Although Jim Oberg has never been a friend of the UFO issue - the below
suggests astronaut Gordon Cooper has some explaining to do.
Let's hope he can come up with some credible answers or as far as I'm
concerned, his judgement on other issues in his book will be called
seriously into question.
What do others think?
Courtesy of UFOForteanUK
Area 51 and Gordon Cooper's 'Confiscated Camera'
By Jim Oberg
Special to SPACE.com
posted: 11:34 am ET
29 September 2000 Pioneering Astronaut Sees UFO Cover-up
Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, in his new book Leap of Faith, presents a
tale of government cover-ups related to spy cameras, to Area 51, and to
similar subjects top-secret subjects, based on his own personal experiences
on a NASA space mission. As a certified "American hero," his credibility
the public is impeccable.
But several space veterans who SPACE.com consulted about one of Cooper's
spaceflight stories had very different versions of the original events. And
some of them showed me hard evidence to back up their skepticism.
According to Cooper, in 1965 he carried a super-secret spy camera aboard
Gemini-5 and accidentally got some shots of Area 51 in Nevada. Consequently,
the camera and its film were confiscated by the Pentagon, never to be seen
again. He was personally ordered by President Johnson not to divulge the
"One special mounted camera we carried had a huge telephoto lens," he wrote.
"We were asked to shoot three specific targets from our spacecraft's window
because the photo experts wanted to be able to measure the resolution of the
"That's exactly what we did: Over Cuba, we took pictures of an airfield.
the Pacific Ocean, we took pictures of ships at sea. Over a big U.S. city,
took pictures of cars in parking lots. Beyond that, we were encouraged to
shoot away at other airfields, cities, and anything else we wanted along the
In an exclusive interview with SPACE.com, NASA's former chief photo analyst,
Richard Underwood, confirmed the existence of the experiment but remembered
details about it in a very different way than Cooper did.
Now retired in Nassau Bay, Texas, Underwood recalled the camera was a 35-mm
Questar with a Zeiss 'Contarex' lens. That is a "cataoptic system" (folded
optics), with a foot-long barrel giving "several thousand" mm's of focal
length (Cooper recalls it was 1250mm). Mounted on the spacecraft window, it
was shot at 1/50th of a second at various ground targets passing directly
below the spacecraft.
"It was the same camera that Ed White took outside with him on his space
in June," Underwood recalled. "We just slapped a big lens assembly on the
Considering the optical characteristics of the camera, Underwood calculated
that the theoretical maximum resolution -- the smallest object discernable
photographs -- could be as small as a hundred feet or so. That was what the
Pentagon was hoping for.
Cooper, however, distinctly remembers differently about the image quality.
"After splashdown," he wrote, "and while Pete and I were still aboard the
recovery vessel, the exposed film from that mounted camera was rushed to a
darkroom and developed. I was shown a few pictures -- including some
unbelievable close-ups of car license plates."
Absolutely impossible, retired NASA space photography experts have told
SPACE.com. "We never unloaded or developed space film on recovery ships,"
Gene Edmonds told SPACE.com from his home in LaPorte, Texas. "We always kept
it safe for development in our own specialized labs back in Houston."
Nor, say space reconnaissance experts, would license plates be readable from
a handheld camera in space -- or any other satellite in the 1960s. Writing
recently in the Washington Post, Dr. Dwayne A. Day, a civilian specialist in
space reconnaissance, had criticized Hollywood movies for exactly this kind
"The best resolution of an American spy satellite, achieved by an older
series no longer in use, was reputed to be about 2 1/2 inches," Day wrote.
"This means that the smallest visible object would be the size of a
not the thin letters and numbers on a license plate." Day also told
that this vehicle didn't show up until many years after Gemini-5.
According to Day and other experts space.com talked with, Cooper's claim
violates the laws of optics. "How could he even aim it?" one asked
derisively. "You can't visually make out parking lots from orbit".
Nevertheless, NASA's Dick Underwood does recall that the 1965 Pentagon
experiment's film was indeed grabbed while the crew was still on the
carrier. "Cooper was really upset," he added with a grin, confirming
account. "I was livid", Cooper had written, "but there was nothing I could
But Underwood and his associates remember a lot more about what became of
film than Cooper does. That is not surprising since it was their
specialization to handle space photographs. As far as Cooper ever knew, the
images had totally vanished, and that's the way he's been telling the story
Not so, retorts Underwood. NASA was sent a set of prints from the roll after
the Pentagon developed it and studied it. "Nothing too exciting showed up,"
Those pictures wound up filed right along with the other NASA-sponsored
from Gemini-5, Underwood continued. "The NASA shots were all on 70-mm
Hasselblads," he explained, "and the 35-mm shots in the archives came from
the Pentagon experiment."
As Underwood recalls, more than a decade later, when astronaut Tom Stafford
returned to military duty as a brigadier general and was assigned to direct
space planning at the Pentagon, as a favor to Underwood he inquired after
original negatives. They were nowhere to be found. "He was told they must
have been destroyed", reported Underwood.
Not at all, recalls another retired NASA photo expert. "They sent back the
original negatives later when they realized they weren't very good," Tom
Brahm told SPACE.com. "When I retired, they were still somewhere in the
archives in Houston."
And that's exactly where I found these photos when I visited the
archives in Building 424 at the Johnson Space Center. Archive director Mary
Wilkerson had collected the documentation and transparencies for my
Two rolls of 55 shots each, and 28 more from a third roll, had been
catalogued in the NASA photo system on September 23, 1965, just a month
the flight, according to archivist David Sharron. The original documentation
indicated the shots had never been classified, and from examining them it
easy to see why.
Each shot covered an area several miles on a side, with sharpness a bit
better than a typical television screen. That's equivalent to a ground
resolution of perhaps 50-100 feet, exactly what Underwood had estimated.
The views showed precisely what Cooper recalled observing: airfields,
islands, even a large US city (Dallas, it turned out). The pictures of
airfields showed runways, but aircraft and buildings couldn't be made out.
the city shot, it was impossible to see small letters, or even license
plates, or even cars, or even parking lots at all. A crisscross pattern of
roads and city blocks could be made out, but nothing smaller.
The catalog for the NASA archives described one other problem. There was
little if any crew documentation of where the photos were taken. "The
astronaut log is sketchy and difficult to use for any data of value," it
Dr. Day had also heard of this problem when he had researched the history of
US spy satellites.
"What happened with Gemini was that the astronauts were sloppy in recording
where they took their shots," he explained. "The guys at the National
Photographic Interpretation Center determined that any manned reconnaissance
system would still require a computer to keep track of where the camera was
pointing and when it was shooting. People naturally started to ask 'If we
have a computer taking the photos anyway, why do we need the guys?'"
For a number of similar reasons, the Pentagon lost interest in a manned
military space station (the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, or MOL), and
cancelled the program a few years later. The poor photography on Gemini-5
wasn't the main cause, Day continued, "but it was one of the early nails in
the MOL coffin."
Cooper, meanwhile, never learned the photographs had been returned to NASA
a disappointed Pentagon. He later told a story about how somebody had
explained the confiscation to him.
"Many years later," he wrote in his book, "at a 1997 NASA reunion at Cape
Canaveral, a gray-haired man came up to me and asked if I remembered him."
The man identified himself as the one who confiscated his film, and then
asked, "Did anyone ever tell you why the film was confiscated?"
Cooper wrote that the man told him, "You had the most magnificent pictures
Area 51". Cooper was thrilled: "As for Area 51, I hope the Air Force is
conducting experiments with flights with highly unusual aircraft -- even
saucers with revolutionary propulsion systems," he wrote. "And the first
person to come home with pictures of the mysterious Area 51? An astronaut
Sadly, this may be yet another tale that doesn't stand up. It turns out, on
Gemini-5 Cooper never flew over Area 51 at all. The spacecraft orbit always
passed far to the south. It was physically impossible for him to have taken
any near-vertical snapshots of the super-secret test range.
Even a simple check of his trajectory shows this. The Gemini's orbital
inclination was 33 degrees, and the southernmost regions of "Area 51" are at
37 degrees north. That's a horizontal distance of about 300 miles, from an
altitude of about at most 150 miles.
Anybody can use satellite tracking software widely available on the
with specific Gemini-5 trajectory measurements (also on the Internet). They
will find out that as viewed from Area 51, Gemini-5 never got higher than
about 20 degrees on the southern horizon, barely above the mountains for
a few seconds, once or twice a day.
As viewed from his spacecraft, that would be far out near Earth's horizon,
lost in the dust and haze of the thick atmosphere. The camera experiment
requirements, and Cooper's own memory of it, involved only straight-down
views of the nearest portions of the surface, seen through the thinnest
of the atmosphere. Area 51 would never have been imaged, even by accident,
except by grossly violating the experimental procedures.
There was one intriguing item in the catalog, however: roll B exposure 24
called "California, north of Salton Sea," right before another shot of the
Elephant Butte reservoir in New Mexico. That's in the direction of Area 51,
I pulled the transparency out of its envelope and loaded it in the viewer
close examination. But the picture, like most of the others, was another
disappointment. Splotchy desert sands, covered by scattered clouds, showed
only a few faint lines that might have been roads. There were no runways, no
mystery buildings, no UFOs.
Cooper's narrative -- the prematurely developed film with visible license
plates, the forbidden peek at a super-secret installation, the cover-up from
the highest levels of the government -- is by far the more exciting version
of this incident. His sincerity and self-confidence remains unquestioned.
His agent, Stu Miller, assured SPACE.com that the details of the story were
true. "In fact, there were numerous 35mm cameras aboard Gemini-5, not just
one as you postulated," he wrote (presumably the NASA camera experts forgot
about the others, never listed them in the mission manifest or photo
archives, and mislabeled one of them as "DOD"). Nor did Cooper ever claim
flew directly over Area 51" -- the camera really "had a range of view of
about 1500 miles".
"As for the photos you say you were shown," Miller continued, "it’s possible
that some of them have been de-classified in the years since the mission,
the Colonel was unequivocally told that ALL of the film was placed under
classification shortly after Gemini-5’s return to the carrier and President
Johnson subsequently acknowledged directly to the Colonel that he had
personally given the order."
But the testimony of several experts much closer than Cooper to the actual
photographic process stands in shocking -- and dismaying -- contrast to the
version in the book. So do the cold equations of orbital motion, and the
precise calculus of optics. And so, too, did the photographs and catalogs I
held in my hands at the NASA photo lab.