Terrifying Trump thought: UFO pilot says, ‘Take me to your leader’7/5/2017
With all that’s going on in the world, the media can be forgiven if they overlook the 70th anniversary of the onset of the flying saucer phenomenon — a date linked to sightings of June 24, 1947, and then an increase of reports and press coverage over the July Fourth holidays.
But my more-than-50-year interest in flying saucers was rekindled recently by a former Drake student, Phil Hutchison, now a professor at the University of Kentucky. He thought of taking a fresh look at my 1970 PhD dissertation on press coverage of flying saucers from 1947 to l966. After all, there’s a lot more data and information online and searchable than there was in the 1960s. Would I be interested?
Why not? Few PhD candidates enjoyed their research as much as I did — partly because it included time with the Unidentified Flying Objects Project at the University of Colorado, which was created in the wake of outrage at a U.S. Air Force explanation that UFO reports in Michigan were merely sightings of “swamp gas.”
The Colorado project — directed by physicist Edward Condon — concluded the government should not spend more money on UFOs. Something that, in hindsight, should have been done in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
Phil had asked, “Which issues do you think stand out?”
I found it difficult to list positive aspects of the saucer/UFO phenomenon — except for the fun I had. The saucer phenomenon is in large part a story of mis-steps and mistakes.
I thought of a film in which the inept Inspector Jacques Clouseau is borrowed from the French to investigate saucers. As he did in Dr. Strangelove, Peter Sellers could have played multiple roles including Clouseau, Air Force personnel, a CIA director. Many Clouseau antics would fit in well as he inadvertently destroys evidence about where saucers come from.
Here are a few more useful reflections:
Any national phenomenon that spans decades provides insights to events and issues of its time. The story of saucers includes the impact of the military and intelligence agencies upon our society, fear of Communism, ignorance of science, shortcomings in journalism, the wonder of the universe — all part of the UFO fabric. For example:
Ignorance: At a staff meeting at the Colorado project 50 years ago, Condon characterized the UFO phenomenon as “an indictment of science education.” Anyone who studies the saucer phenomenon should not be surprised that folks today deny climate change, fervently believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago, etc. As some say, we have a tendency to cast out the plausible and embrace the weird.
CIA, the Red scare: In 1952-1953, what is called “The Robertson Panel” looked into the saucer phenomenon at the urging of the CIA. The scientific bent of the panel could have recommended that there was nothing that really merited government-funded study of UFOs and to let the phenomenon take its course. But in the early 1950s, fear of Russia led the panel to note “the continued emphasis on the reporting of these phenomena does, in these parlous times, result in a threat” to national security. So the panel called for efforts to “debunk” saucers, which included public education and, likely, ridicule. (Some UFO citizen groups included loyalty oaths in their membership qualifications.)
The USAF: The UFO albatross haunted the USAF from the time it became a separate branch of the armed forces in September 1947 until the Condon report provided an escape hatch in early 1969. In the intervening years, the USAF practice was to explain, not investigate, UFO reports. It should have been obvious that a staff of a sergeant, a captain or lieutenant colonel and a secretary working in a hut at Wright Patterson Air Force Base could hardly manage to investigate hundreds/thousands of UFO reports. But the press pretty much ignored that in light of the readable copy and public interest that saucer reports generated.
Consensus and whimsy: Just about everyone agrees that at least 95 to 99 percent of UFO reports are misidentification of natural or man-made objects. The puzzle is what about the miniscule number of confounding reports. The treatment accorded the UFO phenomenon by the government, the press, believers and scoffers has done too much damage to make much sense of the last 70 years, but it does reflect a lot about the nature of our society. When he visited the Colorado Project, Carl Sagan — perhaps the most popular scientist of the age — offered a tongue-in-cheek assessment, as good as any I’ve heard. To paraphrase Sagan: Yes, the saucers were here, but are gone. Given evidence of the rise of a technological civilization, saucers came to investigate. They reported back to galactic headquarters that the Earth was too violent a place to join the interstellar community; we’ve been quarantined ever since.
Happy anniversary. ♦