Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Archive for April, 2011

The Amazing Story of the Salyut-6 Close Encounter

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“On June 18, 1981, Gosplan called for an extraordinary conference, with the presence of UFO experts, cosmonauts and Soviet authorities, including military officers. Its moderator was the chief of the Soviet Space Program, General Georgi Timofeevict Beregovoy. Beside him was Vladimir Kovalyonok [Kovalenok], the cosmonaut who, along with Viktor Savinikh [Savinykh], stayed 77 days in space, aboard the Salyut-6 station. …  The revelation they made was to shock the world. It’s quite simply the story of a close encounter of the second kind – which didn’t go the third kind because mission control ordered: NYET. Salyut-6 made contact with an alien spaceship for fou4 days (with interruptions) and together they orbited Earth. The event involved five astronauts: Kovalyonok, Savinikh and three aliens aboard an unknown vehicle that had the shape of a sphere.” [Brazilian Manchete magazine, September 24, 1984]

It’s an Amazing Story. The tale describe how the cosmonauts managed to contact the extraterrestrial intelligences, first by a failed attempt flashing a light in Morse code, but eventually succeeding with an alleged mathematical message. There is also the physical description of the aliens, essentially human beings, or “similar to human beings”:

“They used light helmets, such as tight hoods. … They had thick and long eyebrows and straight noses, like those of Greek statues. What most impressed the cosmonauts were the eyes – large and blue, twice as large as ours – fixed on them, without a trace of emotion. Their traces were handsome, very dark. They reminded of solemn Hindu men. But no muscle moved on their faces. They looked like robots.”

It’s even more amazing because, according to the story, the contact was fully recorded in many photographs and a long film footage, which was shown in the Gosplan conference and even today must be kept highly secret in some Russian vault.

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The bad news is that this amazing story is almost as fictional as those found on early pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories. It’s literally pulp fiction.

Russian researcher Boris Shurinov is especially critical of the promotion of this legend in the west. Quoting none other then Georgi Beregovoy – who was never chief of the Soviet Space Program – the source states quite clearly:

“Once I tried to investigate the subject myself. I read in a small Ukrainian paper about my  contacts with representatives of extraterrestrial civilizations and a film I allegedly showed members of the Politburo. I wanted to know where all that had come from, and found out it was a reproduction of an article published on Central Asia which in turn used an article from abroad. This is the degree of authenticity of this information.”

I also asked researcher Mikhail Gershtein, who kindly informed that another primary source in the story denies it all:

“In the documentary "V poiskah prisheltzev" ("In search of the extraterrestrials", 1988, in Russian) the producer showed this news clipping from the ‘National Enquirer’ to the astronaut Viktor Savinyh and translated some parts from it. Savinyh stated that it is pure lie: "They make us, the readers, fools as they want…"

Pure lies. But then, absence of confirmation, and even presence of denial can be taken by some as evidence of something to hide. The interesting thing is that the final source in the story confirms part of the story.

I saw this object and then something happened I could not explain”, repeatedly claimed Kovalenok.

“The object was the size of a finger. I was surprised to see it was an orbiting object … "It was hard to determine the size and the speed of an object in space. That is why I can not say exactly, which size it actually was. Savinykh prepared to take a picture of it, but the UFO suddenly exploded. Only clouds of smoke were left. The object split into two interconnected pieces. It was reminiscent of a dumb-bell. I reported about it to the Mission Control immediately.”

Kovalenok even made a drawing of the object.

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“The Soviet press headlined the event widely. Soviet newspapers and magazines published a lot of articles and messages about it, but they were mostly critical articles. Journalists excluded the existence of the extraterrestrial reason. It was probably a UFO, but it was definitely not mysticism – two people watched it at the same time.”

Now, this is confirmation of a UFO, but there’s no mention of the Gosplan conference, nor of Hindu aliens, and not even a single picture. Where did those details came from?

Yes, it was invented on the West by some ‘yellow press’ writer – maybe Henry Gris”, Gershtein answered me. “In Russia this wild story was known only from the ‘National Enquirer’ article”. Indeed, the single source for all those amazing details is an article by Henry Gris on that pulp tabloid, the National Enquirer.

At the time the Enquirer was deeply involved with the UFOria, and wild tales “from behind the Iron Curtain”, where the stories could not be checked, were a carte blanche to embellish things. If the Amazing Story of Salyut-6 sounded extraordinary, what about the “Space Alien Baby Found Alive”?

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The MUFON bulletin reprinted in 1983 a critical article by Anders Liljegren which exposed items from the Enquirer such as “Soviet Ships Buzzed by UFOs from Under the Sea” and “Space Alien Blasts Forest Rangers With a Bizarre Ray”, which Liljegren noted was copied almost verbatim from the details of a Finnish case that happened ten years before. “UFO researchers should put their NE issues into the depths of their waste-paper baskets where they rightly belong”, he recommended.

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But even the purple space alien baby kept alive for a couple of months was taken seriously by some believers, and has been quoted as a real story that was covered up. The Salyut-6 legend is very prominent in Latin America, and the Brazilian UFO magazine promoted it as a real event in  no less than two cover articles, one published in 1985 – when the story was fresh, and from where these wonderful illustrations came from – and the other in 2002, where they actually quoted Kovalenok latest statements, but still had not figured the legend out. This is the magazine that announced Jesus would come in a flying saucer. In April 2007.

In this review of the legend, I trusted the work of Shurinov and Gershtein, and could not find a fac-simile of Gris original item – the best I worked on was a full Italian translation. If you didn’t throw your Enquirer issue on the waste bin, I would really like to see the source for this tale I first heard when I was a kid!

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To sum it up: a UFO was sighted by Kovalenok and Savinikh aboard the Salyut-6 on May 5, 1981. But they couldn’t determine its distance and size, nor record it as the whole event lasted for only a few moments. The not exactly extraordinary sighting transpired in the Russian press, where intrepid Enquirer journalists such as Henry Gris picked it up and embellished it with the Hindu aliens. One has to concede it’s an interesting, if kitsch, tale. From the Enquirer the story circulated to the world, and made full circle back and past the Iron Curtain.

But what did the cosmonauts saw? In early 1978 there was another UFO sighting aboard the Salyut-6 space station, and this is yet another long story. But like the Amazing Enquirer Story, no record was captured and James Oberg suggests they could have seen a jettisoned trash bag.

If it had some Enquirer UFO issues inside it, as Liljegren recommended, it would make for a funny story.

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Medium of the Century? The Eternal Will to Believe

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Last year I wrote a column for CSI about a branch of Spiritualism most popular in Brazil, Spiritism, and its major leader, the late Francisco “Chico” Xavier. Now Guy Lyon Playfair publishes a short book, “Chico Xavier, Medium of the Century” mainly reusing some older material. In last month’s Fortean Times, Tom Ruffles graded the book a 7, as a “useful, if somewhat uncritical, introduction for English speakers”. This is probably an understatement, and here’s an interesting story about it.

Vitor Moura Visoni is a Brazilian Spiritist who, very atypically, doesn’t believe that Chico Xavier had any mediumship at all. He believes that figures like Lenora Piper and Gladys Osborne Leonard probably had extraordinary powers, and he once believed in Xavier’s too. When I met him, several years ago, he was a supporter of the “medium of the century”’s powers. Now he is one of the very few people actually doing research on what Chico Xavier’s feats may actually have been. In his blog Obras Psicografadas, in Portuguese, one can find several examples Visoni has been collecting of instances where what was published as a supernatural messages from the afterlife by Xavier was actually copied sometimes verbatim from very terrestrial sources. Obviously without correct attribution, because few would find very inspiring the act of publishing excerpts from different books from other authors with the correct attribution.

Now, last year another review of Playfair’s book was published on Michael Tymn’s blog, and Visoni promptly made his comments there. “Chico Xavier was a fraud and I have all the proof of it. I accuse him of borrowing from other books in his automatic writing”, he wrote. Pretty heavy accusations. Milo replied quoting Playfair’s own book, where Xavier published a story which was originally published in English:

“This story appears in Joan Grant’s The Scarlet Fish & Other Stories, published in 1942 & as far as I have been able to discover, never translated into Portuguese.  Chico’s version is from the Introduction, by his chief guide Emmanuel, to Libertaç?o (Deliverance) published in 1949” [“Chico Xavier, Medium of the Century”, p. 78]

As Milo argues, “it does seem rather obvious that Chico himself didn’t use the book, since he seems not to have known English”. This is an unfortunate comment, since Xavier did learn English, as Playfair himself wrote later on: “Chico did speak some English – when we met he greeted me in quite respectable English”. Chico Xavier had English classes in 1965, when the visited the USA. It is said that he mastered in a month what to some people took years. But then, he published his version of Grant’s story of the Scarlet Fish in 1949.

“It is most unlikely that he ever read Joan Grant’s story, or indeed much else”, argued Playfair.

This is an unfortunate comment, because amazingly we do know for sure whether or not Xavier read the story, because he himself wrote to the effect thanking Wanda Amorim Joviano for translating the story for him:

“Dear friends, all the peace: We thank the cooperation with which you helped us to publicize the new work [Libertação], acknowledging, just as well, the story of the ‘Little Scarlet Fish’ that so well fitted our purposes of presentation. … We thank sister Wanda for the timely and faithful translation”. [“Deus Conosco”, Wanda Amorim Joviano]

So there’s no doubt Xavier did come to know Grant’s story through the translation of Wanda Joviano, and this is yet another example of a source allegedly inaccessible to Xavier being found. It’s also another example of omitted attribution, as in his introduction the closest he comes to giving correct credit is:

“Before the open access doors of Christian work and to the timely knowledge that André Luiz is revealing, we fondly remember the old Egyptian legend of the little scarlet fish”.

As noted, it would probably not be very inspiring to fully mention that he came to know of this story from Joan Grant’s book through the translation of a friend, as he acknowledged in a private letter. It’s much more convenient for Xavier instead to claim he “remembered the old Egyptian legend”.

Still defending Xavier’s powers, Playfair asks:

“When would he have had the time after his day job and after-hours writing sessions (many of them in public) to do all the research needed for his historical novels? Lew Wallace took several years to research and write Ben-Hur. Chico dashed off his huge books about the same period in a matter of months or even weeks. Not bad going for a ‘fraud’”.

It seems he bought the myth and have not actually discovered the fact Xavier, even in his young and very modest age, read profusely whatever he could put his hands on and even had several scrap books where he collected poems. Very convenient for a man who would then claim to channel these dead poets. Even so, his literary production was relatively small – one or two short books of simple poems a year – in his beginnings. He only started to write more profusely, and over factual and historic subjects, when he had access to bigger libraries. Even then, Xavier’s “historical” books are full of inaccuracies, and have excerpts which can be traced back to 19th century books, copied almost verbatim.

As with many believers, one can understand that Playfair may buy the religious myth of Chico Xavier as a semi-literate man who wrote hundreds of extraordinary books, something which can only be understood by supernatural or paranormal means. The reality, accessible to anyone who does their homework, is quite different, and one can only pity the fact the myth is now sold in English too.

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