This Week in Military History: December 15th – 21st
December 17th: Project Blue Book Ends
Cover of a civilian analysis of Project Blue Book.
UFO believers, both real ones and fictional ones employed by the FBI, like to say that “the truth is out there.” And it may very well be. After all, have you seen that crazy footage Navy pilots filmed that the Navy later confirmed was real? So freaky. But as any sort of concrete understanding or factual basis for the countless claimed UFO encounters over the years, nothing beyond speculation and the unprovable has come to light. Though it’s not like plenty of people and organizations haven’t tried. And not just the fringe amateurs you may think of when you think of UFO researchers. In fact, one of America’s most dedicated bunch of space-obsessed tech nerds carried out an official program dedicated to that proverbial “truth out there.” That’s right, we’re talking about the United States Air Force and their seventeen-year study of unidentified flying objects, Project Blue Book.
The Lubbock Lights, which mysteriously appeared in the sky over Lubbock Texas in August and September of 1951, were one of the first major phenomenons investigated by Project Blue Book.
The project, which began in March of 1952, was not the first such study conducted by the Air Force. The first one, Project Signs, started in 1947 and was closed in 1948 after submitting a report concluding that UFO sightings were definitely extraterrestrial encounters. Many at Air Force command weren’t a big fan of that conclusion so they opened the suspiciously named Project Grudge, which was pretty much put together for the sole purpose of debunking all claims that sightings couldn’t be explained by natural phenomena. That aggravated other high ranking members of the Air Force who objected to any scientific program set up solely to disprove things rather than objectively investigate them. So Project Blue Book was established under the leadership of Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, a decorated WWII bombardier turned technical intelligence officer. Once in charge, he would leave an indelible mark on history by coming up with a term that covered all varieties of perceived unknown aerial craft: Unidentified Flying Object. “UFO” for short.
Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, US Air Force.
Named for those little blue booklets that colleges and high schools have used for written tests since before time began, Ruppelt chose the title to reflect how he saw the program as high-stakes examination under heavy scrutiny under Air Force command. With at least one Blue Book officer stationed at every Air Force Base in the world to collect and analyze information, it was an extremely widespread initiative allowed to operate well outside the normal chain of command. And Ruppelt made sure it was taken seriously. He worked hard to streamline the process of reporting sightings to the military and tried to remove the stigma often associated with people who claimed to experience extraterrestrial run-ins. The project staff included civilian scientists as well, including astronomer Doctor J. Allen Hynek who started out as a skeptic but would go on to create the “close encounter” categorization system of alien sightings. As in, “close encounters of the X kind” classifications.
Doctor Hynek’s cameo appearance in the 1977 Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, on which he also worked as a consultant.
But if you’re reading this article in the hopes of learning about some grand, intergalactic revelations that Project Blue Book stumbled upon you’re going to be disappointed. Even in the program’s early glory days under Captain Ruppelt, Blue Book found no concrete evidence of extraterrestrial encounters. After a cluster of possible sightings and radar detections around Washington, DC in July of 1952 drew a lot of publicity, the CIA put together a panel to go over Blue Book’s findings thus far. Headed by and named for a physicist from the California Institute of Technology, the Robertson Panel reviewed all the evidence collected by Ruppelt’s men in January of 1953. After diligent consideration by the many respected scientists on the panel, the conclusion was reached that the vast majority of sightings were explicable by conventional reasons. Moreover, the large amount of resources spent on dealing with all the minor, unverifiable reports was a drain on intelligence assets that did not justify the lack of useful results. But the committee took a step further and recommended that, in order to discourage people from believing in UFOs, a vast debunking campaign be carried out via mass media and that UFO interest groups should be monitored in case they started pushing out subversive plans or information to their followers. This was the early days of the Cold War, remember.
The Robertson Panel.
Ruppelt, who was an open-minded skeptic regarding UFOs while he ran Blue Book (in his post-military writing he stated that he eventually concluded they were a “space age myth”), was nevertheless disappointed by the aftermath of the Robertson Panel. He requested reassignment and left the program in August, 1953. He left the Air Force shortly after and worked in the aerospace industry until his from a heart attack (his second) and the relatively young age of 37 in 1960.
Ruppelt after leaving the Air Force.
After Ruppelt’s reassignment, Blue Book became little more than a PR unit tasked with debunking any and all stories of alien encounters in the press. Investigation of large-scale UFO encounters was turned over to the newly formed 4602nd Air Intelligence Squadron (who never found anything interesting either). But Project Blue Book continued on for years, despite conducting little to no data collection or research after 1953. And their blanket debunking and denial efforts only raised suspicion of coverups by civilian UFO research groups. The Air Force, who wanted to get rid of the all-but-useless program but feared doing so would only crank up the volume of said coverup claims, were seemingly stuck with it.
Map from a 1950’s Life magazine article on UFOs.
Lucky for the Air Force, another cluster of UFO sightings, these ones over New England in 1966, spurred Congress to open a hearing on the matter. That, in turn, led the Air Force to fund an independent committee of civilian scientists at the University of Colorado to go over their evidence and findings. The University of Colorado UFO Project, nicknamed the Condon Committee (after its director, celebrated physicist and former Manhattan Project member Edward Condon) began in the fall of 1966 and released its final report to the Air Force two years later. Despite the dissent of some die-hard ufologists (yes, that’s a real word) including converted believer Doctor Hynek, the final report’s claim that the vast majority of sightings were completely explainable was widely accepted by the military. Moreover, it concluded that the decades of study on the subject had yielded no worthwhile scientific gains or discoveries and was unlikely to in the future.
With such a scientifically based and publicly accepted conclusion reached from all the information collected over the decades, the Air Force was finally able to end Project Blue Book with little public complaint. They officially closed their metaphorical blue booklets for the last time on December 17th, 1969. And though the program failed to discover any particularly thrilling or groundbreaking evidence of what (or who) is out there among the stars, it no doubt inspired generations of scientists, science fiction writers, and some of the best TV of the 1990’s.