An interview with Amy Collins
My friend Amy Collins has graciously accepted my invitation to an email interview in which I posed questions to her relating to conspiracism, UFO beliefs, techno-scams, Muskian vaporware, STEM education, and American aerospace. Amy is extremely knowledgeable about the space programs of the United States and the Soviet Union. She runs an excellent website about the latter that I highly recommend. Her stepfather worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1976-1980 and at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1980-1987, including on projects relating to the Nevada Test Site. She has a running interest in US reconnaissance satellites and what little information can be gleaned about them. See our previous collaboration here, where we talk about the origins of Bob Lazar's "S4 security badge".
A "secret space program" is often promoted by conspiracy theorists like Stephen Greer. You've mentioned that there actually was a secret space program, but not the sort that the conspiracists talk about. What was the real one and how do the facts undercut the version pushed by Greer et al?
The real secret space program could be described with a single phrase as a constellation of reconnaissance, missile early warning and military communications satellites. Potentially it could involve defensive measures, bearing in mind that weapons in space are banned by international treaty. To date it has not involved any secret astronauts fighting wars in space, secret space stations in orbit or on other planets. This is where the fantasies of the conspiracists begin.
In Jeremy Corbell's documentary film "Bob Lazar: Area 51 and Flying Saucers", Lazar moans
that people should stop focusing so much on the "minutiae" relating to the veracity of his
educational claims. Why do you think that the minutiae are so important when dealing with stories like the one conveyed by Lazar?
The minutiae he speaks of when examined critically actually brings into question the larger aspects of his story. For instance, the Los Alamos badge seen in the documentary you mentioned has a big red stripe on it. Insiders know this means he was not cleared. His employer, while he was at Los Alamos, was Kirk-Mayer, which hired technicians and not scientists. They did not hire people that needed a clearance. He was there for less than eight months. With critical thinking you can deduce he was not a government scientist as he worked for a private contractor, that he was a technician and that he never held a clearance. He was also allegedly dismissed for misuse of laboratory resources. If seeking a clearance later at EG&G this termination, his financial history and the criminal record of his wife would all be strikes against him on working on a supposed project of the highest national security. He was never a scientist, just a talented amateur tinkerer and technician that knew enough scientific lingo to fool members of the public that were not scientists, especially those that wanted to believe at the expense of thinking critically.
Is the main problem in US education a lack of STEM proficiency or a lack of critical thinking?
The type of thinking STEM proficiency requires is based on critical thinking. The ability and desire to ask questions in order to assess a situation, and to observe and draw inductive conclusions applies to science and engineering. It also applies to evaluating larger environmental, economic and social issues. There are plenty of STEM resources on the internet; however, these are underutilized. The STEM professionals that teach don't necessarily have the time or patience to hand hold and curate lessons to a student that has not been trained to think critically or make up for a lack of knowledge that is decades or centuries out of date.
Why do you think Americans are so prone to belief about alien-related conspiracy theories?
My hypothesis is that the same conditions that allow cults, drug abuse, political populism, and get rich schemes to flourish are the same as those that act as a crucible that grows alien conspiracies. The people, particularly Americans are looking for something to believe in and if this is not available then they can settle for an escape. There is a lack of an obvious center or focal point of reason.
Perhaps relating to the preceding question, what is the social function of the UFO?
It is bluntly a cult or a new religion that represents hope or at least a shakeup of the status quo to hundreds of thousands. They can say, "My life is otherwise miserable, but the Extraterrestrials will save us or at least disrupt the system." It is also a means of social identification. Two people with T-shirts with grey aliens can meet each other on the street and begin conversation on this focal point and laugh that they know something the rest of the masses do not because some UFO talking head has promised he has new insider information and that disclosure is just around the corner. Many think disclosure is a new concept. Its origins go back as far as the 1950s. The question is if there is anything to disclose. The adherents to that movement are expecting crashed saucers and ET bodies. The reality is probably hundreds of additional lights-in-the-sky cases that have never been properly analyzed, radar glitches and craft of foreign adversaries.
What is your ideal space program? What programs do you think should have been developed to avoid the embarrassing state in which the US has had to rely on Russia for its manned missions?
By 1990, a Space Shuttle V 2.0 should have been on the drawing board. A smaller Dream Chaser sized shuttle for transport of crews and small payloads and a larger Single Stage to Orbit Space plane capable of carrying and assembling large payloads in orbit. The latter would allow crewed spacecraft bound for the moon and other planets to be assembled and also allow for robust space energy and truly permanent wheeled space station programs. Look at us now: we have three different programs based on multi-stage rockets launching a capsule-style spacecraft, none of which are as capable as the 1960s Apollo spacecraft. Yes, they are larger and have better computers, but they are still limited by the physical laws of the rocket. I would suggest that an ideal space program focus on new propulsion technologies and hypersonic lifting bodies such as an SSTO space plane, perhaps even a re-examination of what would be possible for a Star Raker design as a baseline. Thank you for reminding me about that program.
The Star Raker concept, which envisaged launching crews and cargo into space using a monster space plane operating on a single stage to orbit (SSTO) basis. See more details here: http://spaceflighthistory.blogspot.com/2020/09/star-raker-1978.html
Could we have sent humans to Mars by now? Do you think this would be a good use of national resources?
We could have been there thirty years ago if the national will and focus had been there in the early 1970s. All of the space infrastructure at that time was geared to the Space Shuttle under the umbrella of "guaranteed access to space". Its capabilities were greatly oversold and gradually the only end goal became to build a multi-modular space station. Large scale space projects span multiple political administrations. With the original space race, the US was fired into a larger focus that transcended politics. The Space Shuttle was a product of 1970s technology in the aftermath of the space race. Yet it survived until 2011 because there were not any projects beyond building a space station that were there to replace or expand on this mission. There was no singular focus or goal that took hold. NASA's budget is currently less than half a penny on the tax dollar. At its peak in the 1960's it was only 3 to 4 percent of the federal budget. There was an economic study that estimated that for every dollar put into the space program, ten dollars of economic activity was created. The value of contributions NASA programs have made to pure science, ecological monitoring, medical advancements, materials science, national security and more is one of
the best investments a nation can make in its future.
How would you reform the US military-industrial complex?
The sheer vast size of this behemoth makes it difficult to estimate what all of its problems are, especially when its activities are shrouded in secrecy. Reforms I would suggest would involve increasing transparency, oversight and reducing the declassification backlog. The intense scope of secrecy has actually created a threat to national security and raised the cost of programs to the extent that the programs security costs more than the program by itself. Here is an example: the National Reconnaissance Office wanted to create the next generation radar reconnaissance satellite. The radar satellites they are replacing were developed a generation ago, yet they are still
classified and not available as a template. Therefore, the engineers in this field start from scratch and reduplicate efforts made thirty years ago at great expense and build a product that is only a small incremental improvement over its predecessor. The director of the NRO has gone on record stating the declassification backlog is a major problem that is causing them an issue in the present. I would also suggest eliminating the USAP (Unacknowledged Special Access Program) category. The opportunities for fraud, waste, and abuse are too great. Oversight does not mean needing that Congress needs to fully know the technical secrets of a program but there should be an overall understanding of progress and goals of any multibillion-dollar project.
Do you think that techno-scams/vaporware, perhaps linked to former intelligence or arms industry people, are no more prevalent in the UFO scene than they used to be? If so, why?
In the good old days - if there was such a thing in UFOlogy - the intelligence community infiltrated UFO organizations and spread disinformation to gain what they thought was a Cold War advantage. This is pretty well documented. However, in the post 2017 world we ended up with members of the intelligence community conducting disinformation in plain sight, promoting vaporware spacecraft of front companies and working their part in political boondoggle pork-barrel projects and of course some were tied to crypto-scams. It is not exactly clear what the end state of many of these players are. I would guess it was to bolster defense spending in light of a domain awareness gap. Even with this understanding it's confusing why there would be an effort to undermine the credible and give credibly to projects that were scams.
How did you personally become interested in aerospace and classified projects?
It all began in sixth grade when our teacher had made a display of space related articles on the side of the room. One had the back page of a Look magazine, I believe, that had shown a person in silhouette next to the engine bell of this immense rocket that went to the moon. (Later learned by me as the Saturn V). I wondered how it did this. How did something this massive actually fly? Also on the table was a National Geographic with an absolutely breathtaking view of a Shuttle launch. I asked to take it home to read. The first article was "Columbia Closes a Circle" by Tom Wolfe (Author of "The Right Stuff"). In it he explained how Columbia as a spaceplane was the product of earlier efforts of hypersonic flights made at Edwards Air Force Base where Columbia had landed. The second article, "Our Phenomenal First Flight", was written by astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen. It turned out that Crippen was a part of another project called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory or MOL. There was very little on this program available then as it was still classified, and that seemed to keep me following every scrap of information as it came out. This seeded me with curiosity about all aspects of flight. Within six months I was launching rockets.
National Geographic issue from October 1981. See more details here: https://nationalgeographicbackissues.com/product/national-geographic-october-1981/
Why do you see Musk as a toxic element in the space industry (to say nothing of his man-child histrionics and flirtations with the far-right)? Explain why you don't like Musk precisely because you like space travel.
I can respect the works of any visionary and/or engineer that uses their mind to contribute to the field. Think of Sergei Korolov, Wehrner von Braun and Robert Goddard. As best I can tell, Musk has created nothing of his own personal design skills, yet he still manipulates the star maker machinery to create that illusion. He could be considered a visionary if his ideas were in line scientifically with the goals he has. Let's start with the obvious: a plan to nuke the polar ice caps of Mars to create enough water and an atmosphere for the million people he wants to send there. The planetary scientists understand that this is an insane idea as Mars will not hold on to even a thin atmosphere. In sixty years of space travel the world's nations have put about 700 people into orbit. In less than thirty he wants to increase this a thousand-fold using the same technology we have always had with dodgy incremental improvements? Plus consider that going to Mars requires the life support, food, water, propulsion, and radiation shielding for at least a one-year journey each way. This all adds weight to be launched that increases exponentially (not linearly). I doubt the world GDP could finance a project this large. Then he says that they could be sent to Mars for the median cost of a house. That is almost comical as the median cost of a house would not even cover the cost of the food on the mission for one person when considering it must be sent to a parking orbit. I think the real damage done is he is discrediting the larger space program with unrealistic expectations. He makes the honest promoters of space projects look bad. Unfortunately, most of the public and the media don't know the difference between an honest and dishonest space promotion. Getting satellites or even a Dragon capsule to the ISS is a low hanging fruit by US technology standards. Any crewed Mars mission is orders of magnitude more complex.
When the easy fruit missions are behind Space-X and the time to go to Mars is present there are going to be harsh realities presented that raise even harsher questions from investors, Congress, NASA and space fans alike. 99% of the scale and luster of his dream will be wiped out and that is giving him the benefit of the doubt that he has perfected the Starship to the level the Laws of Physics and Entropy allow.
Do you partly blame the generally poor scientific proficiency among the US populace on the
stagnant US manned space program, in the sense that it's left the space open for toxic elements like Musk to peddle vaporware fantasies?
The stagnant space program with vaporware projects rests on a political body and some appointees that have been simultaneously undereducated, overly risk adverse in the wrong areas and politically galvanized. Space exploration should not be a political issue. Ultimately a populace that was scientifically literate would elect more representatives that had well rounded science and engineering backgrounds rather than lawyers and MBAs (only 10% of Congressional representatives have any STEM background), and we might then get on track to being sustainably productive with coherent policies on the internet and cybersecurity as well. That would be an interesting experiment. Create a parallel non-binding STEM congress of politically aspiring doctors, scientists and engineers to see how they would vote on various issues and what types of bills they would create. The discussions in the chambers would be instructional to C-Span viewers and actual politicians alike. Interestingly enough Dr. Bill Foster, representing Illinois, has a PhD in Physics. He is very much interested in energy policy.