UFOs: The Stiff Reality of a Flexible Phenomenon

Science & UFOs

UFOs: The Stiff Reality of a Flexible Phenomenon

When facing the UFO phenomenon head on, the most problematic question one may ask is actually the most simple: Are UFOs real?

The answer is yes. The answer is always yes. In fact, it’s literally right there in the letters; UFO. It is, in essence, an object in flight that is unidentified. Perhaps the most common place definition comes from the late astronomer, J. Allen Hynek. In his book, 'The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry', Hynek dryly yet appropriately describes a UFO as being:

“… the reported perception of an object or light seen in the sky or upon the land. The appearance, trajectory, and general dynamic and luminescent behavior of which do not suggest a logical, conventional explanation and which is not only mystifying to the original percipients but remains unidentified after close scrutiny of all available evidence by persons who are technically capable of making a common sense identification, if one is possible.”

Dr. J. Allen Hynek

It doesn’t get much more self-explanatory than that. But where did this painfully obvious term stem from? And why, throughout the past sixty years or so, has it become not so obvious? The acronym was coined by Captain Edward Ruppelt, who in 1953, led the official investigation into aerial phenomena through the channels of the U.S. Air Force. To further the public from any notion that these objects were extraterrestrial, Ruppelt , serving as a catch-all for the mysterious objects appearing, flying, and sometimes floating through the skies. The acronym stuck, remaining the go-to letters for almost every media outlet known to man.

Thousands and thousands of declassified documents by intelligence agencies around the world can be found in reference to UFOs. These documents boast reports from the simply mundane misidentifications and natural phenomena, to the most intriguing and perplexing, begging more questions on just exactly what these UFOs are and are not. Here, in the United States, we left it up to the military to investigate what could potentially be a threat to our own safety on the hard ground below and the cushioned security of our skies above. Let’s take a look at how it all began.

The Official Study of the Phenomenon Begins… and Ends

The U.S. Air Force first attempted to decipher the enigmatic code behind these aerial phenomena back in 1947 with Project Sign. As the project’s personnel compiled case after case of sightings, they argued that what they seemed to be dealing with was, in fact something of extraterrestrial intelligence. However, this notion was quickly swept under the rug, and replaced in 1949 by Project Grudge. Headed by aeronautical engineer, Edward J Ruppelt, Project Grudge was in essence, a continuation of looking into these phenomena with a much more objective eye, dismantling the possibility that UFO activity was caused by anything but natural and/or manmade anomalies and intervention.

The study of UFOs continued in its final iteration, Project Blue Book, in 1952 with chief investigator, Hector Quintanilla. This was the longest, and most publicized Air Force study which compiled over 12,000 reports of sightings in the western world alone. Project Blue Book continued until 1968, when the Air Force-funded Condon Committee was created to draft a final report on their findings.

Project Blue Book Staff, including Chief Officer, Hector Quintanilla (Center)

Physicist, Edward U. Condon, and an investigative group out of the University of Colorado, used files from Project Blue Book and several independent UFO research organizations to determine that, first and foremost, UFOs caused no threat to national security. They also concluded that there was absolutely no scientific evidence proving that UFOs were extraterrestrial in origin. And with that, the official American study of the phenomenon came to a whimpering end. But that didn’t stop certain members of these projects from looking further into the phenomenon and case reports.

Civilian Research Organizations

Many individuals within the government were involved in the study of UFOs. Most notably of these individuals was none other than the aforementioned J. Allen Hynek. Hynek, having been a lead investigator all throughout Project Grudge and Project Blue Book, was first hired to explain away each and every UFO report as natural or manmade phenomena. But after seeing Blue Book out until the very end, he simply couldn’t accept that that was a conventional explanation for every sighting or incident. His skeptical view slowly tilted to a more open-minded approach, favoring the idea that some of the UFOs being seen could, in fact, be of an extraterrestrial or non-human intelligence. And in 1973, he would found the Chicago-based Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS). This organization consisted of many credible scientists and researchers who evaluated UFO reports in a careful and thorough way. To this day, a large archive of the work done by Hynek and CUFOS can be found through various online outlets and through the publication of Hynek’s definitive book, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry.

While many other organizations came and went, perhaps the most visible and well known would have to be the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). Originally founded by Walt Andrus, a technology manager and educator, and John Schuessler, a retired aerospace engineer, the two would invite many of their colleagues to join the organization, such as notable nuclear physicist, Stanton Friedman and optical physicist, Dr. Bruce Maccabee. Using their technical and analytical skills in many different arenas throughout the years, MUFON now boasts chapters in every single state, investigating cases of aerial phenomena, close encounters, and in its most modern iteration, even supposed alien abduction cases. Investigators bring their reports and data to the state directors who then follow up on many of the cases with an objective and critical approach. MUFON remains active today, hosting several large conferences throughout the year and an annual journal of case reports.

Unlike the investigative organizations above, there is another ambitious undertaking that consists of compilation of UFO reports by the public. The National UFO Reporting Center, (NUFORC) founded in 1974 by Robert J. Gribble, the center has catalogued a staggering 90,000 reports in its history. Aside from its cataloguing endeavors, the center also provides regional statistics to assist specific geographical needs of those who seek information about local sightings and reports. The center remains active as this book is being published, having been taken over in 1994 by Peter Davenport, a former MUFON member, and professor of genetics and biochemistry. Davenport sing-handily runs the center from his home, and updates case reports on a weekly basis.

Peter Daveport of NUFORC

While many other civilian organizations have come and gone, the challenge for each seemed to be that of funding. Each organization held highly esteemed scientists and every facet, yet very little money had ever been set into place to provide any substantial sustainability. This is something the scientific community, UFOs aside, have always wrestled with. How does one fund their research when theory is their only means in which to progress? Perhaps this may be why scientific study into the UFO phenomenon lay deep on the fringe, splintering off into the above organizations in all their ambitious efforts. Perhaps by looking closer at the relationship between mainstream science and the UFO phenomenon, we can begin to narrow in on the phenomenon’s deeply embedded, and often ridiculed reputation.

Mainstream Science and UFOs

After the sobering determination made by the Condon Committee’s report, all hope of a possible intelligent extraterrestrial presence seemed to dissipate. But a small shred of debate by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) cracked open the possibility that the scientific community wasn’t completely against the notion of a possible alien phenomenon. In response to the Condon Report, the AIAA noted that at least thirty percent of cases studied remained unexplained by conventional and natural sciences, and that scientific benefit could still be gained by furthering the study of the phenomenon.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine and contributor to Scientific American, once stated that:

“In all fields of science there is a residue of anomalies unexplained by the dominant theory. That does not mean the prevailing theory is wrong or that alternative theories are right. It just means that more work needs to be done to bring those anomalies into the accepted paradigm. In the meantime, it is okay to live with the uncertainty that not everything has an explanation.”

While Shermer accepts living in this uncertainty, many scientists keep the current paradigm in a stagnant purgatory, not only by ignoring the UFO phenomenon entirely but refusing to even acknowledge the potential of such technologies and how they could ultimately benefit both science and on a greater scale, humanity. But the dark cloud looking above has always been that of pure ridicule, a festering specter whispering in the collective scientific ear that UFOs are simply bunk, and not worth the time, talents, or intelligence of some of the greatest thinkers in history. In a field where thought reigns supreme, and reputations hang on the threads of governmental influence, far-out theories on exotic aircraft of potentially non-human intelligence could completely overshadow even the most influential of scientists and the contributions they have made to their respective fields. But there are those who are willing to put their thoughts in the face of ridicule and speak publicly about such fringe topics, and are willing to call others out for their woeful ignorance to the topic in general.

Of those who reject it right out, “They’re wrong, naive, stubborn, narrow-minded, afraid and fearful,” says Eric Davis, an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics award winning- propulsion physicist at the Institute of Advanced Studies. In an interview with Lee Spiegel of the Huffington Post, Davis would elaborate: “It’s a dirty word (UFOs) and a forbidden topic. Science is about open-minded inquiry. You shouldn’t be laughing people off. You should show more deference and respect to them. Scientists need to get back to using the scientific method to study things that are unknown and unusual, and the UFO subject is one of them.”

While such accusations can seem generalized, Davis also admits that there are many scientists who do study the phenomenon, if even from the peripheral. “There are those who are aware of the evidence and observational data that is irrefutable. It is absolutely corroborated, using forensic techniques and methodology. But they won’t come out and publicize that because they fear it. Not the subject, but the backlash from their professional colleagues.”

Davis goes on to admit that this topic isn’t just meant to be studied by the scientific community. “It’s the domain of military intelligence,” he suggests. “The fact that [unknown] craft are flying around Earth is not a subject for science, it’s a subject for intelligence-gathering, collection and analysis. That’s because UFOs are not a natural phenomenon, and that’s what science studies.”

Dr. Eric Davis

Whatever these UFOs may or may not be, they seem to defy most conventional propulsion theories that we readily know of here on our planet. But therein lay the limitations scientific methodology. For instance, why do UFOs, making the most dramatic and unconventional maneuvers, need to be piloted by some sort of biological entity? Why is this the reason that some scientists dismiss the objects being piloted craft whose said pilots could not conceivably survive such speeds, velocity, or maneuvers? We send hundreds of unmanned spacecraft out into the heavens constantly for this very reason. What if the objects we witness, racing, floating, and suddenly appearing and disappearing in our skies are nothing more than highly advance drones from somewhere off-planet? Perhaps it could be best summarized by theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku. He once remarked:

“Some scientists have scoffed at UFOs because they don’t fit any of the gigantic propulsion designs being considered by engineers today, such as ramjet fusion engines, huge laser-powered sails and nuclear pulsed engines, which might be miles across. But UFOs can be as small as a jet airplane, and can refuel from a nearby moon base. So sightings may correspond to unmanned reconnaissance ships.”

Dr. Michio Kaku

So if we are dealing with potential craft (some being unmanned perhaps, some not) entering our atmosphere from space, who better to carry the proverbial weight of UFO observation and possible investigation than those who study celestial bodies and space itself? With the most powerful telescopes observing objects of great distance, and individuals with vast knowledge of what could potentially lay within and beyond earth’s atmosphere, it would be more than appropriate for astronomers to play a large role in the search for truth behind these elusive anomalies.

In 2010, a barrage of UFO sightings saturated the headlines of Chinese newspapers, reports coming in almost on a daily basis. As strange lights and solid objects plagued the skies of China, local airports were temporarily shut down until the objects could no longer be observed as a potential threat for landings and takeoff. Clearly, this was turning into more than just a simple misidentification by civilians.

Planetary astronomer, Wang Sichao, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, investigated many of these sightings throughout the years, taking a keen interest in the phenomenon as it hit closer and closer to home at the Purple Mountain Observatory where he worked. In at interview with the Beijing Review, Sichao would comment on the UFO reports as “events of credible facts backed by observation. But these facts cannot yet be explained by existing scientific knowledge or natural phenomena.” And while Sichao took on the bulk of UFO sightings in China for self interest and curiosity, he would go on to explain why astronomers are not primarily in the business of searching for or investigating UFO reports: “The reason is that a UFO only appears randomly and often disappears rapidly in a few minutes,” he would continue. “By the time large professional telescopes are started up, it has already disappeared. So, we can only rely on information from occasional sightings or encounters by observers.”

Purple Mountain Observatory, Nanjing, China

In his book, The UFO Phenomenon: Should I Believe?, author and scientist, Dr. Robert Davis points out that:

“Evidence within Ufology is largely based on such anecdotal claims, it is very difficult to build testable hypotheses to either reject or confirm through a validation process, such as, testing predictions against observations to confirm a hypothesis…. ufology would greatly benefit from collaborative research efforts with the scientific community, but instead, have often alienated (no pun intended) them.”

It would seem that with the amount of dedicated scientists connected to the study of UFOs in its sordid independent organizational past, that rigorous scientific method and mainstream acceptance would gradually become inevitable. But with such a complex and frustrating phenomenon taunting us from the corner, it just doesn’t seem to be moving as swiftly as we may have hoped it would. To further the point that science and UFO studies are not exactly in synch, Richard Hall, assistant director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) once stated: “Although the ranks of Ufology contain the seeds of science, it should not now pretend to be a science, but a popular movement advocating scientific investigation. It should (and could) clarify and present the factual evidence in a manner designed to encourage a true scientific investigation, which would make use of all the techniques and facilities available to science today.”

The Journey Begins

So while we seem to have varying opinions on a governmental, scientific, and civilian level, one factor remains constant: UFOs are on the mind of individuals in every walk of life, from the simple observer on the side of the road, to the most forward-thinking (and sometimes skeptical) scientists of yesterday and today. So again, we are faced with many dilemmas of how to move forward. These phenomena are far more complex than a singular non-human intelligence pulling the proverbial strings of mystery. A fellow colleague of mine, author and researcher, Micah Hanks, suggested the following in his book, The UFO Singularity:

“The mere proof of official interest in the UFO presence throughout the years cannot by itself make concrete the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, nor can it prove that any single phenomenon can be attributed solely to the identity of the kinds of unidentifiable aircraft in our skies…probing even deeper into the mystery, there could yet be stranger solutions to the enigma that exists somewhere in our midst.”

Micah Hanks


While we continue to search for these strange answers in our midst, we also continue to question the approaches we take in that search. Whether it be from the anecdotal evidence of eyewitnesses or the analytical eye of scientists throughout the world, the phenomenon remains as elusive as ever. So in all its enigmatic glory, all we can truly do is continue to search somewhere in the skies for the answers we seek, and the questions we crave. Will we be satisfied with the answers science eventually gives us? Or will we deny it, leading us back down the path of the illogical and immeasurable? Only time will truly tell. And in that telling, we can be certain of one thing: the UFO phenomenon isn’t going to ever leave us. In fact, it seems that it has only begun its invasion on our curious, and ever-expanding minds.


Ryan Sprague is the author of 'Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to an Alien Phenomenon' (Available on Amazon). He's written for Open Minds Magazine, Phenomena Magazine, and UFO Truth Magazine. Speaking on the UFO topic, he has been featured on ABC News, Fox News, and The Science Channel. He is a regular on the Travel Channel's 'Mysteries at the Museum'. When not writing, he is the co-host for both the 'Into the Fray' & 'UFOmodPOD' podcasts, available on iTunes. Learn more at www.somewhereintheskies.com

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Ryan Sprague
Ryan Sprague
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Ryan Sprague

Ryan Sprague is the author of 'Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to an Alien Phenomenon'. He is also a UFO journalist, TV personality, and a podcaster. More at www.somewhereintheskies.com

See all posts by Ryan Sprague