The pixels in a photograph can be funny things, as demonstrated time and time again in "Aliens on the Moon: The Truth Exposed," a TV documentary airing on Sunday's 45th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing.
What one person sees as a overly magnified image with distortions that merely form strange patterns, another person sees as incontrovertible proof that extraterrestrials have left giant antennas, spaceships and industrial complexes on the moon.
"There's no doubt that these structures exist," Robert Kiviat, producer of the two-hour SyFy Channel show, told NBC News. (NBC News Digital and SyFy are both part of NBC Universal.)
Is Kiviat serious? He sounds like it. "My goal would be, right upon the airing on Sunday night, maybe even the day after, to approach the NASA administrator in Washington ... and pretty much say, 'Look, here are these photographs, here's what we know from the NASA data, we would love to work with this under NASA auspices,'" he said.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden might not rush to join the search for aliens on the moon, but that sort of quest is right up Kiviat's alley. He was behind the "Alien Autopsy" TV show that made such a splash in 1995 with purported footage of alien bodies from Roswell. The footage was later proven to be fake, but in his defense, Kiviat says he acknowledged that in follow-up programs.
"I'm not telling you that I'm ashamed of my work on that," he said. "I'm not."
Photos old and new
The heart of "Aliens on the Moon" is a review of decades-old photographs from the Apollo missions, with commentary by sources ranging from former Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Edgar Mitchell to old standbys on the UFO scene (MUFON analyst Marc D'Antonio, "Dark Mission" co-author Mike Bara and physicist John Brandenburg, plus photo lab workers Donna Hare and Ken Johnston).
First, about those photographs: Many of the cases have long been part of Apollo UFO lore, and have been addressed on websites such as The Emoluments of Mars. It's fun to see those cases reviewed, as long as you know the history.
Watch for the case of the Asada Crater satellite dish, the tale of the lunar pyramid (also known as the Daedalus ziggurat), the picture of the Apollo 17 skull (also known as Data's Head) and the paperclip on the moon (which has been traced to lint on the picture). Rational Wiki lists the greatest hits on the lunar anomaly list.
Attention is given to a cigar-shaped UFO on the moon, as well as the related story of the Apollo 20 / Mona Lisa hoax. No need to go into detail on all this — watch the show, then follow the links for outside critiques.
"Aliens on the Moon" spends a lot of time on a picture from Apollo 11 that Kiviat calls the "smoking gun" for an alien presence on the moon. The original photo, AS11-41-6139, is relatively unremarkable — but if you blow it up enough, the pixels take on a loopy appearance that the show's experts see as a flying saucer.
"Aliens on the Moon" makes a strong pitch for revisiting the moon, and you don't have to be a UFO fan to hope that eventually happens. But many of the show's seemingly baffling mysteries can be resolved much more easily, by looking at higher-resolution imagery from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. For example, straight-line tracks that UFO fans might interpret as evidence of massive machines on the moon are more clearly seen as the result of rolling boulders.
Where the astronauts stand
Now, about those astronauts: The show makes it sound as if Aldrin was reluctant to talk about potential UFO sightings — and it's true that he turned down an invitation to review and comment in detail about the Apollo photographs. But over the years, he has discussed the sighting of what the Apollo 11 crew thought at the time was an unidentified flying object in the literal sense of the phrase.
This month, during a Reddit online chat, he passed along the mainstream view once again. "It was either the rocket we had separated from, or the four panels that moved away when we extracted the lander from the rocket and we were nose to nose with the two spacecraft," he said. That view gets short shrift in the show.
Mitchell, meanwhile, has made no secret of the fact that he believe extraterrestrials exist. "I have no doubt that extraterrestrials could very well have populated or made structures on the far side of the moon," the Apollo 14 moonwalker says on the show.
However, Mitchell also has acknowledged that neither he nor any of his colleagues among the Apollo astronauts found any evidence of aliens on the moon. That part of the message often gets left out, much to Mitchell's dismay.
"Twists and distortions do take place, and I don't know how to stop them, except not to give any interviews," Mitchell told NBC News in an email. "Any help is appreciated."
NBC News' space analyst, James Oberg, worries that UFO-centric interpretations and claims about coverups go unchallenged on the show. "I am appalled by the lack of any concern for verification of eyewitness claims," he said in an email. "The producers don't want to know contrary views, they act as if they want to not know such views."
He said that UFO documentaries could end up holding back the honest-to-goodness search for alien life if they put too much emphasis on funny pixels from decades-old pictures, or give too much credence to twisted tales from questionable sources.
"Someday our space explorers — human or surrogate — likely will come across something of non-natural, non-human origin in space," Oberg said. "By making the concept the subject, in this case, of well-deserved ridicule, it is part of the problem, not part of the solution, to the challenge of detection and recognition of traces of extraterrestrial intelligence."