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James Oberg

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James Oberg
James E. Oberg visits the Space Shuttle orbiter trainer at the Johnson Space Center, Dallas, Texas, 1978
Oberg at the Johnson Space Center in 1978
Born (1944-11-07) November 7, 1944 (age 79)
New York City, United States
EducationOhio Wesleyan University, B.A. mathematics, 1966;

Northwestern University, M.S. applied mathematics (astrodynamics), 1969;

University of New Mexico, M.S. computer science, 1972
Occupation(s)Journalist, historian, author
SpouseAlcestis (married 1969–present)
AwardsSee #Awards

James Edward Oberg (born November 7, 1944) is an American space journalist and historian, regarded as an expert on the Russian and Chinese space programs.[1][2] He had a 22-year career as a space engineer in NASA specializing in orbital rendezvous. Oberg is an author of ten books and more than a thousand articles on space flight. He gave many explanations of UFO phenomena in the popular press. He is also a consultant in spaceflight operations and safety.

Early life and education[edit]

James Oberg was born in New York City on November 7, 1944.[3]

He received a B.A. in Mathematics from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1966, a M.S. in applied mathematics (astrodynamics) from Northwestern University in 1969 (where he was also a NASA Trainee[4]) and a M.S. in computer science from University of New Mexico in 1972.[3]

US Air Force[edit]

At Northwestern University he started Ph.D. work in Mathematics, but was called to active duty by the United States Air Force in 1970.[5] There he worked with modeling laser and nuclear weapons[5] and in the years 1972–1975, while working in the Department of Defense Computer Institute, he helped design and test ARPANET, ancestor of the Internet.[6]


After service in the United States Air Force, he joined NASA in 1975, where he worked until 1997[4] at Johnson Space Center on the Space Shuttle program. He worked in the Mission Control Center for several Space Shuttle missions from STS-1 on, specializing in orbital rendezvous techniques. This culminated in planning the orbit for the STS-88 mission,[6] the first International Space Station (ISS) assembly flight.

During the 1990s, he was involved in NASA studies of the Soviet space program, with particular emphasis on safety aspects;[6] these had often been covered up or downplayed, and with the advent of the ISS and the Shuttle–Mir programs, NASA was keen to study them as much as possible. He privately published several books on the Soviet (and later Russian) programs, and became one of the few Western specialists on Russian space history.

He has often been called to testify before the US Congress on the Russian space program.[7]

In 1997 he voluntarily resigned from NASA and started a full-time free-lance career.[8] Currently he works as a consultant in spaceflight operations and safety and as a space journalist.[8]

Author and journalist[edit]

As a journalist, Oberg writes for several publications, mostly online; he was previously a space correspondent or commentator for UPI, ABC News and currently MSNBC,[4] often in an on-air role. He is a Fellow of the skeptical organization CSICOP[3] and a consultant to its magazine Skeptical Inquirer.

He has written more than a thousand magazine and newspaper articles,[3][4] including such magazines as The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Scientific American, OMNI, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, New Scientist, IEEE Spectrum, Air Force Magazine, Star and Sky, etc.[5]

Oberg is also a space consultant and on-air commentator to NBC News, Discovery Canada and the BBC.[5]

In December 1990, Horizon, a British television science and philosophy television documentary program, aired a three-part series, "Red Star in Orbit," based on Oberg's book of the same name. WGBH Boston adapted the Horizon series for its Nova television science series, a three-part miniseries titled "The Russian Right Stuff," which aired in February 1991.[9] HBO has optioned Red Star in Orbit for a future production. Also in 1991, Oberg launched a battle for official recognition of Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. (1935–1967) as a United States astronaut;[10] the United States Air Force officially recognized Lawrence in January 1997, six years after Oberg had begun his campaign.[10]

In 1999, Oberg wrote Space Power Theory, sponsored by United States military[11] as a part of an official campaign in changing perceptions of space warfare, specifically deployment and use of weapons in outer space, and its political implications.[11] "In Oberg's view, space is not an extension of air warfare but is unique in itself."[11]

James Oberg is an author of ten books[3] in addition to several technical NASA publications.[12]

He also wrote encyclopedia articles on space exploration in the World Book Encyclopedia, Britannica yearbook, Grolier and Academic American Encyclopedia.[3]

Moon landing conspiracies[edit]

One of the photos taken during a simulation used by conspiracy theorists

Oberg was commissioned by NASA to write a rebuttal of Apollo Moon landing conspiracy theories. However, NASA dropped the project after ABC's World News Tonight program ran a story about it, claiming it was beneath NASA's dignity to respond to Moon landing denialists claims.[13] Oberg has said that he still intends to pursue the project, "depending on successfully arranging new funding sources."[13][14]

Oberg writes that Moon landing conspiracy theories are fueled by resentment of American culture by some countries. He gives the example of Cuba, where he claims many school teachers say the landing was a fraud.[13][15] But besides this, the new wave of conspiracy theorists appear to use alternative publication methods to publicize their claims.

Oberg says that belief in the conspiracy is not the fault of the hoaxists, but rather of educators and people (including NASA) who should provide information to the public.[13] NASA does not, in Oberg's opinion, provide an adequate reaction to the theorists' claims.

North Korean satellite launch inspection[edit]

In April 2012 Oberg traveled to North Korea as an NBC space consultant[16] to observe the launching of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 satellite and determine whether it is a military launch. Together with a team of journalists[17] he inspected the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the Unha rocket and the satellite. According to Oberg, North Korea "showed everything but the important things"[18] and did not manage to demonstrate peaceful intent.

UFO investigation[edit]

James Oberg often writes about alleged UFO sightings, giving scientific explanations to seemingly extraterrestrial phenomena, or otherwise debunking them as hoaxes.

Oberg categorized UFO sightings (excluding those identified as hoaxes) into one of three groups:[19][20][21]

  1. Super-High Plumes – rocket or missile plumes, especially lit by the Sun on a dark sky;
  2. Space "Dandruff" – ice flakes, fragments of insulation, etc. flying alongside a space vehicle, especially seen by backward-facing cameras;
  3. Twilight Shadowing – objects that move from shadow into sunlight in space appear as if coming from behind the clouds or from beyond the edge of the Earth.

List of UFO explanations[edit]

Date Phenomenon Explanation
February 20, 1962 John Glenn in the Mercury capsule saw three objects following and then overtaking the capsule Small space debris – "snowflakes"[22]
May 24, 1962 Scott Carpenter in Mercury-Atlas 7 photographs "a saucer" Tracking balloon ejected from the capsule[22]
May 30, 1962 X-15 pilot Joe Walton photographed five discs Complete fabrication by ufologists; pilot's actual name was Joseph A. Walker[22]
July 17, 1962 X-15 pilot Robert Michael White photographed objects close to the plane Small objects, probably ice flakes from fuel tanks[22]
October 3, 1962 Walter Schirra on Mercury-Atlas 8 reported large glowing objects over the Indian Ocean Lightning-lit cloud masses, misquotations[22]
May 16, 1963 Gordon Cooper on Mercury-Atlas 9 reports a greenish UFO and other mysterious sightings Fabrications, misquotations[22]
March 8, 1964 Russian cosmonauts on Voskhod 2 report an UFO while entering Earth's atmosphere Probably man-made satellite[22]
October 12, 1964 Three Russian cosmonauts report being surrounded by fast moving discs Complete fabrication[22]
June 3, 1965 Gemini 4 UFOs Exaggerations and misquotations by ufologists[22]
December 4, 1965 Frank Borman and Jim Lovell on Gemini 7 photographed two oval-shaped UFOs Complete fabrication[22]
December 9, 1965 Kecksburg UFO incident Kosmos 96 satellite, explanation later disproved[23]
July 18, 1966 John Young and Michael Collins on Gemini 10 photographed a large cylindrical object accompanied by two smaller Fabrication – no photos were taken, astronauts reported bright fragments near their spacecraft, probably pieces of the booster of some other satellite[22]
September 12, 1966 Richard F. Gordon, Jr. and Pete Conrad on Gemini 11 report and photograph a yellow-orange UFO A satellite[22]
November 11, 1966 Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin on Gemini 12 report 4 UFOs linked in a row Discarded trash bags; misquotations[22]
December 21, 1968 Frank Borman and Jim Lovell on Apollo 8 report a "bogie" (an unidentified object) Misplaced quotations, pieces of debris associated with separation from the booster rocket[22]
May 1969 Apollo 10 'space music' Radio interference between the Command Module and the Lunar Module landing vehicles[24]
July 1969 Apollo 11 UFO incidents Complete fabrication of photos and transcripts; all data available to the public[25]
November 14, 1969 Pete Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon on Apollo 12 report a UFO preceding them on the path to the Moon Misunderstood the meaning of conversation with ground control; reflection of the Moon[22]
September 20, 1973 Skylab 3 UFO Photographs Space debris[26]
February 12, 1980 UFO observed over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile Kosmos 1164 launch from Plesetsk Cosmodrome[27]
June 14, 1980 UFO over Russia and then South America Kosmos 1188 satellite launch[27]
October 31, 1981 UFO over Argentina and Chile Kosmos 1317 satellite launch[27]
September 7, 1984 UFO observed in eastern Europe SS-X-25 ICBM test launch[28][29][30]
January 1989; March 1989 Phobos 2 spacecraft photographs mysterious structures on the surface of Mars Shadow of Phobos moon elongated due to slow acquisition of the image by scanning radiometer[31][32]
November 5, 1990 UFO observed by airline crews Re-entry of the Proton-K rocket carrying Gorizont 33 satellite across France and Germany[33]
September 15, 1991 STS-48: several objects appearing Ice particles hit by a thruster plume[34][35][36]
January 28, 1994 UFO observed by airline crews Launch of Progress M-21 spacecraft[33]
December 2, 1996 STS-80 unusual phenomena Nearby sunlit debris[37]
December 1998 STS-88 "Black Knight" or "Phantom Satellite" Insulation blanket dropped by astronauts[38][39][40]

Russian pistol aboard ISS[edit]

Triple-barreled TP-82 Cosmonaut survival pistol in Saint-Petersburg Artillery museum

James Oberg wrote several articles as a publicity campaign to remove guns from the ISS.[41][42] The TP-82 Cosmonaut survival pistol was stowed in the Soyuz emergency landing survival kit and was added there for hunting and self-defense after landing in inhospitable environment. It had three barrels and a folding stock that doubled as a shovel and contained a machete. The gun was only carried by Russian members of the ISS. Oberg suggested that it might be an invitation to a future disaster and proposed it to be put in a compartment accessible only from outside, after landing.

In 2014 Oberg asked Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian ISS astronaut, about the pistol and she admitted the gun is removed from the list, or more precisely, it is still on the official list of kit contents, but the committee meets before every mission to review the list and vote to remove the pistol for the specific flight.[43]

Private life[edit]

Oberg has been married since 1969 and lives with his wife Alcestis in Dickinson, Texas. He has two grown sons (born 1977 and 1984).[3][4][5]

He has a conversant knowledge of Russian, French and Latin, and has some familiarity with German, Swedish, Spanish, Kazakh and Japanese.[3]

Awards and memberships[edit]


Popular publications[edit]

  1. Oberg, James; Edmondson, Harold (1979). Famous Spaceships of Fact and Fantasy. Kalmbach Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0890245392.
  2. Oberg, James (1981). New Earths: Restructuring Earth and Other Planets. Foreword by Jack Williamson. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-452-00623-2.
  3. Oberg, James (1981). Red Star in Orbit. Foreword by Tom Wolfe. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-51429-1.
  4. Oberg, James (1982). Mission to Mars: Plans and Concepts for the First Manned Landing. Foreword by G. Harry Stine. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-81170-432-8.
  5. Oberg, James (1982). UFO's and Outer Space Mysteries: A Sympathetic Skeptic's Report. Norfolk, VA: Donning Company Publishers. ISBN 978-0-89865-102-7.
  6. Oberg, James (1984). The New Race for Space: The U.S. and Russia Leap to the Challenge for Unlimited Rewards. Foreword by Ben Bova. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0-8117-2177-6.
  7. Oberg, James; Oberg, Alcestis R. (1986). Pioneering Space: Living on the Next Frontier. Foreword by Isaac Asimov. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-048039-1.
  8. Oberg, James (1988). Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-56095-3.
  9. Oberg, James; Sullivan, Brian R. (1999). Space Power Theory. Introductions by Colin S. Gray and Howell M. Estes III. Colorado Springs, CO: US Air Force Academy. OCLC 41145918.
  10. Oberg, James (2001). Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07137-425-5.
  11. Oberg, James (2017). It's vital to verify the harmlessness of North Korea's next satellite. Texas: TheSpaceReview.

Other books[edit]


  • The Mars Conquest
  • Red Stars in Orbit

Technical materials for NASA[edit]


  • Space Shuttle Mission Control Center: Overview of Information and Decision Flows (for McDonnell Douglas);
  • Rendezvous and Proximity Operations Handbook;
  • History of Orbital Rendezvous;
  • Flight Data File: Crew Procedures, STS-32 LDEF Retrieval;
  • Console Handbook, Rendezvous Guidance and Procedures Officer;
  • Training Guide, Rendezvous Guidance and Procedures Handbook


  1. ^ Oberg, James (April 1994). "Soviet Saucers". Omni. General Media, Inc. Archived from the original on February 7, 2009. Retrieved June 23, 2009.
  2. ^ Sterling, Bruce. "Catscan 14: 'Memories of the Space Age'". Electronic Frontier Foundation. Archived from the original on 2009-10-04. Oberg is a recognized Soviet Space expert, sometime NOVA host on PBS, special consultant to the Sotheby's auction house for Soviet space memorabilia, and the author of the definitive tome Red Star in Orbit (Random House 1981). Catscan archive homepage here. Archived 2009-10-04 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Oberg, James. "U.S./Russian Aerospace Consultancies". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-31. Retrieved 2016-08-01.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Oberg, James. "Profile". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-05-05. Retrieved 2016-08-02.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Oberg, James. "Journalism". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-31. Retrieved 2016-08-02.
  6. ^ a b c Oberg, James. "Aerospace Career Specialities". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-31. Retrieved 2016-08-02.
  7. ^ "Testimony of James Oberg". In Space Today. Houston Space Society. October 7, 1998. Archived from the original on May 5, 1999. Retrieved May 10, 2013.
  8. ^ a b Oberg, James. "FAQ". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-05-05. Retrieved 2016-08-02.
  9. ^ "NOVA : Past Television Programs : Season 18: January–December 1991 : PBS". PBS Online. Boston, MA: WGBH. Archived from the original on October 1, 2013. Retrieved May 12, 2013.
  10. ^ a b Gubert, Betty Kaplan; Sawyer, Miriam; Fannin, Caroline M. (2001). Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science. Westport, CT: Oryx Press. ISBN 978-1-57356-246-1.
  11. ^ a b c Handberg, Roger (2000). Seeking New World Vistas: The Militarization of Space. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. ISBN 978-0-275-96295-1.
  12. ^ a b Oberg, James. "Books – NASA". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-28. Retrieved 2016-08-03.
  13. ^ a b c d Oberg, James (March–April 2003). "Lessons of the 'Fake Moon Flight' Myth". Skeptical Inquirer. Amherst, NY: Committee for Skeptical Inquiry: 23, 30. Archived from the original on June 24, 2013. Retrieved April 27, 2013. Reprinted in Frazier, Kendrick (ed.) (2009). Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-1-59102-715-7.
  14. ^ Whitehouse, David (November 8, 2002). "Nasa pulls Moon hoax book". BBC News. London. Archived from the original on February 3, 2009. Retrieved August 26, 2009.
  15. ^ Oberg, James (July 1999). "Getting Apollo 11 Right". ABC News. New York: ABC. Archived from the original on April 2, 2003. Retrieved August 13, 2009. I'm told that this is official dogma still taught in schools in Cuba, plus wherever else Cuban teachers have been sent (such as Sandinista Nicaragua and Angola).
  16. ^ Oberg, James (2012-04-27). "What we learned from North Korea's rocket no-show". NBC News. Archived from the original on 2016-09-28. Retrieved 2016-08-25.
  17. ^ Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3#Media coverage
  18. ^ Oberg, James (2012-12-03). "Using "rocket science" to understand North Korea's space and missile efforts". The Space Review. Archived from the original on 2016-09-14. Retrieved 2016-08-26.
  19. ^ Giaimo, Cara (6 June 2016). "How One Man Has Explained Almost Every Internet UFO Theory". Atlas Obscura. Archived from the original on 2016-08-04. Retrieved 2016-08-04.
  20. ^ Pavlou, George (2016-06-08). "Former NASA Employee Explains Almost Every UFO Sighting". The LAD bible. Retrieved 2016-08-04.
  21. ^ Didymus, Johnthomas (8 June 2016). "UFOs debunked? Former NASA employee James Oberg explains away ufo sighting claims". INQUISITR. Archived from the original on 2016-08-07. Retrieved 2016-08-08.
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Oberg, James (1978). "Astronaut "UFO" Sightings". The Skeptical Inquirer. III (1). Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Archived from the original on 2016-06-09.
  23. ^ Kecksburg UFO incident#Kosmos 96
  24. ^ Radford, Ben (2016-02-23). "Explaining Apollo 10 Astronauts 'Space Music'". Seeker. Archived from the original on 2016-07-26. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  25. ^ Oberg, James (1982). "3". UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Press. ISBN 978-0-89865-102-7. Archived from the original on 2014-08-11.
  26. ^ Oberg, James (2011-12-21). "Skylab 3 UFO photos". The UFO Skeptic's Page. Robert Sheaffer. Archived from the original on 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-08-23.
  27. ^ a b c Oberg, James (January 1983). "Giant UFO Over Two Continents". FATE. Archived from the original on 2017-04-04. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  28. ^ Oberg, James. "The Black Box Approach To UFO Perceptions". The Debunker's Domain. Robert Sheaffer. Archived from the original on 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  29. ^ Oberg, James. "The Minsk UFO Case: Misperception and Exaggeration". www.csicop.org. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Archived from the original on 2016-09-19. Retrieved 2016-08-22.
  30. ^ Oberg, James (January 2009). "The Minsk UFO Case: Misperception and Exaggeration". Skeptical Inquirer. 33 (1).
  31. ^ Oberg, Jim. "The Strange Case of Fobos-2" (PDF). JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-08-12. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  32. ^ Oberg, Jim. "The Strange Case of Fobos-2". Space.com. Archived from the original on 2010-05-03.
  33. ^ a b Oberg, James. "Case studies in pilot misperceptions of UFOs". James Oberg: Insights. 'Science' of Ufology. Archived from the original on 2016-03-22. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  34. ^ Oberg, James. "STS-48". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-28. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  35. ^ "STS-48: Debunking Kasher's Five "Can't-Be-Ice" Proofs" (PDF). JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-08-24. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  36. ^ Oberg, James. "NASA STS-48 "UFO" VIDEO". The Debunker's Domain. Robert Sheaffer. Archived from the original on 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  37. ^ Farrell, Mike. "NASA STS-80 Debunked?". Best UFO Resources. Archived from the original on 2016-06-04. Retrieved 2016-08-23.
  38. ^ Oberg, James. "Phantom satellite? What IS it? What ISN'T it? WHY the confusion?" (PDF). The UFO Skeptic's Page. Robert Sheaffer. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-08-23.
  39. ^ Oberg, James. "Phantom satellite? What IS it? What ISN'T it? WHY the confusion?" (PDF). JamesOberg.com. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-01-20. Retrieved 2016-08-23.
  40. ^ Dunning, Brian (2013-06-04). "Skeptoid #365: The Black Knight Satellite". Skeptoid. Retrieved 2016-08-23.
  41. ^ Oberg, James (12 February 2008). "Russia has the corner on guns in space". NBC news. Archived from the original on 2016-03-16. Retrieved 2016-08-08.
  42. ^ Oberg, James. "The Russian Gun at the International Space Station". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-10. Retrieved 2016-08-08.
  43. ^ Oberg, James (13 November 2014). "How I Stopped Cosmonauts From Carrying Guns". IEEE Spectrum. Archived from the original on 2016-04-15. Retrieved 2016-08-08.
  44. ^ Oberg, James (1979-10-11). "The failure of the 'science' of UFOlogy". New Scientist. Archived from the original on 2016-08-19. Retrieved 2016-08-24.
  45. ^ Oberg, James. "Books". JamesOberg.com. Archived from the original on 2016-05-05. Retrieved 2016-08-02.

External links[edit]