UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects)

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UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects)

The concept of the Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), ostensibly the vehicle of choice for alien visitors from outer space, originated in the United States in the 1940s and, over the course of five decades, has attracted a sizable cult of adherents stimulated by the phenomenon's embodiment of both antigovernment social protest and romantic secular humanism.

The first mass sightings of UFOs in the United States came in 1896, when a number of people from California to the Midwest reported seeing mysterious aircraft. According to reports, these dirigible-like machines were cigar-shaped and featured a host of intense colored lights. Another wave of UFO sightings were reported in 1909 and 1910, and, during World War II, several Allied pilots claimed to have spotted glowing objects that paced their airplanes. A Gallup Poll taken in 1947, though, indicated that few Americans associated flying disks with extraterrestrial spaceships; by and large, people attributed the reported sightings to optical illusions, misinterpreted or unknown natural phenomena, or top-secret military vehicles not known to the public.

A rash of sightings between 1947 and 1949 radically recast public perceptions of UFOs. A celebrated incident in which pilot Kenneth Arnold allegedly intercepted nine saucer-like objects flying at incredible speeds over Mt. Rainier in Washington landed UFOs on the front pages of newspapers across the nation. A landmark True magazine article by Donald Keyhoe entitled "The Flying Saucers Are Real" postulated that UFOs, such as those encountered by Arnold, were actually extraterrestrial spaceships. Pulp magazines and Hollywood producers seized upon this image, and, not long after the

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article's publication in 1949, the UFO as an alien vehicle became the dominant public interpretation of these phenomena. The shift in public perception was accompanied by a massive increase in the number of UFO sightings.

The government quickly became involved in this cultural phenomenon, inaugurating committees to investigate the sightings. The air force's Project Sign, which began its work in 1948, concluded that UFOs were real, but were easily explained and not extraordinary. UFOs, the committee concluded, were not extraterrestrial spaceships, but rather astronomical objects and weather balloons. Amid the growing public obsession with UFOs, a second project, Grudge, published similar findings, but engendered little public belief. The CIA-sponsored Robertson panel, named after H. P. Robertson, a director in the office of the Secretary of Defense, convened in January of 1953 and drastically changed the nature of the air force's involvement in the UFO controversy. Heretofore, the government had sought the cause of sightings. The Robertson panel charged the air force with keeping sighting reports at a minimum. The air force would never again conduct a program of thorough investigations with regard to UFOs; the main thrust of their efforts would be in the field of public relations. Government officials thus embarked on a series of educational programs aimed at reducing the gullibility of the public on matters related to UFOs. This policy has remained largely unchanged for the past 40 years.

Much to the government's consternation, adherents to the extraterrestrial theory formed a host of organizations that disseminated the beliefs of the UFO community through newsletters and journals; among these groups were the Civilian Saucer Committee, the Cosmic Brotherhood Association, and the Citizens Against UFO Secrecy. Some of the larger organizations funded UFO studies and coordinated lobbying efforts to convince Congress to declassify UFO-related government documents. In the eyes of many UFO fanatics, government officials were conspiring to shield information on extraterrestrial UFOs for fear of mass panic, as in the case of Orson Welles's famed War of the Worlds broadcast. The government conspiracy theory took many forms, from the belief in secret underground areas—most notably the mythical Area 51 in Nevada where alien bodies recovered from UFO crashes allegedly were preserved—to the concept of "men in black," government officials who silenced those who had come in contact with UFOs and aliens.

The UFO craze continued throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century. Numbers of sightings increased steadily, and, as of the late 1990s, almost half of Americans believed that UFOs were in fact extraterrestrial spaceships. A host of reputable citizens, among them Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, later U.S. president, stepped forward to say that they had witnessed extraterrestrial aircraft hurtling through the sky. UFOs and aliens also had become an indelible part of popular culture. Movies from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) portrayed extraterrestrial visitations via spaceships, while television series such as The X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries capitalized on public interest with weekly narratives on encounters with aliens and UFOs.

The form of the UFO myth changed shape somewhat in the 1980s and 1990s, as individuals began to claim that they not only had seen UFOs, but that they actually had been on board the spacecraft, as aliens had abducted them and performed experiments on them before returning them to Earth. One "abducted" 18-year-old claimed to have had sex with an extraterrestrial, while most others offered distinct remembrances of having sperm and eggs removed from their bodies by alien doctors, ostensibly so that human reproduction could be studied in extraterrestrial laboratories. By 1997, nearly 20 percent of adult Americans believed in alien abduction theories, and abduction came to supersede sightings of "lights in the sky" as the dominant image associated with UFOs.

Scholars believe that the UFO myth contains religious-like elements that do much to explain its massive appeal. In postulating the existence of superhuman beings, by promising deliverance through travel to a better planet, and by creating a community fellowship engaged in ritualized activities such as the various UFO conventions popular with believers, the UFO myth embodies much of popular religious belief. At the same time, the UFO myth, with its government conspiracy dimensions, resonates with an American public increasingly distrustful of its government. UFO "flaps," periods of high numbers of UFO sightings, have corresponded to a number of broadly defined crises in government faith, among them the McCarthy hearings, the Vietnam War, and Watergate.

The public fascination with UFOs has shown no signs of abating in the 1990s. In 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell incident, in which the government purportedly covered up the existence of a crashed UFO, nearly 40 thousand people flocked to Roswell, New Mexico, to pay homage to the alleged crash site. A number of Hollywood's biggest blockbusters were standard UFO and alien fare; these films included the box-office smashes Independence Day (1996), Contact (1997), and Men in Black (1997). Most tragically, the Heaven's Gate UFO cult committed mass suicide in 1997 as part of an effort to gain the attention of a UFO they believed to be associated with the Hale-Bopp comet. Like other believers in UFOs, the Heaven's Gate cult located its hopes and fears about the world in the idea of disk-shaped alien spaceships, but, as scholar Curtis Peebles has aptly noted, "We watch the skies seeking meaning. In the end, what we find is ourselves."

—Scott Tribble

Further Reading:

Jacobs, David Michael. The UFO Controversy in America. Bloomington & London, Indiana University Press, 1975.

Keyhoe, Donald. The Flying Saucers Are Real. New York, Fawcett Publications, 1950.

Peebles, Curtis. Watch the Skies! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth. Washington and London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Sagan, Carl, and Thornton Page, editors. UFOs—A Scientific Debate. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1972.

Saler, Benson, Charles A. Zeigler, and Charles B. Moore. UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth. Washington and London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.