The Science Channel has a series called NASA’s Unexplained Files that’s somewhere between Dark Matters and Ancient Aliens. It’s goofy, fun entertainment, and this weekend they aired an episode about mysterious music heard by the Apollo 10 astronauts on the far side of the moon. It, like the rest of the Apollo 10 transcripts, was classified until 2008, which to most people raises the flag of a cover-up.
So what happened here? Essentially, Thomas P. Stafford, Gene Cernan, and John Young went to the Moon, orbiting the body for only the second time. The mission was an all-but-landing dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, with Stafford and Cernan going into the lunar lander for a landing rehearsal that took them less than 10 miles above the surface of the moon. Young stayed behind in the Lunar Command Module.
It was during this separation that the astronauts heard what they described as “outer space music.” It was a mysterious hum in the radio instruments while they were separated. They weren’t sure what to do, or whether to tell NASA. In Carrying the Fire, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins revealed he’d heard the same thing.
That book came out in 1974. There wasn’t an official, public, on-the-record confirmation from NASA until 2008, when the Apollo 10 transcripts were unveiled. But there wasn’t a cover-up. That’s because it wasn’t some extraterrestrial music. It was radio interference. Collins wrote:
“There is a strange noise in my headset now, an eerie woo-woo sound. Had I not been warned about it, it would have scared the hell out of me. Stafford’s Apollo 10 crew had first heard it, during their practice rendezvous around the Moon. Alone on the back side, they were more than a little surprised to hear a noise that John Young in the Command Module and Stafford in the LM each denied making. They gingerly mentioned it in their debriefing sessions, but fortunately the radio technicians (rather than the UFO fans) had a ready explanation for it: it was interference between the LM’s and Command Module’s VHF radios. We heard it yesterday when we turned our VHF radios on after separating the two vehicles, and Neil said that it ‘sounds like wind whipping around the trees.’ It stopped as soon as the LM got on the ground, and started up again just a short time ago. A strange noise in a strange place.”
So there it is: simple radio interference in an area with few other radio signals essentially made a strange, semi-rhythmic hum, which isn’t a surprise for most people who’ve operated a radio. The Unexplained episode goes into this and some of the other secondary theories about what might’ve happened, none of which are “aliens.” The story comes up every few years, the latest because of the Science Channel special.
Sean O’Kane at The Verge has a pretty reasonable explanation for the astronaut’s silence. As he writes, the steely-eyed missile men didn’t want to come across as crazy and risk the reputation of themselves or the agency. “This was the ‘right stuff’ era. Many astronauts and test pilots adopted a ‘lie to fly’ policy, knowing that the slightest crack in their steely demeanor might be enough for NASA to ground them forever,” O’Kane writes.
Sorry, everyone. No aliens, just dumb ol’ radio interference—albeit some slightly abnormal interference heard by three people orbiting another world during a time of radio silence with Earth.
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