During his final orbit around the Earth in a Mercury capsule in May 1963, astronaut Gordon Cooper saw a strange glowing object streaking toward his spacecraft.
He informed a radar tracking station near Perth, Australia, and described the sighting as "greenish and glowing" with a long, red tail.
His remarks were broadcast live by NBC radio, but reporters were not allowed to question the astronaut about the object later. The incident was quickly hushed by Air Force authorities but soon began surfacing in UFO circles around the world.
Today, Cmdr. Cooper's encounter is deeply rooted in UFO lore, the subject of intense debate on late night talk radio and among government-conspiracy theorists. Dozens of books, TV documentaries and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles have appeared in recent years describing the event.
In a taped interview with author J.L. Ferrando, Cmdr. Cooper reportedly said that the U.S. government knows about UFOs but continues to suppress evidence of their existence because it wants to avoid a general panic.
"There are thousands of witness reports and a quantity of documents to prove this, but nobody wants to make them public," Cmdr. Cooper was quoted as saying. "Why? Because authority is afraid that people may think of God knows what kind of horrible invaders. So the password is: We have to avoid panic by all means."
Encounters with UFOs were nothing new for Cmdr. Cooper. His first sighting occurred in the early 1950s when he and several other pilots saw a number of strange flying objects while on a routine training exercise in Germany.
"We thought they were Russian (aircraft)," he told reporters. "We scrambled our Sabre jets to intercept and got to our ceiling of 45,000 feet."
He said the saucer-shaped vehicles were metallic in color and flying in fighter formation from east to west. "They weren't like any MiGs I'd ever seen before," he said. "They looked just like saucers. We couldn't really get close enough to see more than that. You couldn't see any wings on them."
At the time, Cmdr. Cooper theorized that the craft, which constantly outmaneuvered his fast-flying jet, might be a new Soviet design. Looking back, however, he suspects "it was some kind of extraterrestrial vehicle."
In 1957, the future astronaut had another rendezvous with a UFO near Edwards Air Force Base in California. While in charge of a camera crew filming the base, Cmdr. Cooper said, he and several cameramen saw what appeared to be a flying saucer.
"They filmed it as it flew overhead, then hovered, extended three legs as landing gear, and slowly came down to land on a dry lake bed," he said. "It was a classic saucer, shiny silver and smooth, about 30 feet across. It was pretty clear it was an alien craft."
Still filming, the camera crew got to within 20 or 30 yards of the craft before it took off.
"It was a typical circular-shaped UFO," he recalled. "Not too many people saw it because it took off at quite a sharp angle and just climbed straight on out of sight."
After reviewing the film, Cmdr. Cooper sent the footage to Washington, where it mysteriously vanished.
Cmdr. Cooper is not the only astronaut to observe strange flying phenomena. In 1965, Gemini pilots James Lovell and Frank Borman reportedly saw a UFO during their record-breaking 14-day flight.
On July 17, 1962, Maj. Robert White described a grayish object, 30-40 feet away. In April of that same year, NASA pilot Joseph Walker said he filmed five or six UFOs during his record-breaking 50-mile-high flight. None of these films have been released.
While Cmdr. Cooper and some other astronauts have denied or downplayed their UFO encounters, most are convinced they exist. Addressing a United Nations panel on UFOs in 1985, Cmdr. Cooper made clear his staunch belief in UFOs and that extraterrestrials visit Earth regularly.
"For many years I have lived with a secret," he said. "I believe these extraterrestrial vehicles and their crews are visiting this planet from other planets."
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd's latest book is 100 of the World's Greatest Mysteries: Strange Secrets of the Past Revealed. He can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.