Fifty-one years ago today, the federal government closed the books on a long-running search for space aliens -- or, to be precise, "unidentified flying objects."
Looking to the heavens for the answers to life's most profound questions is an ancient human impulse. The beginning of the Christmas story involves angels who appeared in the night sky to tell shepherds of the impending arrival of Jesus of Nazareth. Elsewhere in the New Testament, a star guides the Magi to the place where the baby is born. When they saw it, the Gospel of Matthew informs us, "they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy."
Yet on June 24, 1947, when private aviator Kenneth A. Arnold thought he saw a flock of nine "blue-white" objects flying in a V-formation near Mount Rainer in Washington state, his reaction was mainly bewilderment. The objects were moving fast, he thought, and appeared to be crescent shaped and convex. Upon landing at the airfield in Yakima, he shared his observation with the staff there. Pressed for a description, Arnold said they appeared to be disk-shaped, like "saucers."
Once Arnold's story went out over the news wires, more Americans began reporting similar phenomena, the most famous coming two weeks later in Roswell, N.M. The flying saucer craze was officially here.
Concerned that the Soviets were up to something, the Air Force launched Operation Sign in 1948, an inquiry that became the top-secret Project Blue Book in 1952, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
President Truman was also concerned by the possibility of national hysteria after a rash of reported UFO sightings that year and asked the federal intelligence agencies to investigate. In 1953, the CIA brought together a team of esteemed scientists, headed by physicist H.P. Robertson of the California Institute of Technology, to pool the existing knowledge acquired by Project Blue Book investigators.
Their conclusion? That UFOs posed no security threat to the United States because there was, in fact, no basis for what the Air Force called "the extraterrestrial hypothesis." The vast majority of the sightings, according to the Robertson Panel, were attributable to astrological or meteorological activity and man-made objects such as balloons, normal aircraft, even searchlights. Kenneth Arnold, for example, had most likely mistaken a flock of geese for something infinitely more interesting.
Yet Project Blue Book continued -- it's harder to kill a government program than slay a herd of zombies -- and it would record reports of 12,618 alleged UFO sightings. In time, Blue Book officials would classify more than 90% of these as "identified," and on this date in 1969, after yet another independent review by a scientific panel, this one headed by Edward Condon at the University of Colorado, the project was finally shut down.
Still, if 90% of the sightings were debunked, that left 700 reports as "unidentified." This was more than enough for modern-day seekers. And so in 1974, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, an adviser to Project Blue Book, started another entity. It is called the Center for UFO Studies. Its devotees still look to the heavens, hoping one day to see something that will cause them to rejoice "exceedingly with great joy." Or, perhaps, because scientific experiments don't always produce the results we want, to be afraid -- to be very afraid.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.