BOSTON — Fifty years ago, odd-looking debris fell near Roswell, N.M. It came from balloon-borne equipment of the Project Mogul experiment to monitor Soviet nuclear tests. Mogul was secret. So the US Air Force claimed it was weather-balloon junk.
That little deception sparked the great Roswell UFO cover-up myth. It holds that the US government spirited away the remains of an alien spacecraft and its occupants.
No amount of debunking - including the latest "definitive" Air Force report - has dissuaded the true believers. But not all UFO coverups are fantasy. In honor of the Roswell anniversary, it's worth revisiting the great Soviet UFO coverup. It lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.
There was no doubt that UFO observers were seeing something weird. Sightings included brilliant light displays seen by many observers. Some events were downright scary.
Take the so-called jellyfish UFO that "attacked" the Russian city of Petrozavodsk Sept. 20, 1977. The Soviet news agency Tass reported:
"This star moved slowly towards Petrozavodsk and, spreading out over it in the form of a jellyfish, hung there, showering the city with a multitude of very fine rays which created an image of pouring rain. After some time the luminescent rays ceased. The jellyfish turned into a bright semicircle and resumed its movement.... A semicircular pool of bright light, red in the middle and white at the sides, then formed in the shroud."
Finnish observers also saw the UFO. Western analysts soon figured out it was a satellite launch. There was no listed launch site that far north in the Soviet Union, however. Many Russian observers and UFO buffs remained convinced it was an alien craft. Some even claimed the jellyfish rays had punched holes in concrete and window glass. Others said they had seen smaller craft leave and return to a mother ship.
Other UFO sightings included displays seen over Northern Europe, followed an hour or so later by displays over South America. Again, some observers claimed to see spaceships with occupants or craft that chased automobiles. Western analysts again deduced that these were satellite launches. James Oberg, a leading unofficial analyst of the Soviet space program, showed definitively that the launches came from a secret military "Northern Cosmodrome" at Plesetsk 125 miles south of Archangel.
Of course, Soviet officials and experts with "a need to know" were aware of this. The official government line on UFOs denounced alien visitations as inventions of irresponsible Western journalism. But, in this case, belief in alien craft was a convenient cover for the "nonexistent" cosmodrome. So the government encouraged the fantasy.
Mr. Oberg's careful analyses, however, became increasingly hard to ignore. He showed that South American sightings followed European sightings with just the right timing for a satellite launch by a multistage rocket. Even more telling, he showed that the sites over which the UFO passed indicated the rocket followed a track inclined about 62.8 degrees to the equator. Orbital mechanics dictate that the orbital inclination of a satellite launched eastward from northern Russia would equal the latitude of the launch site. Plesetsk lies at latitude 62.7 degrees north.
Oberg presented his work at a British Interplanetary Society meeting in June 1982 and shared it with this newspaper. In 1983, the Soviet government publicly acknowledged its Northern Cosmodrome. A note from Oberg in my files reads, "We did it!"
UFO reports often seem goofy. But it can be unwise to dismiss them out of hand. Fantasies of "mother craft" or aliens may cloak a down-to-earth reality that someone doesn't want uncovered. In the case of Roswell, the US Air Force tried to protect a minor secret and created a major myth. The Soviet government tried to keep its people in the dark while Western analysts knew the truth.
In Roswell, N.M., the US tried to protect a minor secret and gave life to a major myth. In the USSR, officials perpetuated a UFO myth to cover up a satellite launch.