Video: From Pacific to Pentagon, missile mystery baffles

  1. Transcript of: From Pacific to Pentagon, missile mystery baffles

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: skies last night. The trail all the way up to the sky and the reports from eyewitnesses who said they saw a missile fired off the coast of California . It's been a day-long mystery from the Pacific all the way east to the Pentagon . And the question is, are people telling the truth about what it was? Then there's the Carnival cruise ship with thousands of people on board, crippled and adrift with a massive US aircraft carrier steaming toward it to render assistance. We begin with those first two reports tonight. And first to the Pentagon and this rumor of a missile . Jim Miklaszewski on duty there to start us off tonight. Jim , good evening.

    JIM MIKLASZEWSKI reporting: Good evening, Brian . Just who do you believe is, indeed, the question tonight. More than a day later, US military officials admit they don't know exactly what it was that lit up the skies near Los Angeles last night, but they say they're convinced it was not a missile . It's a shocking image. This video from a KCBS traffic copter shot at sunset yesterday shows what looks like a missile soaring into the sky dangerously close to the coastline just off Los Angeles . At one point the unidentified flying object streaks through the clouds, spewing black smoke and what appears to be flames shooting out the back. The video sent the US military into a frenzy. For hours, frantic heated phone calls flew between the Pentagon and NORAD trying to figure out just what was this mystery object. Pentagon officials say the video is the only indication of a possible missile shot. The Navy and Air Force strongly deny they had fired a missile . And using satellite imagery, Northcom and NORAD found no evidence of a missile launch. The video appears to show the missile flying right through the middle of the heavy air traffic area around Los Angeles , but FAA officials tell NBC News they reviewed air traffic control tapes and those radar replays did not reveal a fast-moving object in that area. And at the same time, there were no reports of any unusual sightings from pilots. So then, what is it? Military missile expert John Pike believes it's an airplane, likely a jumbo jet, and the appearance of it streaking upward is an optical illusion.

    Mr. JOHN PIKE: Here it's coming out of the sunset. It looks like it's being launched out of the water, but it's not.

    MIKLASZEWSKI: Pike and military officials also point out the object is moving too slowly and changes course like an airplane, not a missile . The Pentagon tonight says that they insist or believe that it was an airplane and insist that whatever happened did not pose a threat to the US. But a senior military official tells us, 'If we're not exactly sure what it was, how can we be so sure about no threat to the US?' And, you know, this is just the kind of ambiguity, Brian , that will feed conspiracy theories forever.

    WILLIAMS: That's right . It sure would be nice to know either way. Jim Miklaszewski ...

    MIKLASZEWSKI: Right.

    WILLIAMS: ...starting us off at the Pentagon tonight. Hey, Jim , thanks.

msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 11/9/2010 4:14:22 PM ET 2010-11-09T21:14:22

U.S. officials said Tuesday they couldn't say what might have created a mysterious plume that set off an Internet frenzy after it streaked across the Southern California sky Monday night. But they said they were confident there was no threat to the United States.

Speculation immediately arose that some sort of rocket or missile must have been fired after Los Angeles television station KCBS videotaped the spectacular trail from one of its traffic helicopters.

But a Federal Aviation Administration official told NBC News that there were "no reports of unusual sightings" and that a review of radar replays "did not reveal a fast-moving object in that area."

That's in line with the observations of scientists interviewed by NBC News and msnbc.com, who said that for all the sensation the video created on the Internet, the contrail was consistent what you'd see behind a normal jetliner or other large aircraft if you happened to spot it at sunset from the unusual aerial angle of the TV helicopter — in other words, it was probably an optical illusion.

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The Boeing Co. occasionally launches aircraft from San Nicolas Island, off the California coast, as part of its anti-missile laser testing programs, but two company officials told msnbc.com that it launched nothing Monday.

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University who tracks suborbital launches, said the last known such test was Oct. 21. He endorsed the conclusion of other scientists and satellite observers who said the contrail appeared to be moving too slowly to be the result of any sort of missile launch.

Whatever it was, "there is no indication of any threat to our nation," the North American Aerospace Defense Command said in a statement.

NASA and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency didn't immediately respond to requests for information.

By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Jay Blackman and Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News.

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