Unidentified Flying Objects

Humans have long gazed upwards at the night sky and wondered if we are alone in the universe. Could visitors from elsewhere in the galaxy make their way to earth? And if so, how would they travel? would we recognize their spaceships, or would they be unidentified flying objects (UFOs)?

The modern-day UFO phenomenon began midafternoon on June 24th, 1947. Private pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying near Mount Rainier, Washington searching for the remains of a downed Marine Corps plane, when he spotted nine unusually shaped objects speeding through the air. He described them as shimmering and shaped like pie plates, skimming through the air, “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” Widely reported on, Arnold’s descriptions of what he had seen captured imaginations across the U.S. Journalists coined the term “flying saucer”. The U.S. Air Force declined to weigh in on Arnold’s observations but did launch Project Saucer in 1948. After a name change (to Project Sign) and a little less than a year of investigations the project officially announced that the cause of the mysterious sightings was … inconclusive.

While the Air Force wrapped up Project Sign, Americans were far from done with flying saucers. Flying saucer clubs sprung up. Books and pamphlets were published with titles like Coming of the Space People and Behind the Flying Saucers. Visitors from space and UFOs were featured in dozens of films and comic books. Religious leaders like Assemblies of God Pastor Orval Lee Jaggers incorporated aliens and UFOs into their religious teachings. UFO conventions became popular. There was a veritable flying saucer craze. Enterprising hucksters claimed to have been abducted by aliens, publishing breathless accounts of their extraterrestrial encounters aboard UFOs. Numbers of flying saucer sightings skyrocketed. Even reputable companies like Nestle used images of flying saucers and little green aliens in their marketing campaigns.

To understand the UFO craze of the late 1940s and 50s, it helps to understand the world geopolitical situation. The Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union were mounting. The world had entered the atomic age and the two superpowers had tremendously dangerous, potentially world destroying nuclear bombs and missiles at the ready. Simultaneously, the race to reach outer space from earth was underway. Research teams were developing plans to launch satellites, animals and eventually humans into space. Some believers in UFOs were certain that peaceful visitors from outer space had used them to travel to earth to warn humans of the dangers of atomic weapons. Others were sure that UFOs bearing aliens were sent to earth in order to stage a takeover as humans seemed unfit to take care of the planet.

It was in this environment that the Air Force initiated Project Blue Book. The project was the military’s approach to a systematic study of reported UFOs. Launched in 1952, Project Blue Book reviewed more than 12,000 UFO sightings. Of the 701 observations which could not be explained, none of them showed evidence of being extraterrestrial vehicles. In fact, the vast majority of sightings reported to Project Blue Book were explainable phenomenon. Most of the UFOs were weather balloons, satellites, drones, optical illusions, shooting stars and radar malfunctions. Project Blue Book was not without controversy though. UFO believers held that the Air Force had captured UFOs and were engaged in secret scientific study of both the spacecraft and the aliens they carried. The Air Force denied having ever captured a UFO. UFO skeptics suggested that UFOs were super-secret technologies developed by the U.S. or the Soviet Union. The Air Force remained silent about building saucer shaped experimental aircraft and further claimed that UFOs represented no threat to national security.  

Speculation about UFOs remained rampant throughout the 1950s and 60s. Some believed UFOs came from Venus, others said Mars. UFOs became an international phenomenon. Reports of flying saucers came in from as far away as India and Australia. Psychologists proposed that saucer mania was some sort of mass hysteria. UFOs, believers argued, defied conventional laws of gravity and aerodynamics and exhibited behaviors which could not be scientifically explained. By the time Project Blue Book was officially discontinued in 1969, the Air Force was confident that UFOs were merely unidentified flying objects and not visitors from outer space.

Still, years of UFO conspiracy theories followed. Then in 2007 the Pentagon began to take seriously, reports from military pilots who encountered objects behaving unusually in the skies. With congressional approval, millions of dollars were funneled into the new Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP). The purpose of the top-secret program was “collecting and analyzing a wide range of ‘anomalous aerospace threats’ ranging from advanced aircraft fielded by traditional U.S. adversaries to commercial drones and possible alien encounters.” Many in the military remained skeptical about the possibility of extraterrestrial vehicles. But the program continued as there was certainly the threat that advanced aircraft could have been developed by China or Russia.

UFOs were once again in the news in 2021 with the release of a U.S. government report on the subject. The Pentagon introduced a new term to explain sightings of strange objects in the sky - Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAP). Video footage of Navy fighter pilots’ on-board cameras showing a saucer shaped object behaving strangely circulated in the press. Scientific evaluation of the images remains inconclusive.  

Whether they are referred to as flying saucers, UFOs or UAPs, difficult to explain aerial phenomenon have been with us for more than seventy years. Whatever you believe about the origins of these phenomenon, it is perhaps only human to speculate as to the possibility of visitors from outer space.


Richard F. Haines

Richard F. Haines was a research scientist who began working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1967. His work included projects related to the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Station Freedom missions. In 1986 he was appointed the Chief of the Space Human Factors Office at NASA’s Ames research center. In that role he directed research and development efforts on space suits and spacecraft window design.

Jack D. Pickett

Jack D. Picket began his UFO research in the 1960s. A native of Cooper, Wyoming, Pickett had served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He argued that alleged UFOs were experimental aircraft flown by the U.S. military. Pickett believed he had seen four flying saucer shaped aircraft marked with the logo of the U.S. Air Force parked on a runway at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. He authored the article "Flying Saucers - For Real", which was published in Search magazine in 1982

Frank Scully

Frank Scully (1892-1964) was an American author and columnist for Variety magazineIn 1950 he published a controversial best-selling book titled Behind the Flying Saucers. In it, Scully described an account by oilman Silas M. Newton and scientist "Dr. Gee" of a flying saucer crash in the New Mexican desert. The saucer's purported occupants were all dead. Scully described the space craft as constructed on the "System of Nines" and that it flew using magnetic propulsion.

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