Sporadic reports of unidentified flying objects are scattered through human history. But the modern-day UFO controversy began in America over Washington state around 3 PM on June 24, 1947. Flying a private plane near Mount Ranier, pilot Kenneth Arnold saw a formation of nine bright “discs” traveling at about 1900 kilometers an hour. This was remarkable – the sound barrier of about 1200 kilometers an hour had not yet been broken by any aircraft. Arnold later described their flight as being “like you’d take a saucer and skip it across the water.” These nine airborne objects launched a new phenomenon – flying saucers.
On July 3, 1947 rancher W.W. “Mac” Brazel found strange metallic debris scattered over his property near the town of Roswell in New Mexico. The material was turned over to Major Jesse A. Marcel, intelligence officer at the local airfield. An official press release stated “The many rumors regarding the flying discs became a reality yesterday, when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers.” Confusion followed when a senior air force spokesperson declared the debris had nothing to do with “flying saucers” – it was from a weather balloon with a radar reflector attached. Yet 30 years later, on a radio talk show, Major Marcel told nuclear physicist and UFO investigator Stanton Friedman that he had collected a huge debris field of durable, lightweight material “not of this earth.”
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By 1952 reports from round the world featured sightings of UFO “occupants,” and research groups were forming. The Aerial Phenomena Research Organization said the UFO question was a “problem . . . planetary in scope.” The following year the US Central Intelligence Agency sponsored a classified review of UFO evidence and recommended a debunking campaign to reduce public interest in flying saucers.
The credibility of UFO reports was severely damaged when people began calming contact with friendly aliens. Accounts from “contactees” were often strikingly similar and seemed to indicate psychological disturbance rather than objective reporting. The best known contactee, Polish-American George Adamski, said he went into the California desert with six associates to look for flying saucers on November 20, 1952. Adamski claimed to have seen a landing and to have talked to the pilot, Orthon – a handsome, kindly, blond-haired man from Venus – who explained that space people were visiting earth because they were concerned about humanity’s war-like ways. Adamski’s companions reported watching this meeting from a distance.
On December 13th Adamski photographed Orthon’s “scout craft” over his house in Palomar Gardens, California. Adamski died in 1965 but his followers maintained their belief in his stories of encounters – sometimes aboard UFOs in space – with Venusians, Martians, and Saturnians, whom he called “Space Brothers.”
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Serious UFO researchers saw such contactees as a major embarrassment, but “humanoid” encounter reports proliferated all over the world. The US Air Force continued trying to discount “the UFO problem” with its Project Blue Book, appointing astronomer Dr J. Allen Hynek as their consultant. Then in 1959, at about 6:45 PM on June 26th, Father William gill at the Anglican mission at Noianai, Papua New Guinea, noticed a strange light near the planet Venus. He called his congregation to join him, and 38 people witnessed a circular, pale orange craft with a wide base, narrow upper deck and “legs” with four figures on board. The next night a similar UFO appeared. The crew waved to Gill and a dozen other earthlings. These “visitations” are still among the most convincing UFO sightings.
Another “reliable” sighting occurred at 5:45 PM on April 24, 1964 near Socorro, New Mexico. Police officer Lonnie Zamora heard a roar, saw a descending “flame in the sky” and drove out into the desert to investigate a local dynamite shack. When he saw two “people” in white overalls near a shiny object, he called the station to report a possible accident. Driving closer, he looked down into a shallow gully at an egg-shaped metallic craft resting on extended legs. The object sped up and away with a loud blast, leaving four imprints in the ground and burnt vegetation. Hynek and French astrophysicist Jacques Vallee investigated the Socorro sighting and classified it as a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, involving “a ‘nuts and bolts’ physical craft.”
On April 5, 1966 Ron Sullivan was driving along a straight road at Burkes Flat, Victoria, Australia, when he noticed a strange beacon on the right – a complicated arrangement of various oval shapes bathed in phosphorescence and multicolored light. Sullivan’s headlight beams appeared to bend towards the display. He quickly straightened up and saw the unidentified lights diminish to a spot on the ground, which vanished. A few days later Gary Taylor was killed at Burkes Flat when he smashed into the tree that Sullivan had nearly hit. In the paddock directly opposite was a saucer-shaped impression. Other drivers also reported strange lights at the site.
On December 17, 1969 the United States Air Force terminated Project Blue Book, stating that further research could not “be justified either on the grounds of national security or in the interest of science.” More than 15,000 reports had been examined since 1947. But although UFOs were pronounced dead, they refused to go away. American fishermen Charlie Hickson and Calvin Parker said they had been taken aboard a UFO by two bizarre beings on October 11, 1973. Hynek interviewed the pair and, free now from the official pressures of being consultant to Project Blue Book, concluded, “There’s simply no question in my mind that these men have had a very real, frightening experience, the physical nature of which I am not certain about – and I don’t think we have any answers.”
In the 1970s computer enhancement techniques were used to examine the hundreds of UFO photographs that had surfaced over the years. A small but impressive collection survived as bona fide UFO images. George Adamski’s were not among them – Orthon’s spaceship was identified as a small model.
The 1980s saw a shifting focus from claims of abductions to findings of a strong physical basis for the UFO phenomenon. In January 1981 at Trans-en-Provence in France, Renato Nicolai heard an odd whistling noise and saw an aerial object the color of lead “in the form of two saucers upside-down.” The UFO landed nearby. About 10 seconds the whistling sound resumed, and the object flew off.
By the 1990s ufology was empowered by a steady influx of skilled professionals. A study by university researchers in Ottawa, Canada, published in the November 1993 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, suggests that people who have “close encounters” are not psychologically disturbed, and reveals that they score slightly higher on intelligence tests than control subjects who have not reported UFOs. The finding “clearly contradict the previously held notion that people who seemingly had bizarre experiences, such as missing time and communicating with aliens, have wild imaginations and are easily swayed into believing the unbelievable.” Of the 49 adult UFO witnesses studied, most were found to be relatively free of anxiety and appeared content that “space aliens were concerned with our destiny.”
To date there is still no scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life. Life’s basic building blocks are everywhere, but most current UFO investigation is focused on trying to intercept electromagnetic signals with radio telescopes. Eventually we will know if there is intelligent life out there in the cosmos. The implications either way will be profound.