How UFO Sightings Became an American Obsession

When a big flap pops, in other words, codified programs crop up. You can see this happening today, when in April 2019, the Navy confirmed that, given the number of unauthorized or unidentified craft that military personnel had encountered recently, it was “updating and formalizing the process by which reports of any such suspected incursions can be made to the cognizant authorities,” as Politico reported. Long before that, the first official program came together the year after Arnold’s sighting. Like the two programs that would immediately follow, spanning more than two decades of federal effort, this initial effort aimed to soothe—and redirect—the masses, while also more quietly attempting to determine whether these saucers were something the military should worry about. The ethos in general? “Publicly debunk and treat the matter lightly,” Hoyt noted, “and privately investigate, and take the matter seriously.”

The government’s first UFO investigation program began the year Scrabble became a game, and the year the US passed the Marshall Plan, an effort in part to stop the spread of communism in Europe. Also, it was around the time the country began rampant missile testing in New Mexico, thanks in no small part to the German scientists and engineers. After World War II, the government gave German scientists (often from the Nazi party) new identities and fresh lives in America, as part of an initiative called Operation Paperclip. It aimed to bring American rocketry to former German heights, while keeping that same achievement from the Soviet Union. With their Teutonic know-how, our aero-flight program could catch up with the Russians, who had also stolen some scientists from across the border.

Initially called Project Saucer (an obviously bad PR idea), the government quickly renamed its first UFO program Project Sign. It began in January of 1948 and ran for just one year. At the time, rockets from the Operation Paperclip scientists were not for spacefaring; they were weapons. But some of these stolen scientists (and their non-Paperclip peers) reasoned that with a little more thrust, the rockets could enter orbit. And with a little more oomph than that, they could leave orbit. Despite the less warlordy dream, the country wouldn’t send rockets to orbit till the late 1950s. It’s interesting that looking out into the universe, we saw our own future and foisted it onto others, already successful.

In the Arnold era of almost-kind-of spaceflight, fears about who might take over or destroy the world pervaded the US. The country had just gotten out of a war, using planet-destroying bombs that the Soviets would also soon possess. The globe felt cold and tenuous. And Project Sign attempted to find out whether the potential conquerors included experimental enemy aircraft or hostile aliens. We’re in a similar situation today, with worries about whether America will be overtaken by China, about the influence Russia has over our world-leading government. The shadow of international tension looms large, and it’s a little like those focused on the threat of UFOs have managed to capture and redirect our existential fear outward (way outward), while tinging it with awe.

Three months after Arnold’s sighting, Lieutenant General Nathan Twining sent a message called “AMC [Air Materiel Command] Opinion Concerning ‘Flying Discs’” to the commanding general of the Army Air Force.

The disputed document outlined the Lieutenant General’s belief that, while some may have been the result of “natural phenomena, such as meteors,” the objects reported were, in fact, real. Twining detailed the appearance of the objects—disc-like, and as large as a man-made aircraft—and suggested the possibility, based on reports of their movement, that “some of the objects are controlled either manually, automatically or remotely.”

These objects, he continued, tended toward the metallic, usually leaving no trail. They were normally soundless and fast. Given a lot of money and development time, the US could build aircraft with these characteristics, so maybe these UFOs were just UF-Ours, part of a classified project he wasn’t privy to. Also possible was that they were another country’s. But also possible: They didn’t exist at all.

The Air Force had undertaken low-level, unmandated investigation already, but Twining’s memo, some claim, ushered things into officialdom. A few months later, Project Sign was born. It hoovered in UFO reports and sent investigators to determine the hypothetical objects’ natures and their threat level.

As the investigations went on, the Sign group split into the two fervent factions, occupying different ends of the ideological spectrum and jockeying for power over the project. Some thought these UFOs weren’t really real, and so couldn’t be dangerous. This project was thus silly and inconsequential. Another subset of researchers, though, thought the opposite. And some of these believers soon developed what was later called the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, a term that has stuck around since and whose meaning remains self-evident.

That leadership polarization—“it’s dumb” versus “it’s aliens”— has historically posed a problem for Air Force pilots who wanted to submit UFO reports. They never knew to which pole their case would go, or which way that pole’s boss was leaning. If one of the naysayers got their hands on it, they might think the pilot was mentally unfit—in general, and especially to be flying planes bearing guns and missiles. If their report went into the hands of an alien enthusiast, meanwhile, maybe the pilot would become known as one of them, and end up a Kenneth Arnold-type casualty.

In 1953, in response to the international climate and the rising tide of UFO reports, the CIA sponsored a four-day meeting called the Robertson Panel, whose findings echo ominously into the present day.

The panel’s conclusions, its very existence, and especially its CIA sponsorship remained classified at the time and for several years after. The agency didn’t want people to know the government worried about their worries about UFO reports. But they did worry, according to declassified copies of the report, which provide a cold-toned assessment of their fears. If foes could use UFOs—real or simply reported—to sow panic among the populace, causing chaos and distrust, that could prime the US for physical or psychological invasion. Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which the Russians saturate America with UFO sightings: They could launch a weapon and maybe no one would notice because the warning system would be busy chasing ghosts. Even without deliberate foreign malfeasance, if too many people got too amped and called in a panic about Venus, the government would have fewer available resources to sort the MiGs from the chaff.

Watch, the panel also advised, those UFO clubs, the civilian investigator groups that had cropped up. Should a flap occur, these groups might have the ears and minds of the people. Keep in mind “the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes.” To this day, some ufologists take this surveillance and disinformation suggestion as evidence of the virtues of their work. (If there’s nothing to worry about, why worry about us?)

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The panel further reaffirmed some of the conclusions from Project Sign, which was later renamed Project Grudge—most notably that whatever UFOs were or were not, they did not seem to represent a national security threat. The overload was dangerous, as was the panic, along with the fact that soldiers might see a foreign spycraft and think it was merely one of those UFOs.



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