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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

From Roswell to the secret Pentagon programme: How the UFO myth persists

Each one of the official US investigations since 1947 has concluded that while the causes of sightings of UFOs may have included 'misinterpretation of various conventional objects', mass hysteria and deliberate fabrication by hoaxers, they were most definitely not attributable to little green men or women

A sign off route US 285, north of Roswell, New Mexico, points west to the alleged 1947 crash site of a UFO.
A sign off route US 285, north of Roswell, New Mexico, points west to the alleged 1947 crash site of a UFO.

The Roswell Daily Herald’s front page splash headline on July 8, 1947, was unequivocal: “RAAF captures flying saucer on ranch in Roswell region”.

The RAAF was the Roswell army air field in the United States’ south-western state of New Mexico.

The “flying saucer”, according to a correction printed in the same newspaper the next day, was nothing more than a collection of broken sticks, tinfoil, rubber and paper – better known, collectively, as a crashed weather balloon.

Those two articles and the presumed “cover-up” instigated by the US military form the bedrock of what over the past 70 years has become the world’s most popular and persistent conspiracy theory: that the bodies of at least two aliens were recovered from Roswell and transferred to Area 51, a “secret” air base in the Nevada desert, where they remain to this day.

The US department of defence even has a secret programme investigating apparent UFO sightings, the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Programme. The revelation, reported on Saturday, appears among an archive of CIA papers that was recently declassified showing that it spent US$22 million (Dh58.7m) between 2007 and 2012. The programme’s backers say that despite loss of funding, it remains in existence.

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Read more:

Does the Pentagon still have a UFO programme?

‘Oumuamua: alien starship or just another piece of rock?

The long read: why people believe conspiracy theories

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The Roswell Incident was the first in a long line of modern-day conspiracy theories, which include the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks, all of which have been granted a fresh lease of life by the internet.

But Roswell is not where the great UFO myth took off.

The phrase “flying saucer” is believed to have originated on June 24, 1947, less than a month before the Roswell incident, when a private pilot claimed to have spotted nine mysterious aircraft flying in formation in the vicinity of Mount Rainier, Washington.

After Kenneth Arnold described them as flying like saucers skimming across water, the headline phrase “flying saucers” was born. All eyes turned to the skies and Roswell was a sighting just waiting to happen.

A study published by a scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2000 identified 13 “waves” of UFO sightings around the world between 1896 and 1987, each one of which had been triggered by a single “eyewitness” report.

After Arnold’s story came out, wrote Diana Palmer Hoyt, “reports of sightings swept the nation and Arnold’s story encouraged everyone who had ever seen something strange in the sky to come out into the open. Sightings spread to Europe and grabbed headlines worldwide.”

In fact, the US military had been logging reports of UFOs since at least the Second World War, when sightings by aircrew of strange goings-on began to proliferate.

The term “Foo Fighter”, believed to have been coined by members of a US night-fighter squadron during the battle for Europe, came to be the accepted term in official reports of sightings by the US forces during the war.

The Robertson Panel, a US government committee convened in 1953 to investigate 23 UFO sightings in the US between 1950 and 1952, concluded that while the “exact cause or nature” of the Foo Fighters was never defined

, almost certainly they had been nothing more than “electrostatic or electromagnetic phenomena, or possibly light reflections from ice crystals”.

As for the flurry of post-war UFO sightings, none was attributable “to foreign artefacts capable of hostile acts, and that there is no evidence that the phenomena indicates a need for the revision of current scientific concepts”.

Between 1947 and 1951 the US air force initiated no fewer than three studies of the UFO phenomenon – projects Sign, Grudge and Twinkle – and in 1952 launched Project Blue Book, which lasted until December 1969.

Although all of these investigations concluded that the truth almost certainly wasn’t out there, their very existence, concluded Hoyt, “gave rise to the public’s suspicion of existence of a government-military cover-up and, in the end, only piqued public interest”.

That interest shows no sign of waning. In one poll conducted by a British newspaper in July to mark the 70th anniversary of the Roswell incident, 82 per cent believed that the US government was continuing to hide the remains of a UFO that crashed in 1947.

Each one of the official US investigations since 1947 has concluded that while the causes of sightings of UFOs may have included “misinterpretation of various conventional objects”, mass hysteria and deliberate fabrication by hoaxers, they were most definitely not attributable to little green men or women.

Regardless, thanks to countless books, sci-fi films, long-running TV sci-fi series The X Files and fringe denizens of the internet, the persistent fascination with UFOs continues unabated.

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Programme came no closer than any other official investigation to proving that Earth has ever been visited by aliens.

But then, as Fox Mulder might observe, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

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