July 28, 2008 at 1:02 PM ET
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Moonwalker Edgar Mitchell
speaks out on UFOs.
MSNBC's Alex Witt reports.
It sounds like a publicity stunt for the "X-Files" sequel: A real-life moonwalker, Apollo 14's Edgar Mitchell, says he was told that powerful alien beings have been among us for 60 years and that government officials have been carefully covering up that fact.
Mitchell's claims have caused a huge stir in the week since they were aired on a British radio show. But upon closer inspection, what the retired astronaut said was not all that earth-shattering - or even all that new.
"I happen to be privileged enough to be in on the fact that we have been visited on this planet, and the UFO phenomenon is real, although it's been covered up by governments for quite a long time," Mitchell told Kerrang Radio host Nick Margerrison.
The way Mitchell told it, the aliens look much like the little gray men depicted in most sci-fi sagas and possess technology far superior to ours - so superior that they could have wiped us out if they chose to.
That's a view held by millions of people who believe extraterrestrials are piloting at least some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported over the past 60 years. But the fact that the view is coming from a celebrity spaceman, who has talked with military sources supposedly in the know, invests Mitchell's pronouncements with greater authority.
Or does it?
As astronomer Phil Plait points out on his Bad Astronomy blog, just because you're a moonwalker (or a military officer, for that matter) doesn't mean you're entitled to a "get out of reality free" card. And in follow-up interviews with Discovery.com and BlogTalkRadio, Mitchell acknowledged that his evidence is essentially hearsay.
Mitchell emphasized that his UFO views are not based upon his personal experience as a NASA astronaut, but rather upon unofficial talks he's had with witnesses involved in the 1947 Roswell incident and other sightings. He put a lot of weight on the experience of a Navy admiral who tried to follow up on the witnesses' claims but found himself shut out from the top-secret stuff.
It's well-known that some military officials suspected there was something spooky about Roswell, even after the U.S. Air Force announced in 1997 that it had fully explained the UFO reports and was closing out its file on the subject.
The best-known believer with Pentagon credentials was retired Air Force Col. Philip Corso, who spilled what he knew (and heard from others) about the alien conspiracy in a book titled "The Day After Roswell." In a 1997 interview, Corso told me he wrote the book because one of his key sources had passed away, releasing him from a vow of silence.
Corso himself passed away a year after that interview took place, but there are surely other military sources holding onto secondhand or thirdhand secrets. So it's not so surprising that Mitchell was "privileged enough" to hear some of those secrets - and it's not so new that he's bringing them to public attention.
In the Discovery.com Q&A, Mitchell acknowledged that he's been trying to spread the word about UFOs for more than a decade. At one time, he was working with The Disclosure Project, but in this 2001 interview with physicist-ufologist Jack Sarfatti, Mitchell complained that the project was improperly describing him as a UFO "witness." The moonwalker said he had heard disclosures from other seemingly knowledgeable individuals, "mostly of yesteryear," but had no firsthand knowledge himself.
Mitchell stuck to that story in a Fourth of July interview with CNN's Larry King - on a UFO-themed show that made less of a splash than last week's Kerrang interview.
So why did the more recent interview spark more of a buzz?
For one thing, Mitchell played up the references to advanced technology, as well as the idea that "we would be gone by now" if the aliens had been hostile. That added some extra color to Mitchell's oft-told tales about the little gray men. For another thing, he had a bigger piece of the spotlight on Kerrang - as well as an interviewer who was deeply impressed by what the astronaut had to say. ("Wow! This is big!" Margerrison told Mitchell.)
But the most important factor may well be something so mysterious it's worthy of an "X-Files" investigation: What makes a particular nugget of information go viral? How do you get an item picked up by BoingBoing and The Daily Mail, on Newsvine and MSNBC on cable? The truth is out there ... at least about the viral effect, if not about UFOs.
Feel free to weigh in with your comments, either on UFOs or on Internet epidemiology. And as long as we're on the subject, check out my UFO viewing tips, register your opinion in our long-running Live Vote, take our UFO quiz, click through six real-life X-Files and take on your very own search for UFOs.