Ten Enduring Myths About the U.S. Space Program

Outer space has many mysteries, among them are these fables about NASA that have permeated the public’s memory

The Moon landing conspiracy theory has endured for more than 40 years, thanks in part to a thriving cottage industry of conspiracy entrepreneurs. (NASA)

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Photographs and videos taken by U.S. spacecraft have opened up a whole new vista for alleged UFO sightings. Among the most famous of these is a video sequence recorded by the space shuttle Discovery (Mission STS-48), while in orbit on September 15, 1991.

A description of the video appears on numerous websites and newsgroups:

“A glowing object suddenly appeared just below the horizon and ‘slowly’ moved from right to left and slightly upward in the picture. Several other glowing objects had been visible before this, and had been moving in various directions. Then a flash of light occurred at what seemed to be the lower left of the screen; and the main object, along with the others, changed direction and accelerated away sharply, as if in response to the flash.”

UFO enthusiasts claim the video shows that the space shuttle was being followed by extraterrestrial spacecraft, which then fled in response to a ground-based laser attack. The footage was aired by media outlets such as CNN’s “Larry King Live” (which challenged viewers to “Judge for yourself”).

The UFOs were, in fact, small fragments of orbital flotsam and jetsam. As space author James Oberg has explained, there are more than 50 sources of water, ice and debris on the shuttle—including an air dump line, a waste water dump line and 38 reaction control system (RCS) thrusters that are used for attitude control and steering.

So, his explanation for the events in the video?

“The RCS jets usually fire in 80-millisecond pulses to keep the shuttle pointed in a desired direction….These jets may flash when they ignite if the mixture ratio is not quite right…When small, drifting debris particles are hit by this RCS plume they are violently accelerated away from the jet. This is what is seen [in the video], where a flash (the jet firing) is immediately followed by all nearby particles being pushed away from the jet, followed shortly later by a fast, moving object (evidently RCS fuel ice) departing from the direction of the jet.”

8. “The Fisher Space Pen ‘brought the astronauts home.’”

In his book, Men from Earth, Buzz Aldrin describes a brief moment when it seemed that the Apollo 11 lander might be stranded on the lunar surface: "We discovered during a long checklist recitation that the ascent engine's arming circuit breaker was broken off on the panel. The little plastic pin (or knob) simply wasn't there. This circuit would send electrical power to the engine that would lift us off the Moon.”

What happened next is the stuff of legend. The astronauts reached for their Fisher Space Pen—fitted with a cartridge of pressurized nitrogen, allowing it to write without relying on gravity—and wedged it into the switch housing, completing the circuit and enabling a safe return.

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