For nearly three-quarters of a century, efforts have been underway to study and assess objects of unknown provenance in our skies.
The apparent presence of unidentified aerial phenomena, more commonly known as UFOs, presents a remarkable challenge to science. However, perhaps what is most remarkable about this problem is the fact that after more than seven decades, and the accumulation of a respectable amount of data in support of its worthiness to scientific inquiry, there remains no clear consensus on whether there even is a phenomenon.
This may seem paradoxical; how can it be that observations of something could take place for more than seven decades, comprising inquiries by government agencies, scientists, journalists, and laymen from around the world, and yet no clear consensus would emerge about what the phenomenon in question may be, let alone whether it exists at all?
To answer this question requires looking not only at the UAP problem itself, but also at the various sectors—governmental, academic, and media—that have examined it over the years, along with the societal and cultural influences on each of these.
U.S. Government Studies
Since 1947, several governmental assessments of unidentified aerial phenomena have been undertaken. The idea of “flying saucers” was introduced to the public in late June of that year, following widespread coverage in the media of the sighting of nine “bright, saucer-like objects” observed by pilot Kenneth Arnold while flying near Mount Rainier. Two weeks later, a group of employees that included pilots, a crew of technicians and the Commanding Officer of Muroc Army Air Base observed a pair of “silver objects of either a spherical or disc-like shape,” moving at an estimated 300 miles per hour in the direction of nearby Mojave, California. On account of these events, the Air Force became involved, resulting in a pair of shorter-term studies—Project Sign and Project Grudge—prior to the institution of Project Blue Book, which collected information based on UFO reports from its inception in 1952 until termination orders were given in 1969.
Some additional government UFO projects that were more limited in scope occurred during this period, which included Project HAVE FEAR and Project LETHAL CHASER. These two special projects were undertaken by the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in August 1968 and employed laser range finders and night observation devices, to aid in possible identification of UFOs being seen in the airspace over the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). These two programs came to light following the declassification of Project CHECO (Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations) reports from the era, compiled by William Thorndale under the 7th AF, DOAC, which were later obtained via Freedom of Information Act by researcher Paul Dean. These little-known UFO programs raise the question of whether other limited UFO studies might have occurred during this period, or even in decades that followed, which may presently remain undisclosed.
Although Project Blue Book concluded in 1969, existing protocols allowed the U.S. Air Force to continue to collect information about unidentified flying objects. As early as December 1953 a Joint Chiefs of Staff directive, known as Joint Army-Navy-Air Force Publication (JANAP) 146, provided details on “Communications Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings” (CIRVIS). According to the directive, “The purpose of this publication is to provide uniform instructions for reporting of vital intelligence sightings and to provide communication instructions for the passing of these intelligence reports to appropriate military authorities.” Paragraph 201 of the directive specifically referenced unidentified flying objects among the observations that were to be immediately reported and sent to Aerospace Defense Command and the Secretary of Defense, along with nearby military command centers. Even after Project Blue Book had concluded, this directive outlined the procedure for future communications pertaining to any observations of UAP that might be deemed a threat to national security.
The extent to which UFO studies might have continued within the U.S. government remained an item of public intrigue in the decades after Project Blue Book ended. This all changed in late 2017 however, following the publication of a New York Times article revealing the existence of a Pentagon UFO program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP. According to the Times article, the operation had been “run by a military intelligence official, Luis Elizondo, on the fifth floor of the Pentagon’s C Ring,” prior to his resignation from the program earlier that year. More recently, a 2020 Senate Intelligence Committee report which referenced a mysterious “UAP Task Force” appeared to imply that the AATIP program or some similar operation continues, albeit under a different name.
Coinciding with public disclosure of the Pentagon’s AATIP program had been the unauthorized release of three videos obtained by the U.S. Navy, which purportedly depicted unidentified aerial phenomena. On April 27, 2020, the videos were subsequently authorized for official release by the Department of Defense, accompanied by a DoD statement which confirmed that “The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified.’”
These recent revelations from the Pentagon show that the Department of Defense does apply some effort toward studying UAP. Further, the DoD has obtained data about these objects including, but probably not limited to, videos and radar information, three examples of which are now publicly available and acknowledged as “genuine” unidentified objects. It would be hard to argue, from the governmental side of things, that there is no recognition of the existence of UAP, even if its nature and origins remain a matter of debate.
The history of U.S. governmental involvement with this topic helps illustrate a few things. One is that government agencies have continued to study UAP as a national security concern, and have amassed significant amounts of information about it over the years, mainly between 1952 and 1969 while the Air Force’s Project Blue Book was in operation. Another is that the majority of past scientific studies have been more inclined toward dismissal of the subject; and history shows that academic positions on the UAP issue have at times proven to be very influential on government policy.
During the years Project Blue Book was in operation, several scientific studies were also carried out. In 1952, a recommendation was made to the Intelligence Advisory Committee following the Central Intelligence Agency’s review of Project Blue Book, which resulted in a panel that convened in January of 1953. Headed by Howard P. Robertson, what thus became known as the Robertson Panel concluded that UFOs did not present a direct threat to national security, but that widespread public interest in the subject might inadvertently result in clogging of military communications channels. It was therefore advised that an “education campaign” be employed to aid in redirecting public attention away from the UFO subject.
The following year, the Battelle Memorial Institute completed a study based on a statistical analysis of nearly 3200 Blue Book reports that had been collected by that time. The result was Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14, which the Air Force released publicly in 1955. More than a decade would pass before, in 1968, the USAF-funded University of Colorado UFO Project (also known informally as The Condon Committee) produced its report on a two-year study entitled “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects,” which concluded there was little scientific merit to further UFO studies by the Air Force (see below). Later in November of that year, a study by George Kocher entitled “UFOs: What to Do?” was also released by the nonprofit RAND Corporation.
Of all these studies, the University of Colorado UFO Project had the greatest impact by far, and its conclusions became a key factor in the Air Force’s decision to end its official UFO studies. “Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge,” project leader Edward U. Condon wrote in Section I of his committee’s report. “Careful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”
The Condon Committee’s conclusion did more than merely provide the U.S. Air Force with justification for the closure of Project Blue Book; it set the tone as far as the scientific community’s attitude toward the UFO subject going forward, and established a new precedent for dismissal of the subject that would endure for decades.
Scientists and their respective institutions were not the only ones who adopted this attitude of dismissal, nor were government agencies the only entities influenced by scientific findings like those of the Condon Committee. Media coverage of UFOs also dropped significantly after 1969, despite notable increases in sighting reports that occurred during years like 1973.
By the 1990s, some renewed attention was put toward decades-old cases like the Roswell UFO incident, which involved the alleged crash and subsequent retrieval of a flying saucer in New Mexico in July 1947. Although the official story for years had been that the purported crash wreckage had belonged to a weather balloon, the results of an official investigation by the U.S. Air Force that were made public on June 24, 1997, said otherwise. The 231-page report, titled “The Roswell Report, Case Closed”, determined “that the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army Air Forces, recovered debris from an Army Air Forces balloon-borne research project code-named MOGUL.” Some critics have argued that this only shows that the Air Force intentionally misled the public with the original weather balloon story, and therefore perhaps the currently accepted explanation should be given similar critical consideration.
There is no evidence to date that the U.S. government is in the possession of UFO crash wreckage, whether obtained from Roswell or elsewhere. Still, stories of alleged crash retrievals have persisted over the years, and even became part of the focus of a controversial New York Times article on July 23, 2020 by Ralph Blumenthal and Leslie Kean, authors of the 2017 Times article which first disclosed the existence of the Pentagon’s AATIP program. In a follow-up Times Insider piece on July 28, 2020, the authors further detailed that several individuals in government with whom they had spoken—some reportedly associated with the Pentagon’s UFO program—had expressed their conviction that UFO crash retrievals had actually taken place, but that “the retrieved materials themselves, and any data about them, are completely off-limits to anyone without clearances and a need to know.”
Perhaps one of the most novel aspects of the recent developments outlined here involves how they almost mirror the events of decades past: the 1960s had been the last time that government studies of the UFO problem, as well as media coverage in a respected newspaper of record, were both underway to any significant degree. What is missing from the modern narrative, however, is the involvement of scientific organizations.
“Recent UAP sightings… have so far failed to generate similar interest among the scientific community,” wrote Ravi Kopparapu, a planetary scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and Jacob Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist and research scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, in a recent article in Scientific American. “Part of the reason could be the apparent taboo around UAP phenomena, connecting it to the paranormal or pseudoscience, while ignoring the history behind it.”
Kopparapu and Haqq-Misra added that:
“The transient nature of UAP events, and hence the unpredictability about when and where the next event will happen, is likely one of the main reasons why UAP have not been taken seriously in science circles. But, how can one identify a pattern without systematically collecting the data in the first place?
Of course, an impressive amount of data about UFOs—some of it supported by past scientific evaluations—already does exist and has for many years. Decades longer, in fact, than comparable data in support of more recent discoveries like gamma-ray bursts and gravitational waves, each of which Kopparapu and Haqq-Misra cited in their Scientific American piece in support of phenomena that were once unrecognized (and which remain unpredictable), but are nonetheless accepted by modern astronomers “as natural phenomena arising from stellar evolution.”
The fact alone that there are troves of useful information about unidentified aerial phenomena, collected by government and civilian groups now for decades, does not solve this mystery. It is incumbent upon the scientific community to now rise to the challenge placed before it: to carefully review the existing data on UAP, and to develop new opportunities for data collection with the help of innovative technologies the likes of which researchers decades ago were not able to benefit from.
Yes, there may be a genuine mystery here, but on account of the fact that it remains unsolved, and that it may represent technological developments far exceeding those presently known to science, there is an inherent threat potential involved as well. However, there may also be great benefits that could result from further study of unidentified aerial phenomena, if only a unified effort between government, the media, and perhaps most importantly, an interdisciplinary effort on part of the scientific community, could be achieved.
The stonewalling of UFO studies that resulted from the conclusions of the University of Colorado UFO Project in 1968 is obvious in hindsight. Still, this may not have been the desired result of the group’s study, as physicist Edward Condon himself noted in 1969 when he said, “To find clear, unambiguous evidence [of UFOs] would be a scientific discovery of the first magnitude, one which I would be happy to make. We found no such evidence, and so state in our report.”
Despite this, Condon also acknowledged that “contrary to popular belief, we do not rule out all future study.”
History may one day show that we are presently on the cusp of that long-awaited future study of unidentified aerial phenomena, something that would benefit greatly from a renewed interdisciplinary effort. In light of this, perhaps the only question greater than that of the UAP mystery itself is, will scientists rise to the occasion?