6. UFOs

I suppose I could devote a full-length section of this site to the subject of UFOs, and write thousands of scornful words about it – but I honestly can’t be bothered! The whole subject is so ridiculous, that it doesn’t deserve more than a brief treatment here, as a page of “Miscellaneous Madness”.
As stated in the previous essay, I’m a lifelong enthusiast and advocate of spaceflight. As an astronomer, I don’t have the slightest doubt that life, and intelligent life, exists elsewhere in the Universe – not within our own Solar System, but on planets of other stars, which we now know to be commonplace. But I definitely don’t believe that we are being visited by extraterrestrial spacecraft on a regular basis! This belief, and the associated “conspiracy theories” about alleged government cover-ups, belongs firmly in the Lunatic Fringe.

6.1. What is a UFO?

Almost everyone has probably “seen a UFO” at some time in their life! Think about it; the term UFO stands for “Unidentified Flying Object”; a “UFO sighting” simply means a sighting of any flying – or apparently flying – object, which the observer is unable to identify.
If you happen to see some apparently airborne object, which you personally can’t identify, then you can claim to have “seen a UFO”! But the fact that you can’t identify it doesn’t mean that someone else won’t be able to – or that you yourself won’t be able to at a later date, if you decide to investigate. For example, it might be something as mundane as a high-altitude aircraft or balloon, too far away for you to see any detail, so that it just looks like a moving light in the sky. In fact, a great many “UFO sightings” do indeed turn out to be spacecraft – but not alien ones! They are nothing more than Earth-orbiting satellites launched by humans, many of which can easily be seen as bright points of light slowly crossing the night sky.
The point I’m making is that “UFO” is definitely not synonymous with “flying saucer” or “alien spacecraft”! Unfortunately, in popular culture and modern myth, the term is often taken to mean exactly that. And if someone claims to be a “UFO researcher”, this almost invariably translates as “UFO believer” – someone who is deluded into believing that the Earth is being regularly visited by aliens, and is trying to “prove” it. More often than not, such people don’t even know the meaning of the word “research”, in the scientific sense!

6.2. How did it start?

Strangely, the “UFO cult” is older than the Space Age! Reports of “flying saucers” began, mainly in the United States, in the late 1940’s, soon after the end of the Second World War – while Sputnik 1 still lay a decade in the future. At that time, most people still regarded the idea of spaceflight as fantasy – though rocketry had become reality. This was the beginning of the Cold War, and the first ballistic missiles were being developed by both sides.
No-one can be sure exactly how or why the craze began – but it’s easy to identify something which was probably a contributing factor. Just at that time, the US Air Force had begun a number of programmes using high-altitude balloons, both for meteorology and for monitoring Soviet nuclear tests and missile launches – the latter obviously being highly classified ( see Section 6.4 ). Most of the population would have been unaware of these programmes; large high-flying balloons, with highly reflective surfaces, could easily account for many early reports of UFO sightings. That the beginning of the UFO craze coincided with these tests is probably no coincidence at all!
Over time, however, UFO claims became more elaborate, with people claiming to have seen alien spacecraft close up, and even to have seen aliens. No doubt, during the 1950’s, people’s imaginations were boosted by countless films on the theme of alien visits and invasions – despite the fact that most of these low-budget efforts were so badly made as to be unintentionally hilarious. One infamous example, Plan Nine From Outer Space, is widely acclaimed – in the face of stiff competition – as the worst film ever made! Two decades later, the subject received the Hollywood “blockbuster” treatment, with the release in 1977 of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. ( In the jargon of UFO “believers”, a “close encounter of the first kind” means a mere sighting of an alien spacecraft, “the second kind” the discovery of physical evidence, and “the third kind” actual contact with aliens. ) No doubt the cult received a major boost, due to the popularity of this film.
There was also a silly 1970’s TV series entitled UFO, in which humanity was fighting a running battle against an invading fleet of alien spacecraft. Its title was particularly silly, as in the context of the story, the flying objects were not “unidentified”; everyone knew what they were!
In 1952, an American named George Adamski began making claims of UFO sightings which became ever more elaborate, and later claimed to have met aliens and been taken aboard their spacecraft! Incredibly, large numbers of people actually believed him, and he became something of an international celebrity. Adamski claimed that his aliens came from Venus – which didn’t sound quite so ridiculous then as it does now. In those pre-spaceflight days, Venus was thought of as “Earth’s twin”, and as its surface is permanently hidden beneath its cloud cover, people could imagine whatever they liked about conditions there, and no-one could prove them wrong. Today, of course, we know that Venus is a hellish place, with a surface temperature to melt lead, atmospheric pressure 90 times that of Earth, and sulphuric acid rain – completely inhospitable for life of any kind we can imagine. So we can conclude that Mr. Adamski was simply a nutcase.
Over the years, countless others have followed Adamski, and claimed to have met aliens, been abducted by them, etc. Who knows whether these people are genuinely deluded, or just sad attention-seekers – but in most cases, their claims are so ridiculous as to not even be worthy of serious consideration. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people gullible enough to believe them!
Some years ago, a “documentary” was shown on British television, made by someone who claimed to be a “UFO researcher”. I didn’t watch it, but I did read a write-up in a magazine, which said a lot about its content. The “researcher” had collected numerous reports of “sightings” from around the world, including several where people claimed to have met aliens. His pièce de resistance was the claim that three people in widely separated countries, who had never had any contact with each other, had all produced drawings of the aliens whom they claimed to have seen close up, and the three drawings – reproduced in the magazine – were remarkably similar.
Yes – so they were. But what this genius had apparently failed to spot was that the drawings also bore a remarkable resemblance to the fictitious aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind! D’ohhh!!!!
I’ll say two things about these ridiculous claims. Firstly, for the last 50 years, all the world’s major powers have maintained extensive radar early warning networks, to warn of any missile launches by their potential enemies. The idea that any alien spacecraft could possibly orbit the Earth – let alone enter its atmosphere – without being detected, is simply absurd.
Secondly, if, as some people believe, our planet is being visited by alien beings on a regular basis, then I can only say that they have a very strange way of going about it! After the immense effort of travelling across light years of space, and presumably subjecting our planet to intense scrutiny, what do they do? Instead of attempting to make their initial contact with our political leaders, or our scientists, they invariably choose to land in the middle of nowhere, and reveal their presence to a single, totally ordinary and nondescript member of the human race – often some “country bumpkin” type of below average intelligence! What does this say about the “intelligence” of the mythical aliens?

6.3. UFOs and “conspiracy theories”

During the 1950’s, at the height of the original “flying saucers” craze, the US Air Force carried out an extensive investigation into the phenomenon. ( Why the Air Force? Maybe someone thought that pilots were more likely than anyone else to see the hypothetical airborne crockery. ) Not surprisingly, the study concluded that there was no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the Earth was being visited by alien spacecraft.
Inevitably, this soon gave rise to numerous “conspiracy theories”, which claimed that we were being visited by aliens, and that governments – particularly that of the United States – were fully aware of the fact, but for some unfathomable reason, were trying to keep it secret from the rest of us! These barmy ideas retain a cult following to this day.
The obvious question is – why??? The discovery that intelligent life exists on another planet would be one of the most momentous discoveries in human history; for what conceivable reason do people imagine that any government would want to cover it up? I can only imagine that their “logic”, especially during the Cold War era, went something like this: If an alien race is able to travel across interstellar space, then their science and technology must be far superior to ours – so we’ll be able to learn things from them to vastly improve our own technology. So if the US government could have exclusive access to their knowledge, it would gain a huge military advantage over its enemies.
This scenario has holes in it through which you could drive a bus! Firstly, I’ll say again that it’s inconceivable that any alien spacecraft could get as far as low Earth orbit, without being detected by our missile early warning radars, and since the dawn of the Space Age, by our satellite tracking systems. Not only would the United States be aware of their presence, but so would Russia, China, Japan, all the major European nations, etc. etc. And the idea that an alien vehicle could actually land on the Earth, without us all soon knowing about it, is just ridiculous!
Secondly, why does anyone imagine that an alien delegation, who had presumably come to our planet with peaceful intentions ( let’s face it; had they come with hostile intentions, we would certainly all know about it – and as their technology would indeed be far superior to ours, there wouldn’t be much that we could do about it! ), want to be party to our petty inter-tribal quarrels? They would surely have spent some considerable time studying us from a safe distance, before making contact, so they would probably know all about our tendency to fight each other at the slightest provocation, and our escalating arms race – so they would know full well that to share their technology with just one of the rival factions would be a recipe for disaster. They would have to be incredibly irresponsible, to go along with any nationalistic ambitions on our part; surely they would want to make peaceful contact with the entire human race, or not at all.
At this point, I’ll repeat something which I wrote in the “Apollo Hoax” section of this web site, about so-called “conspiracy theories”.
The very phrase “conspiracy theory” is a misnomer. In fact, I very much doubt that the average “conspiracy theorist” even understands the true meaning of the word “theory”. In accordance with the scientific method, a theory – as opposed to a mere speculation or hypothesis – has to be testable – or as scientists say, falsifiable. This means that, if a theory happens to be wrong, it can be disproved by means of experiments and observations; if a test yields results which differ from those predicted by the theory, then the theory is faulty and must be modified.
Conspiracy theories, by definition, don’t satisfy this criterion. The average conspiracy theorist - whether his beliefs are born out of anti-Establishment paranoia, misguided zeal or just the desire to make a fast buck – will hold onto them, no matter what. No amount of evidence which the rational among us present to him will persuade him that he is wrong; he will simply claim that our evidence has somehow been faked as another part of the conspiracy. In this case, we could present any number of reports by scientific experts, which conclude that there are no visiting aliens and that all UFO sightings have earthly explanations – but he would claim that all those scientists are “in on it”, and part of the great government cover-up.
In fact, these people frequently ignore even the most fundamental principle of scientific reasoning – Occam’s Razor. This can be stated as “the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one”. But this line of reasoning seems to escape the “believers”. Consider the following true-life scenario, which features in Section 6.4: A mysterious flying object was seen to crash to Earth, in one of the most sparsely populated regions of the United States. Someone later found some wreckage, and reported it to the authorities. A number of US Air Force personnel quickly arrived, cordoned off the crash site and took away the wreckage, while the eye-witnesses were told not to talk about what they had seen.
Now, which do you think is the most likely explanation?
a. The object was an alien landing vehicle, whose orbiting mother ship had somehow been detected by the United States government, but not by anyone else. The government had made contact with the visiting aliens, but was conspiring to keep the greatest scientific discovery of the century a secret, for its own sinister purpose.
b. The object was part of a secret research project being conducted by the Air Force.
Hmmm… that’s a tough one!
A few years ago, I heard of a priceless example of the kind of idiotic claim made by UFO “believers”. A TV programme on the subject included an interview with a fellow who believed that aliens were spying on us on an almost daily basis, but that most of us were unaware of their presence, because their vehicles were “able to disguise themselves as ordinary aircraft”! How’s that for a “theory” which can’t be proved wrong!
I’ll end this section by taking a brief look – which is really all it deserves – at the most infamous UFO myth of all.

6.4. The “Roswell Incident”

On 4 July 1997, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder probe successfully landed on Mars. The Planetary Society – an international space advocacy group, of which I’m proud to be a member – held a public event at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which included live viewing of the first Pathfinder images. This was attended by around 4000 people.
The very same weekend, 50000 people descended on the town of Roswell, New Mexico, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the “Roswell Incident” – the most infamous, and quite possibly the most ridiculous, of all UFO myths. Seldom, if ever, have I come across such a depressing demonstration of the influence of unscientific gibberish in popular culture, and of the public’s lack of interest in real science!
I’m going to summarise this incident pretty briefly here; for a comprehensive account of it, I refer the reader to its entry in Wikipedia – URL given at the end of this section.
Sometime around the end of June 1947 ( the exact date is uncertain within a couple of weeks ), a ranch foreman named William Brazel found some mysterious wreckage on a ranch 70 miles from Roswell, in one of the most sparsely populated regions of the United States. He later told the local sheriff, and suggested that he might have found one of the “flying saucers”, which were then being reported in the media. The wreckage consisted of sheets or strips of rubber, aluminium foil, paper tape and balsa wood, together with an object which Brazel described as a “flying disc”.
On 8 July, a number of military personnel from Roswell Army Air Field arrived at the ranch, commanded by a Major Jesse Marcel, and took away the wreckage. Brazel, and others who had seen the wreckage, were asked not to talk about what they had seen. The wreckage was then taken to an air base at Fort Worth, Texas.
A press release was issued by the military, saying that a possible “flying saucer” had been recovered near Roswell. This did not mean that anyone actually believed it to be an alien spacecraft; many in the military at that time believed that the reported “flying saucers” could be secret Soviet spy vehicles! But inevitably, some such speculation followed in the media. Shortly afterwards, the Air Force issued a further statement, saying that the recovered object was one of their own; it was simply an experimental weather balloon, and the “disc” was a radar reflector used to track it. ( Remember that radar was in its infancy at this time, having only been developed during the Second World War, and anything connected with it would have been unfamiliar even to most military personnel. )
Let’s face it; rubber, aluminium foil, paper tape and balsa wood would be very strange construction materials for a hypothetical alien spacecraft – but perfectly feasible ones for a balloon! ( The earliest weather balloons did indeed have envelopes made of rubber, though later ones were made from polythene plastic. ) However, the hasty removal of the wreckage, and requests for the silence of the witnesses, suggested that there was something more to it than a mere weather balloon.
After the initial brief flurry of media interest, most people seem to have accepted the Air Force’s explanation. The incident was largely forgotten, even by “flying saucer” enthusiasts, for the next three decades.
Things changed, very much for the worse, in 1978. ( Is it a coincidence, that this was the year after the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind? ) UFO “researcher” Stanton T. Friedman interviewed Major Marcel, and other surviving witnesses, and concluded that the crashed object had been some kind of alien spacecraft. William Brazel was dead by this time, but had claimed at the time to have been “intimidated” by the military. He had also announced, at a press conference shortly after the event, that he was “saying what the Air Force told him to say”. Marcel claimed that the real debris had been “switched” – secretly removed and replaced with the innocent “balloon” debris, photos of which were released to the press, and that the material he had found was “not of this world”.
Friedman published his first book on the Roswell Incident in 1980, claiming that an alien spacecraft had crashed in New Mexico, and that its existence had been “covered up” in a massive conspiracy by the US Government. Over the next 15 years or so, numerous other books appeared, by several authors – some of whom were genuine “believers”, but others may have simply been cashing in on the new craze - which proposed ever more elaborate “conspiracy theories”, and an entire mythology was built up. This is a remarkable example of how those who want to “believe” in something can fabricate an intricate myth out of almost nothing!
Some authors claimed that the bodies of five dead aliens ( or in some accounts, as many as eight ) were recovered from the crash site. There was even a report of an autopsy being carried out on them, and someone publicised an alleged film of this event, which was later proved to have been faked. This belief became so widespread, that the 1997 fiftieth anniversary activities included a solemn “memorial service” for the supposed five dead aliens!
Some even claimed that one of more of the aliens had been found alive; one author claimed that one living alien was kept in captivity and studied for five years, until it died in 1952! Does anyone seriously believe that such a thing could have been done, and kept secret from the rest of the world?
To say that these authors’ “research” was of poor quality, is putting it extremely mildly! Firstly, even Friedman’s first interviews took place 31 years after the event; many of the original people involved were long dead, and those still alive were mainly elderly. While Friedman and others claimed to have interviewed several hundred people, only a handful of these were genuine eye-witnesses; the rest were simply relaying nth-hand accounts which they had heard from others. And while even the most honest of people would have trouble accurately recalling events from 30 years or more in the past, some of the real witnesses were found to be seriously lacking in credibility. Marcel himself was found to be something of a fantasist, and had been known to tell somewhat “embellished” accounts of his own military career, including claims to have won medals, which he hadn’t!
Various authors contradicted each other as to the sequence of events, and even in such fundamental details as the location of the crash, which varied in different accounts by several hundred miles. Statements and facts which conflicted with the authors’ purpose were conveniently ignored. And of course, people who were interviewed at later times would have been influenced by the claims made in earlier works, and embellished their accounts accordingly.
Furthermore, there was a rather obvious fact, which was – presumably deliberately – overlooked; within days of the event, the US military had issued a press statement which mentioned a “possible flying saucer” – in other words, they had publicised the very thing which they were later accused of covering up!
In 1994, the US Air Force issued an official explanation of the events at Roswell, releasing information which had been highly classified in 1947. The crashed object had indeed been a balloon, but one whose purpose was not meteorological. It was part of a secret research project, Project Mogul, which had involved arrays of high-altitude balloons carrying microphones, which were intended to detect Soviet nuclear tests and rocket launches. ( The theory was that in certain upper layers of the atmosphere, low-frequency sound could be carried for vast distances, just as whale songs carry vast distances through water. ) So there had indeed been something of a “cover-up” – not of something so fantastic as an alien spacecraft, but merely of a classified military project.
Most of the more elaborate claims were either pure fabrications, or at best, confused amalgamations of unconnected incidents. After all, when elderly witnesses tried to recall events of 30 or even 40 years ago, it would hardly be surprising if they confused memories of several different events, separated by a few years.
In particular, the accounts of “dead aliens” appear to have been fabricated – consciously or otherwise – from faded memories of unrelated aircraft crashes in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, in which pilots were killed or injured ( many test flights of prototype aircraft were conducted from the nearby Edwards Air Force Base, and several pilots were killed ), and even of crash tests involving anthropomorphic dummies! Can you imagine anything more pathetic, than 50000 loonies, 50 years on, holding a memorial service for some “dead” plastic dummies?!
Around the same time, two prominent authors, who had collaborated on several books, fell out in a big way. One revealed that his former colleague had claimed false credentials, and called him “a pathological liar”!
Since this time, as much government material from the 1940’s was declassified, significant numbers of UFO “researchers” finally accepted that they had been wrong, and that the events of 1947 had a simple and rational explanation – though there are, of course, still a faction of “believers” to this day, who insist that the official explanation is part of the cover-up. Some people will never be convinced by any amount of evidence!
For a comprehensive account of the “Roswell Incident” – both the real facts and the conspiracy claims, see the entry in Wikipedia:

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