If you’ve been listening to Daft Punk’s new album Random Access Memories lately, you may have noticed that at the start of the song Contact there’s an astronaut talking about some sort of UFO in space. Who’s talking, and is it a genuine transcript?
Well, apparently Daft Punk actually asked for a transcript to use at the start of the song, so NASA gave them this excerpt from the Apollo 17 mission. The person talking in the song is Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, as he along with fellow astronauts Jack Schmitt and Ronald Evans made their way to the Moon in December 1972. Here’s the quote in full:
Cernan: “Hey Bob I’m looking at what Jack was talking about and it’s definitely not a particle that’s nearby. It is a bright object and it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing, it’s way out in the distance, certainly rotating in a very rhythmic fashion because the flashes come around almost on time. As we look back at the earth it’s up at about 11 o’clock, about maybe ten or twelve diame…Earth diameters. I don’t know whether that does you any good, but there’s something out there.”
(Note: “Particle” was a term used by Apollo astronauts to denote something in space other than their own spacecraft)
Of course, the transcript taken out of context seems to indicate something mysterious going on. Has Cernan spotted some sort of UFO? Have Daft Punk uncovered a secretive NASA transcript that indicates the presence of alien life?
Sadly, no, and the answer is slightly more mundane than you might have hoped (although still pretty cool if you think about it).
As the Apollo 17 spacecraft made its way to the Moon, it had discarded an upper stage of the Saturn V rocket that lifted it into space. Known as the S-IVB, this piece of the rocket remained on a similar trajectory to Apollo 17 until the lunar astronauts began their manoeuvres to get into lunar orbit.
So, what Cernan was seeing was likely this discarded S-IVB stage of the rocket rotating in space, reflecting sunlight and appearing to flash. It may also have been a panel from the rocket itself, but whatever it was, it was definitely manmade.
The ‘Bob’ Cernan refers to is Robert Parker, who was the serving CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) for the Apollo 17 mission at the time.
Here’s some more of the transcript that’s not included in the song:
Cernan: “One unique thing about it, Bob, is that it’s got two flashes. As it comes around in rhythmic fashion, you get a very bright flash, and then you get a dull flash. And then it’ll come around with a bright flash, and then a dull flash.”
Schmitt: “That’s the side of the S-IVB and then the engine bell, Gene.”
Cernan wasn’t entirely convinced of Schmitt’s convictions however, and later he said:
“Hey, Bob, we got two of those flashers out there. They could be SLA [Spacecraft Lunar Module Adapter] panels. I don’t know. They’re alike in intensity and pretty regular in the bright and dim flashes they come out with, and they’re widely separated.”
So, ultimately, it was likely just a piece of the Saturn V rocket or Apollo spacecraft drifting alongside the crew. Buzz Aldrin noticed something similar on the Apollo 11 mission, which he was later wildly misquoted on.
You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @Astro_Jonny
Images courtesy of Fabio Venni (top) and NASA (bottom)