75 years chasing mysterious objects in the sky

In June 2021, the US National Intelligence Directorate released a report that many were awaiting with the excitement of a Hollywood premiere: a preliminary study on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP, for its acronym in English, new term replacing the traditional UFO/UFO, conceived in the hope of destigmatizing the subject).

The study exposed one hundred and forty-three cases of strange flying objects sighted by Navy pilots or detected by US fighter radars. Those responsible argued that for all of them there was an explanation, although it could not always be proven.


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Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong at a NASA training.  Conspiracy whistleblowers argue that the actual filming was also done on a stage like this.

In fact, among those hundred and a half cases, at least twenty referred to flying objects that executed maneuvers without apparent propulsion or that were capable of accelerating with an inexplicable technical capacity. The text did not mention extraterrestrial responsible in any case, not even to rule them out.

That report was the first official confirmation of a secret program started in 2007, with a budget, to date, of twenty-two million dollars, and which was leaked to the press a decade later with the consequent commotion. The US military was back on the hunt for flying saucers!

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US Naval Intelligence Deputy Director Scott W. Bray.

JIM LO SCALZO / EFE

Last May, Congress opened its doors to an appearance by two senior military officers at the head of the aforementioned program. This time, it wasn’t a hundred and forty-three files under their arms, but a database of around four hundred incidents in a year.

One of the investigators, Scott W. Bray, deputy director of US Naval Intelligence, tackled the thorniest issue: Although there are incidents that cannot be explained, intelligence teams have yet to uncover anything of “non-terrestrial origin.” Despite everything, the news generated by this official program has revived an extraterrestrial fever throughout the world, just when ufology (the study of phenomena associated with UFOs) celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary.

Saucers on the water

On June 24, 1947, businessman and pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying in a civilian plane near Mount Rainier, in the state of Washington, when he spotted nine strange objects in the sky. After a few minutes, the objects disappeared. Arnold returned to the airfield and filed a report with the Civil Aeronautics Administration. On the way home, the pilot stopped in the town of Pendleton, Oregon, where he told the patrons of a bar everything that had happened. Among them was a journalist who took good note of the story.

Kenneth Arnold, center, with two other pilots look at a photo of an unidentified flying object they spotted in 1947.

Kenneth Arnold, center, with two other pilots, looking at a photo of an unidentified flying object they spotted in 1947.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Arnold explained that the objects were flat like a pancake, shaped like a crescent, something like a cake pan cut in half with a kind of convex triangle on the back. And even more relevant would be his description of how they moved: the pilot said that the objects flew erratically, almost in jumps, “like a saucer thrown into the water.”

With those words, Arnold was referring to the characteristic advance of a flat stone when it is thrown to bounce off the water, but the journalist present took it literally and described the mysterious objects as “flying saucers”.

The Associated Press agency bought the news and other agencies replicated it, thus disseminating the event throughout the world. Although there were previous cases, this is considered by researchers of the UFO phenomenon as the first official sighting.

Roswell and Area 51

Coincidence – or not – wanted that just a week after meeting Kenneth Arnold, on July 2, 1947, an unknown object crashed on a ranch near Roswell (New Mexico). The army rushed to the scene to clean up the area, explaining that it was a conventional weather balloon.

Replica of a supposed alien corpse at the UFO Museum in Roswell.

Replica of a supposed alien corpse at the UFO Museum in Roswell.

Third parties

A few years later, however, the conspiracy theories began to take hold when several mannequins with latex “skin” and aluminum “bones” fell from the sky in the same area, also hastily picked up by military vehicles. In this case, the official explanation was that it was testing new fall arrest equipment for the pilots.

Over the years, the Roswell case grew more and more, for example, with the images of an autopsy of the alleged alien corpses found among the remains of the accident. That autopsy would have been carried out in Area 51, another of the key names in UFO history, in whose surroundings numerous sightings were documented.

Area 51, in Nevada.

Area 51, seen in the distance from the mountains near Groom Lake, Nevada.

Public domain

In 2013, the CIA declassified documents that officially acknowledged the existence of Area 51, in Groom Lake, Nevada, defined as a secret military base. Tests of the U-2 and Oxcart programs were carried out there in the 1950s, which had to be kept in the strictest secrecy to prevent the Soviets from knowing of their existence.

But the real hot moment for Area 51 came in 1989, when a former base worker, Robert Lazar, explained in an interview that he had access to famous autopsy photos of the aliens. In fact, a video appeared that delighted magazines and mystery shows, although it was quickly shown that it was a montage.

For its part, the military admitted, fifty years after the incident, that the remains of Roswell were part of Project Mogul, a top-secret atomic espionage plan that sought to use balloons capable of reaching great heights to gather information on atomic tests. the Soviet Union through the recorded sound of explosions.

Science vs. ufology

Convincing explanations or evidence of an official cover-up as part of a conspiracy to deny the alien presence on Earth? Since the sighting of Kenneth Arnold, ufology has run in parallel in two very different directions: those who seek to explain the sightings with all possible arguments and those who maintain that the origin of these is extraterrestrial and seek to delve into their origin or motivation. .

Among the first scholars, names as relevant as those of Josef Allen Hynek or Jacques Vallée should be noted. The first of them, an astrophysicist, was scientific adviser to the three major ufological studies of the US government: Project Sign (1947-1949), Project Grudge (1949-1952) and Project Blue Book (1952-1969), as well as by Steven Spielberg in the movie Matches in the third phase.

Josef Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée in an undated US government photo.

Josef Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée in an undated US government photo.

Public domain

For his part, the theoretical computer scientist, mathematician and astronomer Jacques Vallée –responsible for the first computerized mapping of Mars– was, at first, a firm believer in the extraterrestrial hypothesis, although towards the end of the sixties his approaches changed and led him to develop the theory of cultural influence, noting points in common between the UFO phenomenon and the experiences that people claim to have had with demons, angels or ghosts. Your book Passport to Magonia. From folklore to flying saucers (1972) is one of the great classics of ufology.

On the other side of the credulous line we must mention Donald Edward Keyhoe, considered the first great ufologist and author of the first book on the phenomenon (The flying saucers are real, 1950). Keyhoe maintained that the US government knew of the existence of the flying saucers, which it kept secret to avoid panic and social chaos.

He was, in this sense, one of the first “conspiracy theorists” in history, and when a television interview was partially censored, many ended up seeing him as the great crusader of the cause. Yet his was always an overtly scientific stance. In fact, he was a co-founder of NICAP, the first association that defended a scientific approach to the UFO phenomenon.

Martians from the Iron Curtain

Cultural psychosis, interdimensional travel, extraterrestrial visitors… There are countless theories that try to explain the sightings of unidentified objects, as well as the government interest in them. And one of the most often cited is the one that for many is the most feasible: fear of the enemy.

The keys to this hypothesis are quite illustrative: the Arnold case occurred in June 1947. A few months earlier, on March 12, President Truman had proclaimed before Congress: “We must support free peoples who resist subjugation ( …). Each nation must choose between two opposite ways of life (…). One rests on the will of the majority and is characterized by its free institutions (…). The other is based on terror and oppression.”

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President Harry S. Truman (left) before a television camera on October 5, 1947

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The Cold War had begun. It is no coincidence that many science fiction classics of the following decade, with aliens invading Earth as their protagonists, can be interpreted without too much effort as allegories or metaphors of the communist threat.

But it is not just a certain collective psychosis due to fear of the invader. There is also an underlying real and well-founded fear of political and military leaders of further technological development by the enemy, something that is being tried to counteract with all kinds of tests that are carried out with the greatest possible secrecy. The breeding ground for paranoia seems pretty juicy.


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Soviet and American tanks facing each other in Berlin in 1961.

Historian Greg Eghigian, a student of the relationship between science and ufology, conducted a study of UFO reports published in twenty-five US newspapers between 1985 and 2014. The average, until mid-1994, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was between sixty and one hundred and sixty items a year. As of 1998, the maximum did not exceed forty.

As the world polarizes again, with China and Russia on one side and the US on the other, it seems the Pentagon is once again interested in identifying unsolved sightings of its fighter pilots. It may be mere coincidence, but the truth is that, officially, that government had not promoted a UFO investigation since, in 1969, it closed down the famous Project Blue Book, inaugurated in 1947 and which analyzed more than twelve thousand cases of probable presence in the Land of Flying Objects, to conclude, in the end, that tracking UFOs was no longer worth the expense.

Until now. The population does not think alike: according to the magazine National Geographic36% of Americans believe in the flying saucer theory, and 77% say there is credible evidence that aliens have visited our planet.

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