NCP-12: The White Sands Proof
Copyright B. Maccabee, 2002
ASKANIA CINETHEODOLITES AT THE WHITE SANDS PROVING GROUND
In December, 1948 a new and strange phenomenon began to be observed repeatedly in the southwestern United States in areas where Top Secret nuclear weapon research was being carried out. Particular areas were around Los Alamos, New Mexico, Sandia Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico, the White Sands Proving Ground in NM and, eventually around the nuclear weapon storage site called Killeen Base at Fort Hood, Texas.
This phenomenon consisted of (generally) bright green lights moving (generally) horizontally through the night sky and then dropping downward slightly and going out. These became to be known as "green fireballs." After these had been observed many times in late 1948 and early 1949 Dr. Lincoln La Paz, a famous meteoricist (a scientist) who studies meteor and meteorites), declared that they weren't normal meteors. He told the Air Force and the FBI that if these weren't special devices resulting from our own (United States) secret research, then they could be Russian and in any event were a potential threat to our "vital installations" (FBI terminology) where nuclear weapon research was carried out.
These fireballs were observed repeatedly throughout 1949 and Air Force scientists wanted to know what they were. (Also observed were objects which Dr. La Paz called the "disc variation"...but it almost seems that the Air Force scientists really didn't want to know what THEY were!) Finally, in 1950, they succeeded in setting up an observation program to scientifically record the fireballs. It is at this point that our present story begins, but, before leaving the fireballs behind, let me just point out that they are STILL a mystery!
In the spring of 1950 a $20,000, half-year contract was signed with the Land-Air Corporation which operated the phototheodolites at White Sands. Land-Air was to set up a 24 hour watch at a location in New Mexico to be specified by the Air Force and the phototheodolite operators at White Sands were to film any unusual objects which happened to fly past. The name of this project was Twinkle.
The investigation began on March 24, 1950. By this time there had been many sightings in the southwest according to the sighting catalogue compiled by Lt. Col. Rees of the 17th District Office of Special Investigations at Kirtland, AFB, many of them around Holloman Air Force Base. His catalogue shows the following data for New Mexico in 1949: the area of Sandia Base (Albuquerque) - 17 sightings, mostly in the latter half of the year; Los Alamos area - 26 sightings spread throughout the year; Vaughn area - none; Holloman AFB/Alamogordo/White Sands area - 12; other areas in southwest New Mexico- 20; total - 75. For the same areas in the first three months of 1950 there were: Sandia - 6 (all in February); Los Alamos - 7; Vaughn - 1; Holloman AFB/Alamogordo/White Sands - 6; others - 6; total - 26. With all these sightings, the scientists were quite confident that they could “catch” a fireball or a saucer.
On February 21 an observation post, manned by two people, was set up at Holloman with a theodolite, telescope and camera. The post was manned only from sunrise to sunset. The observers saw nothing unusual during a month of operation. Then the scientists decided to begin a constant 24 hour watch on the first of April that would last for six months, with Land- Air personnel operating cinetheodolites (theodolites with movie cameras) and with Holloman AFB personnel manning spectrographic cameras and radio frequency receivers. Thus began Project Twinkle with the high hopes of solving the fireball/saucer mystery.
SIGHTINGS BY OBSERVERS OF SUPERIOR RELIABILITY
TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE CRAFT
Dr. Anthony Mirarchi was not the average scientist. He knew about the fireball sightings in the southwest and he was skeptical, all right, but he was also skeptical of the glib explanations that had been offered. Before deciding what the fireballs and "disc variation" might be he wanted more data. In early 1950 he was the Chief of the Air Composition Branch at Geophysical Research Division (GRD) at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory (AFCRL) in Cambridge, Mass. Twinkle began as Dr. Mirarchi’s project. However, he retired from AFCRL in October, 1950, so he did not write the final report. That duty fell to the next project director, Dr. Louis Elterman. This final report has an important place in UFO history. Had Mirarchi written the report the history of early UFO research might be different. However, as you will see, Elterman did write it and, in doing so, left out the important information you are about to read. (Dr. Elterman and the project's final report are discussed below.)
Dr. Mirarchi visited Holloman Air Force Base in late May, 1950, and requested a brief report on sightings which had occurred on April 27 and May 24. Fortunately for “the truth,” this brief report to Mirarchi survived in the National Archives microfilm record where it was found in the late 1970’s, long after the Twinkle report had had its...intended?... debunking effect on the green fireball disc sightings! The report reads as follows (see also copies from the Archives microfilm below):
The writer of this cover letter is not known (no signature). It might have been the Lt. Alpert mentioned below. The Data Reduction report attached to the letter reads as follows:
So, there you have it, four unidentified objects... UFOs... were flying at 150,000 ft near the White Sands Proving Ground. Each was roughly 30 ft in size. (The sighting was similar to that of Charles B. Moore while tracking a high altitude balloon in April, 1949.) Could Mr. Mitchell and the Askania operators have made a mistake? Not likely. Their business was tracking fast moving rockets and calculating the trajectories of the rockets. As the writer of the above letter stated, “The individuals making these sightings are professional observers. Therefore I would rate their reliability superior.”
Human beings had made no objects that could fly at 150,000 ft in the spring of 1950. So, what were they? Whose were they?
The skeptical scientist might, at this point, question the ability of Askania cameras to accurately image some object at 150,000 ft (28 statute miles). Just what was the capability of a phototheodolite? In fact, one might wonder just what IS a phototheodolite?
The phototheodolite is a telescope which does two things at once as the operator points it toward the object of interest (usually a rocket). First, the phototheodolite (or cinetheodolite) makes of series of photos (or a movie) of what is being seen through the telescope. Typically the camera takes a picture (or many pictures) every second. The shutter (exposure) times for all active phototheodolites at a test site such as White Sands are controlled electronically by a central "time keeper". Thus all the camera pictures are synchronized. The phototheodolite also accurately measures and records on the film, the azimuth and elevation (horizontal and vertical pointing directions) as time goes on. When two or more of these cameras are pointed at the same object, say a rocket traveling into space, the elevation and azimuth information that is recorded can be used to accurately determine the position (altitude and horizontal position relative to the cameras) every second by triangulation (a well known trigonometric technique). Thus these cameras can provide information on the flight of a rocket, i.e., at any instant how high it is, how far it has traveled downrange, what the exhaust of the rocket looks like (an important "diagnostic" for determining how well the fuel was burning, how accurately the rocket nozzles were directing the exhaust, etc.) and whether or not the rocket was rotating or tumbling as it traveled. As an example of such a camera in action, consider the following composite photograph:
The four rare photos above showing different stages of the Viking's flight,
were made by the Askania theodolite. From bottom to top, they not only record
the angle of climb but, more important, report on rocket efficiency by detailing
action of engine exhaust through upper atmosphere. When rocket engine operates
at the top best, hypersonic shock cones in tail flame appear shaped perfectly
as diamonds. If diamonds are in any way distorted, this indicates lack of
smoothness in operation.
Here we see a rocket just after takeoff (lowest photo) and then several photos taken many seconds later as it climbed upward. The number at the upper left is the azimuth and the number at the upper right is the angular elevation. According to the text that accompanies the picture, the top photo was taken when the rocket was nearing burnout. Burnout of a V-2 occurred when the altitude was about 20 miles and the rocket was about 2 miles downrange. However, the actual altitude when that photo may have been less than that. (Apparently this camera was quite far from the takeoff point in order to capture a reasonable "side shot" of the rocket at burnout.)
The rocket itself was about 46 ft long and 5 ft in diameter (at its widest). Looking at the top photo of the rocket one can clearly see the general shape, although it is distorted (foreshortened) by the perspective view (from below and to one side). Had the rocket presented the same perspective view but from a distance of about 30 miles (150,000 ft) the image would not be as large as in the upper photo, but the general shape could still be determined from the image (which would have been clearer in the original film than in this copy).
The focal length of the typical telescope was 60 cm. One may assume that the 35 mm film used had an image size resolution, determined by the average film grain size, of 0.001 cm (0.01 mm or 10 microns), or less (if high resolution film was used the grain size could be as small as about 5 microns). Assuming 0.001 cm resolution at the film plane, the angular resolution was on the order of 0.001 cm/60 cm = 1.6 x 10^-5 radians = 0.0009 degrees which is about 3 arc-second resolution (1 arc-sec = 0.00028 deg). When this distance is projected to 150,000 ft it corresponds to about 2 1/2 ft. This is a "resolution element" at that distance. Hence it is not surprising that the film image discussed above is a quite good representation of the shape of the V-2 rocket at a high altitude.
An object 30 ft in diameter would have 12 of these resolution elements across its width, and about 140 such elements over the whole image area (if roughly round) which would be more than enough to assure that the film image would be clearly show the the overall shape of the object. (If the film resolution were better than 10 microns the number of resolution elements in the image would be even greater. The more resolution elements there are, the more accurate is the depiction of the actual shape of the object.) The bottom line is that it is very UNLIKELY that the expert analysts at White Sands were wrong when they stated that the objects were about 150,000 ft high and about 30 ft in diameter (and traveling at a high speed).
A DISMAL FAILURE?
...or a COVER UP?
But, was it a failure? Was there really no information gained? Notice that the above document says that as many as 8 objects were sighted at one time on May 24, 1950. This statement is confirmed in an FBI report entitled "Information Concerning Phenomena in New Mexico," written on August 23, 1950. According to the report, "On May 24, 1950, personnel of Land-Air, Incorporated, sighted eight to ten objects of aerial phenomena." Isn't the fact of the sighting "information?” Of course it is. Then, why did Elterman write "no information was gained?" Let us look more carefully at Elterman and his Project Twinkle report.
According to Dr. Elterman, before Twinkle began there had been “an abnormal number of reports” from Vaughn, New Mexico, so it was decided to place a lookout post there. Why this place was chosen is a mystery to me. It is about 120 air miles from Los Alamos, about 90 from Sandia Base and nearly 150 from Alamogordo/Holloman AFB. I have listed above the sighting statistics for the various New Mexico areas, being careful to list the sightings around Vaughn separately. Note that Vaughn had only 1 sighting in the whole previous year. So why did they “waste” a lookout post at Vaughn? Why didn’t they put one at Los Alamos or at White Sands? Did they think that they could triangulate over a very large baseline distance with the lookout post at Holloman AFB or were they actually trying to avoid sightings? These are questions which must forever remain unanswered. (Note: Elterman was not responsible for this poor choice of location since he did not become the Project director until about 7 months after the project started.)
Anyway, it was a mistake. After Project Twinkle began the sighting rate dropped precipitously. The Project Blue Book sighting list shows 1 sighting in April, 1 in May and 1 in August in the Holloman area. There were also fewer sightings in the other areas. In fact, for the period from April 1 to October 1 covered by the first Land Air contract there were only about 8 sightings in the whole of New Mexico as compared with the roughly 30 sightings during the previous 6 months.
The effect of this sudden decrease in sighting rate is reflected in the Twinkle Final Report which says that there were very few observations. However, of more importance is what is not reflected in the report, that is, what is ignored or covered up (?) in the report, namely the fact that Twinkle was successful.
To demonstrate that Dr. Elterman "ignored information" or was just plain dishonest, I quote here one part of the report verbatim. Commenting on the “first contractual period, 1 April 1950 to 15 September 1950” Dr. Elterman wrote:
During the second contractual period, 1 October 1950 to 31 March 1951 there were no sightings. It was as if the phenomenon had reacted to the setting up of observation posts by moving elsewhere. There were continuing sightings in other parts of the country and even a few in the other parts of New Mexico, but none near Holloman AFB. The lack of sightings was enough to end the contract. After the contract ended there were discussions about what to do with the data and whether or not to continue observations at at some low level of effort. It was decided in the late spring of 1951 not to continue the special effort. Elterman, writing in November, 1951, recommended “no further expenditure” of time and effort...and there was none.
But, what about the sightings during the first half of the contract, the sightings at Holloman Air Force base in April, May and August, 1950? Even Elterman admits that things were seen!
According to Eltermann, no information was gained, to which I respond,
Oh, Great and Exalted Guru of the Upper Atmosphere,
isn't the fact that something unusual was sighted by experienced observers "information"?
something that was sufficiently unusual as to attract attention.
Was Elterman justified in making such a comment?
No! Certainly information “is gained” when a number of qualified obervers simultaneously view unidentified objects from various locations. And more information is gained if some of these observers film these objects through cinetheodolite telescopes. There is useful information even if a “proper triangulation” is not accomplished. And there is even more information gained if a proper triangulation is accomplished...and one was accomplished, only Eltermann didn’t mention it!
Farther on in the report Dr. Elterman indicates a serious deficiency in the operational plan for Project Twinkle. The project scientists knew that they might have some film to analyze, but according Elterman there were insufficient funds built into the contract to analyze the film. After a discussion with Mr. Warren Kott, who was in charge of the Land-Air operations, Elterman estimated that it would take 30 man-days to analyze the film and do a time correlation study which “would assure that these records did not contain significant material.” According to Elterman, “no provisions are contained in the contract” for this analysis.
One reads this previous statment with some astonishment. They set up a photographically instrumented search for unknown objects and then failed to provide for the film analysis if they were lucky enough to get film. What sort of a scientific project is that? Did they want to succeed or did they want to fail?
Furthermore, Elterman’s statement that a time correlation study should be done to assure that the records contained no significant material sounds as if Elterman had already concluded that there was no worthwhile evidence in the film. Does this sound like an unbiased investigation?
Near the end of the report Elterman supported his statement that “no information was gained” by offering explanations for the sightings: “Many of the sightings are attributable to natural phenomena such as flights of birds, planets, meteors and possibly cloudiness.” Note that he wrote "many." He did not write "all." What about the sightings that were NOT attributable to birds, planets, meteors and cloudiness?
The typical scientist reading the Project Twinkle Final Report would assume Elterman was telling the truth, that there was "no information gained" and that all the sightings were misidentifications. The typical reader would accept Dr. Elterman’s opinion as the final word on the subject. Only the perceptive person would realize that he had not actually proven his statement to be true, even though he presumably had access to the photographic evidence which would prove it, if it were true.
Compare the above letter/report to Dr. Mirarchi with the first paragraph of Elterman’s statement where he says “...simultaneous sightings by both cameras were not made so that no information was gained.” It seems that Elterman got his information on these sightings from this report to Dr. Mirarchi. Yet he did not even give a hint of the existence of the most important result of Project Twinkle, the April 27 triangulation which yielded information on altitude and size. Could it be that he didn’t know about the Data Reduction Unit report? Or did he know and choose to purposely ignore or withhold the information? Was this part of a "cover up" or simply the "ostrich effect" kicking in (if you stick your head deep enough into the sand the problem will go away)?
Capt. Edward Ruppelt, who was the director of Project Blue book during 1952 and 1953, in his landmark 1955 book, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, described the April 27 event in more detail. A guided missile had just been tracked and the cinethodolite crews were starting to unload their cameras when someone spotted objects moving through the sky. The camera stations were linked by a telephone network, so that crew alerted the others. Unfortunately all but one camera had been unloaded and the UFOs had departed before the other cameras could be reloaded. According to Ruppelt, “The photos from the one station showed only a smudgy dark object. About all the film proved was that something was in the air and, whatever it was, it was moving.” Evidently Ruppelt didn’t know that a triangulation had been accomplished. But at least Ruppelt did not claim that "no information was gained."
Ruppelt also discussed the May 24 event and its failure at triangulation due to the fact that the two cameras were looking at different objects. Ruppelt wrote that in February, 1951, when he first learned of these sightings (this was about 9 months before he became the director of Project Grudge and over a year before the name was changed to Blue Book), “The records at AMC [the Air Materiel Command headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base] didn’t contain the analysis of these films but they did mention the Data Reduction Group at White Sands. So, when I later took over the UFO investigation I made several calls in an effort to run down the actual film and analysis.” Unfortunately, he was not successful even though he did manage to contact, through a “major who was very cooperative,” two men who had analyzed what was either the May 24, or the August 31, film or both (see Elterman’s statement above regarding the August 31 sighting). Ruppelt writes as follows:
Obviously Ruppelt underplayed the importance of this report by suggesting that the films didn’t prove anything. My response to this is
So what, if the size, distance and speed estimates might be wrong....something was there, obviously large, fast and unusual or the camera crews wouldn’t have bothered to film it!
At the bottom of the report to Dr. Mirachi is a list of enclosures which shows that two reports (Data Red Report #1 and Data Red Report #2) and three films (P-10 and P-8 of May 24 and P-10 of April 27) were sent to Mirarchi along with a map of the Holloman range showing, I presume, the locations of the cameras. There is a hand written note at the right of the list of films which says “Film on repository with AFCRL” and a few other undecipherable scribbles. Attempts (in the late 1970's) to locate these films failed. (Mirarchi died in the 1960's.)
Incidently, the Project Blue Book master sighting list indicates that all four of the sightings listed by Elterman had “insufficient information” for evaluation.
In the middle of February, 1951 Time magazine published an article that featured a well known scientist, Dr. Urner Liddel of the Naval Research Laboratory near Washington, DC. In the article Dr. Liddel stated that he had studied around 2,000 saucer reports and, in his opinion, the only credible saucer sightings were actually sightings of misidentified Skyhook balloons, balloons which had been kept secret by the armed services. Apparently Dr. Liddel wasn’t aware of the several sightings by balloon project scientists (e.g, C. B. Moore mentioned above).
Evidently Dr. Mirarchi felt it was his civic duty to repudiate Liddel’s claims and two weeks later he responded publicly. According to a United Press story filed on February 26, 1951 Mirarchi said he believed, after investigating 300 reports of flying saucers, that the saucers were missiles from Russia which had photographed our atomic bomb test sites. According to the United Press article the 40 year old scientist who “for more than a year conducted a top secret investigation into the weird phenomena said that he had worked with balloons and balloons did not leave an exhaust trail.” Another reason given against the balloon explanation was that balloons could not be seen at night. Mirachi explained how “scientists had picked up dust particles containing copper which could have come from no other source than the saucer motive plants (the engines).” (This was a reference to efforts by Dr. La Paz to have air samples taken after a green fireball sighting to see if there were any small particles of copper or copper compounds in the air. Such compounds “burn green” or give off a characteristic green color when heated, so La Paz had conjectured that the green color could be attributed to burning copper compounds associated with the fireballs. In one case there was success in detecting such particles, although La Paz was not completely convinced that the particles were from the fireball.)
According to the newspaper article “flying saucers or ‘fireballs’ as he terms them, were regularly observed near Los Alamos until he set up a system of phototheodolites to measure their speed, size and distance away.... but the fireballs mysteriously ceased appearing before the theodolites could go to work. Dr. Mirarchi concludes that spies must have tipped off the saucers’ home base.” Mirarchi referred to two sightings for which there was photographic evidence: a single photo of a round glowing object and a motion picture which “showed one streaking across the sky for one and a half minutes.” Mirarchi went on to say that he was aware that some sightings were actually sightings of balloons, but that “there was too much evidence in favor of saucers to say they could have all been balloons. ‘I was conducting the main investigation. The government had to depend on me or my branch for information.’ He said he did not see how the Navy (i.e., Dr Liddel) could say that there had been no concrete evidence on the existence of the phenomena.”
Mirachi concluded by accusing the government of committing “suicide by secrecy” for not admitting that the saucers were real and probably missiles from Russia.
Strong words! So strong they nearly got Mirarchi in trouble more than two years later. According to an Air Force document released in 1991(!), in 1953, during a time of espionage and spy hunting (the Rosenbergs, atomic spies, were executed in 1953) the FBI queried the Air Force as to whether or not Mirarchi should be investigated for breaking security. Lt. Col. Frederick Oder, who had been instrumental in getting Project Twinkle started, responded by writing that, because Mirarchi had released to the newspaper some information that was classified Confidential or Secret it “could cause serious harm to the internal security of the country...if it were to fall into unfriendly hands...both from the point of view of the prestige of our Government and the point of view of revealing our interest in certain classified projects.” Brigadier General W. M. Garland, who was in charge of AMC in 1953, decided not to pursue Dr. Mirarchi because, in his opinion, the information was not that important. Furthermore, in Gen. Garlands’ opinion, the facts about saucers being missiles, as stated in the newspaper article, had been “disproved or are, at best, personal opinions, and are not considered classified data.” In other words, Gen. Garland apparently believed that the green fireball and saucer sightings were not Russian missiles, although he did not say what he thought they were.
Perhaps Gen. Garland let Mirarchi of the hook because he recalled that there had been a recommendation to declassify and release the results of Project Twinkle in December, 1951, a month after the final report was written. However, he could find no record of declassification in the files of AMC. Evidently he was not aware of the recommendation against declassification contained in a February 1952 letter to the Directorate of Intelligence from the Directorate of Research and Development which states
“The Scientific Advisory Board Secretariat has suggested that this project not be declassified for a variety of reasons, chief among which is that no scientific explanation for any of the ‘fireballs’ and other phenomena was revealed by the (Project Twinkle) report and that some reputable scientists still believe that the observed phenomena are man-made.”
Another letter, this time from the Directorate of Intelligence to the Research Division of the Directorate of Research and Development, dated March 11, 1952, adds another reason for withholding the information from the public:
“It is believed that a release of the information to the public in its present condition would cause undue speculation and give rise to unwarranted fears among the populace such as occurred in previous releases on unidentified flying objects. This results from releases when there has been no real solution.”
In other words, Air Force Intelligence had realized that the public could see through the smokescreen of previous explanations and wanted real answers, so, if they couldn’t come up with real answers it was better to say nothing.
Over a year after Mirarchi responded to Liddel, LIFE Magazine published an article on flying saucers. In that article the authors described some of the sightings which caused the Air Force to start Project Twinkle. One of the hundreds of letters which the magazine received in response to that article was from Captain Daniel McGovern who wrote “I was very closely associated with Projects ‘Twinkle’ and ‘Grudge’ at Alamogordo, N. Mexico where I was chief of the technical photographic facility at Holloman Air Force Base. I have seen several of these objects myself` and they are everything you say they are as to shape, size and speed.” (LIFE, April 28, 1952)
I thank Joel Carpenter and Brad Sparks for some of the phototheodolite information presented here.
A helpful reference was 200 MILES UP by Dr. Gordon Vaeth, Ronald Press, NY (1955).
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION ON FLYING SAUCERS IN THE YEAR FOLLOWING MIRARCHI'S RESPONSE TO LIDDEL see click here