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.

A Shrine to Brine: The Mysterious Case of Missouri's Highway Pickle Jar

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iStock.com/MorePixels

No one knows how it started. No one knows who was responsible. Some may even have dismissed it as an aberration, a glitch in the scenery that would soon be corrected. But eventually, drivers in and around Des Peres, Missouri who took a highway off-ramp connecting I-270 North to Manchester Road began to notice that a jar of pickles was sitting on a dividing barrier on the ramp. And it wasn’t going anywhere.

Since 2012, the pickle jar has confounded drivers and internet sleuths alike, according to Atlas Obscura. Some have speculated that someone was trying to send a secret message or share a private joke. Perhaps someone pulling off to the side due to car trouble felt the need to place the brine-filled jar on the concrete wall and then forgot about it. Maybe someone thought it would be a kind of three-dimensional graffiti, incongruous amid the bustling traffic. Maybe it’s an indictment of commerce.

Whatever the case, once the pickles appeared, advocates refused to let them go. Jars that end up toppled over or otherwise damaged are replaced. Sometimes they reappear in protective plastic containers or with a holiday-themed bow. Sightings are photographed for posterity and posted on a Facebook fan page devoted to the jar, which currently has over 4200 members and has morphed from a place to theorize about the mysterious jar's origins to a place where people swap pickle-related recipes and stories.

There are dry spells—no one has posted of a pickle sighting in several months—but followers remain optimistic the jar will continue to remain a presence in Des Peres even if the motivation for placing them near the roadway remains as murky as the briny juice inside.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Why is Punxsutawney's Groundhog Called Phil?

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

A groundhog has been making weather predictions in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, since 1886, but we've only been calling him "Phil" since 1961. Before that, the critter was usually just called the "Br'er Groundhog" or "The Punxsutawney Groundhog." Most sources (including the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club) say he eventually earned the moniker "Phil" as homage to "King Philip," but that explanation is as dubious as it is vague.

The problem is that they never specify which King Philip. The tradition of foretelling the weather with a marmot's shadow has its origins in Germany, but Deutschland hasn't seen a "King Philip" for more than eight centuries. France, Greece, Spain, and even the Wampanoag people of New England have all had a King Philip, but it's very unlikely that a small Germanic Pennsylvania community would ever name their beloved groundhog after any of these kings, either.

Rather, the name might actually refer to a prince—and it may have gotten its start thanks a pair of heinous murders and some good old-fashioned small-town competition.

In 1953, Punxsutawney sent two baby groundhogs to Los Angeles's Griffith Park Zoo. The critters had been named after Britain's new reigning couple, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the future Prince (not King!) Philip. While the zoo gladly welcomed Liz and Phil with open arms, the state of California did not. The California Department of Agriculture declared the baby groundhogs "agricultural pests" and demanded they be "destroyed." The animals were summarily killed.

Back in Pennsylvania, people were deeply insulted. (The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club went so far to say that the groundhogs had been "executed.") The head of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, who worried that the killings could spark an international incident, told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm going to ask [my Congressman] to take the matter up with the State Department so we won't get into complications with England. Killing these groundhogs was an insult to the royal family." Indeed, a congressional representative would issue a statement criticizing California. The two groundhogs were eventually buried back home.

Eight years later, the name "Punxsutawney Phil" first appeared in newspapers. It's possible that this new moniker was a shout-out to one of the dearly deceased royal groundhogs. (That, however, is a matter of speculation.)

Regardless, the new name was also a necessity. Multiple Pennsylvania towns—such as Quarryville and Pine Grove—also had their own prognosticating woodchucks, and the towns were stuck in a vicious debate over who was home to the real sage. Adopting a new name was not only good branding, but also a practical way to help differentiate the different groundhogs. (The competitors would also get unique names: Octoraro Orphie and Grover.)

Eventually, Punxsutawney would get a huge PR boost from the 1993 movie Groundhog Daythough it was always home to the leading marmot. On Groundhog Day in 1904, the Pittsburg Press reported, "The ticket-sellers in the various railroad offices noticed a surprising increase in receipts this morning. First-class rates to Punxsutawney went so fast that the advisability of raising the price was considered. All the cold weather interests were off to the lair of the groundhog to see him see his shadow."

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