Pioneer Astronauts and UFOs

On May 3rd, 2007, Walter M ‘Wally’ Schirra, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, died at the age of 84. These pioneers of American manned spaceflight were John Glenn, Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepherd, Donald ‘Deke’ Slayton and Wally Schirra. With Wally’s passing, there are now only two of the ‘Right Stuff’ spacemen left alive, John Glenn and Scott Carpenter.

UFOs have featured often in the careers of these men, both before and during their NASA tenures:

Scott Carpenter took a photograph of an unidentified object during his Aurora 7 mission, during the Mercury Project. It was explained as ‘a tracking balloon’ that was ejected from his capsule. However, Carpenter is reported to have said: “At no time, when the astronauts were in space, were they alone. There was a constant surveillance by UFOs.”

Gordon Cooper’s views on the UFO subject are well known. He reported encountering UFOs while stationed as a pilot in Germany in the 1950s. During the flight of his Mercury capsule, Faith 7, in 1963, he reported seeing a glowing, green object that was approaching his spacecraft. The object was picked up on radar, but Cooper claimed that it might have been the Aurora Australis. He also claimed to have witnessed a UFO landing at Edwards Air Force base in the late 1950s. The entire event was filmed as the craft landed, then took off again. The footage has never surfaced. He also addressed the United Nations, expressing his opinion that the UFO subject is extremely important and should be openly studied.

Wally Schirra joked that he was looking at a UFO during his Gemini 6 flight in 1965. He called it ‘Santa Claus’ and described it as ‘a command module with eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit.’ He also played ‘Jingle bells’ on his harmonica. Schirra was a well-known prankster and smuggled objects onto his flights more than once, the harmonica being one and a corned beef sandwich being another. Earlier, in 1962, during his Mercury 8 Sigma 7 flight, he was serious when he reported an odd glow: "A smog-appearing layer was evident during the fourth pass while I was in drifting flight on the night side, almost at 32° south latitude. I would say that this layer represented about a quarter of the field of view out of the window and this surprised me. I thought I was looking at clouds all the time until I saw stars down at the bottom or underneath the glowing layer." Although widely thought to be a natural phenomenon, it has yet to be identified.

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in his Mercury 6 craft, Friendship 7. His encounter with the ‘fireflies’ is famous and led to speculation that some form of life exists in low Earth orbit. It was ascertained, however, that the fireflies were particles from the capsule itself that had become dislodged. Alan Shepherd inadvertently banged the inside wall of his capsule and produced the same effect and later astronauts would regularly ‘create fireflies’ for fun.

Deke Slayton reported seeing a UFO while flying a P-51 over Minneapolis in 1951. He described it as a grey disc that flew away at high speed as his aircraft approached.

Gus Grissom was the second American in space, in his Mercury 4 capsule, Liberty Bell 7 in 1961. He also reported ‘fireflies’, but his flight is more famous for the sinking of the capsule when the door blew off early, flooding the interior. Grissom almost drowned, but he would be less fortunate five years later, when an oxygen fire in the Apollo 1 capsule killed him and his crewmates, Roger Chaffee and Ed White. There has been no official enquiry into the tragedy, but it is thought that the men died of smoke inhalation rather than the extensive burns to their bodies. Grissom’s son, Scott, has claimed that his father was murdered because of his outspoken criticism of the Apollo Project and its problems.

As the manned space program continued, sightings of UFOs became almost inevitable and continue to this day. Jeff Challender’s website, Project P.R.O.V.E., found at, is a great resource for the latest, as well as historical, UFO sightings far above the Earth’s surface.

© Steve Johnson - 2007

(Article originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of UFO Data Magazine)


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Updated 16th August, 2012