A spectacular jellyfish-shaped UFO reportedly terrorizes a Russian city, inflicting damage with shimmering shafts of light.
Italian helicopter pilots stare in utter amazement as a mysterious glowing orange ball performs incredible maneuvers in the night sky.
A prime-time docudrama television series dealing with UFOs generates continuing widespread interest, while the movies Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind draw record crowds.
A national newspaper promises to pay a $1 million reward for proof that UFOs come from outer space.
The President of the United States, who once reported seeing a puzzling UFO himself, is besieged by UFO enthusiasts to stop the cover-up and launch a new and unbiased government study. Rumors are rife that a shocking announcement is imminent.
Are we earthlings being visited by extra-terrestrial beings in mysterious UFOs? Millions of Americans apparently believe so. In fact, according to a Gallup poll, the majority of Americans believe that UFOs — unidentified flying objects — are real and "not the figment of people's imagination." Moreover, some 15 million Americans claim to have actually seen a UFO. In a recent survey of members of the American Astronomical Society, an impressive 53 percent said UFOs "certainly" or "probably" should be investigated further and another 27 percent said "possibly" there should be further investigations. Few subjects generate more fascination than the hotly debated contention that UFOs represent some form of alien intelligence. Actually, strange and mysterious objects have been seen in the skies for thousands of years. Even the prophet Ezekiel reported seeing an awesome "wheel within a wheel" that has served as an oft quoted precedent for unusual sightings in the heavens. "The appearance of the wheels and their work was... as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them : and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up" (Ezek. 1:16-19). Ezekiel's description has often been interpreted as a vision of a "portable throne" of God, complete with representatives of the angelic host.
Whiff of Paranoia
Yet the modern UFO era did not really dawn until just after World War II when Kenneth Arnold, an Idaho businessman and pilot, described a formation of disklike objects skimming through the sky "like a saucer would if you skipped it across water." From that early account came the term "flying saucer." Since that time, UFObia, UFOria, and UFOlogists have proliferated at an amazing rate. Not even veteran pilots are immune. In fact, at one point baffling and ominous reports of "flying saucers" observed over air bases grew so worrisome that the U.S. Air Force launched a full-scale investigation. For 22 years, the Air Force kept track of UFO reports. Then in 1969, after investigating nearly 13,000 "phenomena," the Air Force closed Operation Blue Book, saying that further investigation could no longer "be justified either on the grounds of national security or in the interest of science." That conclusion followed a two-year study sponsored by the Air Force and conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado under the direction of Dr. Edward U. Condon. According to the Condon Report, about 90 percent of UFO sightings proved to be "related to ordinary objects" such as planes, satellites, balloons, street lights, beacons, clouds, birds, space "junk," and other natural phenomena. The report said that no evidence had been found that any UFO was a "spacecraft visiting earth from another civilization." The National Academy of Sciences agreed and asserted there are "so many reasonable and possible directions in which an explanation may eventually be found that there seems to be no reason to attribute them [UFO sightings] to an extraterrestrial source without evidence that is much more convincing." Following the Air Force study, saucerian circles cried "cover-up" and resolved to continue their quest for proof that UFOs should be taken seriously. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, Northwestern University astronomer and founder of the well-known Center for UFO Studies, believes the Condon Report was premature in its conclusions. "Sightings have gone on too long for it to be a fad," says Hynek. "You no longer can dismiss these reports as the result of overheated imaginations."
A New Investigation?
In most cases, flying saucer reports refer to some type of hovering, often rotating, metallic object or "craft" with generally a circular (or cigar) shape and with a diameter of about 40 feet. UFOs usually have multicolored (often flashing) lights and are capable of moving at stupendous speeds and of making virtually instantaneous 180-degree turns. Alleged landing sites have also been described as having a circular pattern, with scorched ground and even what appear to be tripod imprints. Such accounts are certainly fascinating in themselves, but in recent years reports of "encounters of the third kind" have been increasing — i.e., actual contact with beings that occupy the UFOs. "When I first got involved in this field, I was particularly skeptical of people who said they had seen UFOs on several occasions and totally incredulous about those who claimed to have been taken aboard one," states Hynek. "But I've had to change my mind. I no longer dismiss any case as too absurd to be investigated." Dr. James A. Harder, director of research for the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization, believes UFOs should definitely be studied further. "We're talking about the possibility that our planet has been visited by intelligent beings from other parts of the universe," says Harder, "and if that's the case, it would be the greatest news in human history. Now if there is even a two percent chance that it's true, then it seems worth it to spend a few million to find out if it's true." Has there been an increase in the number of reported UFO sightings since the release of the movies Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Estelle Postol, administrator of the Center for UFO Studies, maintains there has been very little change in the number of new UFO reports. "While we have not had a noticeable increase in new sightings," Postol told The Plain Truth, "we have had a definite increase in reports of old sightings." Postol contends that increasing public awareness and acceptance of the UFO phenomenon has meant individuals are now more willing to come forward and tell of their UFO experiences. On the average, the Center receives between three and fifteen reports daily. One spin-off of the increasing interest in UFOs is a stepped up campaign to get the White House or perhaps NASA to launch a new investigation — "this time without the cover-up."
But UFO debunker Phillip Klass remains unconvinced. After spending thousands of hours analyzing alleged UFO encounters, Klass has concluded that the strange phenomena people describe are a combination of honest misperception, distorted sensationalism, and outright hoaxes. He cites, for example, the highly publicized "craft with ten large square windows, brilliantly illuminated from inside the object," that many observers reported watching on March 3, 1968. Actually, claims Klass, the "strange craft from outer space" was a Russian rocket disintegrating as it fell to earth as a manmade meteor. On the other hand, the famous case of a UFO landing outside a Kansas farmhouse was actually, according to Klass, a hoax designed to generate publicity — and hopefully some money — for a family in financial difficulties. And the sensational case of Travis Walton, who claimed to have been abducted by five-foot-tall UFOnauts which looked like "well-developed fetuses"? Klass concludes it was just another hoax and points out that Walton was an admitted "UFO freak" who had talked previously about the possibility of being abducted by a UFO. Klass has a standing "$10,000 offer" for anyone who can actually
An unfulfilled religious longing, a contentless mysticism in a skeptical but still deeply spiritualistic age.
demonstrate that UFOs are from outer space. And the National Enquirer newspaper is now offering $1 million for such proof. What of the well-publicized sighting by President Carter? On the evening of January 6, 1969, the then Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, reported seeing a single "self-luminous" object "as bright as the moon," which reportedly approached and then receded several times. Mr. Carter told the International UFO Bureau in Oklahoma City that the UFO was in the western sky, at about a 30 degree elevation. Mr. Carter was unable to explain the mysterious object. But according to Robert Shaeffer, a member of the UFO Subcommittee of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, what Mr. Carter actually saw was the object that has generated more UFO reports than any other: the planet Venus. "Venus," says Shaeffer, "is not as bright as the moon, nor does it actually approach the viewer, or change size and brightness, but descriptions like these are typical of misidentifications of a bright planet." Shaeffer points out that at the time of Mr. Carter's sighting, Venus was a brilliant evening star, nearly one hundred times brighter than a first-magnitude star. Moreover, Carter's estimate of a 30 degree elevation matches almost perfectly the known position of Venus which was in the west-southwest at an altitude of 25 degrees. Concludes Shaeffer, "Mr. Carter's report demonstrates that the eyewitness testimony of even a future President of the United States cannot be taken at face value when investigating UFO sightings." Astronomer and exobiologist Carl Sagan is equally skeptical. "I have no quarrel with those who see unidentified flying objects," observes Sagan. "It is only when they are identified that I sometimes have misgivings. As long as people are credulous and soft-minded, and as long as their wishes determine their beliefs, there will be a market for myths and prevarications dressed up in the robes of science."
Scientists today generally believe there is a high probability of life on other planetary bodies beyond our solar system. In accepting the evolutionary hypothesis that life on earth arose from random combinations of molecules (which presumably ultimately produced man himself), it has become fashionable, even chic, to believe there must be many abodes of intelligent creatures throughout the universe. Few scientists, however, accept the idea that UFOs represent visitations by extraterrestrial beings. "We are sympathetic to the view that life may exist on many planets scattered throughout the universe," state the late Dr. Donald H. Menzel and Dr. Ernest H. Taves in their recent book The UFO Enigma. "But it does not follow that our earth is being visited by extraterrestrial spacecraft." According to Menzel and Taves, the tremendous distances involved mean that interstellar travel would be enormously difficult for any would-be space travelers, "no matter how advanced." But if scientists are optimistic about the chances for life elsewhere in the universe, fundamentalist Christians have generally felt threatened by the prospect of life on other worlds. If extraterrestrial life exists, what happens to the uniqueness of man as a specially created being in the image of God? And how would one understand the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ? Did Jesus die on other planets too? To many fundamentalists, UFOs are far more likely to be angels or demons than life forms from other planetary systems. "It would seem to me that if there are any flying saucers or UFOs penetrating earth's airspace, they must be satanic in origin and must be carrying out the program of Satan for these last days," concludes Dr. Hart Armstrong, president of the Defenders of the Christian Faith. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, people who are classified as "religious" in the broad sense are actually the most likely to believe in extraterrestrial life and look forward to contact with such creatures, according to a recent study by research psychologist Dr. Paul J. Lavrakas. On the other hand, Lavrakas found that atheists have the least belief in extraterrestrial life, presumably because a godless universe seems less hospitable as an abode for life. And the astounding success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Perhaps it can be attributed to the current interest in UFOs and life in outer space, which is in turn a product of an unfulfilled religious longing, what theologian Harold J. Brown calls a "contentless mysticism that is so popular in a skeptical but still deeply credulous and spiritualistic age." UFOlogist Dr. Jacques Vallee argues that religious motivations are, in fact, an integral part of the fascination with UFOs. Says Vallee: "The main reason for the popularity of the extraterrestrial hypothesis is that it responds to our deep longing as a species to meet more advanced beings, our hope that there are forms of life in the universe that have transcended the problems we currently have here on Earth — such as war, poverty and disease. Witness reports consistently bear some kind of psychic connection between UFO sightings and certain strong unconscious needs and beliefs.... The longer the scientific community continues to react to the subject with puzzled embarrassment, the longer the bureaucracy continues to suppress reports and to deny that UFOs exist, the greater the likelihood that the phenomenon will lead to new kinds of religious mass movements, because it appeals to a deep need we have for mystery, for irrational belief." Menzel and Taves argue that the average person will believe in anything, so why not UFOs, especially when they promise salvation from the apocalyptic portents of the late twentieth century. "There is a sense of closing-in-of walls coming closer; of people, and more of them, coming closer; of the potential and irrecoverable loss of the world as we have known it," contend Menzel and Taves. "The believer's belief in nonsense is his attempt to survive in a world threatening to blow up any minute."
But establishing a reason why people would like to believe in UFOs does not explain what UFOs are, and it is here that the greatest controversy rages. In the final analysis, the UFO controversy persists largely because after the crank and readily explicable cases have been excluded, a nettlesome residue remains. Roughly one in 20 UFO reports seemingly defies satisfactory explanation. For these especially puzzling cases, two possible solutions exist: 1) UFOs would be explicable in terms of conventional "earthbound" science if the observational data were only more extensive and precise. This possibility is based on the paucity of reliable information about many UFO sightings and includes the likelihood that many unsolved UFO reports are the result of secret military aircraft, or simply clever, sophisticated hoaxes. UFOs might also result from purely natural phenomena which are either not yet discovered or not yet completely understood, such as certain bizarre atmospheric occurrences, plasma (the so-called fourth state of matter), and other rarely encountered events. The one inescapable fact that emerges from over 30 years of UFO studies is that, despite the thousands — some say millions — of UFO sightings and landings that have allegedly taken place around the world, not a single tangible piece of evidence — neither a nut or bolt, a bag of extraterrestrial trash, an artifact, a chunk or piece of a saucer, a landing pad, a convincing communication, nor even an unambiguous photograph or moving picture of a UFO — has ever been produced for public scrutiny. "There is nothing — I repeat, nothing — that anyone has ever found in the way of physical evidence that couldn't have been either manmade or produced by natural causes," maintains Klass. 2) But a second possible solution also exists. Maybe UFOs are, in fact, not of this world, coming from another place and time, constructed by an alien technology and intelligence. Such a theory would at least explain the seemingly "impossible" feats that some UFOs are allegedly capable of performing. Indeed, more and more UFOlogists are now voicing serious reservations about the "prosaic" extraterrestrial spacecraft hypothesis. Hynek, for exam pie, does not use the term "spacecraft," but leaves the way open for other more bizarre explanations such as time travelers, psychic projections of the human mind, spirit beings, or perhaps manifestations from an alternate universe parallel to our own. The result of such speculations is that, strangely, the spaceship-from-another-world hypothesis may turn out to be the most conservative theory of all! Perhaps both "solutions" are at least in part correct, and perhaps both can contribute to our understanding of the elusive UFO. In any case, reports of UFOs and extra-terrestrial visitations undoubtedly will persist — if only because there are so many man-made objects in our twentieth-century skies and because so many people have the will to believe.