The Curious Case of MOL’s Missing Mission

20 06 2018

For those interested in diving down a spaceflight rabbit hole, I here detail a key term hidden amongst thousands of declassified pages that hints at a defunct space station’s secret mission – one that might soon find new life given the renewed talk of a “Space Force.” …if it hasn’t already been resurrected, that is…

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Artist’s rendering of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL. (Credit: NRO)


Rediscovering the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory

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A MH-7 training pressure suit created for the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

It all began with the discovery of a mysterious pair of blue pressure suits at a Cape Canaveral Air Force Station facility in 2005 – suits that didn’t exactly belong to any known NASA space program. Thus, the secretive military Manned Orbiting Laboratory of the 1960s, or MOL, was re-discovered as security officers ventured into a long-locked storage room in a facility known as the Launch Complex 5/6 museum. There, they recovered two MH-7 training suits worn by Air Force astronauts that never got a chance to fly to space (at least not with the Air Force; several went on to successful NASA careers).

Subsequently, in response to a FOIA request, the clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in July of 2015 declassified tens of thousands of pages of MOL program documents and a gallery of images. Truly, the database is a trove of information on the formerly-secret military reconnaissance space program that might’ve been.

Now, I should admit that I found most of the released information to be soberingly bureaucratic in nature, and because many have covered the generalities of MOL in the intervening few years at great length, instead of describing the overall program I wanted to drill inward and focus on an intriguing series of omissions in the MOL literature.

Quite simply, I found that the nigh-overwhelming information release was much more interesting with regard to what it didn’t reveal as opposed to what it did…

To Man, or Not to Man?

In the space community, there is something of a longstanding rift between the “human exploration” and the “robotic exploration” camps. The former cite the dynamic advantages of human beings as intelligent, adaptive tools of exploration, while the latter cite the woefully-heavy and expensive life-support requirements of the former as a justification to send robots instead.

The pro-robot folks point to the many scientific successes of robotic spacecraft, such as Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons, while the pro-astronaut types point to being able to share the human experience and context of exploration in a way that no robot can.

And so the argumentation goes.

This conflict was perhaps best pioneered in the case of MOL, which as a crewed station eventually lost out in mortal combat over government funding to the ever-increasing utility of spy satellites.

But, in my opinion, it’s in the justification for human occupants that MOL gets most interesting…

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Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), an evolution of the earlier “Blue Gemini” program, which was conceived to be an all-Air Force parallel of NASA’s Gemini efforts. (Credit: U.S. Air Force)

Redaction Points the Way

Standing more in the “pro-astronaut” camp (and as a former spaceflight “Crew Systems” manager/analyst), I like to think of myself as quite versed in the many legitimate justifications for crewed spaceflight. That’s exactly why I found myself surprised to see some of the human spaceflight mission sections of the MOL documents redacted… 55 years after the fact.

Admittedly, some (if not most) of the redaction found in the released documents relates to the optical performance of spy telescopes or the detection of enemy nuclear missile launches. I can easily recognize the tactical benefit of keeping some of those details under our hat, even to the present day.

However, neither of those have to do with crewed spaceflight, and it is the presence of additional redaction in the human context that began to lift my eyebrows.

For example, in the “Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), which was tasked with generating a series of space experiment proposals for MOL, the list of study areas (p. 2) reads as follows:

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This redacts something other than “reconnaissance and surveillance,” into which our traditional understanding of spy satellites and nuclear launch detection squarely sits. It is also something other than satellite logistics, maintenance, and repair – dynamic activities typically reserved for the “pro-astronaut” folks…

The curious redaction was expanded upon in, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), a report which detailed manned experiment study areas (p. 6-8):

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…and it was further highlighted later in the same document during a description of Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVAs), more commonly known as “spacewalks” (p. 6-22):

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These, again, redact something other than the well-known and well-trodden justification for astronauts performing EVAs, such as in-space construction, repair, rescue, etc.

Therefore, the question that took root in my mind was simply this:

“If the MOL concept was indeed rendered obsolete by spy satellite technology of the late 1960s, what concept for military human spaceflight is so good that it remains classified today – more than a half-century later?”

As fate would have it, there is at least one bread-crumb hiding within the thousands of pages of material that suggests an answer…

An Idea So Good…

Idling on a single table in one of hundreds of documents amidst the 20,000+ pages included in the whole of the NRO FOIA release on MOL stands a single, critical term.

On Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), eight rows down on the right-side column, is the word, “SAINT” :

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Now, MIDAS – the term found one row up from SAINT – is something I had heard of before, relating to the detection of Soviet nuclear missile launches. As MOL was a secret reconnaissance platform, I found mention of MIDAS entirely unsurprising, and from the human spaceflight perspective, entirely irrelevant.

But what about SAINT?

A re-scan of the NRO documents finds the term turning up only one other time – in a summary document written after MOL’s cancellation, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

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SAINT, then, appeared to be – at least in part – an openly-acknowledged Air Force military space program of some sort, along with Blue (Air Force) Gemini, which was the vehicle used to get to-and-from MOL.

But “Saint” in this instance wasn’t capitalized. So, what sort of space program was it?

SAINT Revelations

A literature search of Air Force planning documents from the mid-1960s turns up the following section on SAINT, excerpted from a June, 1966 document from the USAF Historical Division Liason Office, entitled, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” which identified SAINT as an acronym for Satellite Inspector.

(p. 19):

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(pp. 93):

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SAINT here is painted with somewhat vague but intentional strokes, using phrases like,“satellite capture and neutralization.”

However, SAINT is clearly described as a satellite (i.e., robotic) research and development program. Did MOL missions really include a human parallel to “satellite interception and neutralization” as suggested in Table 1 of the 1964 technical document?

When re-scanning the NRO documents for a related SAINT term, “inspection,” one manages to turn up one additional, fruitful mention, again in the MOL summary/history document, “History of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program” (2/1/1970):

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Mission (1) as described here casts SAINT in a darker, more aggressive light. Gone are the euphemisms like, “neutralization.”

Instead, we have, “Inspection and destruction of hostile satellites.”

Now, reviewing the original redacted sections above in the context of the Air Force SAINT program, one begins to assemble a clearer picture of one possibility for what I like to call this “missing” human mission.

…and while many are quick to characterize MOL as a relic of a “by-gone era,” this may also – due perhaps especially to its modern redaction – serve as a glimpse into our own human spaceflight future.

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Test subject Fred Spross, Crew Systems Division, wears the Gemini 9 configured extravehicular spacesuit assembly. The legs are covered with Chromel R, which is a cloth woven from stainless steel fibers, used to protect the astronaut and suit from the hot exhaust thrust of the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, which was developed by the USAF for the MOL program. (Credit: NASA, Image ID:S66-33167)

Astronaut SAINTs

If viewing the MOL program as earmarking astronauts as human satellite inspectors, (might we refer to them as Astronaut SAINTs?), ancillary details of the MOL documentation detritus suddenly begin to fall into place.

For example, in the report, “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN FOR THE MANNED ORBITING LABORATORY” (6/30/1964), mentioned earlier, look to the table titled, “Primary Experiments – Assessment of Man’s Utility,” and consider that the redacted position of experiment P-7 (“Inspection”?) is located right after P-6, “Extravehicular Activity.” That would make absolute sense from a planning perspective.

One has to learn how to walk before one can run, after all.

Consider also that the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), seen above – a longer-range version of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) that would be used by NASA Shuttle astronauts – was developed by the Air Force for the MOL program.

Why might military astronauts need to travel some distance from their station if via umbilical tether they can reach and repair any portion of the MOL station, itself? Signs point to SAINT.

Consider also another of the redacted sections considered above in report,”Manned Orbiting Laboratory Technical Panel, First Preliminary Report” (3/17/1964), in the section describing experiment “general areas.” The redaction eliminates an entire line but then leaves two words before a semicolon denoting the next section: “…satellite survivability.” Well, needless to say this would certainly follow sensibly after something like, “satellite inspection, satellite neutralization/destruction, and…”

Finally, note that Table 1 of the “PRELIMINARY TECHNICAL DEVELOPMENT PLAN (PTDP) FOR THE MOL PROGRAM” (3/10/1964), in which I first discovered the mention of SAINT, appears to be ordered alphabetically. Perhaps coincidentally, the redacted term associated with SAINT sits between E (ELINT) and M (Meteorology).

“Inspection” fits there quite nicely.

Indeed, if we return to the Air Force history document, “The Air Force in Space. Fiscal Year 1962,” we find on page 95 that an intersection between NASA’s manned Gemini program and SAINT development was explored but – at least openly – nebulously dismissed based on mission requirements:

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I should point out that this is several years prior to the design and creation of the Air Force’s modified Gemini-B spacecraft, which may well have addressed some of these issues.

All this weighed together, it certainly seems like serious planning was given to human anti-satellite (ASAT) operations in the 1960s, and for reasons unknown, knowledge of this reality remains largely and intentionally obscured today. This sort of activity would have been an extraordinary venture for human spaceflight – far riskier than anything ever attempted in human extravehicular activities, aside from, perhaps, moonwalkers venturing a great distance from their lunar lander via rover.

Curiously, I discovered after all of this poking around that famed astronaut and astronaut-wrangler Deke Slayton may have quietly let the Astronaut-SAINT-cat out of the bag in his 1994 autobiography when he opined that the Air Force may have developed the AMU because, “they thought they might have the chance to inspect somebody else’s satellites.”

His choice usage of the word, “inspect,” suggests he might have known just a little bit more about plans for Astronaut SAINTs than he was letting on.

A Hint of Things to Come?

So, why might the proposition of Astronaut SAINTs remain classified today?

One is forced to consider the obvious possibility that it remains classified because such a role for future military astronauts is still on the table. Given the realities of the infamous 2007 Chinese ASAT test along with the recent Russian test of the PL19/Nudol direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon, this may not be surprising.

Further, the timing of the release and redaction, in 2015, might be noteworthy. As it happens, Russia launched its own “satellite-fixer/satellite-killer” satellite in 2014, which practiced sophisticated satellite maneuvering and rendezvous maneuvers. This may have (rightfully) spooked U.S. defense strategists into clamping down on all mention of SAINT.

…and, with the recent White House push both for increased commercialization of space as well as for a dedicated Space Force to go along with it, it is entirely possible that in gazing between the lines of these MOL documents we are also glimpsing a vision of military space activities that may yet come to pass.

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Views of a last space shuttle launch

26 06 2011

USSR's first and last Space Shuttle (Buran) launch, 11/15/1988. (Credit: RSK)

As NASA nears the final launch and retirement of its mainstay Space Shuttle, I think it only fitting to review another final Space Shuttle launch – one made twenty-three years ago.

In 1988, the U.S.S.R. launched its own Space Shuttle, the Buran, for what would be the first and last time.  Replay camera videos of the automated launch and landing (yes, automated – in 1988!) can be found here and here, respectively.

Watching this footage now leads me to strange musings on the Russian space program that might have been and provides an eerie foreshadowing of what it will feel like to watch Atlantis’s final launch in only a couple of weeks.  Will NASA’s shuttle fleet suffer the same fate?  Will what was once an arguably successful and certainly iconic space transportation system soon be reduced to an array of archival YouTube videos?

The Buran, which means "snowstorm" in Russian, staged at the Baikonur Cosmodrome prior to launch. (Credit: RSK)

Buran, which is an obvious response to NASA’s Space Shuttle, arose due to the perceived military potential of the shuttle’s cargo bay.  In a piercingly accurate assessment recounted by Russian rocket engineer and historian Boris Chertok, U.S.S.R. defense analysts projected that NASA’s new spaceplane could be profitable only if it flew more than twice a month.  Because this was not the case, the U.S.S.R. concluded that NASA’s shuttle was, in fact, military-subsidized.  A response was necessary, and Buran was the result.

The first flight of the Buran was an astonishing success.  A specially-designed rocket, the largest liquid-fuel rocket ever constructed, lofted Buran to an insertion orbit.  Buran separated from the rocket without incident and fired its own rockets to boost its orbiting altitude.  It remained on orbit to circle the Earth twice before automatically firing its rockets for descent and an unpiloted glide landing.

The automated landing system nailed the touchdown to within 30 feet.  (The idea that this shuttle landed itself when I still thought a Nintendo represented state-of-the-art computing power is absolutely mind-boggling!)

The eerily familiar sight of Buran lifting off from the Cosmodrome's Launch Complex 37, site 110 left. (Credit: RSK)

However, economic difficulties and political instabilities saw that the triumphant 1988 inaugural launch would be Buran’s last.  The U.S.S.R. disintegrated in 1991, leaving the expensive Buran space program unfunded and in disarray.  The Buran visited airshows periodically and remained in storage until it was destoyed in 2002 when the Kazakhstan hangar containing it collapsed due to neglect.

-A tragically undignified ending to a remarkable craft.

Now, history is ripe with ironic twists.  As it would turn out, NASA’s Space Shuttle was not military in nature, (though certainly defense-sponsored research and even a satellite deployment or two was performed from time to time,) and so the military push to produce Buran was off the mark in the first place.  However, the automated spaceplane landing Buran successfully achieved would not be replicated until just last year, when an automated military spaceplane was launched by the U.S. Air Force (see: X-37).

It looks like the Russians were a couple of decades ahead of the defense curve on that one.

Today, just as NASA’s shuttle fleet is being decommissioned, there are talks of the Russians resurrecting the Buran.  Time will tell whether or not funding and political support materializes from Russia, but perhaps America’s new, small, automated military spaceplane will once again provide the impetus for Buran to rise from the ashes.  (Frankly, I’ll take military paranoia when it spurs the advancement of space exploration hardware.)

Buran completing an unpiloted landing after its first successful orbital flight. (Credit: RSK)

So, as the sun sets on NASA’s workhorse fleet, I am given to wonder where all last-lofted spaceplanes will sit in the annals of spaceflight history.

Was the idea of the reusable orbital cargo spaceplane a needlessly complicated hiccup in the evolution of space transportation systems, or was it a visionary leap in spacecraft design?

-Something to ponder while watching launches and landings on YouTube.





Congress strikes back: The REAL Space Act

3 05 2011

U.S. Congressman Bill Posey is at it again, this time indirectly taking aim at President Obama’s new commercial space initiative.  With a cohort of cosponsors, Posey has introduced a new bill, (H.R. 1641,) entitled, “REasserting American Leadership in Space Act,” a.k.a., the “REAL Space Act.” 

It’s aim?  To send us back to the moon in a decade – this time to stay.

In addition to the traditional “preaching to the choir” statement about the necessity of returning to the Moon from a planetary science and space exploration logistics perspective, (which I endorse wholeheartedly,) the bill also makes a powerful case from a number of other standpoints: 

  • Legally, it outlines that the 109th, 110th, and 111th Congresses all made a return to the Moon an integral priority of NASA’s mission, which the 112th Congress has a mandate to continue.
  • Domestically, it claims that a sustained human lunar presence (read: moon base) would inspire a new generation of Americans to study math and science while stimulating technical, scientific, and medical advances that are rich with applications back here on Earth.
  • Internationally (and politically), the bill also states that because China and Russia understand the importance of a lunar presence and have announced their intentions to colonize the Moon, we have a pressing strategic impetus to return ourselves. 

Now, we don’t yet know how this bill will fare.  In all likelihood, any plan to return to the Moon would be in direct funding competition with NASA’s push to help develop a commercial space transportation system.  At this point, we have to hurry up and wait to see if NewSpace vs. Lunar turns into anything other than a glancing blow.

As for me?  I’d prefer we do both, really.  (It’s hard for me not to notice that doing so would be a drop in the bucket compared to the annual defense budget expenditures.)





Russia announces new Nuclear Rockets for manned Mars trip

16 04 2011

1960s Aerojet General rendering of a nuclear rocket in flight configuration.

For the first time in possibly four decades, two electrifying space technology phrases have managed to show up in the same sentence in earnest.  Quietly nestled in the murky details of a somewhat thrilling AP news story about a potential new Russian spacecraft to be produced in the next few years are the words: “manned mission to Mars,” and, “new nuclear engines.”

This is fantastic, as “nuclear engines” can only mean a resurrection of the triumphant nuclear thermal rocket technology pioneered and successfully tested during the Cold War.

Why is this significant?  First, U.S. and Russian testing of nuclear rockets during the Cold War proved not only that the relatively simple technology worked, but that it was amazingly efficient.  So efficient, in fact, that the rockets tested under the NERVA Program are still twice as powerful as our best rockets today, (half-a-century later!).  Secondly, these rockets are of the weight and power necessary to significantly trim down travel times and make interplanetary manned missions feasible.

So, if the nuclear rocket technology is superior, why don’t we have this technology today?  Well, politics and paranoia led to the death of the nuclear rocket back in 1972, when:

  1. a new project called the Space Shuttle drew funding away from the NERVA Program and set our course in space exploration for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) instead of back to the Moon and Mars, and
  2. in the Cold War nuclear holocaust climate, the word “nuclear” became (understandably) a source of irrational fear.

Only a few experts remain alive who worked in the thick of original nuclear thermal rocket research and testing, and with NewSpace set to take over LEO cargo and crew transportation services, it is time to set our sights back on the more ambitious goals of lunar settlements and expanded human exploration of the solar system.  Nuclear thermal rockets will be the technology to take us there.  The Russians apparently realize that, and perhaps an international kick in the pants is what the U.S. research and industrial community needs to realize that it’s time to pick this research back up.

A nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia nearly ended the world.  It seems a fitting contrast that in the 21st Century, a nuclear space race between the U.S. and Russia could help humanity settle new ones.





China’s space lab rising

5 11 2010

Chinese National Space Administration. (Credit: CNSA)

As arguably the third most powerful space agency in the world, the China National Space Administration, which already has successful manned launches and a confirmed spacewalk under its belt, continues its determined drive starward.  In early October, the CNSA signed a cooperative space plan with Russia for the 2010-2012 timeframe, the contents of which are being held close to the vest but no doubt include the joint Russian-Chinese exploration and sample-return mission (Fobos-Grunt) to the Martian moon Phobos next year.

Now, as reported last week, China recently announced (confirmed) plans for a series of orbital space stations, beginning with the launch of an unmanned test module within the next five years and a fully-crewed, Mir-style station by the year 2020.

This places proposed CNSA activities right in the thick of NewSpace (e.g., U.S., U.K., Russian,) commercial space station and launch vehicle flight tests.  Now, it’s no secret that advanced space technology has dual military applications, and China’s military made everyone nervous with their anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007.  So, what are their intentions?  I’d like to believe the olive branches on CNSA’s logo are sincere.

-And, I should mention, if U.S.-Soviet space relations during the height of the Cold War are any precedent (Apollo-Soyuz), China’s space laboratory ambitions are sincerely peaceful.  Some of the most meaningful international olive branches have been traded in space.  Take the International Space Station, for example, which is the largest international cooperative effort in human history.  So, in that light, Godspeed CNSA.  The more permanent presences we have in orbit, the better it is for our space infrastructure in general.

And perhaps, working shoulder-to-shoulder off-world, the most effective Far-East/West bridges yet may be built in orbit.

Plaque commemmorating international coorperation assembled in orbit by astronauts and cosmonauts in 1975 as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Apollo Soyuz Test Project. (Credit: NASA)





NewSpace Station-Race begins

1 10 2010

Rendering of the Commercial Space Station (CSS) with Soyuz space vehicle attached. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

This week has been pretty big for private space, (including astronomy / exoplanetology and development of space-related commercial products – more to come in future posts).

In something of a surprise announcement, Russian NewSpace startup Orbital Technologies announced a volley of corporate agreements and a proposed private, commercial space station to launch by the year 2015.

With what they call (unassumingly) the “Commercial Space Station,” or CSS, Orbital Technologies hopes to challenge Vegas space-habitat manufacturer Bigelow Aerospace‘s current monopoly on the private-space-station market.

Cutaway of the CSS. (Credit: Orbital Technologies)

The proposed Russian CSS will rely on proven Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport and resupply (via Soyuz “Progress” cargo modification.)  In doing so, Orbital Technologies has (at least in concept) been able to leverage the most reliable spacecraft on Earth to date as part of their business model.  While there has been no evidence of “bent metal” so far, (unlike Bigelow, who already has two test modules in orbit,) the seriousness of the commercial relationships this company demonstrates out-of-the-gate makes them a definite contender.

In offering a space station along with Soyuz transportation to get there, Orbital Technologies is perhaps the only firm in direct competition with Bigelow Aerospace, which has partnered up with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to supply CST-100 space transports to Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats.

Not-so-coincidentally, Bigelow Aerospace also has a target launch date of 2015 for their first manned space station.

CST-100 rendezvous with a Bigelow Aerospace space station. (Credit: Boeing)

The architecture of the CSS appears to be a single module, and options for expansion are not discussed in Orbital Technology’s literature, as opposed to the Bigelow Aerospace station, which is intentionally modular and expandable.

Power on the CSS is also an apparent issue, with no visible solar panels in the renderings supplied to-date — drawing power from a docked Soyuz spacecraft is an option.  (If true, this differs significantly from the Bigelow architecture, which includes onboard power for each module via solar arrays.)

Competition in a very real sense can only be a positive force for the development of destinations in space.  So, let the NewSpace Race begin.

It’s about time.





Space spirals, UFOs, and modern rockets

28 08 2010

Space spiral over Norway, December 09, 2009. Credit: Jan Petter Jørgensen via Vaeret

Many of us remember the splash made when a mysterious (and somewhat terrifyingly bizarre) spiral was seen in the sky over Norway late last year.  Admittedly, at first glance, it looks like a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

However, take a closer look.  It appears to be dusk.  The wild, spiral display is still in sunlight, even though the ground is not.  This indicates that the spiral is something not just up in the sky but rather in orbit (extremely high altitude).

Then, once you’re able to peel your eyes from the spiral, you’ll notice that a spiraling blue contrail is visible behind the centerpoint of the design, and this seems to indicate a rocket of some kind.  Once you’re there, you’ve got it figured.  The trick is that the above display is in 3D, not a flat plane as it first appears.  The blue contrail is coming at the photographer from extreme distance, as is the spiral, it would seem.

Keep playing the thought experiment forward.  A spinning rocket?  What would a spinning rocket venting a material of some kind into space look like from the Earth?

And there you have it.  It came out days later that the display was caused by a Russian nuclear missile test.

Fast-forward half-a-year, and we have the momentous launch of the first Falcon 9 rocket by SpaceX:

Falcon 9 liftoff, June 04, 2010. (Credit: Chris Thompson/SpaceX)

Then, not 24 hours after the launch, another spiral!

Space spiral as seen over Australia. June 5, 2010. (Credit: Baden West)

Like Norway, UFO reports were filed all over Australia.  Unsurprisingly, it was confirmed as the Falcon 9.

So, it seems that, as a globe, we really need to get with the times.  We launch space rockets, and we’ve been doing it for the better part of a century.  Strange displays in the sky, while admittedly doomsday-looking (ever seen a solar eclipse?), will only become more commonplace with time.

What’s the take-home here?  In the future, count on a lot less “U” next to the dazzling “FO,” and take it to heart before calling 911 to tell the dispatcher about it.  =)








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