An earlier version of this article was originally published in Fate Magazine www.fatemag.com, and is reprinted here with their consent.
UFO stories around NASA astronauts have percolated American ufology for decades. A few astronauts (Gordon Cooper and more recently Edgar Mitchell) have supported the UFO cause, but not the alleged encounters during Apollo and other programs. What about Russian cosmonauts? The space program in the old USSR was formidable, but so was secrecy.
I had the chance to meet cosmonaut Valeri Kubasov (veteran of Soyuz-6 in 1969, the Apollo-Soyuz link-up in 1975, and Salyut-6 in 1980) during a press conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1986. I asked him if it was true that some cosmonauts saw UFOs in orbit. His answer was surprising–not so much his denial, but the fact he became a NASA spokesman too. “Both Soviet astronauts, as well as American astronauts,” said Kubasov, “have never seen until now any unidentified flying object. With regards to extra-solar life, science considers that this is possible. In our solar system there is no other planet with conditions for life; perhaps in Mars there are some very simple bacteria, but surely there are no people on Mars.”
In 1980, the famous Soviet magazine Sputnik published a long report titled, “UFOs Through the Eyes of Cosmonauts.” It consisted on the statements of ten Soviet and two American astronauts (both Apollo-Soyuz crew members). Some cases that seemed initially puzzling were mentioned, only to be explained as waste containers, space boosters and the like. While most seemed open to the idea of extraterrestrial life in the universe, only one cosmonaut, Yevgeni Khrunov, who flew in the Soyuz-5 in 1969, was prepared to recognize publicly the existence of UFOs. “As regards UFOs,” said Khrunov, “their presence cannot be denied: thousands of people have seen them. It may be that their source is optical effects but some of their properties, for instance, their ability to change course by 90 degrees at great speed, simply stagger the imagination.”
More data surfaced as the media was liberated from communist censorship in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The Moscow newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna published an extraordinary account on Feb. 28, 1991, which was summarized by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), a US government agency specialized in digesting news from the international media. Here is the pertinent account from the FBIS:
“Vladimir Alexandrov, the chief engineer at the Cosmonaut Training Center, brought a photograph of a UFO to the editorial offices of Rabochaya Tribuna. Alexandrov claimed that the flying object in the photograph, which was published in the 28 Feb. issue of RT, was the UFO reported by cosmonauts Valery Ryumin and Leonid Popov on the night from June 14 to June 15, 1980. Alexandrov claimed that the cosmonauts’ sighting had been hushed up at the time but that he was now telling RT what really happened on that night while the cosmonauts were in orbit. He said that a cluster of white, shining spots started to climb up into space from a region near Moscow and actually flew up higher than the cosmonauts’ spacecraft, Salyut-6, according to Ryumin and Popov. The UFO was observed around midnight.”
The FBIS digest added that the June 1980 UFO sightings were widely seen from the ground as well and that the authorities quickly explained them as a routine Cosmos satellite launch. (American space expert James Oberg published a similar opinion long ago). “This was a cover-up, according to Alexandrov, who said that the photograph bears no similarity to that of any satellite launch,” continued the FBIS document. “The chief engineer told the RT editors to ‘look carefully: at the tip of the luminous cloud a dark formation in the form of a ‘saucer’ is noticeable. In my opinion, that is the object itself. As for the cloud–that is the plasma trail which extends back behind it. Bright flashes are also noticeable below the bottom of the saucer.’” Unfortunately, we have not seen the photo in question.
Las Vegas KLAS-TV journalist George Knapp from brought back from Moscow in 1992 a thick UFO dossier from the old Soviet Ministry of Defense, and a then recent project called “Thread-3” from the Russian Ministry of Defense. A few of the ‘Thread-3’ documents discuss some cosmonaut sightings, although it must be clarified that they are based on public statements by Marina Popovich and other Russian ufologists, and not on internal data obtained by the Ministry of Defense.
Marina Popovich is a retired Air Force Colonel who was a famous test pilot and also the ex-wife of General Pavel Popovich, a pioneer cosmonaut with a keen interest in ufology who recently passed away. I met and interviewed Marina Popovich in Tokyo in Nov. 1990 together with another famous Russian ufologist, Dr. Vladimir Azhazha (my report was published in UFO Universe, fall 1992.) Back to the ‘Thread-3’ document, it mentions an audio tape of the conversation at 0:14 a.m. on June 17, 1978, between cosmonauts Vladimir Kovalenok and Alexander Ivanchenko on the Salyut-6 space station and Mission Control outside Moscow. The transcript of this tape was presented by Marina at a round-table talk in the editorial office of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Here are some excerpts of my interview:
Kovalenok: “Here is the information for you to think about. On the right, at an angle of 30 degrees there is an object flying under us.”
Control Center: “Describe the appearance and shape of the object.”
Kovalenok: “It is something very much like a tennis ball, bright as a flaring up star.”
Ivanchenko: “It’s rate is lower than ours.”
Interestingly, there is second UFO report involving Major-General Vladimir Kovalenok in the Salyut-6 space station in 1981. A fantastic version of it was originally published by Latvian-born reporter Henry Gris in the National Enquirer. It purported that an alien spaceship had flown in tandem with the Salyut-6 for two days, and that ETs had even left the UFO and approached the portholes of the Russian station for a close encounter. As the National Enquirer is not a reliable source, the story was generally considered apocryphal. In 1993, however, in a videotaped interview with the Italian Giorgio Bongiovanni, Kovalenok admitted a UFO sighting took place in 1981, although not as dramatic as the Henry Gris account. We obtained a copy of this videotape from Michael Hesemann a while back and here is what Gen. Kovalenok stated:
“On May 5, 1981, we were in orbit [in the Salyut-6]. I saw an object that didn’t resemble any cosmic objects I’m familiar with. It was a round object which resembled a melon, round and a little bit elongated. In front of this object was something that resembled a gyrating depressed cone, I can draw it, it’s difficult to describe. The object resembles a barbell. I saw it becoming transparent and like with a ‘body’ inside. At the other end I saw something like gas discharging, like a reactive object. Then something happened that is very difficult for me to describe from the point of view of physics… I have to recognize that it did not have an artificial origin. It was not artificial because an artificial object couldn’t attain this form. I don’t know of anything that can make this movement… tightening, then expanding, pulsating. Then as I was observing something happened, two explosions. One explosion, and then 0.5 seconds later, the second part exploded. I called my colleague Viktor [Savinykh], but he didn’t arrive in time to see anything.
“What are the particulars? First conclusion: the object moved in a suborbital path, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to see it. There were two clouds, like smoke, that formed a barbell. It came near me and I watched it. Then we entered into the shade for two or three minutes after this happened. When we came out of the shade we didn’t see anything. But during a certain time, we and the craft were moving together.”
Here is a short clip from Gen. Kovolenok’s interview, and a recreation of his sighting from the UFO Special by Yunichi Yaoi, broadcast on Nippon-TV:
General Pavel Popovich, one of the original cosmonauts who passed away recently at a sanatorium in Crimea on Septembe 30th, also had a UFO sighting, although not from space. He described it in a videotaped interview with St. Petersburg researcher Valery Uvarov: “I saw only once something unexplainable in 1978 when we flew from Washington to Moscow at an elevation of 10,200 meters, and during the flight we noticed through the window a flying triangle on a parallel course. We flew at the speed of 950 km/h and that triangle (which was equilateral) flew at about 1,500 km/h; he passed us, and both passengers and crew saw it and were talking without coming to any conclusion; it was a UFO and we couldn’t compare it to anything.” (I am indebted to Dimitri Ossipov for his English translation of this Russian material.)
Gen. Popovich was also a prominent ufologist who served for a while as President of the All-Union Ufology Association of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. He was somewhat skeptical of the whole ufological scene, telling Uvarov that “you can reject 95% of all the reports published from all sources, but 5% are definitely serious.” On the other hand, Popovich wrote in a 1992 paper that, “the UFO sightings have become the constant component of human activity and require a serious global study.”
On September 28, 1990, cosmonauts Gennadiy Manakov and Gennadiy Strekalov were interviewed by radio on the space station Mir. The transcript was published on the Oct. 16 edition of Rabochaya Tribuna and translated again by the American FBIS. Here are excerpts of the dialogue:
Question: “Tell me, what are the most interesting natural phenomena you see on Earth?”
Cosmonaut: “Yesterday, for example, I saw, if one may call it that, an unidentified flying object. I call it that.”
Question: “What was it?”
Cosmonaut: “Well, I don’t know. It was a great, silvery sphere, it was iridescent… this was at 22:50…”
Question: “This was over the region of Newfoundland?”
Cosmonaut: “No. We had already passed over Newfoundland. There was an absolutely clean, clear sky. It is difficult to determine but the object was at a great altitude over the Earth, perhaps 20-30 kilometers. It was much larger than a huge ship.”
Question: “Could it have been an iceberg?”
Cosmonaut: “No. This object had a regular shape, but what it was–I do not know. Perhaps an enormous, experimental sphere or something else…”
A few months later, on March 31, 1991, cosmonaut Musa Manarov captured a cigar-shaped UFO for over two minutes while filming the approach of a Progress cargo flight to the MIR space station. As you can see in the clip excerpted from Michael Hesemann’s UFOs: The Footage Archives in the DVD Ultimate UFO! with commentary by Peter Robbins and myself, you can clearly see one end of the cylinder lit up… This is undoubtedly one of the best known examples of UFO footage ever taken in space.
Even though we have still more stories of cosmonaut sightings in our files, that is a fitting finale to our report. As we can see, comrade Kubasov’s ‘Nyet’ [No in Russian] has become a resounding ‘Da’ [Yes in Russian].