Are UFOs real? The answer probably depends on what you mean by “real,” but whatever those strange lights and shapes in the sky might actually be, there’s no denying that the government has spent a surprising—or perhaps unsurprising, depending on where you fall with regards to various UFO conspiracy theories—amount of time and energy trying to remove the “Unidentified” from “Unidentified Flying Objects.”
Reports of UFOs have been with us since before the dawn of human flight, and exploded into the popular consciousness largely following the Second World War, during which time pilots described encounters with unidentified flying objects that were sometimes nicknamed “foo fighters,” a term thought to have been borrowed, at least in part, from the Smokey Stover fireman comics of the 1930s.
The first known large-scale study of UFO phenomena by the United States government began in 1947, under the name Project Sign. But even that wasn’t the first time a world government had attempted to get to the bottom of UFOs. A year before, the Swedish military had collected more than two thousand reports of “unidentified aerial objects” over Europe, referring to the sightings with evocative nicknames like “Russian hail” and “ghost rockets,” referring to the fact that many in the Swedish military believed the objects to be Russian tests of German rockets which had been captured during the war.
According to some sources, including US Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the first director of Project Blue Book, Project Sign’s findings were written up in a report known as the Estimate of the Situation, which concluded that many of the flying saucers spotted in the skies were real craft and likely not of this earth. This report was supposedly forwarded to the Pentagon, but was ordered destroyed due to “lack of physical evidence.” In the years since, USAF officers have denied that the Estimate ever really existed, and it has been called the “Holy Grail of ufology.”
Shortly after the Estimate of the Situation was supposedly submitted to the Pentagon and subsequently rejected, Project Sign was dismantled and replaced with Project Grudge, which began in 1948. While Project Grudge ultimately concluded that UFOs were natural phenomena or misidentifications of normal aircraft, it also acknowledged that some 23% of reports could not be fully explained.
Initially organized at the request of General Nathan Twining, Project Sign ran for only about a year. Its base of operations was the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which would also serve as the home of all subsequent official Air Force investigations into unidentified flying objects. According to Captain Ruppelt, when Project Sign was reorganized into Project Grudge, its goal changed dramatically. Ostensibly, the intention was to use “standard intelligence procedures” to evaluate UFO data, but Ruppelt would later write that, “Everything was being evaluated on the premise that UFOs couldn’t exist. No matter what you see or hear, don’t believe it.”
If Project Sign skewed toward credulity and Project Grudge had a bias toward debunking, then Project Blue Book, which kicked off in 1952, could possibly be seen as the happy medium between the two. Working initially under the command of Captain Ruppelt, by the time it shut down in January of 1970, Project Blue Book had collected more than twelve thousand reports of unidentified objects in the sky.
From 1966 through 1968, the United States Air Force funded the University of Colorado UFO Project, informally known as the Condon Committee, under the direction of physicist Edward Condon. The Condon Committee examined not only the data gathered by Project Blue Book, but also information from civilian organizations such as the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization.
The University of Colorado UFO Project released its findings under the formal title “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects” in 1968. The so-called Condon Report was more than a thousand pages long and is considered by many UFO skeptics to be the definitive word on the scientific study of ufology. In it, Condon writes that, “Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge."
So, are UFOs evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence visiting Earth? According to the Condon Report, probably not. Before the report was even completed, the USAF had already tasked the National Academy of Sciences with independently assessing the report’s methods and conclusions. Their findings? That the “hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitations by intelligent beings” provided the “least likely explanation of UFOs.”
Partly as a response to the findings of the Condon Report, Project Blue Book was ordered shut down in December of 1969. While the project, like those before it, ultimately found a few instances of genuinely unexplainable phenomena, it chalked most of the thousands of UFO reports it studied up to misidentifications of either natural phenomena or conventional aircraft, though some of those “conventional aircraft” may have included somewhat unconventional planes that only later went into more common use, such as the then-experimental Lockheed A-12.
At the end of the day, the auspices of Project Blue Book were never officially to prove or disprove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Rather, the project was tasked with determining whether UFO sightings were of phenomena that indicated a threat to national security or a heretofore unknown technological development. Their decision, on both counts, was no.
Today, the more than 12,000 UFO reports collected and studied by Project Blue Book are publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act, so dedicated ufologists can look them over and come to their own conclusions. According to FBI records, an organization calling itself “The New Project Blue Book” contacted the FBI in 1989. On the FBI website are partially-redacted scans of several letters concerning this organization, including one which ends with an ominous PS: “As a sort of ‘ultimate’ challenge—why not ask President Bush, himself?”