New Documents Shed Light on NASA's Secretive 'Project Moon Dust'

In 1965 something crashed in the rural town of Kecksburg, Pennsylvania and kicked off a decades-long fight with the U.S. Government to learn the truth.
August 4, 2021, 1:00pm
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Something strange crashed in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania on the night of December 9, 1965. People as far away as Windsor, Ontario watched as a fireball streaked through the sky, sputtering hot metal debris, before slamming into Kecksburg in the night. The U.S. Army sealed off the area and recovered whatever had fallen from the sky. 

There’s still no solid answers as to what crashed in Pennsylvania that night, but new documents tied to an old lawsuit against NASA have uncovered a few of the missing pieces.

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A Freedom of Information Act request from The Black Vault, a clearinghouse for declassified documents, has uncovered new documents related to the Air Force's Project Moon Dust—a sustained effort to recover objects and debris from spacecraft that had crashed to Earth. Multiple people have been searching for these records for decades and NASA has long claimed they were either destroyed or lost.

Investigative journalist Leslie Kean hoped to uncover the truth in 2002 and went on the hunt for information about Project Moon Dust and the Kecksburg incident. A year later she sued NASA, claiming it was holding back. “After previously promising to conduct an expedited search for files related to the 1965 Kecksburg UFO crash case, NASA had stonewalled and was withholding documents, leaving no recourse but this one,” Kean said in a blog post in 2009.

In 2007, NASA finally relented and gave over the files it had and agreed to pay Kean’s legal fees related to the lawsuit. But some of the files related to Kecksburg and Project Moon Dust were allegedly lost forever. According to a NASA public affairs document included in this latest round of documents, NASA sent its files to the National Archives for safekeeping two years after the Kecksburg incident. In 1996, the National Archives told NASA that the files had been marked as lost since 1987.

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Enter The Black Vault, which asked the Government for all its documents related to the lawsuit with Kean. It got 220 pages back, including some fragments of the Project Moon Dust records. The files also detailed the reasons why they were so hard to find—NASA had destroyed many of them as part of a routine cleaning out of old records.

The 220 pages are an interesting grab bag of NASA communications describing struggles to track down records and State Department communications about Project Moon Dust. The diplomatic cables are particularly interesting and paint a picture of NASA in the 1960s rushing around the world attempting to pick up every scrap that fell from the sky for study. For example, one diplomatic cable recounts the difficulty NASA had in collecting a piece of debris that fell in Zambia.

“[Contact] says fragment measures 17 by 11 feet, is made of aluminum...and appears too large for pickup by Zambia Air Force Caribou unless cut into,” one cable said. “Took twelve men to carry fragment thru difficult terrain to strip, but 4 men could lift.” According to the documents, NASA later identified the Zambia fragment as a piece of the Apollo AS—203, an unmanned test craft NASA launched in 1966.

The documents are full of the minutiae of the early days of America’s foray into space when anything crashing to Earth could be part of someone’s space program. But what, exactly, landed in Kecksburg that night in 1965?

In 2005, just ahead of the 40th anniversary of the incident, NASA announced it was a Russian satellite. But NASA couldn’t prove its case because the records had been lost. “As a rule, we don't track UFOs. What we could do, and what we apparently did as experts in spacecraft in the 1960s, was to take a look at whatever it was and give our expert opinion," a NASA spokesperson said in 2005. "We did that, we boxed (the case) up and that was the end of it. Unfortunately, the documents supporting those findings were misplaced."

That wasn’t NASA’s line in 1965. “Investigations of photographs and sightings of the fireball indicated its path through the atmosphere was probably too steep to be consistent with a spacecraft re-entering from Earth orbit and was more likely a meteor in a prograde orbit from the vicinity of the asteroid belt, and probably ended its flight over western Lake Erie,” it said in an archived press release from 1965.

NASA has steadfastly said that the Kecskburg was not the result of an extraterrestrial crash. “One of NASA’s key goals is the search for life in the universe. To date, NASA has yet to find any credible evidence of extraterrestrial life; however, NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to help us answer fundamental questions, including whether we are alone in the universe,” NASA told Motherboard in an email. “We lead the U.S. government’s search for extraterrestrial life, be it close to home, on the planets or moons of our solar system, or deeper into space. NASA does not actively search for UAPs and the lack of robust data is the central problem for scientific study of UAPs and to determine whether they are natural or human-made phenomena—there is no current data to support that UAPs or UFOs are evidence of alien technologies.”

The truth of the Kecksburg incident is probably lost to time. That is, of course, unless more files are dug up from deep inside the federal government’s archives that can confirm NASA’s current story. As The Black Vault and the Freedom of Information Act have repeatedly proved, sometimes it just takes a fresh set of eyes and a new set of questions to get a little closer to the truth.