Close encounters, of the terrestrial kindA blazing space object that landed in Pokhara in 1968 turns out to be human-made after all.
One of my columns last year spoke about the Americans’ historical interest in unidentified flying objects and cryptids such as the Yeti in Nepal. A most curious story had emerged from Batulechaur, Pokhara, on the night of March 25, 1968, when ‘[a] blazing object, flashing intermittently, accompanied by big thunder sound disintegrated over Kaski region [sic]’.
A few weeks ago, I came across a post by Sunil Ulak on my Facebook feed. A Pokhara native, Ulak’s archive of 27,000 historical photos is perhaps unparalleled for an amateur historian. Ulak had tracked down Kul Prasad Timilsina, a witness to the UFO incident. A 27-year-old Timilsina was returning home from night school with his friend when he saw the skies light up around 8 pm that March night along with a loud explosion. The next morning, Timilsina found a one-inch thick metal disc in a six-feet-deep crater in his field. According to the CIA, the metal disc had a six-foot base and was four feet wide. Along with four friends, Timilsina carried the disc back to line his buffalo shed.
The disc was in the buffalo shed for nearly a month before the then anchaladhish, the Panchayat zonal officer, Nanda Bahadur Malla came to inquire, and acquired the metal disc, after which it was not seen. According to Ulak, rumours suggested the disc had been returned to a local school, while some thought it had been sent to the US for further investigations.
I had met Ulak in Pokhara a few weeks before he started an archival photo museum from my father’s home. The museum ran for a year. The lack of institutional support, however, made its operations untenable, and the museum is now shut. But Ulak has continued to archive his massive collection of historical photographs—collected not just from Peace Corps volunteers and other foreigners who travelled in Nepal at the time and before, but from his own father’s collection—on social media.
The unidentified metal disc, it seems, had generated sufficient interest in government and diplomatic circles at the time. Two particular US Department of State documents, declassified by the National Security Agency (NSA), from June and August 1968 detail the investigations.
In the first document, State Department official Jerry C Trippe wrote a memo titled ‘Space fragment in Nepal’ to a ‘Mr Farley’. Following a 1967 protocol about acquiring foreign space debris for investigations, Trippe wrote to Farley that ‘[t]he Foreign Technology Division of the Air Force has now decided that the fragments could have great value, whether they are from a Chinese missile test or the Soviet launch vehicle Venik’. It is unclear which launch vehicle Trippe is referring to. US officials were to submit a request to see the object, and ‘[w]e will need to look at this carefully when it arrives’, Trippe told Farley. The document carries a pencil note on its margins: ‘If it’s not clear it’s Soviet—may be Chinese—that helps!’
During the Cold War, US government agencies and officials ‘scoured the planet for access to everything from captured surface-to-air missiles to medicines to bits and pieces of spacecraft that have fallen to Earth—all with an eye to learning something useful about America’s adversaries’. The unidentified metal disc supposedly met these requirements, and American officials were interested in its origins.
The second document, dated 28 August 1968, provides more information. It seems Nepali authorities had allowed the Americans access, and the latter now submitted a preliminary report to then Foreign Secretary Yadunath Khanal. ‘Report, which will be forwarded through appropriate DOD [Department of Defense] channels made unequivocal statement that objects not of US origin. It concluded, on basis of examination and collateral tracking data, that some pieces could be of Soviet origin, possibly Cosmos 208 which re-entered the earth’s atmosphere on night of March 25, 1968. Report also noted, however, because Soviet technology has had profound influence on Chinese rocket development definite identification of launching authority by US technicians would be possible only after further examination in the US under laboratory conditions.
The Cosmos 208 was a Soviet military photo-surveillance satellite that had been launched on March 21, 1968, aboard a Soyuz rocket. The second document stated that some pieces could belong to another ‘space object’ that fell on a different date; the CIA report had noted that ‘portions of a similar object were found at Talakot and Turepasal (I am yet to identify these places)’.
The second document then moves onto cloak-and-dagger territory more identifiable with the Cold War. FS Khanal told the Americans although Nepal wouldn’t release all the pieces to the US, some pieces could be taken to the US ‘as [the government] was anxious to have definitive identification of ownership’. Responding to the American ambassador’s queries about which other countries had shown interest, FS Khanal said ‘India and China have asked to see objects’ but only took pictures. ‘The Soviets have shown no interest at all’.
It seems Nepal did not want the incident to be publicised; the Americans thought Kathmandu wanted to resolve the ‘possible question of Chinese origin’. The silence of the Soviets on the issue, however, points towards the metal object being a part of their space programme. By August 1971, a third document noted, Nepal permitted the US to take a fragment if returned ‘essentially intact’. The fragment was returned in March 1972, but no conclusive information about its origins has been released. Nonetheless, the object was not extraterrestrial. The mystery of the UFO becomes increasingly clear: portions from a spacecraft had landed that March night in Pokhara, one of which Timilsina used to line his buffalo shed.