By any ordinary standard, successfully sending humans to Mars would be an astonishing triumph—a world-historical feat for the nation (or corporation) that manages to pull it off first. Talk to the right people, though, and you might be surprised to learn that more than 30 years ago the U.S. military accomplished just that.
You’ll find the evidence of it in a document freely available on the public “Reading Room” section of Central Intelligence Agency’s website. (Credit where it’s due: The friend who brought this treasure to my attention said he learned about it through the Mysterious Universe podcast.) Contextual details are scarce in the document, which goes under the unassuming title “Mars Exploration: May 22, 1984.” A brief explanatory note indicates that “the subject” was given a sealed envelope “immediately prior to the interview” but was instructed not to open it yet. During the interview itself, the subject only had verbal access to “[s]elected geographic coordinates, provided by the parties requesting the information.”
After this introduction, you’ll find a seemingly unedited transcript of the interview, a dialogue that reads like some fragment of a lost Samuel Beckett play. You need not crawl through the full seven pages of dialogue to get a sense of its strangeness. Here’s a representative sample from the start. (All ellipses in the following are original to the document and seem to indicate long pauses.)
[Subject]: … I’m seeing, ah … It’s like a perception of a shadow of people, very tall … thin, it’s only a shadow. It’s as if they were there and they’re not, not there anymore.
[Monitor]: Go back to a period of time where they are there.
Sub: … Um … (mumble) It’s like I get a lot of static on a line and everything, it’s breaking up all the time, very fragmentary pieces.
Mon: Just report the data, don’t try to put things together, just report the raw data.
Sub: I just keep seeing very large people. They appear thin and tall, but they’re very large. Ah … wearing some kind of strange clothes.
In what follows, the conversation jumps around rapidly as the monitor directs the subject to investigate different coordinates, providing no other information. As the subject does, he describes some of the sites of interest that he notices, including a large “obelisk” that reminds him of the Washington Monument, “rounded bottom carved channels, like road beds,” and, most strikingly, “pyramids … like shelters from storms.” In those structures, he finds the shadowy people he had seen before, hibernating. “They’re an ancient people,” he tells the monitor. “They’re ah … they’re dying, it’s past their time or age.”
The 3-by-5-inch card in the sealed envelope—which, remember, supposedly went unseen until all these visions had faded—provides some clue as to what the subject was witnessing. Like the dateline of some LSD-soaked cartoon, it read,
The planet Mars.
Time of interest approximately
1 million years B.C.
This is, in other words, a purportedly real record of some real intelligence service’s attempt to visit another world through astral projection while examining its distant past.
The transcript appeared on the CIA’s site as part of a large dump of documents related to the U.S. government’s experimentation with paranormal phenomenon—projects that have been variously attributed with helping resolve the Iran hostage crisis and simply derided for wasting taxpayer money. As I soon learned, this particular document was a product of the Star Gate (sometimes spelled as one word, sometimes two) program, an initiative made most famous by Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats.
According to an explanatory document about the Star Gate, available on the CIA’s site, the program sought to cultivate “psychoenergetics,” which it defines as “A Mental Process by which an Individual Perceives, Communicates with, and/or Perturbs Characteristics of a Designated Target, Person or Event Remote in Space and/or Time from that Individual.” (The unusual capitalization scheme is original to the document.) In particular, Star Gate focused on “remote viewing”—which involves using the mind alone to see thing that aren’t immediately present. The document proposes that “remote viewing” is “inherent to every human to some degree” and “Probably a vestigial form of self-preservation.”
Though it’s easy to mock such propositions, it’s clear enough why an intelligence service might entertain the possibility, or at least the hope, that they were real. Despite its name, Star Gate—which began in 1978 and ran until the mid-1990s—mostly focused on terrestrial targets, attempting to acquire actionable intelligence about everything from missing persons to foreign weapons sites. There was, as the initiative’s most ardent defenders would put it, “no known defense” against a remote viewer’s inquiries: Even the most secure facilities were theoretically vulnerable to psychic scrying. An official 1995 report on the project concluded that its operational efficacy was minimal, since, “[R]emote viewing reports failed to produce the concrete, specific information valued in intelligence gathering.”
Even against this background, the “Mars Exploration” document feels anomalous. Though Star Gate included “Science and Technology Information” among its “Categories of Taskings,” the program seems to have been more broadly directed at generating actionable intelligence on topics such as “Imminent Hostilities” and “Penetration of Inaccessible Targets.” Its key proponents were also committed to something like the scientific method, insisting on double-blind testing conditions and avoiding kookier claims where possible. One of the program’s most notable hits came in 1979, when a viewer perceived a massive Soviet submarine, the existence of which was supposedly later confirmed by satellite imagery, as Jim Popkin writes in a recent Newsweek story about Star Gate. Make of that what you will, but it’s clearly a far cry from visions of ancient aliens on a dying planet.
In an attempt to understand the context, I turned to The Stargate Chronicles, a personable memoir by Joseph McMoneagle, the “psychic spy” who had identified that submarine. A retired chief warrant officer now in his 70s, McMoneagle counts among the more reputable representatives of Star Gate, having been awarded the Legion of Merit. Though he largely sticks to verifiable facts about his life and career, McMoneagle details a handful of more unusual experiences, including a time when he says he was seared by a light from the heavens and a series of visitations by a minor Hindu deity. He also lays out a novel theory of time, writing, “I believe we fool ourselves into thinking that things are linear because we normally experience them in that fashion.”
According to his story, he was the primary—possibly the only—remote viewer working for the program in mid-1984. Could he have visited Mars? I found the answer in another of his books, Mind Trek. Though the 1993 Mind Trek was published before “Mars Exploration” was approved for release (in August 2000, according to a stamp at the top of the document), a chapter titled “Another World” closely re-creates the CIA transcript, varying in only minor ways. He also adds other details, including a striking sketch of the “tall and thin” humanoids that suggests their bodies stretched to almost twice the height of the average Earthling.
Hoping to better understand McMoneagle’s experiences, I tracked down his home phone number and called him. Initially skeptical, he warmed to my inquiries when I brought up the CIA’s version of the viewing session.
“They shouldn’t have had that,” McMoneagle told me. He said that the visit to Mars had been requested not by the CIA but by an individual—who he declined to name—from the Army.
At the time, McMoneagle said that he was at the Virginia-based Monroe Institute—a nonprofit dedicated to the study of altered consciousness. On the day in question, he was napping in the institute’s “black box,” “a 1-foot thick, totally shielded containment room that has a shield door” used in remote viewing experiments. He said that Robert Monroe—the institute’s director and the unnamed monitor from the document—woke him and handed him the sealed envelope before leading him through the session.
As he tells it, neither he nor Monroe had any idea that he was being asked to examine extraterrestrial sites. “Neither of us knew what we were working on. Our assumption at the time was that I was working on targets on Earth,” he told me. This left him especially confused about the pyramids he claimed to perceive, since, as he said, “I was not familiar with any pyramids on Earth that had such large rooms.”
He professed confusion about why the Army would have chosen such a target—one from which actionable intelligence was not immediately forthcoming. “I have not got a clue. Absolutely none. It was so totally out of left field for me,” he said. Indeed, he could only name one other occasion when he’d been asked to examine a similar target: a photograph that appeared to include incidental evidence of a UFO. On another occasion, he declined a request to mentally examine a similar object, reluctant to waste his time. “The problem that I have with targeting UFOs and Mars and things like that is that there’s no real way to validate the information,” he told me.
A conspiracy theory about the U.S.’s Cold War–era paranormal activities holds that they had less to do with psychics than they did with psych-outs. Those who embrace this explanation suggest that such activities were designed to leak, potentially confusing other countries’ intelligence agencies about what the U.S. was up to. The military supposedly spent about $20 million—a figure that’s hard to definitively confirm but that’s cited in Ronson’s book and other reporting—on Star Gate and associated programs over the course of 20 years, a pittance within the larger framework of defense spending. That’s a potentially small price to pay, whether you’re trying to distract the KGB (which apparently had psychic spies of its own) or just spook some tin-pot dictator. If that’s true, the weirdness of the Mars Exploration remote viewing may have been the point.
McMoneagle, however, remains a true believer. In Mind Trek, he acknowledges that he doesn’t know whether his visions really produced “irrefutable proof of the existence of aliens from Mars a million years ago.” He suggests, however, that there’s enough to it to justify further investigation. “Given the probable cost and potential for discovery, I would think that our government wouldn’t hesitate to investigate,” he writes, before suggesting, “Maybe it’s fear that prevents us from doing so.”
It’s a pose he maintained in our conversation, though he’s come to believe it may be more complicated than he initially thought. Hedging slightly on why we haven’t found confirmation already, he told me that his contacts at NASA had told him the likelihood of successfully landing a rover at one of the relevant sites would be 1 in 1,000. The best alternative, he proposes, might be a crewed mission, even if we accepted from the start that it was bound to be a one-way trip.
As far as reasons to explore Mars go, visiting in search of long-dead alien life may be a little unhinged. But is it that much more so than any other reason we might consider traveling to a planet whose very soil is toxic to us? However dubious his findings might seem, McMoneagle’s remote viewing efforts might be best understood as a testament to our enduring curiosity—and our shared fascination with those distant elsewheres.
McMoneagle, for his own part, suggests that he’s still eager to make Mars a little less remote. He told me that he would happily volunteer to make the journey, whether or not it proved to be a suicide mission.
“I’m 71 years old,” he said as our call was ending. “My bones won’t get any worse.”
This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.