To Spite the Face
Under the surface of Mars lies an ancient, nuclear-powered city left by Martian citizens. At least, that's what a group of space researchers think. And they're trying to prove it by invoking a little-known remnant of President Clinton's last days called the "Data Quality Act" that went into force in October of this year. The filing, dated October 31, 2002, gives NASA 40 days to address the complaint that there is faulty data on Arizona State University's THEMIS Web site.
THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System) is the crown jewel of ASU's science department that takes and analyzes images from an infrared camera on NASA's Odyssey satellite and releases them to the public. THEMIS also conducts expansive educational programs for students, scientists and interested observers. But its reputation is now being trashed in almost every Mars or space-related Web site on the Internet with headlines like, "Is NASA Capable of Lying?" and "Odyssey Slaps the Face on Mars."
The heated controversy that has incited the faithful conspiracy congregation -- led by a charismatic "preacher" named Richard Hoagland -- concerns one image that was released in July of this year, and the software manager at THEMIS, Noel Gorelick.
The image in question is the first high-resolution infrared image of a region called Cydonia -- which houses the so-called "Face on Mars." This has been the most hotly contested region of Mars since a 1976 Viking image showed what clearly appeared to be a human face on the planet's surface. But subsequent images from NASA have cast a web of suspicion on the region, the "face," and the other structures surrounding it, inciting almost epic conspiracy theories all over the world.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
The reason the infrared, or "IR," images are so important is that they show temperatures, allowing for a more definitive analysis of the origin of structures on Cydonia.
Hoagland claims to have proof that ASU's Gorelick swapped the July 24 Cydonia image for a manipulated one in order to keep people off the scent -- or get them on it. And Hoagland's arguments are not falling on deaf ears -- starting a five-month feeding frenzy on the Web and on a popular conspiracy radio talk show hosted by Art Bell. The image in question has been viewed 120,000 times from a link on MSNBC mentioning Hoagland's beef with THEMIS.
Given his involvement with unorthodox scientific research, Hoagland is surprisingly difficult to throw into the crackpot category. His lengthy dissertations are reminiscent of the Lone Gunmenfrom The X-Files, but his résumé doesn't read like a typical conspiracy theorist. He was the recipient of the Angstrom Medal for Excellence in Science in Stockholm, Sweden, a colleague of Carl Sagan, and a former science adviser to CBS News and Walter Cronkite.
His pet project, The Enterprise Mission -- where he goes by "The Captain" -- monitors all of the data from NASA and does research in excruciating minutia. Its early '90s school education program, The Enterprise Classroom, received a Points of Light Award from Barbara Bush and was featured on NASA's Spacelink -- even getting a visit from the space shuttle Atlantis crew. But Hoagland and The Enterprise Mission's research now focuses almost exclusively on SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).
According to Hoagland, an image of the Cydonia region was released on July 24 via Web download to Keith Laney, a NASA Ames Research Center consultant who works with The Enterprise Mission. Laney claims that he did not alter the image, but when he compared it to the image on the THEMIS Web site, he realized the two were different.
"Science, if you do it right, does not lie," says Hoagland. "But here, the evidence tells a different story than [the people at THEMIS] do."
Enter vast conspiracy theory.
Hoagland and his horde say that there is little surprise when NASA releases misleading or purely false images. Several images have been released of the Cydonia plane since the original Viking expedition -- some making the "face" appear completely flat as though nothing is there, and others that present alternate views that look less human. Hoagland thinks these images have been released to kill public interest in the issue.
And Hoagland doesn't think it's just Mars. He also has theories of cover-up conspiracies on Europa (a moon of Jupiter), the dark side of Earth's moon, Mars moon Phobos, and a host of other topics.
As far as Hoagland is concerned, NASA is not trustworthy on anything because of a study produced by the Washington, D.C., think tank The Brookings Institute in 1963, before the Viking expedition. This report, known as The Brookings Report, asserts that the government should hide evidence of life on other planets -- if it finds any -- to avoid religious and overall societal breakdown. Assuming that this report was made a part of internal NASA policy, Hoagland now dedicates himself to searching for any and all possible manipulations of NASA images and information. "The people of this country pay good money for this research, and they should get what they pay for," says Hoagland. "The pattern of deception would only exist if there was something there."
It is Laney and Hoagland's assertion that ASU's Gorelick "bamf'ed" or redirected Laney to the "real" Cydonia image in order to send up a red flag that THEMIS' information was being purposefully flawed. Hoagland admits it sounds bizarre, but asks, "If we're crazy -- or have consciously perpetrated a fraud here -- why bother? Who's ultimately going to listen to seriously ill people for long?"
And many people are still listening to Hoagland.
THEMIS officials contradict Hoagland's allegations. "There is no scientific validity to anything Hoagland says about this," claims Dr. Philip Christensen, the principal investigator at THEMIS. "Their image is completely fabricated. It takes about six steps on Photoshop to make our image look like theirs."
Hoagland wants THEMIS to release the image exactly as it comes to them, with no processing. "If they have nothing to hide, why won't they show us the raw data?" Hoagland demands.
Christensen has a simple answer. "The reason we don't release the so-called raw-data' is that you can't read raw data. We give people as close to unaltered as humanly possible, short of saying, Here's a line of ones and zeroes.'"
But Hoagland believes ASU's Gorelick has a motive for the alleged image-swap. "Read between the lines. It's all code," he claims. Hoagland's basis for this belief is anomalous image dates, and a collection of numbers he feels to be significant indicators of a complex code. "The image is 333 pixels across and 1,947 pixels long. Those numbers have meaning -- they are very important.
"Forget what's in the image; look at the other things. It's a meta-message."
Realizing how cloak and dagger he sounds, Hoagland remarks, "When you're dealing with Spooksville, you have to be a little James Bond." Hoagland maintains that Gorelick logged more than 1,000 hours on The Enterprise Mission Web site during the controversy over the image. "Why would he do that?" Hoagland wants to know. "It's bizarre unless he is playing a very sophisticated game."
Gorelick himself (who goes by the handle "bamf" on Web chat rooms) says that the accusations are "totally false." Gorelick admits to frequenting both Hoagland's site and other Mars-related sites for personal interest reasons, but is less than happy with being characterized as a fraud and a liar. "I think it shows paranoid delusion," remarks Gorelick when asked whether he was sending secret messages to Hoagland and Laney. "Laney claims I was goading him into [analyzing the image]. But I wasn't even talking to him."
As far as Laney's image, Gorelick says, "My opinion is that Laney invented that image through intentional or unintentional manipulation," and believes Hoagland's crew is using him as a scapegoat in order to legitimize their cause. "Hoagland is getting good results with this sensationalism. He gets money, resources, and he's on the radio all the time."
Christensen echoes Gorelick's sentiment, saying, "Anything we do, that group is going to complain about it. You can't win."
But these protestations are not taken at face value by Hoagland's camp. "Why put this stuff out -- unless it's a cry for help? They want to get caught," says Hoagland.
Hoagland says ASU's Gorelick, and others like him, are unhappy with the fact that they cannot release complete data to the public -- and this "bamf'ed" image is his way of fighting back. "It only takes one white crow to prove that not all crows are black," Hoagland explains. "That's what I think [Gorelick] is trying to give us -- one white crow."
Gorelick laughs in response, "I actually like this part. He gives me more credit than I am probably worthy of -- that I could engineer such a thing."
In any case, Gorelick says that THEMIS is not bound by the federal Data Quality Act. "It's not a NASA Web site, it's an ASU Web site. And it's not a NASA image, it's an ASU image.
"Even if it were relevant, we would respond that Laney's data was incorrect and that the Web site has the correct image -- or more likely claim it's frivolous."
An answer on the filing is due on December 11. Hoagland is hopeful, saying, "If [Gorelick] sent Laney to a bamf to get another image, he has to admit what he did."
But THEMIS and her crew are not alarmed. Says Christensen, "[Hoagland] can go on and on for a long time -- but every now and again there's some interesting conjecture. The scientific community needs someone to keep them thinking on their toes."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.