blue book Scientists Shot Down UFOs

Some say study was the hoax,
not flying saucer sightings

By Bonnie Burton

"Unidentified flying objects were reported sighted over Boulder Thursday night by Nate Ervin, junior student at the University, who lives with his parents at 785 33rd St. Ervin said he saw six objects of football shape with inverted "V" wings that came to a point at their ends. They had no tail sections and were stark white against the crisp, dark winter sky. Ervin estimated the time of his sighting to be about 7:35 p.m. as he was walking across campus between Hellems and the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theater."

Printed in the Boulder Daily Camera on Feb. 12, 1965, this article was written not as a prank but as news. Throughout the early and mid-1960s, UFO sightings were as common as hippies.

Ordinary citizens believed in life in outer space. U.S. Air Force pilots confessed to chasing down spacecrafts. Daily UFO sightings were reported in the papers. NASA was swamped with phone calls and letters asking about possible visitors from beyond. Finally, the U.S. government had enough and called together a group of scientific experts to spend 22 months and $500,000 investigating various UFO reports. Their conclusion: UFOs were not worth further government study.

Those experts were from the University of Colorado. On Nov. 1, 1966, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research asked Dr. Edward Condon, a CU professor of physics and astrophysics, to take a look at various UFO reports. The lineup of scientific experts Condon chose for his team included four psychologists and a business administrator. Later, he balanced the staff by adding physicists and meteorologists.

Among his original team were Robert Low, then the assistant dean of the CU Graduate School, and four CU psychology professors, Dr. David Saunders, Dr. William Scott, Dr. Michael Wertheimer and Dr. Stuart Cook. A few months later, the director of the aeronomy branch of CU's Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, Dr. Franklin Roach, joined. Dr. William Blumen of CU's astrogeophysics department and Joseph Rush, a member of the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also came on board.

The committee members had plenty in common. All had studied in the East Coast with the exception of Roach and Scott, who earned their degrees at colleges in the Midwest. They ranged in age from 39 to 64, were all married and had at least two children each. Condon and Saunders both had worked on the atomic bomb.

Study humans, not aliens

Those with legitimate scientific backgrounds investigated UFO sightings, animal mutilation scenes, photos and possible crash sites. Those who had psychology backgrounds claimed to do the same, but also focused on the mental stability of the study's many witnesses.

"Although our general backgrounds are suitable, none of us has previous contact with this subject," Roach told the Daily Camera Oct. 30, 1966. "I feel that's why we were selected. I don't think the Air Force wanted anyone with their mind made up."

In the almost 20 years before the committee came together, the Air Force recorded 10,047 UFO reports, an average of about 1.5 per day. Critics of the government's involvement in UFOs said that of those 10,047 reports, the Air Force had 10,048 explanations.

In other words, they alleged that the Air Force was afraid chaos would break out if it didn't explain the sightings, and that it relied on prepared answers (airplane formations and weather balloons) instead of real study. Because the entire project was funded by the Air Force, some believed the hoax wasn't the UFO reports but the guise of objectivity the researchers claimed.

The first indication of possible bias occurred in 1967, when Condon, who worked part time on the study, spoke before a chapter of Sigma Xi, the honorary scientific fraternity.

"My attitude right now is that there is nothing to it," Condon said. "But I'm not supposed to reach a conclusion for another year."

Dr. Blumen, the only member of the study still alive today, says he believes Condon might have been misrepresented.

"Condon was the most objective scientist for the project," Blumen says. "Condon often invited people who made money off the UFO subject to our meetings with an open mind.

"Even when Condon's conclusion closed the government's research, he insisted that anyone who wanted to disagree with him should submit proposals," Blumen says. p"I think Condon knew if any scientist could prove alien beings landed on earth and could communicate with him, then that scientist would far exceed any fame from winning a Nobel prize."

Tricks up their sleeves?

A memo written by another team member, however, seems to suggest a biased approach by at least part of the team. The note, written by Low to university officials, was published in Look magazine in May 1968. After that, staff members Saunders and Levine decided to quit.

"The trick would be to describe the project so that, to the public, it would appear a totally objective study, but to the scientific community, it would present the image of a group of nonbelievers trying their best to be objective, but having an almost zero expectation of finding a saucer," Low wrote.

Low's memo also addressed one possible reason for including psychologists in the study.

"If the emphasis were put here on the psychology and sociology of persons and groups who report seeing UFOs, I think the scientific community would quickly get the message," Low wrote.

"I'm inclined to feel at this early stage that, if we set up the thing right and take pains to get the proper people involved and have success in presenting the image we want to present to the scientific community, we could carry the job off to our benefit," he concluded.

Blumen says that Low, like Condon, may have been taken out of context.

"I think Low was correct when he believed the group had two communities to please, the scientific and the believers," he says.

"I think it's important for people to realize that both Condon and I believed in UFOs, because UFOs are not synonymous with alien spacecrafts. UFO just means a flying object that cannot be identified at the present time."

Their study certainly made it clear, however, that UFOs could not be identified as crafts from other planets. And with those results in hand, the Air Force closed the book on UFO study.