Official Investigations into the UFO Phenomenon

The United States Air Force had a problem. Its top brass did not consider it a defense or a national security problem. It was a public relations problem. Since "flying saucers" became a part of American lore after Kenneth Arnold's reported sighting in 1947, the demands on the Air Force to check out and tell about reported UFOs had grown through the years. So had criticism of the Air Force's handling of the reports. By 1966, public indignation at Air Force "explanations"—focused then on the "swamp gas" explanation of a multitude of sightings in Washtenaw County, Michigan—became intense enough to create demands for Congressional investigations. The Air Force's public relations people found it necessary to seek assistance to get critics off the Air Force's back.

On 30 December 1947, the Air Force had begun formal investigation of what were then called "flying discs" after a flurry of sighting reports followed Kenneth Arnold's experience. Its first program was code-named Project Sign. After a year of study, the staff of Project Sign prepared an "Estimate of the Situation" and sent it, supposedly classified "Top Secret" to Air Force Chief of Staff, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, in July of 1948.

This "estimate" reportedly asserted that the staff of Project Sign was convinced that the UFOs they investigated were really vehicles from another planet. General Vandenberg felt that Project Sign's staff lacked adequate proof for such a conclusion, and refused to accept the report. The "Estimate of the Situation" never became an official Air Force document. Copies of it were destroyed. If clandestine copies of it still exist, they are kept well under cover.

Sign's final report recommended: "Future activity on this project should be carried on at the minimum level necessary to record, summarize and evaluate the data received on future reports and to complete the specialized investigations now in progress. When and if a sufficient number of incidents are solved to indicate that these sightings do not represent a threat to the security of the nation, the assignment of special project status to the activity could be terminated. Future investigations of reports would then be handled on a routine basis like any other intelligence work."

One might assume that General Vandenberg had a role in Sign's change in outlook. Letters appended to Sign's final report, written by scientists who served in positions such as membership on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, showed that the Air Force then was giving consideration to the extraterrestrial possibility, in spite of the outlook revealed in the report itself.

Early in 1949, the name of the project was changed from Project Sign to Project Grudge. Project Grudge operated less than a year before the Air Force announced its termination on 27 December 1949. UFO reports would henceforth be handled as an ordinary intelligence activity. Grudge's one report discussed 244 sightings investigated, and displayed prominently the conclusions of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who had been hired by the Air Force as a consultant on astronomically-related UFO sightings. Thirty-two percent of Grudge's cases were considered to have been sightings of astronomical objects. After considering weather balloons, airplanes and hoaxes, a residue of twenty-three percent of the reports was considered as "unknown."

The Grudge Report concluded, "There is no evidence that objects reported upon are the result of an advanced scientific foreign development; and, therefore, they constitute no direct threat to the national security." It recognized a psychological threat, however, and continued: "There are indications that the planned release of sufficient unusual aerial objects coupled with the release of related psychological propaganda would cause a form of mass-hysteria. Employment of these methods by or against an enemy would yield similar results." It therefore recommended that the Psychological Warfare Division be informed of the results of the study and that it participate in plans for public release of information relative to unidentified flying objects.

Grudge was allowed to rest in peace less than two years. It was reincarnated on 27 October 1951, when Major General C. P. Cabell, director of Air Force Intelligence, ordered its re-activation as a new and expanded project. The new project, which was re-named Project Blue Book about five months after its reactivation, was under the direction of Captain E. J. Ruppelt. Dr. Hynek continued to serve as consultant on astronomically-related events.

The year 1952 saw a tremendous upsurge in UFO sightings and in public interest in them. Reports received by Air Force Intelligence and Project Blue Book jumped from 169 in 1951 to 1501 in 1952.

An amateur UFO study organization known as the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, was formed that same year by Mrs. Coral Lorenzen. APRO was the first such organization to operate on a national scale. Its initial mimeographed bulletin was sent to fifty-two members. By 1968, APRO claimed 8,000 members. It had, however, been surpassed in size by the younger National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), an amateur organization based in Washington, D. C, which by 1968 claimed a membership of 12,000, including over 300 scientific and technical advisers.

Public interest in the numerous UFO reports was greatly enhanced by press attention and sensationalized reporting. Magazine articles on UFOs appeared in 1952 not only in sensational publications but also in American Mercury, Collier's, Life, New Republic, Newsweek, Popular Science, Reader's Digest, Time, and even The New Yorker.

The Air Force came under intensified public criticism for its handling, or mishandling, of UFO reports after NICAP came on the scene. NICAP's major theme seemed to be that the Air Force was keeping the truth about UFOs from the American people. NICAP was certain that "real" UFOs were extraterrestrial vehicles. So was APRO, but that organization felt it was the CIA which was withholding the truth and deceiving the public—even withholding the truth from the Air Force.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did take an interest in UFOs, presumably out of concern that the generation of mass-hysteria, as mentioned in the Grudge report, might be utilized by an enemy, and that military communication channels might be jammed with UFO sighting reports at a time of enemy attack. The CIA convened a Special Panel of renowned scientists, chaired by Professor H. P. Robertson of the California Institute of Technology, to assist in assessing the UFO situation. The panel's report, produced in January, 1953, after a week of study of the best documented UFO reports and available UFO photographs, not only concluded that UFOs offered no direct threat to the national security, but further stated the belief that there existed "no residuum of cases which indicates phenomena which are attributable to foreign artifacts capable of hostile acts." The Robertson panel further concluded that there was no evidence that the phenomena indicated a need for revision of current scientific concepts. It did recognize potential psychological hazards associated with UFO reports, and recommended "that the national security agencies take immediate steps to strip the Unidentified Flying Objects of the special status they have been given and the aura of mystery they have unfortunately acquired." The panel also recommended launching an educational program to inform the public about UFOs. Its report was classified "Secret," and thus kept from public knowledge until declassified in the summer of 1966.

While the Robertson panelists were renowned physical scientists, their recommendations showed a naïve lack of understanding of the nature of human beliefs and desires. Their recommendations were never implemented, and probably could not have been. However, since the panel's report and numerous UFO reports were kept "secret," their existence fueled additional arguments that agencies of the government were conspiring to conceal the truth about UFOs from the American public. Confidence in the honesty of the Air Force, as well as the CIA, continued to decay.

Meanwhile, public interest in UFOs continued to intensify. A 1953 book, Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Donald E. Keyhoe, a retired Marine Corps major (and founder in 1956 of NICAP), quickly made the bestseller lists. Significant numbers of readers were avidly consuming the multitude of books and articles about UFOs that appeared on book shelves and magazine stands, and writers were cashing in on the opportunity to make bucks.

Belief in Air Force concealment of the sensational truth about UFOs continued to spread. Since secrecy was known to exist, no one was sure that he knew the truth. Unnecessary Air Force secrecy from 1947 to 1968 regarding UFO matters played a significant role in the development of distrust by American people in their own defense establishment.

The market quickly showed what the American public wanted to read. Understandably, it was that which offered mystery, a glimpse of the unknown, sex, and fascination. Two other books appearing in 1953 reveal the public's desire for the sensational. Flying Saucers by Professor Donald H. Menzel, then director of Harvard College Observatory, explained many UFO sightings in terms of optical illusion, and found no need to invoke extraterrestrial visitors in explaining observations. Menzel's book did not achieve a large enough market to be issued as a paperback, and quickly went out of print. Flying Saucers Have landed, by D. Leslie and George Adamski, was widely read in hardcover and paperback editions. This book gave a full account of Adamski's alleged interview with a man from Venus on the California desert on 20 November 1952.

In 1967, Miss Lynn E. Catoe of the Library of Congress compiled a bibliography of UFO publications. It contained over 1600 entries, including 71 books, 28 pamphlets, and 73 magazine articles in English. Flying saucers might possibly have been illusory, but flying saucer literature was quite real, and still thriving.

Captain Ruppelt, director of Project Blue Book, left the Air Force in September, 1953. Even he was critical of Air Force handling of UFO reports, implying in his 1956 book that investigation of Grudge's twenty-three percent residue of "unknown" cases was inadequate and incomplete.

By 1965, Project Blue Book had received more than 9,000 reports of UFO sightings. It had "explained" all but about seven percent of them in terms of ordinary phenomena or hoaxes, and felt the other seven percent might be similarly explained if adequate information about them were available. The public, however, often did not accept or believe the Air Force "explanations," which sometimes did not seem compatible with the facts. Demands increased for Air Force revelation of the "truth."

The Air Force public relations problem led to the 28 September 1965 request by Major General E. B. LeBailly, head of the Office of Information of the Secretary of the Air Force, that a working scientific panel composed of both physical and social scientists be organized to review Project Blue Book. Addressed to the Military Director of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, General LeBailly's letter asked for the review of Blue Book's resources, methods, and findings, and for reviewers to advise the Air Force concerning improvements that should be made in the program to carry out the Air Force's assigned responsibility.

General LeBailly's request resulted in establishment of the "Ad Hoc Committee to Review Project Blue Book," chaired by physicist Dr. Brian O'Brien, and composed of Drs. Launor F. Carter, psychologist; Jesse Orlansky, psychologist; Richard Porter, electrical engineer; Carl Sagan, space scientist; and Willis H. Ware, electrical engineer. The O'Brien Committee reported its findings in March, 1966.

The committee noted that in thousands of hours of observation and filming of the sky in scientific programs such as the Palomar Observatory Sky Atlas, Harvard Meteor Project, and the Smithsonian Visual Prairie Network, not a single unidentified object had been reported as appearing on film plates or sighted visually. After reviewing Blue Book and previous panel records, the O'Brien Committee came to the now common conclusion that there has been no evidence that unidentified flying objects were or are a threat to our national security. The committee also noted, however, that some of the Blue Book cases that were listed as "identifieds" were sightings where the evidence collected was not adequate to permit positive listing in the identified category. For that reason, the O'Brien Committee recommended that the Blue Book program be "strengthened to provide opportunity for scientific investigation of selected sightings in more detail and depth than has been possible to date." To implement this recommendation, they suggested involving one or more of the nation's universities...

Meanwhile, as the Air Force bogged itself ever deeper in what must have seemed to it a UFO quagmire, its public image sank to a new low. Its "explanation" of the Washtenaw County sightings as "swamp gas" was considered insulting to observers, ridiculous by UFO-club members, and ludicrous by the observers' representatives in Congress. Calls increased for a Congressional investigation of the Air Force's handling of UFO reports.

Demands for Congressional action were strengthened by activities of individuals who were considered especially qualified to speak out about their UFO beliefs. In particular. Dr. James F. McDonald, Senior Physicist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, University of Arizona, was taking personal time off work to travel about the United States and speak at meetings and conventions of scientists about UFO sightings. Dr. McDonald was amazingly energetic, organized, and convincing in the logic of his presentations. He repeatedly displayed a list of his "20 best cases," which he felt indicated strongly that Earth was being visited by extraterrestrial beings. Dr. McDonald felt that the UFO question was "the greatest scientific problem of our time." Because of his qualifications and the high regard in which he was held in scientific circles, Dr. McDonald convinced numerous scientists, as well as members of the U.S. Congress, that UFO reports were not receiving the attention and investigation they deserved.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek also began to add to the Air Force's public relations problem. Although it was he who suggested to them that swamp gas could account for the flurry of sightings in Michigan, he found himself embarrassed by public reaction to that "explanation." He felt comfortable with the cases he identified for the Air Force as misinterpretations of astronomical objects, but began to feel that the accumulation of good non-astronomical cases was so impressive that there must be something very significant, such as extraterrestrial visitation, occurring on Earth. Dr. Hynek began to express such a feeling publicly, referring to the UFO phenomenon as "the greatest mystery of our age, perhaps the greatest mystery of all time." Dr. Hynek's position as Chairman of the Department of Astronomy and Director of Dearborn Observatory, Northwestern University, as well as his experience as Air Force Consultant on reported UFO sightings, gave considerable weight to his call for more complete investigation of UFO reports.

The voices of such qualified scientists were amplified by APRO, NICAP, and numerous smaller organizations and clubs of UFO believers.

Just a few weeks after the swamp gas incident, the House Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Congress held a one-day hearing on the UFO problem. It was there that Air Force Secretary Harold Brown publicly revealed the existence and content of the O'Brien Committee report. Regarding the report's recommendation for establishment of a university-associated panel of civilian scientists to investigate selected UFO reports, Secretary Brown told the Armed Services Committee, "I believe I may act favorably on it, but I want to explore further the nature of such a panel, and the ground rules, before I go ahead with it. I don't want to have a group of people come in for just one day and make a shallow investigation. They have to be prepared to look into the situation thoroughly if they are to do any good."

Less than four months later, Dr. J. Thomas Ratchford of the scientific staff of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) asked Dr. E. U. Condon, then at the University of Colorado, if he would take on the scientific direction of the study of UFOs as recommended by the O'Brien Committee. Secretary Brown had assigned the responsibility of implementing the O'Brien recommendations to the AFOSR, which was asking the University of Colorado, because of Dr. Condon's possible willingness and his tremendous prestige as a scientist, to accept a contract for the work.

Dr. Condon's background was one of both scientific eminence and controversy. His tenure as administrative assistant to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, directing the scientific work in developing the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, was cut short by conflict with Army General Leslie R. Groves, whose oppressive security restrictions on Los Alamos scientists Condon considered stifling to scientific progress. He was elected President of the American Physical Society while serving from 1945 to 1951 as Director of the National Bureau of Standards. At that time, his loyalty to his country was viciously attacked by the now infamous House un-American Activities Committee. Dr. Condon survived the witch-hunting attacks, and became known internationally as an outstanding scientist with impeccable integrity who was willing to fight in support of his beliefs. He was publicly known to be intolerant of official nonsense, and the AFOSR considered him one of the few scientists who would be suitable to head the UFO project, simply because his conclusions, whatever they should be after the study, would carry unquestioned credibility in scientific circles, and likely also with the public at large.

Although many scientists considered UFO sightings not a proper subject for scientific study, some, including Dr. Walter Orr Roberts, who headed the National Center for Atmospheric Research, urged Dr. Condon to accept this assignment as a significant public service.

The news that an official UFO study would be made at the University of Colorado, under Dr. Condon's direction, hit the papers and wires on 7 October 1966. Dr. Franklin E. Roach and Professor Stuart W. Cook would serve as principal investigators. Dr. Roach, an astrophysicist, was renowned for his work on upper atmosphere radiation. He had participated in briefings and debriefings of our early astronauts. Dr. Cook was Chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Colorado.

On the evening of the day the contract was announced, I unintentionally and literally bumped into Franklin Roach at a party at the home of Professor Frank Kreith and his wife, Marian. One of the very young Kreith daughters was standing on my feet, to keep from being stepped on by those size thirteens, as we laughingly joined the dancing crowd in the living room. We bumped into more than one of the couples there. When I turned to see the Roachs, however, I stopped to chat a bit, since I had known Franklin socially for some time, and the UFO contract was the conversation topic of the day. I told Franklin I envied his participation in this study. He responded that he was interested that I was interested, and suggested I talk with Bob Low, who was an Assistant Dean in the University of Colorado Graduate School, and who would be serving as coordinator of the UFO project.

Mr. Low was cordial at our meeting. Staff was not yet being hired, however. Work was not scheduled to commence before December, and no one was certain yet just how the study would be organized or carried out. It was assumed that scientists from other universities would be sub-contracted to investigate reports of UFO sightings in their respective geographic areas.

In March, 1967, Bob Low contacted me to see if I might still be interested in working on the UFO project. The thought of cooperative agreements with other universities had long since been abandoned. I had a full teaching load as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Physical Science in the university's Division of Integrated Studies, but could do outside research on a one-fifth time basis. We agreed that I would work this part time, getting acquainted with UFO reports, until the end of the regular academic term, then be with the project on a full-time basis until its investigative phase was completed. My assignment would be to investigate the physical aspects of current UFO reports, working with a staff psychologist, who would study the psychological aspects of the report. I would look for physical evidence that the reported UFO had actually been there, and that it was not some ordinary object misidentified by observers. Hopefully, we might even get to the site soon enough to see the reported object. Actually, I hoped—though I would not say so openly—that I might find real evidence that someone had actually seen an extraterrestrial vehicle. My associate would look into the minds of the persons reporting the sightings. We would plan to get to the location of any significant sighting as soon as possible wherever the site was in the United States—and possibly Canada and Mexico. The assignment promised to be both interesting and fun.

UFOs: An Insider's View of the Official Quest for Evidence, Roy Craig