August 4, 1967
IN an all-night restaurant in Corning, Calif., two police officers sat chatting over coffee near dawn on July 4.
Suddenly the proprietor noticed a strange glow over a nearby freeway. Rushing outside, the men saw a large, metallic, cigar-shaped object between 300 feet and 500 feet in the air. "It had a huge, white light on the top," says Officer Jim Overton. "Down at the bottom it had a smaller, not so bright light. Around the center of this object was a band, either paint or a different kind of metal. It suddenly began to move with the most terrific burst of speed I've ever seen."
When the mysterious object disappeared a few minutes later, the shaken men returned to the restaurant, where they drew rough sketches of what they had seen. "I was kind of skeptical about these flying saucers being real, but you couldn't convince me otherwise now," says Overton. "I know what I saw."
Officer Overton is not alone in his conviction. More than 5,000,000 Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, are certain that they have seen flying saucers or other UFOs (unidentified flying objects). Furthermore, Gallup reports, 46% of American adults believe that UFOs are something real. Scores of flying-saucer clubs are operating across the nation. They include small groups of semireligious eccentrics who worship saucermen and claim to have met them. They also include retired Marine Major Donald Keyhoe's serious and influential National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), the source of some of the best-documented UFO sightings.
In recent months, a significant change has occurred: the subject has moved out of the realm of science fiction and crackpot claims. Discussions of UFOs have begun to appear in the pages of such respected journals as Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Science. A few responsible scientists now put their reputations on the line by suggesting that saucers may be vehicles from outer space. The vast majority of their colleagues still scoff at this notion, but even some of the skeptics concede that serious investigation is needed.
During the U.S. saucer era, which began when Pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine disklike objects erratically moving through the air near Mount Rainier in 1947, an Air Force unit called Project Blue Book has logged and evaluated more than 11,000 sightings. In most cases, the investigators eventually identified the UFOs as aircraft, balloons, satellites, flocks of birds, light reflected off clouds or shiny surfaces, atmospheric phenomena, meteors, stars, planets and the aurora borealis. Only 6% of saucer reports are listed by Blue Book as "unidentified" or unexplained. But Blue Book staffers have often announced arbitrary—and incorrect—solutions to saucer mysteries. Sightings have been attributed to the Orion constellation when it was actually below the horizon and invisible, to advertising blimps or refueling military aircraft when none were in the vicinity. This reinforces the belief of saucer buffs that the Air Force has been guilty of not only negligence but even deliberate suppression of UFO information.
Physicist Edward Condon, a highly respected former director of the National Bureau of Standards, agreed last October to head an Air Force—financed scientific team at the University of Colorado that will attempt to evaluate some of Project Blue Book's most intriguing unidentified cases. At the same time, Astronomer J. Allen Hynek, director of Northwestern University's Dearborn Observatory and the Air Force's longtime consultant on UFOs, wrote a significant letter to Science. (Had he spoken out earlier, Hynek says, "I would have been regarded as a nut.") In the letter, he took his fellow scientists to task for dismissing UFOs with "buffoonery and caustic banter" and rejecting the possibility that saucers are extraterrestrial. "As long as there are 'unidentifieds,' " he wrote, "the question must obviously remain open."
Meanwhile, James E. McDonald, a University of Arizona atmospheric physicist, studied the records of Project Blue Book, interviewed witnesses around the U.S. and in Australia. His conclusion places him farther out on the saucer's edge than any other U.S. scientist. "I think that UFOs are the No. 1 problem of world science," he says. "I'm afraid that the evidence points to no other acceptable hypothesis than the extraterrestrial. The amount of evidence is overwhelmingly real." Both Hynek and McDonald cite the example of earlier scientists who for years had little patience with recurring stories about stones that fell from the sky. Yet, in 1802, when churchmen, politicians and peasants witnessed an unusually heavy shower of fragments at L'Aigle, France, the French Academy of Sciences finally had to conclude that stones—actually meteorites—do indeed fall from the sky.
Other scientists who have reviewed UFO cases still agree with Astronomer Gerard Kuiper, a colleague of McDonald's at the University of Arizona, who insists that until better evidence is presented, the entire subject is "fanciful." Astronomer Carl Sagan of Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory says that "at the present time, there is no evidence that unambiguously connects the various flying-saucer sightings with extraterrestrial activity."
Substitute for God
Saucers are not a new phenomenon. French Astronomer Jacques Vallee has found evidence of hundreds of ancient sightings. Livy described the Roman equivalent of a UFO wave in 218 B.C. Several drawings show tubes and spheres seen over Nürnberg in 1561. Saucer advocates even read UFO sightings into Shakespeare's King Henry VI ("Dazzle mine eyes, or do I see three suns") and into the Bible, where Ezekiel describes a strange craft coming from the sky and landing close to the Chebar River in Chaldea. During World War II, Allied pilots had numerous encounters with "foo-fighters," mysterious luminous globs that flew alongside their airplanes. In 1946, there were thousands of sightings in Sweden of what were first thought to be secret Russian missiles. In recent years, UFO waves have occurred in France, Britain, Brazil, Spain, Italy, North Africa and Australia, and occasional UFOs have been seen over most other nations.
One persuasive theory about saucers is that they are real only in the mind and that they correspond to a deep human need. Contemporary saucer sightings, wrote Carl Gustav Jung in a book published before his death in 1961, are an outgrowth of the troubled international situation and gradual erosion among Christians of belief in a God who can intervene to save man from his own folly. Hoping for some redeeming, supernatural event, said Jung, man may have turned to a God image: the UFO. The substitution, Jung suggested, is not difficult to understand. "God in his omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence is a totality symbol par excellence, something round, complete and perfect."
Similarly, Boston Psychiatrist Benjamin Simon believes that the UFOs have something for everybody. For the cosmic pessimists, saucers may represent some malignant force about to take over the world. To the ill, UFOs can represent the miracles they have been waiting for. For many, belief in the saucers provides an "oceanic or cosmic feeling of immersion in the total universe, a sort of nirvana."
These conclusions are partly based on Simon's work with Barney and Betty Hill, a Portsmouth, N.H., couple whose "abduction" by saucermen during an auto trip was described in the fast-selling book, The Interrupted Journey by
John Fuller. On their trip, Simon says, the Hills became increasingly concerned about the reception they might receive at restaurants and gas stations along their route: Betty is white, Barney a Negro. Their tension and fear reached a peak when they saw a glowing UFO from the highway. The sighting, Simon theorizes, served as a "day stimulus" for subsequent nightmares and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Betty, who is childless, described an obviously Freudian encounter with a humanoid who examined her and inserted a six-inch needle into her navel, explaining that it was a pregnancy test. Barney, who generally considers the Irish to be hostile toward Negroes, remembers being treated with respect by a humanoid who looked Irish.
The desire to believe in the existence of UFOs has made millions of Americans susceptible to UFO hoaxes: photographs contrived by darkroom manipulation or by simply tossing saucepans, phonograph records or hubcaps in front of cameras. Many people accepted as evidence a photograph of a weird little creature that had supposedly emerged from his saucer and died. A few recognized it for what it was: a shaved monkey.
In addition to the known natural phenomena mentioned by the Air Force to explain sightings, scientists suggest that there are probably still unknown or unverified atmospheric effects that could account for most of the unidentified apparitions. Astronomer Donald Menzel, former director of the Harvard College Observatory, believes that atmospheric refractions sometimes both magnify and bend the light from bright stars, causing them to resemble large and erratically moving disks. Electrical Engineer Philip Klass, an editor of Aviation Week & Space Technology, speculates that many UFOs may be a form of ball lightning generated by an electric corona that sometimes occurs on high-tension power lines, near which saucers are often sighted.
Yet even these theories do not wholly explain all UFO sightings. At Colorado, Physicist Condon and his staff have investigated new reports, sifted through past Blue Book and NICAP files, and begun a computer-aided analysis of 2,000 sightings. For the moment, Condon has narrowed the study down to three sightings supported by ample photographic or eyewitness evidence. The first was made in daylight at Mc-Minnville, Ore., on May 11, 1950 by Paul Trent, a farmer who spotted and photographed a saucer 20 ft. to 30 ft. in diameter hovering over his field. Trent's saucer, which resembled a garbage-can cover, is similar to one photographed over France in 1954. Negatives of his pictures, which are among the clearest UFO shots ever obtained, will be analyzed electronically for authenticity. Condon's second case involves several sightings in the vicinity of Levelland, Texas, on the night of Nov. 2, 1957, when glowing elliptical objects 200 ft. long hovered over highways, terrifying several motorists and causing their cars' ignition and lights to fail. A third apparently inexplicable case occurred off Trindade Isle, Brazil, during daylight on Jan. 16, 1958, when scientific personnel aboard a Brazilian navy ship spotted a Saturn-shaped UFO and photographed it four times.
In the Galactic Boondocks
If one accepts the reality of vehicles from outer space, one must assume the existence in the universe of a race more intelligent than man—certainly not difficult to believe. (In fact, it is much harder to think that in all the universe man is the only advanced being.) Next, one would have to assume that these intelligent creatures are interested in Earth, and some scientists find this assumption particularly unlikely. "If saucers have been coming here regularly," reasons Astronomer Sagan, "this attaches some peculiar significance to our planet. Let's remember that the earth is in the galactic boondocks. I really doubt that the city slickers of the universe are all that interested in us." Earth is merely a minor planet orbiting around one of the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn is only an average member of a universe that may itself contain 100 billion galaxies. In his book, Intelligent Life in the Universe, written with Russian Astrophysicist I. S. Shklovsky, Sagan estimates that in the Milky Way alone there may be as many as a million planets inhabited by advanced civilizations. Yet distances between stars are so vast—the Milky Way is 100,000 light-years in diameter—that these civilizations are probably separated from one another by anywhere from 300 to 1,000 lightyears, Sagan estimates (a light-year is the equivalent of 6 trillion miles). This deflates the argument of urologists that saucers have begun observing the earth because of man's recent technological strides. High-powered, high-frequency radio-wave transmissions, presumably the only clear evidence of terrestrial civilization that could penetrate the atmosphere and be detected at great distances, began only two decades ago. Thus the first of these signals, which move at the speed of light, has by now traveled only 20 light-years away from the earth, passing only the relatively few stars that are near neighbors of the sun.
Toward the 30th Century
In the event that a civilization exists on some planet orbiting a nearby star, and has been able to detect transmissions from Earth, it is unlikely that any of its saucers have yet arrived to investigate. Even the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.3 light-years away. And because presumably no spaceship—or any matter—can travel at or beyond the velocity of light, which is the universal speed limit according to the Einstein theory of relativity, it would take considerably longer than 4.3 light-years to reach the earth from its nearest stellar neighbor. At the 17,500 m.p.h. that astronauts travel, it would take nearly 170,000 years.
What of the possibility that an advanced culture may somehow have learned to circumvent the Einstein limit, and thus be able to send craft to distant stars at incredible speeds? Says one physicist: "My God, could our whole science just be a fiction completely unrelated to what the UFOs might have? All this earthly science—F equals ma and all the rest that I so much believe in—could it really be something else?" Many laymen, baffled by the scientists anyway, might find the overthrow of all their lore quite entertaining. But most scientists insist that their laws are universal; even the motion of distant stars and the nuclear reactions within them appear to obey the laws of terrestrial science.
To saucer advocates who suggest that extraterrestrial beings accidentally discovered the earth's civilization during random exploration of the universe, Sagan has an answer: "If each of a million advanced technical civilizations in our galaxy launched at random an interstellar spacecraft each year, our solar system would, on the average, be visited only once every 100,000 years."
For vehicles guided by supposedly intelligent beings, the UFOs have exhibited remarkably ineffective and capricious behavior. Instead of concentrating around obvious examples of intelligent life on earth, such as large cities, they have been seen most often above deserts, farms and backwater towns. Their only reported communication has consisted of trite exchanges ("Don't be afraid") with relatively simple citizens or outright fanatics. But saucer buffs point out that man has studied the behavior of bees and learned their social order and "language" without even attempting to communicate directly with them.
The most telling argument against the reality of UFOs is that no proven physical evidence or hardware has ever been found to support the saucers' existence. And although astronomers photograph the sky incessantly, no UFO has ever left an image on their photographic plates.
Despite the lack of such evidence, many scientists favor the continuation of UFO investigations in the hope that they will lead to new discoveries about man's environment, while clearing up the uncertainty about saucers. But even after the most rigorous examination by contemporary science, it will be difficult to prove beyond doubt that there are no extraterrestrial saucers. Says Astronomer Hynek: "There is a tendency in the 20th century to forget that there will be a 21st century science, and indeed a 30th century science, from which vantage points our knowledge of the universe may appear quite different. We suffer, perhaps, from temporal provincialism, a form of arrogance that has always irritated posterity."