Ever since we have ventured off of our world and into space we have uncovered various mysteries and shed light on how the universe works. It has been a great time of scientific discovery, and we have made great strides in pushing out into the vast solar system that once was just flickers within our imagination. Yet for all that we have uncovered and all of the questions we have answered there have been perhaps even more questions and mysteries posed. Some of the stranger of these are the myriad stories of alien forces beyond our understanding lurking in the background of these space travels of ours, with all manner of unusual claims made by astronauts and amateur space watchers. One odd incident concerning this is claimed to have happened during a fateful space shuttle mission, during which, according to some, aliens crashed the party and ruined everything.
On February 25, 1996, Space Shuttle Columbia was engaged with mission STS-75, the 75th Space Transportation System mission flown by NASA’s four space shuttles. The 15-day mission had the primary objective of deploying the Tethered Satellite System Reflight (TSS-1R) experiment, which entailed using a joint NASA/Italian Tethered Satellite System in order to harness a new source of spacecraft power by utilizing a special electrodynamic tether system to collect power within the electrically charged ionosphere. The idea was that the cables would conduct electricity from the ionosphere and convert it into power, thus paving the way to a cheap energy source for satellites, space stations, and spacecraft. In order to achieve this, the plan was to deploy the satellite and 20.7 kilometers (12.9 mi) of tether and then measure how much current could be gathered, as well as monitor the physics of the tether’s movement and various other factors. It was meant to be a fairly groundbreaking mission, but something would go wrong.
Over a period of 5 hours the astronauts carefully unreeled the satellite on its thin tether to a length of 19 kilometers, after which they had only one kilometer to go before they planned to stop it and begin their experiments. However, as the shocked 7-man crew of the Columbia looked on, the tether began to ripple, before finally snapping to send a long portion of it, as well as the satellite attached to it, drifting off into space. Although a lot of data had still been gained from the mission, the loss of the satellite and tether was a crushing blow and launched an extensive investigation into the incident. According to NASA, the reason would be found to have been a weakening of the cable due to pinholes in the insulated cover of the tether, which had allowed air trapped beneath to seep out into space, and these air bubbles were then transformed into plasma from the roughly 3,500 to 5,000 volts of power coursing along it. This in turn caused a local explosive electrical discharge from the copper wire in the tether to a nearby electrical ground, causing the cable to snap. However, this official view would be challenged.
During the unfortunate incident, astronauts had filmed the whole thing, and as soon as the video became available to the public people started noticing something very odd about it. The video footage shows what appear to be a series of bright spots or lights whizzing about the area, in particular seeming to swarm around and hover about the tether. Those who saw this quickly came to the conclusion that these were UFOs, and stated that obviously these UFOs had been attracted to the tether for some reason and had caused it to break. The objects became even more pronounced when enhanced videos began circulating not long after the original footage was released. Still other more far out theories emerged as well, such as the claim that these were not UFOs, but rather some sort of lifeform living in space, a sort of “space amoeba” of sorts. These creatures are theorized as living in the void and feeding on space debris or electrical energy, and it is just about as weird as it sounds. The site Secrets of the Universe explained of these hypothetical organisms and their relation to the tether incident:
They exist in a spectrum not visible to the naked eye under normal conditions. They appear to be totally harmless, feeding off electrical or other energy. If you look closely at the footage you will observe them increasing in brightness near electrical storms. With this in mind it is not in the least surprising to find them swarming around the electrodynamics tether which is NASA's attempt to harness the very energy that they feed on.
It is all very entertaining, but as soon as these conspiracy theories began making the rounds NASA and the astronauts who had actually been on the mission were quick to dismiss the possibility that these were aliens of any kind. It was all explained by astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz as “a little bit of debris that kind of flies with us,” meaning ice crystals and other miscellaneous tiny objects that sort of fly along with the shuttle in the weightlessness of space. In addition to this, a water dump from the shuttle, which is a completely normal and routine procedure, had been carried out not long before the experiment began, meaning there was more of this debris surrounding the shuttle than usual. It is perfectly harmless and the particles are miniscule, but when illuminated by the sun, compounded by the effect of the camera's image intensifier circuit, which is known to distort bright objects, the objects seem much larger, more robust, and brighter in the video footage than they really are. The telephoto lens of the camera is also used with a circular mirror that has a hole in the middle, which can leave an artifact on the images. One of the astronauts, Tom Jones, made a lengthy statement about the incident trying to clear up the confusion and also dispel the idea that NASA was hiding evidence of aliens in any way. He told Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine:
Astronauts have not seen any evidence of alien life. Reports of unidentified flying objects in images returned from the shuttle or space station have turned out to be ice crystals, drifting orbital debris, lightning flashes, or meteors streaking through the dark atmosphere below. So far, our search for extraterrestrial life — and other civilizations in space — has turned up no proof of alien civilizations. I was on the shuttle Columbia — STS-80 — and even made a blog entry, ‘Did UFOs Visit The Shuttle Columbia?’ Because when we came back from that mission in 1996, NASA got several queries from people who were watching the video — NASA TV back then — and said, ‘Hey, we saw spaceships on the shuttle video. What’s NASA got to say about that?’ I looked at the video and I said, ‘Oh, I know what this is — this is just ice crystals floating along beside the ship for the first couple of days of the flight.’ What looked to some people like a spaceship streaking across the star field, was — to us, looking out the windows — a complete non-event. And yet, it was very significant to people who were watching. Certainly, nothing in the way of spaceships.
Now, I’m aware that there have been a couple of astronauts in the past who’ve spoken out and said they know from other people that there’s evidence of UFOs and spaceships that have visited the Earth and that the government might be withholding it. They all seem to be secondhand, or they seem to be sightings of things that they’ve seen in orbit that, perhaps, they couldn’t explain at the time. And that’s where the story seems to peter out.
Also curious is that NASA made no mention at all of any such objects surrounding the shuttle or the tether in any of their mission reports, and it seems as though perhaps this really was a mundane occurrence. Yet conspiracy theories are not quick to die, and there are certainly those who do not buy the official statements. For them this is all a cover-up and an effort for NASA to spread disinformation and bury the truth. Such theories point to the constant perceived opaqueness of NASA and the numerous times the agency has cut feed to cameras at the slightest whiff of something odd. Is NASA up to something? Are there really strange forces at work up there in space? What really happened during the STS-75 incident? Was this just misidentified ice crystals or something else? Amazingly enough it is still being debated, and if anything it shows that there are plenty of mysteries that are being generated by our being in space, whether real or imagined.