The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 5. Spoofing and Secrecy

Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvellous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)

When the mother of celebrity abductee Travis Walton was informed that a UFO had zapped her son with a bolt of lightning and then carried him off into space, she replied incuriously, ‘Well, that’s the way these things happen.’ Is it?

To agree that UFOs are in our skies is not committing to very much: ‘UFO’ is an abbreviation for ‘Unidentified Flying Object’. It is a more inclusive term than ‘flying saucer’. That there are things seen which the ordinary observer, or even an occasional expert, does not understand is inevitable. But why, if we see something we don’t recognize, should we conclude it’s a ship from the stars? A wide variety of more prosaic possibilities present themselves.

After misapprehended natural events and hoaxes and psychological aberrations are removed from the data set, is there any residue of very credible but extremely bizarre cases, especially ones supported by physical evidence? Is there a ‘signal’ hiding in all that noise? In my view, no signal has been detected. There are reliably reported cases that are unexotic, and exotic cases that are unreliable. There are no cases - despite well over a million UFO reports since 1947 - in which something so strange that it could only be an extraterrestrial spacecraft is reported so reliably that misapprehension, hoax or hallucination can be reliably excluded. There’s still a part of me that says, ‘Too bad.’

We’re regularly bombarded with extravagant UFO claims vended in bite-sized packages, but only rarely do we get to hear about their comeuppance. This isn’t hard to understand: which sells more newspapers and books, which garners higher ratings, which is more fun to believe, which is more resonant with the torments of our time - real crashed alien ships, or experienced con men preying on the gullible; extraterrestrials of immense powers toying with the human species, or such claims deriving from human weakness and imperfection?

Over the years I’ve continued to spend time on the UFO problem. I receive many letters about it, frequently with detailed first-hand accounts. Sometimes momentous revelations are promised if only I will call the letter writer. After I give lectures - on almost any subject -1 often am asked, ‘Do you believe in UFOs?’ I’m always struck by how the question is phrased, the suggestion that this is a matter of belief and not of evidence. I’m almost never asked, ‘How good is the evidence that UFOs are alien spaceships?’

I’ve found that the going-in attitude of many people is highly predetermined. Some are convinced that eyewitness testimony is reliable, that people do not make things up, that hallucinations or hoaxes on such a scale are impossible, and that there must be a long-standing, high-level government conspiracy to keep the truth from the rest of us. Gullibility about UFOs thrives on widespread mistrust of government, arising naturally enough from all those circumstances where, in the tension between public well-being and ‘national security’, the government lies. As government deceit and conspiracies of silence have been exposed on so many other matters, it’s hard to argue that a cover-up on this odd subject is impossible, that the government would never hide important information from its citizens. A common explanation on why there would be a cover-up is to prevent worldwide panic or erosion of confidence in the government.

I was a member of the US Air Force Scientific Advisory Board committee that investigated the Air Force’s UFO study - called ‘Project Bluebook’, but earlier and revealingly called ‘Project Grudge’. We found the on-going effort to be lackadaisical and dismissive. In the middle 1960s, ‘Project Bluebook’ was headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where ‘Foreign Technical Intelligence’ (chiefly, understanding what new weapons the Soviets had) was also based. They had state-of-the-art technology in file retrieval. You asked about a given UFO incident and, somewhat like sweaters and suits at the dry cleaner’s today, reams of files made their way past you, until the engine stopped when the file you wanted arrived before you.

But what was in those files wasn’t worth much. For example, senior citizens reported lights hovering over their small New Hampshire town for more than an hour, and the case is explained as a wing of strategic bombers from a nearby Air Force base on a training exercise. Could the bombers take an hour to pass over the town? No. Did the bombers fly over at the time the UFOs were reported? No. Can you explain to us, Colonel, how strategic bombers can be described as ‘hovering’? No. The slipshod Blue-book investigations played little scientific role, but they did serve the important bureaucratic purpose of convincing much of the public that the Air Force was on the job; and that maybe there was nothing to UFO reports.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that another, more serious, more scientific study of UFOs was going on somewhere else, headed, say, by a brigadier general rather than a lieutenant colonel. I think something like this is even likely, not because I believe we’re being visited by aliens, but because hiding in the UFO phenomena must be data once considered-of significant military interest. Certainly if UFOs are as reported - very fast, very manoeuvrable craft - there is a military duty to find out how they work. If UFOs were built by the Soviet Union it was the Air Force’s responsibility to protect us. Considering the remarkable performance characteristics reported, the strategic implications of Soviet UFOs flagrantly overflying American military and nuclear facilities were worrisome. If on the other hand the UFOs were built by extraterrestrials, we might copy the technology (if we could get our hands on just one saucer) and secure a huge advantage in the Cold War. And even if the military believed that UFOs were manufactured neither by Soviets nor by extraterrestrials, there was a good reason to follow the reports closely.

In the 1950s balloons were being extensively used by the Air Force - not just as weather measurement platforms, as prominently advertised, and radar reflectors, as acknowledged, but also, secretly, as robotic espionage craft, with high-resolution cameras and signal intelligence devices. While the balloons themselves were not very secret, the reconnaissance packages they carried were. High-altitude balloons can seem saucer-shaped when seen from the ground. If you misestimate how far away they are, you can easily imagine them going absurdly fast. Occasionally, propelled by a gust of wind, they make abrupt changes in direction, uncharacteristic of aircraft and in seeming defiance of the conservation of momentum - if you don’t realize they’re hollow and weigh almost nothing.

The most famous of these military balloon systems, widely tested over the United States in the early 1950s, was called ‘Skyhook’. Other balloon systems and projects were designated ‘Mogul’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘Grandson’ and ‘Genetrix’. Urner Lidell, who had some responsibility for these missions at the Naval Research Laboratory, and who was later a NASA official, once told me he thought all UFO reports were due to military balloons. While ‘all’ is going too far, their role has, I think, been insufficiently appreciated. So far as I know there has never been a systematic and intentional control experiment, in which high-altitude balloons were secretly released and tracked, and UFO reports from visual and radar observers noted.

In 1956, overflights of the Soviet Union by US reconnaissance balloons began. At their peak there were dozens of balloon launches a day. Balloon overflights were then replaced by high-altitude aircraft, such as the U-2, which in turn were largely replaced by reconnaissance satellites. Many UFOs dating from this period were clearly scientific balloons, as are some since. High-altitude balloons are still being launched, including platforms carrying cosmic ray sensors, optical and infrared telescopes, radio receivers probing the cosmic background radiation, and other instruments above most of the Earth’s atmosphere.

A great to-do has been made of one or more alleged crashed flying saucers near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Some initial reports and newspaper photographs of the incident are entirely consistent with the idea that the debris was a crashed high-altitude balloon. But other residents of the region - especially decades later - remember more exotic materials, enigmatic hieroglyphics, threats by military personnel to witnesses if they didn’t keep what they knew to themselves, and the canonical story that alien machinery and body parts were packed into an airplane and flown to the Air Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Some, but not all, of the recovered alien body stories are associated with this incident.

Philip Klass, a long-time and dedicated UFO sceptic, has uncovered a subsequently declassified letter dated 27 July 1948, a year after the Roswell ‘incident’, from Major General C.B. Cabell, then Director of Intelligence for the US Air Force (and later, as a CIA official, a major figure in the abortive US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs). Cabell was inquiring of those who reported to him on what UFOs might be. He hadn’t a clue. In an 11 October 1948 summary response, explicitly including information in the possession of the Air Materiel Command, we find the Director of Intelligence being told that nobody else in the Air Force had a clue either. This makes it unlikely that UFO fragments and occupants had made their way to Wright-Patterson the year before.

What the Air Force was mostly worried about was that UFOs were Russian. Why Russians would be testing flying saucers over the United States was a puzzle to which the following four answers were proposed: ‘(1) To negate US confidence in the atom bomb as the most advanced and decisive weapon in warfare. (2) To perform photographic reconnaissance missions. (3) To test US air defenses. (4) To conduct familiarization flights [for strategic bombers] over US territory.’ We now know that UFOs neither were nor are Russian, and however dedicated the Soviet interest may have been to objectives (1) through (4), flying saucers weren’t how they pursued these objectives.

Much of the evidence regarding the Roswell ‘incident’ seems to point to a cluster of high-altitude classified balloons, perhaps launched from nearby Almagordo Army Air Field or White Sands Proving Ground, that crashed near Roswell, the debris of secret instruments hurriedly collected by earnest military personnel, early press reports announcing that it was a spaceship from another planet (‘RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region’), diverse recollections simmering over the years, and memories refreshed by the opportunity for a little fame and fortune. (Two UFO museums in Roswell are leading tourist stops.)

A 1994 report ordered by the Secretary of the Air Force and the Department of Defense in response to prodding from a New Mexico Congressman identifies the Roswell debris as remnants of a long-range, highly secret, balloon-borne low-frequency acoustic detection system called ‘Project Mogul’ - an attempt to sense Soviet nuclear weapons explosions at tropopause altitudes. The Air Force investigators, rummaging comprehensively through the secret files of 1947, found no evidence of heightened message traffic:

There were no indications and warnings, notice of alerts, or a higher tempo of operational activity reported that would be logically generated if an alien craft, whose intentions were unknown, entered U.S. territory... The records indicate that none of this happened (or if it did, it was controlled by a security system so efficient and tight that no one, U.S. or otherwise, has been able to duplicate it since. If such a system had been in effect at the time, it would have also been used to protect our atomic secrets from the Soviets, which history has shown obviously was not the case.)

The radar targets carried by the balloons were partly manufactured by novelty and toy companies in New York, whose inventory of decorative icons seems to have been remembered many years later as alien hieroglyphics.

The heyday of UFOs corresponds to the time when the main delivery vehicle for nuclear weapons was being switched from aircraft to missiles. An early and important technical problem concerned re-entry - returning a nuclear-armed nosecone through the bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere without burning it up in the process (as small asteroids and comets are destroyed in their passage through the upper air). Certain materials, nosecone geometries, and angles of entry are better than others. Observations of re-entry (or the more spectacular launches) could very well reveal US progress in this vital strategic technology or, worse, inefficiencies in the design; such observations might suggest what defensive measures an adversary should take. Understandably, the subject was considered highly sensitive.

Inevitably there must have been cases in which military personnel were told not to talk about what they had seen, or where seemingly innocuous sightings were suddenly classified top secret with severely constrained need-to-know criteria. Air Force officers and civilian scientists thinking back about it in later years might very well conclude that the government had engineered a UFO cover-up. If nosecones are judged UFOs, the charge is a fair one.

Consider spoofing. In the strategic confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the adequacy of air defences was a vital issue. It was item (3) on General Cabell’s list. If you could find a weakness, it might be the key to ‘victory’ in an all-out nuclear war. The only sure way to test your adversary’s defences is to fly an aircraft over their borders and see how long it takes for them to notice. The United States did this routinely to test Soviet air defences.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States had state-of-the-art radar defence systems covering its west and east coasts, and especially its northern approaches (over which a Soviet bomber or missile attack would most likely come). But there was a soft underbelly - no significant early warning system to detect the geographically much more taxing southern approach. This is of course information vital for a potential adversary. It immediately suggests a spoof: one or more of the adversary’s high-performance aircraft zoom out of the Caribbean, let’s say, into US airspace, penetrating, let’s say, a few hundred miles up the Mississippi River until a US air defence radar locks on. Then the intruders hightail it out of there. (Or, as a control experiment, a unit of US high-performance aircraft is sequestered and sent in unannounced sorties to determine how porous American air defences are.) In such a case, there may be combined visual and radar sigh tings by military and civilian observers and large numbers of independent reports. What is reported corresponds to no known aircraft. The Air Force and civilian aviation authorities truthfully state that none of their aircraft was responsible. Even if they’ve been urging Congress to fund a southern Early Warning System, the Air Force is unlikely to admit that Soviet or Cuban aircraft got to New Orleans, much less Memphis, before anybody caught on.

Here again, we have every reason to expect a high-level technical investigating team, Air Force and civilian observers told to keep their mouths shut, and not just the appearance but the reality of suppression of the data. Again, this conspiracy of silence need have nothing to do with alien spacecraft. Even decades later, there are bureaucratic reasons for the Department of Defense to be close-mouthed about such embarrassments. There is a potential conflict of interest between parochial concerns of the Department of Defense and the solution of the UFO enigma.

In addition, something that both the Central Intelligence Agency and the US Air Force worried about then was UFOs as a means of clogging communication channels in a national crisis, and confusing visual and radar sightings of enemy aircraft - a signal-to-noise problem that in a way is the flip side of spoofing.

In view of all this, I’m perfectly prepared to believe that at least some UFO reports and analyses, and perhaps voluminous files, have been made inaccessible to the public which pays the bills. The Cold War is over, the missile and balloon technology is largely obsolete or widely available, and those who would be embarrassed are no longer on active duty. The worst that would happen, from the military’s point of view, is that there would be one more acknowledged instance of the American public being misled or lied to in the interest of national security. It’s time for the files to be declassified and made generally available.

Another instructive intersection of the conspiracy temperament and the secrecy culture concerns the National Security Agency. This organization monitors the telephone, radio and other communications of both friends and adversaries of the United States. Surreptitiously, it reads the world’s mail. Its daily intercept traffic is huge. In times of tension, vast arrays of NSA personnel fluent in the relevant languages are sitting with earphones, monitoring in real time everything from encrypted commands from the target nation’s General Staff to pillow talk. For other material there are key words by which computers cull out for human attention specific messages or conversations of current urgent concern. Everything is stored, so that retrospectively it is possible to go back to the magnetic tapes and to trace the first appearance of a codeword, say, or command responsibility in a crisis. Some of the intercepts are made from listening posts in nearby countries (Turkey for Russia, India for China), from aircraft and ships patrolling nearby, or from ferret satellites in Earth orbit. There is a continuing dance of measures and counter-measures between the NSA and the security services of other nations, who understandably do not wish to be listened in on.

Now add to this already heady mix the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A request is made to the NSA for all information it has available on UFOs. It is required by law to be responsive, but of course without revealing ‘methods and sources’. NSA also feels a deep obligation not to alert other nations, friends or foes, in an obtrusive and politically embarrassing way, to its activities. So a more or less typical intercept released by NSA in response to an FOIA request will be a third of a page blacked out, a fragment of a line saying ‘reported a UFO at low altitude’, followed by two-thirds of a page blacked out. The NSA’s position is that releasing the rest of the page would potentially compromise sources and methods, or at least alert the nation in question to how readily its aviation radio traffic is being intercepted. (If NSA released surrounding, seemingly bland, aircraft-to-tower transmissions, it would then be possible for the nation in question to recognize that its military air traffic control dialogues are being monitored and to switch to communications means - frequency hopping, for example - that make NSA intercepts more difficult.) But UFO conspiracy theorists receiving, in response to their FOIA requests, dozens of pages of material, almost all of it blacked out, understandably deduce that the NSA possesses extensive information on UFOs and is part of a conspiracy of silence.

In talking not for attribution with NSA officials, I am told the following story: typical intercepts are of military and civilian aircraft radioing that they see a UFO, by which they mean an unidentified object in the surrounding airspace. It may even be US aircraft on reconnaissance or spoofing missions. In most cases it is something much more ordinary, and the clarification is also reported on later NSA intercepts.

Similar logic can be used to make NSA seem a part of any conspiracy. For example, they say, a response was required to an FOIA request on what the NSA knew about the singer Elvis Presley. (Apparitions of Mr Presley and resulting miraculous cures have been reported.) Well, the NSA knew a few things. For example, a report on the economic health of a certain nation reported how many Elvis Presley tapes and CDs were sold there. This information also was supplied as a few lines of clear in a vast ocean of censorship black. Was NSA engaged in an Elvis Presley cover-up? While of course I have not personally investigated NSA’s UFO-related traffic, their story seems to me very plausible.

If we are convinced that the government is keeping visits of aliens from us, then we should take on the secrecy culture of the military and intelligence establishments. At the very least we can push for declassification of relevant information from decades ago, of which the July 1994 Air Force report on the ‘Roswell Incident’ is a good example.

You can catch a flavour of the paranoid style of many UFOlo-gists, as well as a naivete about the secrecy culture, in a book by a former New York Times reporter, Howard Blum (Out There, Simon and Schuster, 1990):

I could not, no matter how inventively I tried, avoid slamming into sudden dead ends. The whole story was always lingering, deliberately, I came to believe, just out of my grasp.

Why?

This was the single, practical, impossible question that was balanced ominously on the tall peak of my mounting suspicions. Why were all these official spokesmen and institutions doing their collusive best to hinder and obstruct my efforts? Why were stories true one day, and false the next? Why all the tense, unyielding secretiveness? Why were military intelligence agents spreading disinformation, driving UFO believers mad? What had the government found out there? What was it trying to hide?

Of course there’s resistance. Some information is classified legitimately; as with military hardware, secrecy sometimes really is in the national interest. Further, military, political and intelligence communities tend to value secrecy for its own sake. It’s a way of silencing critics and evading responsibility for incompetence or worse. It generates an elite, a band of brothers in whom the national confidence can be reliably vested, unlike the great mass of citizenry on whose behalf the information is presumably made secret in the first place. With a few exceptions, secrecy is deeply incompatible with democracy and with science.

One of the most provocative purported intersections of UFOs and secrecy are the so-called MJ-12 documents. In late 1984, so the story goes, an envelope containing a canister of exposed but undeveloped film was thrust into the home mail slot of a film producer, Jaime Shandera, interested in UFOs and government cover-up, remarkably, just as he was about to go out and have lunch with the author of a book on the alleged events in Roswell, New Mexico. When developed, it ‘proved to be’ page after page of a highly classified ‘eyes only’ executive order dated 24 September 1947 in which President Harry S. Truman seemingly established a committee of twelve scientists and government officials to examine a set of crashed flying saucers and little alien bodies. The membership of the MJ-12 committee is remarkable because these are just the military, intelligence, science and engineering people who might have been called to investigate such crashes if they had occurred. In the MJ-12 documents there are tantalizing references to appendices about the nature of the aliens, the technology of their ships and so on, but the appendices were not included in the mysterious film.

The Air Force says that the document is bogus. The UFO expert Philip J. Klass and others find lexicographic and typographic inconsistencies that suggest that the whole thing is a hoax.

Those who purchase fine art are concerned about the provenance of their painting - that is, who owned it most recently and who before that... and so on all the way back to the original artist. If there are breaks in the chain, if a 300-year-old painting can be tracked back only sixty years and then we have no idea in what home or museum it was hanging, the forgery warning flags go up. Because the rewards of forgery in fine art are high, collectors must be very cautious. Where the MJ-12 documents are most vulnerable and suspect is exactly on this question of provenance - the evidence miraculously dropped on a doorstep like something out of a fairy story, perhaps ‘The Shoemaker and the Elves’.

There are many cases in human history of a similar character -where a document of dubious provenance suddenly appears carrying information of great import which strongly supports the case of those who have made the discovery. After careful and in some cases courageous investigation the document is proved to be a hoax. There is no difficulty in understanding the motivation of the hoaxers. A more or less typical example is the book of Deuteronomy - discovered hidden in the Temple in Jerusalem by King Josiah, who, miraculously, in the midst of a major reformation struggle, found in Deuteronomy confirmation of all his views.

Another case is what is called the Donation of Constantine. Constantine the Great is the Emperor who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), for over a thousand years the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, was named after him. He died in the year . 335. In the ninth century, references to the Donation of Constantine suddenly appeared in Christian writings; in it Constantine wills to his contemporary, Pope Sylvester I, the entire Western Roman Empire, including Rome. This little gift, so the story went, was partly in gratitude for Sylvester’s cure of Constantine’s leprosy. By the eleventh century, popes were regularly referring to the Donation of Constantine to justify their claims to be not only the ecclesiastical but also the secular rulers of central Italy. Through the Middle Ages the Donation was judged genuine both by those who supported and by those who opposed the temporal claims of the Church.

Lorenzo of Valla was one of the polymaths of the Italian

Renaissance. A controversialist, crusty, critical, arrogant, a pedant, he was attacked by his contemporaries for sacrilege, impudence, temerity and presumption, among other imperfections. After he concluded that the Apostles’ Creed could not on grammatical grounds have actually been written by the Twelve Apostles, the Inquisition declared him a heretic, and only the intervention of his patron, Alfonso, King of Naples, prevented his immolation. Undeterred, in 1440, he published a treatise demonstrating that the Donation of Constantine is a crude forgery. The language in which it was written was to fourth century court Latin as Cockney was to the King’s English. Because of Lorenzo of Valla, the Roman Catholic Church no longer presses its claim to rule European nations because of the Donation of Constantine. This work, whose provenance has a five-century hole in it, is generally understood to have been forged by a cleric attached to the Church’s curia around the time of Charlemagne, when the papacy (and especially Pope Adrian I) was arguing for unification of church and state.

Assuming they both belong to the same category, the MJ-12 documents are a cleverer hoax than the Donation of Constantine. But on matters of provenance, vested interest and lexicographic inconsistencies, they have much in common.

A cover-up to keep knowledge of extraterrestrial life or alien abductions almost wholly secret for forty-five years, with hundreds if not thousands of government employees privy to it, is a remarkable notion. Certainly, government secrets are routinely kept, even secrets of substantial general interest. But the ostensible point of such secrecy is to protect the country and its citizens. Here, though, it’s different. The alleged conspiracy of those with security clearances is to keep from the citizens knowledge of a continuing alien assault on the human species. If extraterrestrials really were abducting millions of us, it would be much more than a matter of national security. It would affect the security of all human beings everywhere on Earth. Given such stakes, is it plausible that no one with real knowledge and evidence, in nearly 200 nations, would blow the whistle, speak out and side with the humans rather than the aliens?

Since the end of the Cold War NASA has been flailing about, trying to find missions that justify its existence - particularly a good reason for humans in space. If the Earth were being visited daily by hostile aliens, wouldn’t NASA leap on this opportunity to augment its funding? And if an alien invasion were in progress, why would the Air Force, traditionally led by pilots, step back from manned spaceflight and launch all its payloads on unmanned boosters?

Consider the former Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, in charge of ‘Star Wars’. It’s fallen on hard times now, particularly its objective of basing defences in space. Its name and perspective have been demoted. It’s the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization these days. It no longer even reports directly to the Secretary of Defense. The inability of such technology to protect the United States against a massive attack by nuclear-armed missiles is manifest. But wouldn’t we want at least to attempt deployment of defences in space if we were facing an alien invasion?

The Department of Defense, like similar ministries in every nation, thrives on enemies, real or imagined. It is implausible in the extreme that the existence of such an adversary would be suppressed by the very organization that would most benefit from its presence. The entire post-Cold War posture of the military and civilian space programmes of the United States (and other nations) speaks powerfully against the idea that there are aliens among us - unless, of course, the news is also being kept from those who plan the national defence.

Just as there are those who accept every UFO report at face value, there are also those who dismiss the idea of alien visitation out of hand and with great passion. It is, they say, unnecessary to examine the evidence, and ‘unscientific’ even to contemplate the issue. I once helped to organize a public debate at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science between proponent and opponent scientists of the proposition that some UFOs were spaceships; whereupon a distinguished physicist, whose judgement in many other matters I respected, threatened to set the Vice President of the United States on me if I persisted in this madness. (Nevertheless, the debate was held and published, the issues were a little better clarified, and I did not hear from Spiro T. Agnew.)

A 1969 study by the National Academy of Sciences, while recognizing that there are reports ‘not easily explained’, concluded that ‘the least likely explanation of UFOs is the hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitations by intelligent beings’. Think of how many other ‘explanations’ there might be: time travellers; demons from witchland; tourists from another dimension - like Mr Mxyztplk (or was it Mxyzptlk? I always forget) from the land of Zrfff in the Fifth Dimension in the old Superman comic books; the souls of the dead; or a ‘noncartesian’ phenomenon that doesn’t obey the rules of science or even of logic. Each of these ‘explanations’ has in fact been seriously proffered. ‘Least likely’ is really saying something. This rhetorical excess is an index of how distasteful the whole subject has become to many scientists.

It’s telling that emotions can run so high on a matter about which we really know so little. This is especially true of the more recent flurry of alien abduction reports. After all, if true, either hypothesis - invasion by sexually manipulative extraterrestrials or an epidemic of hallucinations - teaches us something we certainly ought to know about. Maybe the reason for strong feelings is that both alternatives have such unpleasant implications.

Aurora

---

The number of reports and their consistency suggest that there may be some basis for these sightings other than hallucinogenic drugs.

Mystery Aircraft report,

Federation of American Scientists

20 August, 1992

Aurora is a high-altitude, extremely secret American reconnaissance aircraft, a successor to the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird. It either exists or it doesn’t. By 1993, there were reports by observers near California’s Edwards Air Force Base and Groom Lake, Nevada, and particularly a region of Groom Lake called Area 51 where experimental aircraft for the Department of Defense are tested, that seemed by and large mutually consistent. Confirming reports were filed from all over the world. Unlike its predecessors, the aircraft is said to be hypersonic, to travel much faster, perhaps six to eight times faster, than the speed of sound. It leaves an odd contrail described as ‘donuts-on-a-rope’. Perhaps it is also a means of launching small secret satellites into orbit, developed, it is speculated, after the Challenger disaster indicated the shuttle’s episodic unreliability for defence payloads. But the CIA ‘swears up and down there’s no such programme’, says US Senator and former astronaut John Glenn. The principal designer of some of the most secret US aircraft says the same thing. A Secretary of the Air Force has vehemently denied the existence of such an airplane, or any programme to build one, in the US Air Force or anywhere else. Would he lie? ‘We have looked into all such sightings, as we have for UFO reports,’ says an Air Force spokesman, in perhaps carefully chosen words, ‘and we cannot explain them.’ Meanwhile, in April 1995 the Air Force seized 4,000 more acres near Area 51. The area to which public access is denied is growing.

Consider then the two possibilities: that Aurora exists, and that it does not. If it exists, it’s striking that an official cover-up of its very existence has been attempted, that secrecy could be so effective, and that the aircraft could be tested or refuelled all over the world without a single photograph of it or any other hard evidence being published. On the other hand, if Aurora does not exist, it’s striking that a myth has been propagated so vigorously and gone so far. Why should insistent official denials have carried so little weight? Could the very existence of a designation - Aurora in this case - serve to pin a common label on a range of diverse phenomena? Either way, Aurora seems relevant to UFOs.