We received an email recently from a listener named Spenser. It reads:
I was just sent a link to this video by a friend and since I’ve been listening to the podcast for a couple of months, I thought you guys would be able to come up with some good reasons why this is a UFO and not an alien spaceship and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.
I have seen this footage before, as it has been featured on many credulous pseudoscientific television programs that choose to fancy the notion that extra terrestrials might be visiting the earth. It turns out that this is the “infamous” STS-48 footage taken from the Space Shuttle Discovery back in 1991. It has been a while since I’ve taken time to stop and look at this old footage.
To answer the listener’s question, it must be stated that no one can say for certain that anything contained in the footage is not an alien spaceship. However, it is fair to say that this conclusion should occupy an extreme end of the spectrum of possibilities. And while it rightfully occupies that position, we would need to have a pile of good evidence proportional to the extraordinariness of the claim to call it likely to be true.
Suggesting that we offer some “good reasons why this is a UFO” hints that we are inclined to call it unidentified, which also exists on the spectrum of possibilities. But our spectrum is not limited to this pair of options. I recall way back when I first saw this footage for the first time, I thought that the moving objects were large dust clumps that were either native to the shuttle (most likely having been shed from the shuttle.) Or perhaps that orbit above the earth has naturally occurring dust particles, not unlike part of the composition of the rings around other planets in our solar system. I then thought that maybe instead of dust, it was ice that had shed from the ship or naturally occurred. So right there, we have a rough spectrum of possibilities ranging from the mundane, like ice or dust, to “unknown”, to the fantastic, such as the notion that one or more of these moving objects could have been an alien space ship.
The UFO and conspiracy theory crowds have latched on to this and many other clips of space shuttle exterior camera footage as further evidence of alien activity on and about the earth. There is no shortage of these space shuttle clips, and there are hundreds of hilarious comments from the reality-impaired to accompany them. The prevailing “alternative” explanation amongst the embracers of woo is that the footage shows an alien craft or life-form of some kind that moves rather casually at first, and then zips away at fantastic speeds when the US government fires an “electro-field” weapon (their words) at the object, barely missing the target. And of course, the public was never meant to see such a shocking display caught on camera, but the footage leaked out from behind the dam of eternal US military and government secrets.
Where did this wild notion come from? After doing some more background checking into the history of this footage, it turns out that the main figure behind this cockamamie story is none other than our good friend and future insane asylum resident, Richard C. Hoagland. Yep, the very same man who made crazy fashionable in the world of space exploration with his continuing support of the “Face on Mars” photo, along with a host of other fanciful notions about our government, our space program, and the solar system itself. Logic prevents me from ruling out the alien activity options on our spectrum of choices, however, with Hoagland involved in perpetuating this possibility, it makes the alien activity option just that much more dubious. This man is more “out there” than anyone else in the field of cryptoastronautics (I made up that term.)
As for my initial guesses of dust or ice, it turns out that my initial suspicions are, by far, the most likely to be true. Here is a good prosaic explanation for what is being seen in the video clip. Small ice particles coming off of the shuttle are abundant and have been documented for decades. When a thruster on the shuttle activates, the particles are pushed away from the thruster, and the cameras can, and often do, capture this in action. No aliens need apply, no conspiracies need to be invoked, and physics does not need to be re-defined – all of which are required to believe in Hoagland’s version of events. Here is another video clip of the same footage, but with a very reasonable explanation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what is likely to be going on here.
Another good example of dust and ice in earth’s orbit is the equally infamous “Tether Incident of STS-75”. Take a look at this footage of all of the floating things out there amongst the shuttle’s broken tether. No doubt that this just furthers Hoagland’s ideas and reinforces his beliefs – which is really the crux of Hoagland’s collection of misinformation and misinterpreted footage and pictures – his need to believe in fantastic things far outweighs the evidence of reality.
Thanks for the email, Spenser, and keep on listening to the show!