There are many who believe that we never actually landed on the Moon, that it was all a hoax, performed much like in the 1979 movie Capricorn One. At the same time, there are many who believe that the crew of Apollo 11, while on their way to the Moon, saw something, or several things, they could not identify, ranging from mysterious lights to formations of spaceships and that NASA, the Pentagon, in fact the entire U.S. government, conspired to hush it up and hide the evidence, even to the point of editing out significant portions of Apollo 11's onboard and air-to-ground audio recordings. One story has it that Neil Armstrong was climbing down the ladder of the Lunar Module, after the Moon landing, when he saw something which prompted him to climb back up into the spacecraft. According to the story, it took several minutes for Mission Control to persuade Neil to get out again and step out onto the Moon.
"In broad sociocultural perspective," writes James R. Hansen in his autobiography of Neil Armstrong, "it is not at all surprising to find that people fascinated with UFOs and the possibility of extraterrestrial life have projected their anticipations onto the astronauts and their missions." According to Hansen, an epidemic of UFO and "flying saucer" sightings followed the end of the Second World War. As another historian tried to explain it, "the specter of Armageddon brought on by the appearance of the atomic bomb spawned 'at once an appetite for vicarious scientific adventure and a need to externalize fear.'" In response to the epidemic, the U.S. Air Force began to conduct investigations, amassing hundreds of case studies and firsthand personal accounts about UFOs from pilots and ordinary people. These studies and accounts came to be known as the "Blue Book investigations." The efforts of the Air Force, in the end, satisfied no one.
The birth of the Space age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, only increased the number of sightings. "Any comment about a possible unidentified flying object," writes Hansen, "especially if made by a pilot, set off another string of reported sightings. Stories circulated that NASA test pilot Joe Walker, in April 1962, filmed five cylindrical and disk-shaped objects from his X-15 aircraft; that two radar technicians, in April 1964, watched UFOs following an unmanned Gemini capsule; that NASA installed a special instrument on Gemini IV to detect UFOs; the [Frank] Borman and [Jim] Lovell on Gemini VII and [Pete] Conrad and [Dick] Gordon on Gemini XI had spotted 'bogeys." Whatever it was that was originally factual behind the reports, quickly got lost amid the illusions, gross exaggerations, and outright fabrications that fed the public's growing appetite for news about UFOs."
All things considered, then, it would have been surprising if the first Moon landing had not generated new UFO stories, much less stories that were more untruthful, filled with more hyperbole, and more stubbornly persistent that those that preceded them. Google the words "Apollo 11" and "UFO" and you get 757,000 results (Hansen got just 5,410 hits when writing his Armstrong biography, which was first published in 2005). "Apollo" and "UFO" get 977,000 results (61,700); "astronaut" and "UFO" in 776,000 (46,000); "pilot" and "UFO" in 1,180,000 (136,000); and "UFO" alone in 91,200,000 (4.46 million). The words "Neil Armstrong" and UFO" gets 426,000 results (3,180), for Buzz Aldrin the results are 192,000 (1,700) web sites, and for Mike Collins 453,000 (349). That last on Collins is a bit of a surprise, substitute Michael for Mike and you get 522,000.
There were two "sightings" during the Apollo 11 mission, with the first occurring during the TLI (Trans-Lunar Injection) burn over two and a half hours into the flight. Collins reported seeing flashes outside of window number five; Armstrong did not see the flashes at first, but did when Collins repeated that he saw them, and then Aldrin, the last of the three saw them. The three astronauts were reluctant to report the sighting to Mission Control, fearing, rightly, that it would be blown out of proportion. Such a thing had happened when John Glenn had spotted what he called "fireflies" during his Friendship 7 orbital flight. The "fireflies" turned out to be ice flakes falling off the skin off the Mercury spacecraft, but that was not realized until the next orbital mission flown by Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7, and by that time Glenn's sighting had become some form of alien life form in the mind of some people.
Several days later, after splashdown, Aldrin could not wait to talk about the flashes during debriefing. NASA briefed the crew of Apollo 12 to be on the lookout, and when they went up they, too, saw flashes. "Guess what," said the astronauts. "We see them with our eyes closed!" The flashing lights turned out to be inside their eyeballs, a phenomenon that occurred in the dark conditions of outer space. There is an optical and psychological threshold where a person has to want to look and see the flashing lights or he will not be able to, which is why both Armstrong and Aldrin only saw the lights after Collins persisted in talking about them. None of the crew members of Apollo 8 and Apollo 10, which had preceded Apollo 11 outside the Van Allen radiation belt, had seen the flashes, reports Aldrin, so it was another first for the crew of Apollo 11.
The second "sighting" occurred on the third day, shortly after 9:00 p.m. CDT, and this time it was Aldrin who spotted it first. "I found myself idly staring out of the window of the Columbia [the command module] and saw something that looked a bit unusual," wrote Buzz in his 1973 autobiography Return to Earth. "It appeared brighter than any star and not quite the pinpoint of light that stars are. It was also moving relative to the stars. I pointed this out to Mike and Neil, and the three of us were beset with curiosity. With the help of the monocular [a single lens version of a binocular] we guessed that whatever it was, it was only a hundred miles away. Looking at it through the sextant we found it occasionally formed a cylinder, but when the sextant's focus was adjusted it had a sort of illuminated 'L' look to it. There was a straight line, maybe a little bump in it, and then a little something off to the side. It had a shape of some sort -- we all agreed on that -- but exactly what it was we couldn't pin down."
Still reluctant to report the sighting to Mission Control, the crew asked Houston where the shell of the Saturn S-IVB (the third stage of the Saturn V rocket) was in relation to them. The S-IVB had fired to send them out of earth orbit and toward the moon with the TLI, during which they had seen the flashes. After the command module docked with the lunar module, the S-IVB was slingshot away to a course that would lead to an orbit around the Sun. Houston responded that the S-IVB was some 6,000 miles away from Columbia, so whatever the crew saw, it could not be the third stage rocket. The crew then decided that what they were seeing must be one of the four panels that had enclosed the lunar module in its garage at the top of the S-IVB. In preparation for docking the command and lunar modules, the panels had been flung off in different directions. Because the panels were not slingshot off on another trajectory, it was likely that they were somewhere behind Columbia.
Armstrong would remain convinced for the rest of his life that what they all saw was a detached part of their own spacecraft. "We did watch a slow blinking light some substantial distance away from us," Armstrong wrote in an email to Hansen. "Mission Control eventually concluded -- and I agree -- that it was one of the Saturn LM adapter panels. These panels were enormous and would have been given a rotation in the process of their ejection from the S-IVB. The reflection from these panels would, therefore, be similar to blinking. I do not know why we did not see the other three panels, but I suspect that the one that was directly down from the Sun from us would have provided the brightest reflection."
The panel, if that is what it was, was actually in front of Columbia by this point in the flight, but Hansen informs us that this is simple Newtonian physics. "When the SLA panels were ejected," explained Armstrong, "they had a very slight outward relative velocity, but their velocity along the flight path was essentially identical to that of the CSM-LM combination. The panels, therefore, having no atmospheric drag to slow them, traveled at the CSM-LM speed, but developed an ever-increasing lateral separation from it."
Technically, the crew of Apollo 11 did see what had to be called an unidentified flying object. "When somebody asks, 'Did you see a UFO?'" Aldrin admitted to Hansen in an interview, "technically we should say we did. But given all the misstatements that would come forth from that, I'll only tell the story if I'm given enough time. I'll tell the complete story to somebody with the idea that, once they understand the whole story, they won't make a big thing of it. I'll try to manage the information in the right way."
Unfortunately, Aldrin cannot control whether an author or a movie producer will not cut out some of his explanation in their final product. Which leads us back to where we started, a belief by some that the Apollo 11 crew saw more than just an optical-psychological phenomenon or one of the SLA panels, and that NASA is still covering it up.
Hansen, J. R. (2005). First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.