Are There UFOs on Mars?

by rthieme on July 1, 2005

Are There UFOs on Mars?


Richard Thieme

It’s a matter of common sense, really, this UFO business, that and taking the time to understand all kinds of human activity from the psychology of perception to “black budget” and other clandestine operations to the uses of cults and religions for purposes of social control.

It’s also a matter of listening, of course, to credible people telling remarkably similar stories over a number of decades.

Imagine that you live on Mars. One afternoon an orange ball falls out of the sky and bounces across the landscape. You stare with disbelief as it unfolds and out rolls a little robot, sticking up what looks like an artificial wicket. The robot rolls about, bumps into rocks and displays what looks like intelligent behavior.

What is reasonable for your neighbors to conclude when you tell them what you saw? Are there really UFOs on Mars? Or were you delusional, confused, or just plain drunk? Would it matter if others on Mars told similar stories … for more than fifty years?

What if the robot stayed around for months, crossing craters, drilling into rocks, sometimes just spinning its wheels?  Would you suspect that the entity had an agenda? If you couldn’t detect the signals that made the robot move or do other interesting things, what would you conclude about the origin or purpose of the robot, especially when reports began circulating that a similar robot was doing similar things on the other side of the planet? Would Martian science account adequately for what you observed?

What if your neighbor, a veteran of the Martian army, suddenly declared that he couldn’t go to his grave without telling someone of a similar event involving a robot thirty years earlier?

That’s the story on Earth, too, although the robots (or other seemingly intelligent entities) are different, the details are voluminous instead of scanty, the back story is complex, and the UFO domain, thanks to both intentional blurring and years of stumbling about in the dark, is a hall of mirrors.

My interest in UFOs began when I was a child in the fifties. I have since discussed it with many others, some from the intelligence world, the military, or the space command.  I have also interviewed ordinary people who, for example, went for a walk in the woods one night and were startled when the forest was suddenly flooded with light and a self-luminous circular craft rose from the trees and vanished in a twinkling. Or the northern Wisconsin dairy farmer who described a luminous vehicle landing behind the barn one night, a state trooper who had raced after it down the highway stopping but afraid to go back there to investigate, and cattle so terrified they stampeded through barb wire and had to be destroyed—and who found, the next morning, a circular pattern of broken branches and charred leaves among the otherwise green leaves of healthy trees.

Or the police officer in a northwest Wisconsin town who went after a colleague who followed an unidentified flying vehicle until, as he said later, it “zapped” him, frying the electronics of his squad car and injuring him as well. The officer later died in the hospital.

All those people tell different stories but details are often congruent and patterns of narrative overlap. The cumulative weight of their reports when cross-referenced with reports from the past half-century suggests a phenomena that is global, persistent, uniform, and credible.

In any other domain, when thoughtful people reflect on this much data and arrive at different but equally compelling hypotheses, however tentative, we generally believe that the phenomena is—at the least—worthy of investigation if only as a psychological or sociological event.  We study seldom seen insects and birds, experiment with clairvoyance and psychokenesis, argue in scholarly journals about false memories, multiple personalities and dissociative identity disorder—so why not study UFOs?  If only a single account suggests, as Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, former head of US Air Force Project Blue Book said in the nineteen fifties, that the least unlikely hypothesis for some UFO reports is the extraterrestrial – then it is certainly worthy of scientific  investigation.

There is evidence that such an exploration has indeed taken place, but if it has, details would be obscured by compartmentalization and secrecy in numerous diverse areas of research, the big picture known only to the (also diverse) directors of the various projects. That’s one plausible explanation for why a phenomena with serious implications for military and civilian life is publicly ignored or dismissed. (In 1952 an official campaign of “debunking” UFO reports was initiated when a Washington DC flap clogged telephone lines and it was concluded that a UFO event, whether real or illusory, was itself a threat to national security). Once a project goes “black,” previously public papers in academic journals and popular literature alike suddenly stop (that’s what happened when the Manhattan Project, during World War 2, was given top priority—serious articles on the subject vanished from the public domain overnight).  Researchers in all walks of life are often invited to look at a particular research problem, sworn to secrecy, taken to places where the research is conducted, and delivered back to their university or corporation with thanks but with no additional explanation as to how their piece fits into other pieces of research. In the numerous thought-worlds that have evolved since World War 2, that scenario is common.

The UFO inquiry goes everywhere – psychology, sociology, meteorology,  chemistry, physics,  astronomy, military R&D, intelligence (management of perception, counter-intelligence, disinformation, psy ops and social control) – but the questions that grab the person-in-the-street are not about ball lightning, sprites or seismic activity. They’re about the possibility of intelligent life visiting the earth. We want to know if some UFO reports indicate technologies beyond our abilities and if the behavior of reported vehicles is at least as purposive and seemingly intelligent as the behavior of our own telerobotic extensions, Opportunity and Spirit, or our satellites orbiting Saturn or Mars. Eliminate that question and the air goes out of the UFO inquiry and the cottage industry based on it.

Until 1978, everything I knew about UFOs came from popular magazines, movies, and books.  I was raised to believe that earth was the only home of intelligent life with humans at the top of the food chain. But over time, one story or interview at a time, incident by incident, an alternative worldview emerged. I still try to remain agnostic in the face of partial, imperfect and contradictory data, but the progressive study of the phenomena gradually suggests some tentative conclusions. The number and quality of unexplained cases begs for hypotheses to test and for rigorous scientific exploration.             Many investigators, I think, find themselves flipping back and forth between not knowing and seeing patterns that suggest hypotheses and avenues of exploration. One of those is certainly the extraterrestrial explanation for some sightings.

If that process sounds like a “conversion,” a term usually applied to religious experience, it’s for good reason. Immersion in the study of the data over time often triggers a dynamic that results in a contextual shift as the data itself suggests previously unthinkable explanations. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions gave popular culture the term “paradigm change” to frame this process in terms of the history of science rather than religion. But the psychological—and spiritual—dynamics are the same. (Some, of course, suggest that this process has been carefully engineered over two generations to prepare humankind for the announcement that extraterrestrial life is not a fantasy. Contingency plans developed by NASA in the eventuality of encountering alien species as we explore the neighborhood provide for similar behavior on our part, revealing and then hiding our presence as we acclimate the alien species over time to our existence.)

Religious metaphors frequently show up in the UFO field because a religious experience too includes an encounter with data that contradicts our worldview and stimulates a restructuring of the contents of our psyches.  This leap is referred to in Christianity as being “born again,” in Buddhism as enlightenment, and in other religions by different names tagged to different stories. Traditional religious experience (an encounter with what one believes in the moment is a supernatural or other-worldly intelligence)  and an encounter with what one believes in the moment may be an other-worldly or other-dimensional craft piloted by another species do resemble one another. Both kinds of experience transform how we think about everything else, too.

After years of listening to people tell their stories, I realized that the frequent ridicule of people reporting UFOs, including experienced commercial and military pilots and astronauts, often makes those who dare talk about their experiences sound like victims of abuse.  The primary data of the encounter becomes in and of itself a source of shame, as if the experiencer is responsible for the embarrassing event. Then he or she self-censors, internalizing the goals of the ridiculer as their own.

After giving a talk on UFOs, for example, I noticed a man who hung back, waiting until everyone else had left before coming forward to tell me in a whisper that he had been a fighter pilot and was scrambled to pursue an unknown aerial vehicle above an air base, that he and several others made visual and radar contact with a self-luminous object that suddenly accelerated rapidly and left them far behind. His body language and emotional “feel” communicated sincerity, embarrassment, even shame. He wanted to tell someone what had happened but did not want to say it out loud.

Other investigators report similar behaviors.

When one has a traumatic experience that alters one’s fundamental beliefs, the story that makes sense of the experience must come later. An explanatory narrative does not piggyback on the experience itself. We have to rethink our assumptions and be taught the narrative that explains the event and links it to a bigger picture. That provides congruence and relief from cognitive dissonance, a bridge to a new way of thinking that alleviates anxiety and mediates fear, and often initiates us into a community of believers bound by a shared story.  The processes of assimilation are strikingly similar regardless of whether they relate to religions, cults (a pejorative name given to non-mainstream religions by mainstream religions which were often themselves once considered cults) and other communities, including those that form around UFOs.

For many in UFO subcultures,  the core group is a religious community, providing meaning and safety as well as social structure. The community designates saints and devils, determines orthodoxies and heresies, creates believers and followers. Because these subcultures and the force field of distortion they generate are the primary face of the UFO world, attracting much of the attention from authors and film makers, those who want to explore the phenomena scientifically go underground. Finding them and exploring their studies and stories in a systematic way is difficult. The “invisible college” generates its own secret handshakes and rituals, its own methodologies, its own saints and devils.

To make a muddy stream even muddier, beliefs and meanings in the UFO domain sometimes come to believers through paranormal channels. Teachings disclosed to initiates during abductions, for example, or through channeling, often have apocalyptic content, forecasting the end of the world. The cause has shifted over time from nuclear catastrophe to environmental disaster but the narrative structure is the same. Initiates are often encouraged to tell the Revealed Truth but to expect to be persecuted as prophets always are. For believers, the rejection that inevitably follows validates the subjective truth of their special revelation.

Debate among UFO subcultures often sounds like theological warfare. Battles over spurious documents, the details of the Roswell mythology, the reasons for abductions rather than evidence for abductions begin to sound like arguments about the details of the Rapture. To those inside, these distinctions mean life or death; to those outside, they mean nothing – unless they are symptoms of a pathology or simply an interesting psycho-social event.

Add money to that mix and the dervish really begins to whirl. Inevitably UFOs created a cottage industry that sells products and services, beliefs and meanings, constructions of reality, and community lifestyles, just like religions. There are no standards of accountability or accreditation and the major criteria for status seems to be the ability to draw a crowd. Groups validate one another through invitations to conferences and publication in magazines and on web sites where they argue with one another about crash sites, the metaphysics of abduction, and the validity of hypnotically recovered memories. Those arguments replace the rigorously scientific search for data. Anybody can say just about anything and someone will take it seriously and sign up. Then the media blurs journalism and entertainment further by its wink-wink reporting on UFOs, presenting nonsensical and credible accounts side by side. The newspaper UFO story that is not tongue-in-cheek is rare indeed.

To resolve some of the conundrums presented by UFO phenomena, we need good data—which is exactly what we don’t get from military sources or the intelligence world where numerous leaks suggest it ought to be found. Since World War 2, what Americans still call “history” has forked. Down one path is a relatively coherent narrative that excludes details of the many black budget or secret operations that have proliferated. Millions of classified documents never see the light of day. That means that a second fork with its many branches consists of histories constructed by those who know some secrets but not others. Compartmentalization based on clearance levels and “need to know” means that many such constructions exist, each based on partial access. Many clandestine operations are not documented at all and officially cease to exist once they are finished. As a result, only a few people may know what really happened in many important areas, not just the study of anomalous aerial phenomena. The rest of us rely on fragments assembled into meaningful but necessarily distorted patterns; we understand that our search for truth is fraught with error, misinformation and disinformation.  When a critical detail such as the immense amount of information gathered during World War 2 because the Allies cracked the Enigma code is finally revealed, entire histories must be revised. Everything that made sense according to prior points of references are recontextualized in a different narrative structure. The same would be true in the world of UFOs if the truth that is out there, whatever it is, suddenly came inside.

Knowing this creates cynicism. Knowing this also suggests that the UFO domain stands for something larger than itself, the fact of life in the 21st century—we know we don’t know but don’t know what we don’t know.  When we suggest that some others might know what we don’t know, we are called “conspiracy theorists,” a term that characterizes an ad hominem attack,  a pejorative dismissal of a person rather than the person’s argument. The inability to correlate UFO reports with hidden research into materials science, propulsion and weapons systems, exotic vehicles, or the intentional use of UFO phenomena by intelligence agencies for cover and deception, means it is impossible to know that bigger picture: when witnesses report what they see or think they see, interpretation of the data requires points of reference that we simply don’t have. In addition, we are easily manipulated; it is easier to use the myths that people believe rather than create new ones, and UFO mythologies are now widely believed.

These factors transform an inquiry that would be difficult into a journey through a hall of mirrors. It takes a particular kind of person who likes a particular kind of fun to wander in that wilderness. This brief account can not do justice to all the ways light is bent, making distorted images, in that fun-house hall. So I will simply reflect on a few accounts in light of the insights of reasonable educated people who have explored this domain as I have for many years. I will not venture very far into the treacherous swamps of “alien abduction” and “the Roswell event,” which have become stand-alone communities with mythological and religious dimensions all their own. I will touch on the relationship of the intelligence community to the phenomena because many questions asked in the UFO domain could be answered if we had access to classified material. Unfortunately, I can not reveal some of the more interesting accounts I have heard, having promised confidentiality to sources. I will stick with the kind of mundane, now-familiar accounts that are analogous to that Martian scenario in which an orange ball bounces down and a ho-hum kind of routine robot scoots out.

Mark Rodigher, scientific director of The Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), has a Ph.D. in sociology. Like all serious observers of the field, he is cautious and deliberate when he speaks. The study of UFOs, he observes, is a proto-science, not a science; its data is not cumulative. Every investigator starts over. Databases exist but are amassed indiscriminately. Few cases have been thoroughly investigated and much evidence is anecdotal. This is why rigorous discipline and accountability to standards of objectivity and the scientific method are essential, he insists.

Rodigher is right.

So I need to say that I have no more authority in this field than anyone else. There are no degrees in “UFOlogy.” I look back from the age of sixty and think that my education and life experience provided some good tools for doing research and understanding people. (I have a B.A. in English lit and composition from Northwestern University, with highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, a M. A. in English lit from the University of Chicago where I was an NDEA Title IV Fellow, and a M. Div, a three-year master’s degree in theology from Seabury Western Theological Seminary, with honors. Sixteen years as an Episcopal priest in three cultures enhanced my understanding of people and deepened my natural empathy. Subsequent work in information security helped me understand some of the subtleties of intelligence and the “black” world.”)  I have been driven throughout my adult life by curiosity and a passion to learn … and so, after twenty-five years of looking at the UFO phenomena, I am writing this reflection.

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In 1978 I was a parish priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Clearfield, Utah, near Hill Air Force Base. The senior administrative lay officer of the church was a major who later retired as a colonel.  A fighter pilot, he had all “the right stuff.” He was self-effacing, quiet about military matters, and later served on the senior staff of major Air Force Commands.

We were talking casually at the church one night when the subject of UFOs came up. I said that some stories in Allen Hynek’s book, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry,  implied that UFOs displayed aerodynamic capabilities beyond our abilities. They suggest, I said, that “you guys in your fastest fighters chase these things and can’t catch them.”

My friend’s expression indicated uncharacteristic concern.

“You’re right,” he said. “We chase the damned things and we can’t catch them.”

That’s so often how it happens – someone we know well, someone credible, a trusted friend or colleague, tells a story with appropriate congruence and affect that stops us in our skeptical tracks, making us rethink what we thought.

The vehicles, they say, that chased them, or that they chased, or that they observed, have aerodynamic capabilities exceeding anything known on earth.

Often they are trained observers, educated, intelligent, and with long experience.  A fighter pilot is likely to know the technical capabilities of our fighters, but of course, he may very well not have been cleared to know about compartmentalized R&D projects. That’s why the path of observation and reflection forks. If he and others were seeing something that we developed (although we are talking about the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and those remarkable technologies did not result in commercial jets flying much faster than the first ones), then the path leads into secrecy and darkness. We can only take the path into the relative light and pursue what can be known.

My friend spoke of a B47 pilot who in 1963 described a disc-shaped  object that approached his aircraft, flew in formation, then accelerated at a speed he could not match. The pilot did not make an official report because he did not want people to think he was crazy and lose security clearance and the ability to fly. The co-pilot independently verified the incident.

Simple reports like that can be multiplied by the thousands. They fill the literature and those who follow them up often verify that witnesses are credible and intelligent. The characteristics of the vehicles have been documented; they are described consistently from one experience to the next, and a brave soul like Paul R. Hill, who wrote Unconventional Flying Objects: A Scientific Analysis based on his years at NASA as an informal terminal for UFO reports, could use contemporary physics to analyze, however imperfectly, the science that might explain the observable data. (Hal Puthoff, a physicist with long experience in exotic research for the US government, wrote in a 1997 review: “To the degree that the engineering characteristics of UFOs can be estimated by empirical observation, in my opinion [this] … book by Paul Hill provides the most reliable, concise summary of engineering-type data available. The data were compiled over decades of research by a Chief Scientist-Manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center who acted as an informal clearinghouse for UFO-related data. The strength of the compilation lies in its thoughtful separation of wheat from chaff, and the analysis of the former into coherent patterns, including detailed calculations. Perhaps surprising to the casually interested, under careful examination the observations, rather than defying the laws of physics as naive interpretation might suggest, instead appear to be solidly commensurate with them.”)

Dr. Peter A. Sturrock, Professor Emeritus of Applied Physics and Emeritus Director of the Center for Space Science and Astrophysics at Stanford University, takes a conservative approach to the subject but differs from most of his academic colleagues in that he is willing to examine the evidence for UFOs at all. His book, The UFO Enigma: A New Review of the Physical Evidence, discusses a conference in Terrytown, New York, in 1997 at which a few selected cases were presented to a panel of scientists for evaluation. The panel concluded that further evaluation was warranted but it hasn’t happened.

Asked to define his relationship to the phenomena, Sturrock said, “I’m a student. That’s about it.”

But then, at his academic level, that’s a lot. His willingness to explore the subject is rare after ridicule has relegated the subject to “fringe science.” Sturrock expresses significant frustration at the near-unanimity of professional colleagues who refuse to examine the subject. “Their attitude,” he says, “is hardly scientific.”

Sturrock believes that physical evidence can be evaluated properly if we assess the chain of evidence that produced that evidence. That process requires taking the subject seriously and investing the resources to do it right.

The process also requires a big picture view.

“Something funny in America is not funny everywhere,” says an intelligence analyst, a veteran of the National Security Agency, who we’ll call “Albert” because he requested anonymity. “Something funny for one year is not funny for fifty. When, over fifty years, reports from all over the world agree in the small details … it suggests that it’s real.”

The analyst used his position inside the agency to have numerous private conversations with military and intelligence operatives who had been present at anomalous events. After my conversation in that church basement, I did the same as a priest when people volunteered stories they were otherwise embarrassed to tell. Over the years I listened to stories of close encounters, unconventional flying objects with unusual aerodynamics, and events that so frightened the teller they could barely bring themselves to discuss them. “Albert” and I listened closely to people we knew well, and we were both told of numerous events that were consistent and compelling.

#  #  #

It is often suggested that people who have UFO experiences want publicity or notoriety, but my experience is the opposite. As I have suggested, people who spoke of UFO experiences were often hesitant to disclose experiences which would lead to ridicule or jeopardize their careers. A commercial pilot with more than two decades of experience said, “That’s why we share stories with one another and not openly. No one is going to jeopardize a career by filing an official report or risk an accusation of being drunk.”

Here’s an example.

One morning the subject of UFOs came up during a staff meeting and a member of my staff waited until we were leaving the room to ask in a low voice if I might come to her office. She closed the door, turned and said: “I saw a UFO.”

She described driving on a country road in the mid 1970s when she passed a power station. A UFO, she said, was hovering above.

What do you mean, a UFO? What did it look like?

“Well,” she said, “it looked like … you know, like a flying saucer. Like if you were asked to describe a flying saucer, that’s what it looked like. It was a silvery disc hovering over the power station, tilted like it was feeding on the energy. It had lights around it going real real fast like lights on a movie marquee but a lot faster.

“I know I couldn’t have seen it – but I did. I couldn’t have but – I know what I saw. I saw – a flying saucer.”

Her account also illuminates how observers often negotiate with the reality of their own experience, bouncing back and forth between saying what they saw and saying why they could not have seen it.

Or this:

A local man recalled a time that he and his brother rose before dawn to fish on a nearby lake. As he rowed, he looked up at a sky full of stars, occasional meteorites, and one particular star that seemed to grow bigger and brighter. He watched it grow larger until it was clearly a disc-shaped luminous object descending toward the lake. It slowed as it approached the water, tilted up, and entered the water very slowly. Once submerged, it radiated a diffused glow in the water. He remembers rowing, the glow in the lake remaining in the otherwise dark water until the object emerged slowly, shedding water from its sides. Once it was clear of the surface, it accelerated rapidly and within seconds was gone, looking once more like a star.

What struck me, he said, now, listen, he added, I’m an engineer, and you might expect it to enter the water at a forty-five degree angle. But it was tilted up close to thirty degrees going in and coming out, nearly vertical. The water poured off the sides like it wasn’t touching the surface, like something prevented the water from touching.

I asked Jeffrey Sainio, an engineer with QuadTech in Milwaukee, about that report. Sainio has examined hundreds of photos and videos for MUFON (Mutual UFO Network). In every single report, he reflected, of a vehicle in water or on land, the vehicle does not accelerate rapidly until it’s no longer touching the ground or water. It moves slowly until it’s clear, then takes off at an incredible speed.

#  #  #

The visible, Wordsworth said, points to the world of the unseen. Sense data suddenly unfolds and reveals the infrastructure of consciousness or the universe in a flash of insight.

That was the experience of Captain Edward Mitchell, too.

Mitchell walked on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission. On the return to Earth, he had a mystical experience of the unity and interconnectedness of all things.  He has spent the subsequent years trying to communicate what he experienced, how a mystical view of the universe and modern physics are congruent.

I asked about the possibility of extraterrestrial visitation.

“I run into a large number of old timers in government, the military, and intelligence going back fifty years,” he said, “and privately they all say, yes, it’s true.”

Mitchell had heard stories of the recovery of crashed vehicles which led him to question sources as to the existence of a group inside the government with responsibility for oversight. He spoke to “a senior officer on a joint intelligence committee and asked if some core group is responsible for handling the phenomena. After some checking, a couple of weeks later, he said, ‘Yes. There is.’ But he wouldn’t say anything more.”

Later I spoke with a fellow Episcopal priest who was Mitchell’s pastor and good friend. He recalled sitting in a hotel room with Mitchell and astronomer Allen Hynek, consultant to the USAF on Project Blue Book. “They were talking about what these things [UFOs] might be,” the clergyman said. “Hynek said he was convinced that they are not from our planetary system at all. Mitchell said, based on his involvement with the space program, they were not from our planet or they would never have sent him to the moon in a tin lizzie. When you eliminate the cases that can not be explained or dismissed, they agreed that there’s something left. But where are they from? They thought they might be from a parallel universe which didn’t mean they weren’t real.

“I’ll never forget it,” said the priest. “I remember the conversation vividly.”

Mitchell’s observation about going to the moon in a primitive spacecraft raises another question: If black programs develop an advanced technology, will the technology be protected even if it means the loss of lives? Is it possible that hundreds of airmen were allowed to be shot down during the Viet Nam War while we had propulsion systems that would have prevented that?

“Albert,” the intelligence analyst, said, “Yes, we allow lives to be lost to protect technologies we don’t want to disclose. It doesn’t prove anything one way or the other.”

The extent of the deception, however, if that’s what it was, would boggle the mind. Would Americans have but not use such advanced technology back in the sixties and seventies? Would we continue to lose lives with more primitive space shuttle technology today?

Once again, the forking path. Except this time, we know that an astronaut and an astronomer working with the Air Force, in the privacy of a hotel room with a priest accepted some unexplained UFO events as evidence of extraterrestrial or interdimensional visitation.

Others hear that kind of assessment and laugh, shaking their heads. Conspiracy theory and cover-ups, ha! They scoff at the very notion. They don’t think that we stumble about in the darkness at all; they think there is plenty of light if we would only open our eyes.

“I hope you’re talking to skeptics like Phillip Klass,” said Dr. Jill Tarter, Director for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the SETI Institute. “He knows the foibles, lack of rigor and downright lies the majority of people in this field perpetrate.”

You can’t talk long with Tarter or Frank Drake, father of Project OZMA and author of the Drake Equation suggesting mathematical probabilities for finding intelligent life, without being impressed by their passion for doing the search the right way, i.e. the SETI way. Tarter, Drake and Klass attack charlatans in the UFO field who intentionally misrepresent data. They excoriate the muddled thinking of the cottage industry. Among other lapses, they say, “experts” are often ignorant of current technologies.

I nod, thinking of a colleague who lives near Edwards Air Force Base in California who has observed silent black triangular aircraft over the desert, aircraft that he believes are frequently reported as unearthly visitors.. I think of his observation of jets high overhead that slowed to stall speed, then took off rapidly in another direction, looking like vehicles “stopping on a dime, then accelerating rapidly” as UFOs are often said to do. I think of another colleague who waited in the desert near Area 51 and used night vision lenses to photograph exotic glowing plasmas on aircraft that look like luminous arrows

I also think of a veteran journalist who said, I know a guy who spent most of his career in the spook business and when I raised the question of UFO phenomena to cover stealthy airplane prototypes from Area 51 to Tonopah and everything else, he looked at me and said, “It’s worked for fifty years. Why stop using it now?”

I acknowledge that many, perhaps most, reports are not what observers believe them to be.

Nevertheless, the skeptical critics refuse to consider data that can’t be explained in addition to data that can.  They reject suggestions that any reports should be investigated in light of the extraterrestrial hypothesis because modern physics doesn’t support the possibility. It can’t be true; therefore, it isn’t true. You can’t get here from there, they say, dismissing as irrelevant the various DARPA contracts exploring exotic technologies such as anti-gravitational fields or those that investigate faster-than-light travel inside plasma bubbles. Their confidence in their position has hardened into certainty and they reject the possibility of an alternative hypothesis.

The intensity of the negativity of a committed skeptic like Klass, a contributing editor for Aviation Week and Space Technology, corroborated my observation when I was a priest that atheists are as committed to NO as believers are to YES. Their fervor equally undermines an objective appraisal of the data. Klass has sometimes invented alternative explanations for credible sightings that have the structure of a Rube Goldberg device because he simply can not entertain the possibility that someone is reporting accurately what they saw.

Jill Tarter dismissed all UFO reports as unworthy of scientific attention. She told me of a time she thought she saw a UFO while flying one night but discovered it was caused by the moon being intermittently eclipsed by clouds. I said this did not show that all accounts are wrong, only that some are mistaken. She responded with a disdainful laugh – for reasons, I think, as human as the motives of those she attacks.

Tarter and Drake fear that Project SETI, currently seeking to establish an endowment of two hundred million dollars, would be tarnished by association with a discredited field. SETI has captured the imagination of many, although it has also earned its share of criticism for being expensive, unwieldy, and unlikely to succeed. To sustain credibility, Drake and Tarter said, Project SETI must draw a rigid line between itself and less credible searches for extraterrestrial life, so when someone like Silicon Valley millionaire Joe Firmage funds “bad science” and issues rambling non-scientific tracts about extraterrestrial life, SETI refuses his money lest it be associated with his projects and perspectives. SETI wants to establish itself as the only scientific game in town, so SETI’s leaders do not distinguish between mediums who channel “space brothers” and serious scientists like Dr. James E. McDonald, Senior Physicist at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, who appeared before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in 1968 with a list of unexplained events and urged serious study of UFOs.

Russ Estes, a producer of television documentaries, shares Tarter’s skepticism of much of the information circulating in the cottage industry. Estes investigated UFOs for a documentary series. Time and again, he said, as he listened to “experts” in the cottage industry, red flags went up about the truth of their stories or their backgrounds. Every time he followed up, his doubts were confirmed. He titled his first documentary,” The Quality of the Messenger,” an indication of his unhappiness with their lack of credibility.

He agreed, however, that there are credible accounts. I asked Estes if the lack of honesty and integrity on the part of so many in the cottage industry also discredited those reports.

No, he said. It does not.

First of all, he believes that the skew is just as irrational, just as hard-headed, on the other side. Like Sturrock, Estes was astonished by the closed minds of scientists who refused to discuss the subject. Their narrowness confounded him. If science was done in another country, he said, they acted as if it didn’t exist. He asked engineers at JPL for comment on the phenomena, but as soon as he mentioned the subject, they slammed the door.

Who, then, I asked, can be taken seriously?

“People you don’t know. People you don’t hear about. People who are researching on their own as we are, not making themselves public and not speaking in the cottage industry.

“I’m cynical,” he said, “but I believe there’s something there. The congruence and consistency of the best stories suggest that credible witnesses are telling the truth as they saw it.”

#  #  #

In light of these divisions, it is no surprise that those who tend to “believe in UFOs” going in believe in them coming out and those who don’t, don’t. This is illustrated by the McMinnville photographs.

Two photographs of a UFO hovering over a farm building were taken in 1950 near McMinnville, Oregon,  by farmer Paul Trent. A few years ago I delivered a speech for an association of morticians. I saw “McMinnville OR” on a badge and, knowing that small-town morticians usually know their neighbors, asked about Paul Trent.

We knew him for years, said the mortician. We buried him.

And the photos?

Trent regretted making them public, the mortician said. It caused nothing but trouble. He didn’t think it was a UFO, he didn’t know what it was, he thought it was something from a nearby military base. He saw it, he took the pictures, that was that.

Could he have perpetrated a hoax?

The mortician laughed. “Paul Trent was a country boy who wouldn’t have had a clue how to fake a photo. Until his dying day he said those photos showed what he saw.”

Klass dismisses the photos as fakes, saying that shadows indicate the pictures were taken in the morning rather than afternoon as claimed. Others say that clouds easily account for the shadows and dismiss Klass as a knee-jerk “debunker.”

Sainio, the engineer who examines photos for MUFON, said that many photos are fakes. But in addition, despite the existence of fakes, some are real, as far as he and his colleagues can tell. There are people all over the world, he said, from Israel to Siberia to the USA, who are either all using expensive, sophisticated technology to create false images on video tape – or people are photographing the same anomalous objects.

When I spoke with Klass, I was struck by his zeal. Despite his vocal cords having been severely damaged by surgery, he spoke in a passionate whisper. I told him that his passion reminded me of Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s atheism. Why, if UFOs were bunk, did he keep going, even though seriously ill and more than eighty years old? Why keep writing books, making the same points again and again?

After a moment, he said, “That’s a good question.”

I listened to him breathe heavily, painfully, laboriously for a long time. But he never added to his answer.

#  #  #

Dr. Richard F. Haines was a NASA research scientist and Chief of the Space Human Factors Office at Ames Research Center. He was also Senior Research Scientist at the Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science. In his early days, he thought he could duplicate what UFO witnesses told him, but the cumulative effect of talking to pilots led him to conclude that some encounters could not be easily explained.

Haines has compiled several catalogs of UFO incidents. One includes only reports by pilots. Another focuses on characteristics of intelligent behavior as indicated by the ways vehicles interact with humans. Reading through a large volume of accounts from military and commercial pilots is certainly suggestive, as it is when we read numerous news accounts of UFOs in newspapers between 1947 and 1952. Before government policy shifted toward debunking UFO reports, hundreds of accounts appeared in mainstream newspapers across the country. They often name military officers reporting sightings near sensitive installations. Was every single one wrong or mistaken?

An “estimate of the situation” was drafted by Project Sign, the U. S. Air Force’s first known UFO project, in the autumn of 1948. The thick Top Secret document reviewed reports from scientists, pilots and other credible observers. It concluded that the best evidence indicated an extraterrestrial origin for UFOs. The report rose through channels to the desk of Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenburgh who rejected the document and told his staff to come up with something else.

In another memo famous in UFO circles, Lieutenant General Nathan Twining wrote in 1947 that the rash of UFO sightings during that first major wave documented “something real and not visionary or fictitious.” Twining said, “It is possible, within the present U. S. knowledge – provided extensive detailed development is undertaken – to construct a piloted aircraft which has the general description of the object which would be capable of an approximate range of 7,000 miles at subsonic speeds.”

Nick Cook, in his book The Hunt for Zero Point, suggests that it is possible that captured Nazi scientific research at the end of World War 2 which included blueprints for “flying saucers” using technologies that mitigated gravitational fields was the basis for Twining’s belief. Cook’s long career writing for Jane’s Defence Weekly and his rigorous journalistic standards provide credibility for his well-documented journey into black programs and the appropriation of Nazi research and scientists after the war,

Cook believes some of that research might account for some UFO sightings but is equally clear that “the subject [UFOs] is too complex, too multifarious … to conform to a single explanation.”

Cook’s fascinating exploration of stealth technologies and other black projects shows why, again, one hallway leads into the darkness and the other into twilight if not the light. Cook documents the excitement in the American aerospace industry in the mid-fifties over “anti-gravity” technologies that seemed to be right around the corner. They were discussed in mainstream publications and by mainstream scientists and industrialists. Then, suddenly, all talk of such revolutionary propulsion systems stopped. Did the research go black or did efforts simply not bear fruit? Or was it killed by an industry that would disappear if it came to fruition?

Accounts like Cook’s remind us that the twentieth century saw the elevation of propaganda and disinformation to a fine art. Perfected in politics, advertising and public relations, founded on theories by Walter Lippman and the practice of pioneers like Edward Bernays, the management of perception by governments, corporations, the military, and the media has become ubiquitous. Some is collusive and intentional, some a result of unconscious but convergent self-interest. Creating belief systems for social, economic and political ends has become standard practice. We may know that but still can’t help projecting patterns onto blank screens, making even propaganda that we recognize as propaganda effective in building belief structures. When those projections are sustained and manipulated by sophisticated practitioners, its adds more dimensions to the puzzle. Three-dimensional tic-tac-toe turns into a Rubik’s cube.

The fact that governments can and do keep secrets, often for long periods of time, makes anyone who worked for an intelligence agency suspect in the UFO cottage industry. Ignoring the subtlety of real disinformation campaigns, UFO gurus often assume that anyone connected to the CIA or NSA is part of the campaign. People like Russ Estes, however, who worked for the National Security Agency, know that it doesn’t work like that. Compartmentalization and the segregation of information on a need-to-know basis means that intelligence personnel interested in UFOs are often in the dark too.

“Albert” was not informed officially about the subject but spoke privately with military and intelligence personnel from all over the world, listening to stories of aerial vehicles tracked through theodolites or witnessed over air bases. If he discovered someone coming to the agency from Pease Air Force Base, near Exeter N.H., for example, or White Sands N.M., he asked for details of recent events. After a period of many years he concluded that, “The evidence is overwhelming. A cultural penetration from somewhere else, some other civilization, is taking place.”

Human perception has limits, he said. Ants don’t get that dogs exist. We humans screen out facts that threaten our feelings of uniqueness or safety.

The inability to see beyond survival needs is ingrained in all bureaucracies, he said. Officially, the phenomena doesn’t exist, but individuals who have been deeply affected or traumatized by an unusual encounter have to talk about it with someone. That’s why they tell us these stories behind closed doors. Paul Hill listened to stories for years before writing about the technology after he retired. NASA does not acknowledge the phenomena, but people who work for NASA do. I have been listening for years, too, to top-flight people, not some idiot who doesn’t know a bird from a plane from superman.

“I’m talking about military officers,” he said, “ranking intelligence officers, people in positions of authority, who can’t report these events because of the consequences for their careers. But confidentially, they say, this is what I saw. This is real.”

Critics often ask why, if that’s so, there haven’t been leaks. The obvious answer is, there have been leaks, plenty of them, which is why we have these accounts. Once the reality is out in the open, it must be hidden in plain sight. The hallmarks of cover and deception are illusion, misdirection—and, above all, ridicule. Used effectively, ridicule lets us hide things in plain sight.

I think again of commercial pilots talking among themselves, knowing that colleagues are accused of flying drunk if they make reports. I think of fighter pilots who chased luminous disc-shaped vehicles but heard officers dismiss their stories as hallucinations. I think of a senior official at NASA who said – off the record, always off the record – yes, we know we have been visited, but if you say I said so, I’ll deny it.

When people are marginalized in this way, a “black market” in truth develops.  Lip service is given to “official” truth, but behind closed doors, people whisper. What results is more nefarious than any conspiracy. Complex systems such as governments are seldom directed by a single person or group. What looks like conspiracy is often bureaucratic muddle. But that muddle can also result in the truth being told by mistake.

The State Department, for example, may release a document about an event without understanding its significance because they do not know the data that makes it important. People in DOD may spot the leak and cringe, but if they say anything, it reveals the significance of the data. So the leak is ignored.

The report of a UFO encounter over Iran in 1976, for example, was released by the Department of Defense. The document describes the incident in detail. It states that the quality of information in the report is high, confirms the credibility of multiple sources, and names the Defense Intelligence Agency as the primary source.

In the hall of mirrors, it is easy to neutralize controversial statements. Edgar Mitchell asked someone “close to the center, close to the top” about that Group that Manages it All and was told yes, it’s real. But Colonel John B. Alexander, author of Future War: Non-lethal Weapons in Twenty-first-century Warfare and a staff member of the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) tells me that he too attempted to locate such a group and, “I got to higher and higher levels and never found even an inference of such a program.”

Of course, some claim that NIDS is a cover operation with links to intelligence and that Alexander’s job is to spread disinformation. Others claim that Mitchell’s testimony is useless hearsay. That sort of point-counterpoint shows that all it takes to stall momentum in any direction is energy from the opposite direction.  That’s why this entire domain is so full of words, words, words.

Yet … words have meaning. Mark Rodigher suggests we stay with accounts which, if true, are more obviously evidential. Rodigher studies physical trace and vehicle interference cases, particularly those with multiple witnesses, because while people can be wrong about subjective interpretations of lights maneuvering in the sky, they are not likely to be wrong about vehicles hovering near their cars, killing their engines, and leaving marks or burns on their skin.

Dr. Robert Schuessler began with the human space flight program in 1962 at the end of the Mercury program and worked on the Gemini program, then SkyLab. Reports of unusual returns on radar during space flights and stories from astronauts like Jim McDivitt, Deke Slayton and Gordon Cooper kindled his interest in UFOs. Schuessler notes that surveillance from space is so comprehensive today that many answers to our questions must be known, changing the question from, is it real? to, what is it? and then, who knows and what do they know? People at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), he says, would know.

So when I found myself in Washington DC having lunch with the director of signals intelligence (SigInt) for the NRO, Brigadier General James B. Armor, Jr.,  I raised the subject. “You guys pretty much observe everything in near-earth or trans-lunar space, don’t you?”

“Pretty much,” Armor said.

“Ever see anything … unusual?”

“You mean like UFOs?” Armor smiled. “It’s an interesting subject, isn’t it? But we don’t know any more than you do.”

Which is either true, or false, or both.

#  #  #

So where does that leave us?  One tentative hypothesis based on the best reports agrees with the early writings of Edward Ruppelt, with Mark Rodigher, Allen Hynek, and Edgar Mitchell.

As Rodigher put it: “It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that some UFOs are non-terrestrial intelligently piloted vehicles. Whether they are interdimensional, alien, or something more bizarre than that, we can’t tell.”

We can’t tell, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

I have listened with care to critics like Tarter and Klass for evidence that would expose UFOs as unworthy of scientific exploration. I never heard it. I heard and agreed with critiques of unethical investigators, mistaken or deluded “witnesses,” sloppy reporting, and bad science, but I never heard a single critique of credible witnesses who made the kinds of reports that account for the most compelling “unexplained” sightings. Nor did I hear skeptics critique their own motivations or methodologies. As Sturrock observed, their approach to a legitimate domain of human inquiry was not always scientific. They too have an agenda.

We can’t be seeing what we’re seeing – but we are. There is not likely to be a single explanation for the diverse phenomena reported on the ground, at sea, in the air, in space, but for some of it, the extraterrestrial hypothesis can not be ruled out.  UFO phenomena invites a serious multi-disciplinary scientific investigation. Either that investigation has taken place or is taking place, out of sight – or thousands of scientists and researchers who study arcane domains and should be interested in these accounts close their minds when the subject comes up.

We must gather data and collaborate in cross-disciplinary ways to do together what we can not do alone. Then we are likely to reach reasonable sane answers to the simple question: are there UFOs, not only on Mars, and the Moon, and Venus, and Jupiter, and Titan—but also on Earth?

#  #  #

Copyright 2000-2005 by Richard Thieme.  All Rights Reserved.

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