closing the microphone in Houston. Essentially, the Quindar tones were remote control signals sent over the telephone lines.
These signals are still used for some space communications. They take their name from Quindar Electronics, Inc.,which provided the equipment that generated these tones and responded to their commands. The tones are 250 milliseconds long at 2,525 Hz for the activation tone (transmission start) and 2,475 Hz for the deactivation tone (transmission stop). A filter eliminated the tones from the signal sent to the Apollo spacecraft and therefore the astronauts usually didn’t hear them. However, during some flights, such as Apollo 8, the filtering didn’t always work fully and the piercing beeps reached the astronaut’s ears.
11.5 What about astronaut Ed Mitchell’s UFO claims?Apollo 14 Lunar Module pilot and moonwalker Edgar Mitchell is often presented as an authoritative UFO witness, but during his lifetime he made it very clear that he did not support claims that he saw direct evidence of extraterrestrial presence while he was in space or on the Moon or that NASA was involved in some kind of coverup:
The notion that there are structures on Mars or the Moon is bonkers. I can attest to the latter -- I’ve been there. We saw no structures at the landing site and none was reflected in my helmet, as has been alleged.
– UFOs: It’s a coverup, by Tom Rhodes, Ottawa Citizen, October 11, 1998.
I, nor any crew I was on (I was on three Apollo crews), received any briefing before or after flights on UFO events, saw anything in space suggesting UFOs or structures on the moon, etc. We did it just like we said in official reports. My only claim to knowledge of these events is from the individuals, mostly of yesteryear, who were in government, intelligence, or military; were there, saw what they saw, and now believe it should be made public. But I claim no first hand knowledge, nor have any.
– Ed Mitchell Most Unhappy With Greer Using His Name As Disclosure Witness, Rense.com, 2001.
On the other hand, he went on record saying that he believed that extraterrestrial spacefarers have visited Earth and that there is a government coverup on the UFO phenomenon:
I happen to be privileged to [...] be in on the fact that we have been visited on this planet and the UFO phenomenon is real, although it’s been covered up by our governments for quite a long time [...] I have been deeply involved in certain committees and certain research programs with very credible scientists and intelligence people that do know the real inside story [...] The Roswell crash was real and a number of other contacts have been real and ongoing.
– Astronaut Says Aliens Are Real, Kerrang Radio (2008).
The evidence to back up these claims is, as Mitchell himself readily acknowledged, not first-hand and is based on statements by other people that Mitchell believed to be reliable but cannot corroborate. Currently there is no publicly available hard evidence and therefore this fascinating issue remains a matter of opinion.