(as of Jun 22,2021 08:06:54 UTC – Details)
*Includes a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents
When people think about unidentified flying objects (UFOs), they tend to think of flying discs piloted by gray beings with large heads and enormous eyes. They tend to think that these sightings only started relatively recently and that belief in UFOs is some sort of modern religion brought on, perhaps, by the very justifiable fears of a nuclear age. But a study of the phenomenon quickly reveals that humanity has been seeing UFOs since the beginning of recorded history and perhaps a lot longer than that.
Modern Ufology focuses on mysterious lights on Ceres or tales of alien abduction, but this wasn’t always the case, and looking at how the beliefs in the UFO phenomenon have changed or stayed the same can shed light on how culture and belief changes over time. One does not have to believe humans are actually being visited by aliens from another planet to recognize the importance of UFOs in human society. Any widespread belief that endures for centuries is worthy of study, and as always, cases exist that can’t be explained away simple superstition.
Most everyone in America is familiar with theories about UFOs, or “flying saucers” as they were often called then, but even this name dates back only to 1947. Before that time, they were called “ghost rockets” or “ghost airplanes” or “ghost airships.” Before the age of flight, the flying objects were called various things such as “flying chariots.” No matter what terminology is used, every generation has clearly had its own belief that mankind is not alone.
Various flying saucer sightings got the attention of the governments of the United States and other nations. The world was gripped in a Cold War, and some officials wondered if the UFOs might be experimental craft from some hostile power, most likely the Soviet Union. The American government in particular wanted to investigate the phenomenon to find out if this might be the case, as well as to calm public fears over what was appearing in the skies. Another motivation was to quash all the calls flooding into Air Force bases and police stations. Communications were limited in the mid-20th century, and every wave of sightings clogged up communication lines that might have been needed to defend against more terrestrial security threats.
The first large-scale, official investigation came during the UFO flap of 1947. On December 30, 1947, Major General L. C. Cragie, director of research and development for the United States Air Force, authorized the study of the flying saucer problem. His statement carried the line “by command of the chief of staff.” The program was called Project Sign, and it would be the first of three known U.S. government studies of the UFO phenomenon.
Project Sign was renamed Project Grudge in February 1949. This incarnation of the government’s investigation of UFOs was the least productive at least in the sense of actually investigating UFOs. Minimal research time was given to each case, and the easiest answer was quickly ascribed to each one. A perfect example of this was the “radar kite” explanation trotted out for the Rogue River incident. The Air Force investigator thought this was a possible explanation and ignored the fact that the explanation didn’t fit with the testimony of two experienced observers or even the easily available weather data. It was a good enough explanation, and therefore, it was the only explanation.
Project Grudge was replaced in 1952 with the famous Project Blue Book, which took UFO sightings much more seriously and was actually given the funds to properly investigate some of the more promising sightings. Instead of following Project Grudge’s recommendation that “the investigation and study of reports of unidentified flying objects be reduced in scope,” this secret study amassed a huge amount of data.