9 Facts About Project Blue Book, the Government's Top-Secret UFO Program

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iStock.com/font83

Between 1952 and 1969, the U.S. Air Force conducted a series of studies on UFO sightings called Project Blue Book. Not only is there a new History Channel series about the program, this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the project’s termination. Get to know the secretive program better.

1. Project Blue Book wasn’t the government’s first UFO study.

In 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold reportedly spotted nine glowing UFOs zooming over Washington's Mount Rainier. The public went wild for the so-called “flying saucers.” Shortly after, the U.S. government launched Project SIGN to determine if such objects were a threat. In 1948, Project SIGN purportedly published a document called the “Estimate of the Situation,” which suggested that extraterrestrials were a possible explanation for UFO sightings. As the story goes, Air Force officials destroyed the document and launched a more skeptical investigation in the late 1940s called Project GRUDGE. Blue Book came a few years later.

2. The “Estimate of the Situation” was inspired by a mind-boggling event.

In the 1960s, Air Force officials denied that the “Estimate of the Situation” document ever existed. Those who vouch for its authenticity, however, say the report was inspired by a 1948 UFO sighting in Alabama, after two experienced pilots saw a torpedo-shaped “glowing object” zip past their aircraft and rocket into the clouds. The report shocked and baffled many of Project SIGN’s researchers, though scientists would later claim the sighting was consistent with a bolide, or bright meteor.

3. “Blue Book” was named after a college testing staple.

Whether UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin is debatable. What’s undeniable is that, during the 1950s, people routinely spotted (or thought they spotted) objects flying over the United States—and it was the onus of the U.S. military to figure out what they were and whether they posed any danger. Blue Book would earn its name because, at the time, Air Force officials equated studying the phenomenon with preparing for a collegiate “blue book” final exam.

4. Officials developed a special protocol for handling UFO sightings.

A central part of Project Blue Book was the creation of a standardized questionnaire for UFO sightings. Some sample prompts: “Draw a picture that will show the shape of the object or objects … What was the condition of the sky? ... Did the object: Suddenly speed up and rush away at any time? Change shape? Flicker, throb, or pulsate?” Eventually, every U.S. Air Force base ended up designating a special officer to collect these UFO reports.

5. Thousands of reports were collected—and some haven’t been explained.

By the time Project Blue Book was closed, officials had gathered 12,618 UFO reports. Of those, 701 were never explained. Nearly half of those unidentified UFOs appeared in 1952 when a whopping 1501 UFOs were sighted. (Interestingly, that following year, it became a crime for military personnel to discuss classified UFO reports with the public; the risk of breaking the law could mean up to two years imprisonment.)

6. Project Blue Book saw five leadership changes.

Each person in command saw the purpose of Project Blue Book differently. Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, for example, treated the job as a serious scientific quest and is often lauded as the project’s most impartial leader. (Notably, he is responsible for coining the term UFO.) Major Hector Quintanilla, who took over the project in 1963, was more interested in turning Blue Book into a PR front and focused on quelling the public’s interest in UFOs—a desire that would eventually lead to charges of a government cover-up.

7. Blue Book made such bad scientific mistakes that Congress had to get involved.

In 1965, Oklahoma Police, the Tinker Air Force Base, and a local meteorologist using weather radar independently tracked four unexplained flying objects. Under Quintanilla’s advisement, Project Blue Book would claim that these witnesses had simply observed the planet Jupiter. The problem with this explanation? Jupiter wasn’t even visible in the night’s sky. “The Air Force must have had its star finder upside-down during August,” Robert Riser, an Oklahoma planetarium director, said at the time. A series of more badly botched scientific explanations eventually led to a congressional hearing.

8. The Project’s desire to dismiss unidentified phenomena bothered its sole scientist.

Project Blue Book had one consistent scientific consultant, astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek. In 1968, Hynek wrote: “The staff of Blue Book, both in numbers and in scientific training, is grossly inadequate … there is virtually no scientific dialogue between Blue Book and the outside scientific world … The statistical methods employed by Blue Book are nothing less than a travesty” [PDF]. Hynek held Quintanilla in particularly low regard, saying, “Quintanilla’s method was simple: disregard any evidence that was counter to his hypothesis.”

9. In 2007, a new government Inquiry into UFOs was launched.

Between 2007 and 2012, the U.S. government spent $22 million on a new UFO study called the “Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program.” (Nowadays, UFOs are called UAPs, or "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena": You can watch one here.) This January, more than three dozen of the program’s studies became publicly available, revealing the government’s interest in everything from warp drives to invisibility cloaks.

The Mystery of the Missing Keepers at the Flannan Isles Lighthouse

iStock.com/Westbury
iStock.com/Westbury

In December 1900, a boat called Hesperus set sail for the island of Eilean Mor, one of the seven islets (also known as the “Seven Hunters”) of the Flannan Isles off the coast of northwestern Scotland. Captain James Harvey was tasked with delivering a relief lighthouse keeper as part of a regular rotation. The journey was delayed a few days by bad weather, and when Harvey and his crew finally arrived, it was clear that something was awry. None of the normal preparations at the landing dock had been made, the flagstaff was bare, and none of the keepers came to greet the Hesperus. The keepers, as it turned out, weren’t on the island at all. All three of them had vanished.

Eilean Mor had its peculiarities. The island’s only permanent residents were sheep, and herders referred to it as “the other country,” believing it to be a place touched by something paranormal. Eilean Mor had long elicited a sort of fearful reverence in its visitors; the main draw to the remote location was a chapel built in the 7th century by St. Flannan. Even those who never prayed were moved to worship while on Eilean Mor. Superstitions and rituals—like circling the church’s ruins on your knees—were adopted by those passing through, and many considered Eilean Mor to have an indefinable aura that could not be ignored.

What the Hesperus crew did find at the lighthouse was a set of perplexing clues. The replacement keeper, Joseph Moore, was the first to investigate, and reported an all-encompassing sense of dread as he ascended the cliff toward the newly constructed lighthouse. Inside, the kitchen table contained plates of meat, potatoes, and pickles. The clock was stopped, and there was an overturned chair nearby. The lamp was ready for lighting, and two of the three oilskin coats belonging to Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur were gone. The gate and door were firmly shut.

These clues only led to more questions. Why would one of the keepers have gone out without his coat—and for that matter, why would all three have left together at all when the rules forbade it? Someone needed to man the post at all times, so something unusual must have drawn them out. When Moore returned with his report, Harvey had the island searched. The hunt came up empty. The captain then sent a telegram to the mainland:

A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island.

Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that.

Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate.

I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.

Further investigations also led nowhere, though the lighthouse log book provided a new set of confounding details. On December 12, an entry from Marshall described “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in twenty years.” He wrote that Ducat had been quiet and McArthur had been crying, which would have been odd behavior for a man with a reputation as a tough and experienced seafarer. The next day, Marshall reported more storm details and wrote that all three of them had been praying—another odd bit of behavior from well-seasoned keepers in a brand-new, supposedly safe lighthouse. Strangest of all, there were no reported storms in the area on December 12th, 13, or 14—all should have been calm up until December 17. The last report in the book, from December 15, read: “Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.”

Speculation ran wild. Was it something supernatural? Sea creatures? A case of madness and murder? A government operation? Foreign spies? Aliens? Ultimately, it was evidence outside the lighthouse that provided the most promising lead in explaining what had become of the three keepers. Over at the western landing platform, damage from the recent storms reached as high as 200 feet above sea level. Ropes that were usually affixed to a crate on a supply crane were littered about.

Robert Muirhead, superintendent of the Commissioners of Northern Lights, wrote in his official report:

I am of the opinion that the most likely explanation of this disappearance of the men is that they had all gone down on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 December to the proximity of the West landing, to secure the box with the mooring ropes, etc and that an unexpectedly large roller had come up on the island, and a large body of water going up higher than where they were and coming down upon them had swept them away with resistless force.

While this (or a similar approximation) seems possible, the explanation left considerable room for doubt. The lack of bodies, supposedly calm conditions, and sheer experience and know-how of the lighthouse keepers still hadn’t been accounted for, and never would be. In the years following, other keepers claimed to hear voices in the salty air screaming out the names of Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur.

In Mysterious Celtic Mythology in American Folklore, author Bob Curran writes: “For many local people, there was little doubt that they had been spirited into the otherworld.”

Scholar Claims the Voynich Manuscript Is Written in a 'Proto-Romance' Language

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons

Various theories have attributed the Voynich manuscript to cryptographers, aliens, and pranksters. The book, written in an unknown text and dating back to the 15th century, has stumped codebreakers since it was rediscovered by a rare book dealer named Wilfred Voynich in 1912. Now, a scholar from the UK claims that the Voynich code isn't a code at all, but one of the only surviving examples of a proto-romance language, Artnet News reports. If true, it would have huge implications on the study of linguistics as a whole, but experts are hesitant to endorse the findings.

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, describes his alleged breakthrough in a study published in the journal Romance Studies. He claims that the Voynich manuscript was written in a fully formed language Europeans spoke centuries ago. Proto-romance laid the foundation for modern languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Hardly any known examples of it survived in writing because it was mainly a spoken language. Most important texts from the time were written in Latin, the official language of royalty, the church, and the government.

After identifying the Voynich script, Cheshire claims it took him just to weeks to translate the text. One passage next to an illustration of women struggling to give children a bath lists adjectives like noisy, slippery, and well-behaved, according to Cheshire. Another section, written beside pictures of volcanoes, describes islands being born out of volcanic eruptions. The scholar believes that Dominican nuns compiled the manuscript as a reference book for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon—Catherine of Aragon's great-aunt.

Many people have claimed to have cracked the Voynich code in the past, and experts are hesitant believe that this time is any different. After academics expressed concerns over the study, Bristol University where Cheshire works released a statement distancing itself from the research. It reads: "We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned."

If Cheshire's research does prove to be valid, that means he's accomplished something the greatest code-breaking minds in modern history could not. Not even cryptographer Alan Turing could crack the cipher.

[h/t Artnet News]

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