The Unsolved Enigma of Operation Moon!
The summer movie-going season has generally been the preserve of action-packed thrillers and buddy movies. This year promises us something a little different: Gonzalo López Gallego’s Apollo 18, a “mockumentary” centered around the premise of the secret mission known as Apollo 18, launched in December 1974 and forever lost on the lunar surface for reasons unknown. Unknown, that is, until “found footage of the lunar mission” emerges to set the record straight, in the tradition of the Blair Witch Project and other found footage cinematic excursions.
Secret lunar missions form part and parcel of UFO fringe theory and conspiracy theory. The haste with which NASA halted its lunar project (although one needs only examine the financial / political atmosphere of the early 1970s to find no mystery) has always excited the imagination of anyone with a passing interest in the space programs. There were other missions that used Apollo program hardware, to be sure: the three capsules employed in the Skylab missions (1973-1974) and the one employed for the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975. Apollo 18, 19 and 20 – which would have explored some fascinating lunar features, such as the crater Tycho, one of our satellite’s most prominent landmarks.
Lost amid 1994's media swirl of Bosnia, Rwanda, and the O.J. Simpson trial was a small item signaling the return of the United States' space program to the Moon--a new age in lunar exploration kicked off by a small disposable satellite dubbed "Clementine", allegedly a spin-off from the supposedly inactive Space Defense Initiative (SDI).
"It's curious that the first American mission to the Moon in over 21 years received no more than two inches of space in the country's major newspapers,” wrote UFO author George Andrews. He went on to note that the mission's steep price tag--$75 million--should have at least drawn someone's attention. According to an AP newswire, Clementine 1's mission was that of photographing our natural satellite along with an unspecified asteroid in order to test new defensive hardware, the exact nature of which remained unspecified.
NASA's long vacation from lunar exploration has been rationalized as a result of public indifference to space exploration or even outright hostility at the high cost of space probes. It has also been suggested that there was nothing all that exciting about the Moon in the first place, the payoff for manned space exploration lying in the red sands of Mars or in the mineral-rich asteroid belt. Eight hundred pounds of lunar rocks later, it seemed that everything scientists had ever wanted to know about our closest neighbor in space had apparently been discovered – a thought actually verbalized NASA agency after the Apollo 15 mission.
But looming over our heads, the Moon is rather hard to forget. And NASA had never quite put lunar exploration out of its plans either: it had been noted during the Viking Mars Program that a lander similar to the one aimed at Chryse Planitia could easily place a thousand pounds of scientific equipment anywhere on the Moon, even on the elusive dark side, while an orbiter provided contact with Earth. In the 1980's, former Astronaut Sally Ride chaired a committee to establish the best way to return to our satellite as a stepping-stone for the more difficult Mars endeavor.
But there were other schools of thought suggesting more intriguing facts, such as that the Apollo Program had only been elaborate, low-tech window dressing to conceal the more sophisticated military space program doing the actual exploration. Some went as far as suggesting that manned bases had been established below the lunar surface, dug out by nightmarish machinery. Still others on the very fringe between reality and delusion whispered tales of alien bases, battles between humans and non-humans, and how a secret Soviet lunar landing had ended in disaster when a cosmonaut tried to kill an alien on the Moon.
Paranoia aside, many still believe this rekindling of interest in the Moon to be highly suspicious. One of the foremost arguments is that there is no reason why both superpowers should have lost interest in lunar exploration at roughly the same time: after the Apollo 17 mission left the Moon on December 7 1972, the successful Soviet Lunakhod program came to a close less than seven months later, when contact with Lunakhod 2 was mysteriously lost near the crater Le Monnier, just 110 miles away from Apollo 17's landing site. Was it true, as some suggested, that humans had been "warned off" the Moon as trespassers, and that intense UFO activity had bedeviled our lunar probes? Author Brad Steiger mentions in his Mysteries of Time and Space that on February 14, 1973, Lunakhod had probed an unusually smooth slab of rock, resembling a modern house panel, in the vicinity of the Taurus Mountains. The slab resembled, of all things, the enigmatic monolith described in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Modern Myth-Making or Frightening Fact?
During the 1970's, a series of articles in a number of magazines around the world suggested the possibility that astronauts had run into extraterrestrial craft and installations on the Sea of Tranquility and other lunar locales. Transcripts of conversations between Mission Control and the different exploration parties hinted at the fact that our fearless explorers, endowed with "the right stuff", were in way over their heads. On Christmas Day, 1968, as Apollo 8 circumnavigated the Moon, an extraordinary event took place--communications went silent for six anxiety-ridden minutes while Houston tried in vain to raise the Command Module on the radio. After the endless silence, astronaut James Lovell said: "We've just been told Santa Claus exists". Medical monitors at Mission Control showed that the pilot's pulse rate had suddenly jumped to 120 beats a minute, while it had remained normal prior to the gap of silence. The historic Apollo 11 landing on the Sea of Tranquility was characterized by the odd "serenade" of assorted train whistles and mechanical sounds which interrupted the secure communication channel between the Lunar Excursion Module and CAPCOM in Houston, prompting the latter to ask of the astronauts if "they had any company up there". It is a widespread, though baseless, belief that Apollo 13 was nearly destroyed by a UFO beam trained against the service module, although it is a recorded fact that our astronauts have been "fired" upon--a projectile-like object flashed across the sky barely missing astronauts David Scott and James Irwin of the Apollo 15 mission, while the Apollo 16 crew was startled by a ray of light that flashed across the black lunar skies. Astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt had an even more harrowing "close encounter" with the unknown when an unseen force caused the high gain antenna of their lunar rover to explode. The transcript of communication between the moonside crew and the orbiting command module remains a puzzle to this day, with the astronauts in the rover stating: "Yes, it exploded. Something flying over just before...it's still--", and the other replying: "God! I thought we'd been hit by a--by a--look at that stuff!" Their exchange is followed by a laconic reminder from Mission Control that a previous mission had experienced the very same phenomenon. According to NASA geologist Dr. Farouk El-Baz, the perplexing objects had to be considered perforce as UFOs, since there were no Soviet or American spacecraft capable of exhibiting such dazzling speeds.
In December 1969, the distinguished nuclear scientist Dr. Glenn Seaborg, then president of the Atomic Energy Commission, manifested during a visit to Moscow that Apollo 11 had discovered "suspicious tracks" on the far side of the Moon, which appeared to have been made by some sort of vehicle. This came as no surprise to a number of people, particularly astronomers who had charted transient lunar phenomena and the appearance and disappearance of odd surface features on the Moon's surface. As far back as the 18th century, astronomers had been intrigued by the lights which could be clearly observed in certain craters and in the lunar "maria". Throughout the 19th century, the crater Aristarchus displayed brilliant white lights which were originally dismissed as optical illusions until a team of observers saw the brilliant lights take off from the surface. This highly visible crater continued to be a source of strange activity well into the 1960's. During the late 1920's, earthbound observers were able to pick up curious "echoes" on their primitive radio equipment. The scientists Sturmer and Van der Pol detected the source of the radio echoes as being in the vicinity of the Moon.
Nor was Aristarchus the only location for these strange events: The crater Plato revealed lights similar to that of vehicles in a parade, and Apollo 8 noted that Mt. Pickering, located between the craters Messier and Pickering, appears to emit beams of light. Either everything that was ever written about this allegedly lifeless celestial body was wrong, or its “tenants" were very busy.
By the mid-70s, with the U.S. manned space program in mothballs awaiting the advent of the space shuttle, and with the moon shots insensibly receding from the public's memory, a number of former NASA employees and consultants began to venture their own opinions on what exactly had transpired a quarter million miles away from earth during the Apollo launches, and the UFO press engaged in articles which invariably reprinted long transcripts of conversations held between Mission Control and the astronauts, stressing anomalous incidents which pointed at bizarre, unexpected phenomena.
Dr. Maurice Chatelain, a former chief of NASA Communications, expressed the controversial belief that both American and Soviet lunar missions had been "shadowed" by UFOs, even linking the names of certain astronauts to the incidents; Dr. Farouk El-Baz, a NASA geologist, believed that the perplexing objects photographed by the astronauts or sighted in lunar orbit had to be considered UFOs, since there were no Soviet or American spacecraft capable of exhibiting such dazzling speeds. Civilian writers also entered the fray with bold new suggestions, perhaps none quite as stunning as author George Leonard's Somebody Else Is On the Moon, the result of an exhaustive analysis of thousands of NASA photographs taken of the lunar surface. Leonard's theory, simply stated, was that the Moon was indeed inhabited by an extra-solar sentient race whose tell-tale signs are readily visible, and which in fact were the reason for the "race to the Moon" of the Sixties. The photos, according to this author, showed fuzzy depictions of colossal alien excavation devices up to five miles in diameter, and other mechanical devices that were allegedly engaged in altering the lunar surface. When interviewed by the defunct SAGA UFO REPORT, Dr. Farouk El-Baz stated that a number of curious, unexplainable objects had indeed been sighted. Foremost among these were the gigantic "spires" which appeared to cast shadows, often miles in length. These strange structures, which were also identified in George Leonard's photographic analysis, are composed of a material entirely different from the lunar rock surrounding them. Other articles and reports concentrated on less outrageous and more readily verifiable matters, such as the vast discrepancy in age between the lunar rocks brought back by the various missions.
Contactees Channel Their Thoughts
In 1975, Spanish journalist Juan José Benítez visited Peru in order to interview the members of the IPRI group, who were engaged in "channeled" communication with supposed extraterrestrial intelligences bent on saving humanity from itself and in providing confidential information on our species' first steps in space. The group, composed primarily of young students of the UFO phenomenon, was led by Carlos and Sixto Paz Wells, the latter of whom has gone on to achieve global notoriety in contactee circles.
Communication with the exotic alien presence was conducted via automatic writing, and in a number of sessions, extraterrestrials hailing from the planet Apu added another piece to the lunar conspiracy: the Americans had by no means at all been first on the Moon. Earlier in the 1960's, following the Soviet space program's exhilarating successes at launching two and three-man crews into space aboard A1 and A2 boosters, made a bid for the Moon, designed to shame the Americans. The Soviet two-man mission landed on our satellite and was terrified to discover the remains of an inactive alien base in a nearby crater. To worsen matters--according to the channeled information--one of the cosmonauts fired his weapon (!) at a moving mechanism, supposedly part of the installations "caretakers". The unfortunate result was that the shot ricocheted and killed him, causing his companion to abort the mission and return to Earth alone. This, like other Soviet space failures, was hushed up in the interests of political hegemony.
While these channeled alien messages must forcibly be taken with a pinch of salt, if not dismissed out of hand altogether, there remains the uncomfortable reality that the U.S.S.R. did in fact launch in January 1959, what is believed to have been a three-stage vehicle designed to impact the Moon: Luna 1 passed within three thousand miles of our satellite, and successive probes of the Luna series both soft-landed and orbited the Moon while our own efforts were still stranded at the starting line. The possibility of a secret manned mission cannot be ruled out. An incident during the Apollo 17 mission adds disquieting corroboration: while the command module flew over the crater Orientalis, pilot Al Worden reported seeing a manmade object resting at the crater bottom, flashing its lights. Mission Control asked the cryptic question: "You don't suppose it could be Vostok?" Worden was able to notice the vehicle again on his next orbit. The Vostok Program was the earliest series of launches by the Soviet Union, some of its launches enshrouded in the greatest secrecy. One of them could have been an abortive lunar mission...as explained by the "aliens".
A final note on the "pre-emptive" Russian lunar landing. By 1969, NASA classification of the presumed Soviet boosters identified six different kinds running from A to G, this last letter being assigned to "Webb's Giant", the titanic launcher identified by NASA Administrator Dr. James Webb as being the vehicle used to deliver manned Russian payloads to the Moon.
It is curious that the unheralded Clementine should have been a spin-off not of NASA's highly successful planetary programs but of the Space Defense Initiative (commonly known as Star Wars). Does this mean that some of the sophisticated weapon systems developed under this Reagan-era program can assure the defense of our own space probes against the "hostiles" occupying our Moon? Science fiction often heralds science fact--Clementine 1's mission called for a lunar encounter plus a flyby of a certain asteroid to test its equipment. The early draft of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey had the crew of the spaceship Discovery testing a laser spectrograph as a weapon against a small satellite. Was Clementine designed to test its own beam weapons on a hapless asteroid?
While our return to the Moon by proxy was successful--Clementine 1 broadcast well over a million images of the hitherto unseen lunar poles--contact was lost with the probe before it could complete its mission, falling into a useless solar orbit. Subsequent lunar missions, however have fared better: NASA's LRO and LCROSS in 2009, for example, with many others slated for the future (not including the Japanese and Indian missions. Nonethless, there are those who still believe that the silencing of Clementine 1 was another act of interdiction by unseen forces opposed to our exploration of space.
[Parts of this article originally appeared in Paranoia Magazine, 1995]