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Beyond Roswell: 6 Other Historical UFO Sightings

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"The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer." So started the Daily Record front-page story 66 years ago yesterday that launched a thousand UFO conspiracy theories. Here’s a look at seven other brushes humankind has had with UFOs.

1. Burritt College, Tennessee (1859)

Early risers at Tennessee’s Burritt College spotted a pair of luminous objects (one like a “small new moon,” the other “a large star”) floating just north of the sunrise. Professor A.C. Carnes reported the sighting to Scientific American with skeptical speculation that the so-called UFO was just electricity:

"The first then became visible again, and increased rapidly in size, while the other diminished, and the two spots kept changing thus for about half an hour. There was considerable wind at the time, and light fleecy clouds passed by, showing the lights to be confined to one place."

Scientific American responded with a conjecture that “distant clouds of moisture” caused the sighting.

2. Aurora, Texas (1897)

“The town that almost wasn’t” (according to the tiny Texan town’s history book) found its claim to fame on April 17, 1897, when townsfolk watched a slow-moving airship crash into a windmill. Dallas Morning News reporter S.E. Haydon (sometimes spelled "Hayden") chronicled the crash:

About 6 o'clock this morning the early risers of Aurora were astonished at the sudden appearance of the airship… It sailed over the public square and when it reached the north part of town it collided with the tower of Judge Proctor's windmill and went into pieces with a terrific explosion….

The pilot of the ship is supposed to have been the only one aboard and, while his remains were badly disfigured, enough of the original has been picked up to show that he was not an inhabitant of this world.

The Martian (as it was deemed by an Army officer from neighbor city Fort Worth) was buried at the Aurora Cemetery, but not before townspeople gave the pilot a proper funeral with “Christian rites.”

In a 1979 Time article, however, at least one resident claimed the whole thing was a hoax: "Hayden wrote it as a joke and to bring interest to Aurora," Etta Pegues, 86, told the magazine.

3. Mount Rainier, Washington (1947)

Kenneth Arnold, an aviator and businessman, ushered in what Ufologists consider the modern UFO age on June 24, 1947. Flying over Washington’s Cascade Mountains searching for a missing aircraft, he instead found several objects which he told reporters looked like “a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.”

Arnold’s sighting—he clocked the objects’ flight from Mt. Rainier to Mt. Adams at an unprecedented 1200 miles per hour—was made immortal by newspaper reporter Bill Bequette, who coined the name “flying saucer” in his story on the Associated Press news wire. By the end of July 1947, the U.S. media covered 800 reports of UFOs.

4. Lubbock, Texas (1951)

On August 25, 1951, three professors from Texas Technological College—a geologist, a chemical engineer, and a petroleum engineer and department head—saw 20 to 30 lights flying over one of the professors' backyards at 9 p.m.

Five nights later, a Texas Tech freshman named Carl Hart, Jr. snapped five shots of the same formation of lights. A lieutenant investigating the “Lubbock Lights,” Edward J. Ruppelt, released a statement about the photos, declaring, “the photos were never proven to be a hoax, but neither were they proven to be genuine.” The official Air Force explanation? They were birds—probably ducks or plovers—with street lights reflecting off of them. 

5. Washington, D.C. (1952)

At 11:40 p.m. on July 19 in the capital, air traffic controllers noted pale blips flitting on their radarsFighter jets were dispatched to chase down the objects, leading to sensationalist headlines the next day. In the Cedar Rapids Gazette of Iowa, the front page screamed “Saucers Swarm Over Capital.”

6. Leary, Georgia (1969)

At a Lions Club in Leary, Georgia, two years before he was elected as the Peach State’s governor, Jimmy Carter reported watching a self-luminous, color-changing object arc across the sky. He’d mention it in a 1973 report, saying, “It didn't have any solid substance to it, it was just a very peculiar-looking light. None of us could understand what it was."

Years later, Carter shied away from his extraterrestrial sighting, saying that it was only a UFO because it was, in fact, unexplained, and that he knew it couldn’t be an alien ship, thanks to his background in physics (he was also an amateur astronomer). In a 2007 interview with The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, he debunked rumors that the CIA refused to give him information about UFO cover-ups.

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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