Spaceflight Insider

Skywalking: Did UFOs visit STS-80 Columbia?

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Complex 39 in Florida on mission STS-80. Photo Credit: NASA

Space Shuttle Columbia lifts off from Launch Complex 39 in Florida on mission STS-80. Photo Credit: NASA

During the week of April 11, 2011, the FBI released some of its investigation records on UFOs. The reports reflect the reality that people do see unexplained phenomena in the sky. Are these sightings evidence for intelligent life elsewhere, or some secret flight testing program?

wakeshield-isla-angel-de-la-guarda-baja-STS-80 space shuttle Columbia NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Not a flying saucer. This is Wakeshield Facility 3, one of the satellites we launched and retrieved from Columbia on STS-80 during Nov. 1996. Columbia was soaring 220 miles over Mexico’s Baja peninsula. (NASA STS080-708-065) Photo Credit: NASA

Much UFO speculation in the past has focused on one of my shuttle missions, STS-80, flown in late 1996. Some have maintained that video shot during this Columbia space shuttle flight provides evidence for unknown objects moving in the night sky.

I have reviewed this video (for the first time in 1997) and conclude that it shows commonplace and well-known objects near the shuttle, all of them observed on every shuttle flight. These videos show low-light television camera images of ice particles or man-made debris drifting out of Columbia’s cargo bay, and floating in the vicinity of the shuttle, likely within a few tens of feet of the orbiter.

I have seen these snippets of STS-80 video many times since our flight. These video scenes were recorded by remote control, underground command, with flight controllers in Houston’s Mission Control operating our low-light TV camera in the cargo bay. As far as I remember, nobody on the crew was looking out the window at these ice crystals or debris particles.

Nobody thought anything that our crew observed out the window was of “alien” origin, or something not connected to the shuttle’s routine operations (e.g., a large rotating disk or any such unusual structure). Once you understand what the solar illumination conditions are (orbital twilight, with darkness below and sunlight at our altitude), it’s easy to conclude that the video shows normal small ice and debris particles drifting aimlessly away from the orbiter, with some pieces becoming sunlit as they move out of the shuttle’s shadow. During our science operations, robotic satellite deployments and grapples, and robot arm tests and exercises, we routinely noticed these ice particles and debris catching the brilliant sunlight outside. But these sightings were non-events for us, as we understood what we were seeing completely.

Both the flight crew and Mission Control are always attentive to particles seen outside the windows, or on payload bay cameras. Such sightings could be clues to spacecraft problems, such as a vital piece of equipment that has shaken loose. Those sightings need to be reported ASAP and openly discussed – is it a fuel leak, or a piece off the rudder, or damage to the TPS (tiles), or other bad news? Crewmembers and flight controllers have no reason to ever keep it secret or to keep these discussions off normal radio channels.

STS-80-patch NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

STS-80 mission patch. Image Credit: NASA

Aside from details of specific Defense Department payloads and their deployments, astronauts have no classification regulations or rules preventing anyone from discussing anything they’ve seen or experienced on space flights. No secret non-disclosure signatures, no secret threats, no secret brainwashing – we communicate openly with the public. What we get, you get. What we see that’s unusual, we tell you about.

I have spent many hours gazing out the shuttle windows during my 53 days in orbit, under all lighting and orbiter attitude conditions. The objects seen in the STS-80 videos are ordinary debris particles or ice crystals, some hit by shuttle thruster blasts that cause a change in their motion. Local lighting conditions also change the brightness of some objects as they drift into or out of shadow. I have never seen any evidence in space or on Earth of spacecraft or phenomena not explained by our routine space operations in the shuttle or Space Station programs. My crewmates and I have not seen any evidence for UFOs or spacecraft of “alien” origin or behavior. The STS-80 videos are records of normal space shuttle operations and optical phenomena.

It is regrettable that so many spaceflight-minded young people have their enthusiasms exploited by misinterpretations of such shuttle videos. These inaccurate theories about what the videos show – some naive, some possibly deliberately misleading – waste a great deal of productive energy. Insisting that astronauts have seen alien vehicles is incorrect: a deliberate falsehood.

This myth wastes years of healthy curiosity and diverts it to pseudo-scientific wild goose chases, and is a disservice to the fantastic and dedicated work done in orbit by Space Station and shuttle crews, and their support team on Earth. Those still arguing about non-existent UFOs seen by space shuttle crews are wasting their time. Worse, they are misleading young explorers who don’t deserve to miss out on the genuine thrills and wonder of the spaceflight experience, its importance for the advancement of our species, and our understanding of the home planet and our universe.

Tom Jones, PhD

Planetary Scientist

Astronaut on STS-59, -68, -80, and -98

Author of Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir, and Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System.


Thomas D. Jones, PhD, is a scientist, author, pilot, and veteran NASA astronaut. In more than eleven years with NASA, he flew on four space shuttle missions to Earth orbit. On his last flight, Dr. Jones led three spacewalks to install the centerpiece of the International Space Station, the American Destiny laboratory. He has spent fifty-three days working and living in space.

Reader Comments

Agreed, these videos and the claims made about them are just distracting nonsense. Among the worst offenders in this area is the show “NASA’s Unexplained Files”. I could tell this was going to be a horrible show when the first episode opened up talking about John Glenn’s “fireflies” and saying that the mystery went unsolved for 30 years. It didn’t even go unsolved for 3 months, let alone 30 years. Scott Carpenter confirmed they were ice crystals coming loose from the side of capsule on the very next Mercury flight! He was able to reproduce them at will by banging on the interior wall of the capsule. But the show represents it as a long-standing mystery that was only recently solved by a shuttle astronaut. They make much ado about nothing in pretty much every segment.

Hats off to “NASA’s Unexplained Files” for reporting on many of the UFO sightings by American and Russian Space Frontiersman. Including an accurate description of the UFO Astronaut James McDivitt photographed which I re-discovered on a TV show in 1990 called “Secrets & Mysteries. McDivitts UFO anomaly of “an arm sticking out” exactly matches my own 35mm photo of 10 daylight UFOs here in San Diego as well as that of numerous other UFO photos and countless ancient artifacts. This historic breakthrough has won front page coverage in every newspaper in San Diego and an award winning CBS interview “UNSETTLING” -Los Angeles Times Google Mike Orrell or “Inaja UFO Photo” they’re here

Charles Woodrick

Gordon Cooper, astronaut, Kelly Johnson, chief engineer and head of the Lockheed SkunkWorks, Clyde Tombaugh, astronomer who discovered Pluto, Ronald Reagan, U.S. President – just a few of the many well-known and not so well-known individuals who have reported UFO sightings that have never been explained.

Charles Woodrick: “Gordon Cooper, astronaut, …individuals who have reported UFO sightings that have never been explained.” Factually false. You can say that, Charles, only because the open-minded UFO community suppresses contrary evidence, such as all three independent investigations of Cooper’s 1957 Edwards AFB landing stories, which the investigations unanimously concluded was imaginary.

Charles Woodrick

Cooper also reported a sighting over Germany when he was stationed there in the 50s. During a TV interview, he seemed irritated when asked about the Edwards sighting but he didn’t deny it occurred. He may have felt the question was stupid because he knew that inquiring about his report once it went up the chain of command to the Pentagon was against military protocol – no need to know, etc.

In any case, my previous post was meant to illustrate just a few of the many well-known, well-placed individuals who have reported UFOs. I am neither a believer nor a skeptic on the subject. Not a believer because of the lack of hard evidence. Not a skeptic because most so-called skeptics are actually debunkers with closed minds on the subject.

I appreciate your work in the field although I often disagree with your conclusions.

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