Orbs, Blobs, and Glows: Astronauts, UFOs, and Photography

Article excerpt

Neil Armstrong saw UFOs: two pale orbs haloed in a cobalt glow hovering in a pitch-black void. Or so countless websites report in copy-and-paste narratives replete with audio, tiny fuzzy color images, and corroborations by ex-NASA employees, doctors, and even one of Neil's friends. In photographs of UFOs taken by astronauts, two divergent worlds come into the same orbit: science and the paranormal. Astronomers and ufologists both gaze into outer space, but with very different desires. The claim that our national hero Armstrong saw a UFO is either the most alluring evidence of alien intelligence out there or the most absurd. Other pixelated images purportedly taken by Armstrong show a ball of light over a spaceship on the lunar surface and a seahorse-shaped blob high above earth. There they are: July 1969, alone on a cold gray ball 238,000 miles from our planet, out of range of any cameras except the ones they hold, highly trained and imbued with impeccable authority, and invested with all the dreams and aspirations of an entire nation.

Unnamed radio hams picked up the following exchange just as the astronauts landed in the Sea of Tranquility:

NASA: What's there? Mission Control calling Apollo II . . .

Apollo II: These "Babies" are huge, Sir! Enormous! OH MY GOD! You wouldn't believe it! I'm telling you there are other spacecraft out there, lined up on the far side of the crater edge! They're on the Moon watching us!1

In a very un-Fox Mulder-like panic, Armstrong stammers out this description, but we have no real details. Though he has been photographing madly through the entire voyage, Armstrong didn't have the presence of mind to shoot at that moment. The photographs circulating among the UFO sites online were taken at other moments during the voyage. Instead of describing anything as clear as spaceships, they feature formless blobs, hazy glows, and cigar-shaped objects.2

Four years earlier, in 1965, Gemini 7 astronauts Frank Borman and James A. Lovell photographed similar orbs floating outside their Titan booster rocket. NASA's website dispassionately describes a moment early in the mission: "The booster was still in sight, its lights flashing and billions of particles around it. Borman and Lovell saw some unidentifiable objects in orbit five to six kilometers away. About 7:00 p.m., they turned from sightseeing to housekeeping, and at 9:30 they ate their first meal in space."3 These are the same veteran astronauts who, on their historic 1968 Apollo 8 flight (the first escape from earth's gravity), took the iconic image of the earth rising over the moon, Earthrise. In fact many of the Gemini and Apollo missions were oriented around communication technologies. On the Apollo 8 journey, the prime mission was to take images to map the lunar surface, both the dark side that no one had ever seen and the near side, for potential landing sites. At the same time, they photographed incessantly, documenting every minor aspect of the flight.

In the late 1960s, not only did men leave the earth's atmosphere in a spacecraft, float around in space outside their vehicles, and land on the moon, they also saw multiple UFOs both on the moon and in the earth's orbit. Simultaneously, photography extended its reach dramatically: cameras were brought up into space to photograph Earth, to perform science experiments, and to capture otherworldly entities. Significantly, these images are notable for being taken by ordinary cameras in astronauts' hands. Earlier technologies had hoisted cameras out into space. In 1960 the Tiros InfraRed Observational Satellite, the first weather satellite, beamed the first image of Earth taken with a television camera. But the images shot by Gemini and Apollo astronauts and carried back to Earth were the most widely released space images ever. Though many of the images are not particularly different from earlier images, the presence of the astronauts' bodies is what makes the images important. …