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Aliens & Craft







There can be little doubt that one of the most important factors that will

determine the manner in which our society reacts should contact ever be

established with intelligent extraterrestrial (ET) life forms will be the

physical appearance,or morphology, of the alien. All the prejudices, the

fears, the mistrust and the bigotry that exists amongst the races that make up

mankind will be focusswed into this reaction. Thus, speculating on the

morphology of an intelligent alien is important for the future of space

exploration. Serious efforts are now being made around the world in the field

known as Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the manner in

which our society reacts to contact will depend to a great extent on the

appearance of the alien. Anticipation of the possibilities now may reveal

whether a shock for the world is likely. It is also useful to consider alien

morphology in terms of gauging how likely the chances of intelligent aliens

evolving really are.



The problem of trying to anticipate the physical appearance of the ET is at

first sight ludicrously impossible. To start with, we don't even know if

intelligent ETs exist, let alone what their planet of origin is like or what

their morphology may be.

Our task is therefore limited to using what knowledge we have of the evolution

of intelligent life on Earth, considering possible extraterrestrial planetary

environments and making a series of reasonable assumptions. A combination of

biology, zoology, and anthropology is required as well as the newer science of

exobiology. Most important, the overriding thought when considering the

subject should be "how would this imagined alien become intelligent?"



Conveniently, disagreement over the likely appearance of intelligent ETs

divides itself into two opposing camps. On one side are those who take a

rather anthropormorphic view of the ET and believe that it would basically be

humanoid in shape with two ,arms, two legs, a head at the top of the body and

the main sense organs located on the head. Opposing this view are those exobiologists

who believe that the intelligent ET is bound to appear exotic because the

creature would inevitably have taken a totally different evolutionary path

from man and would have arisen in a very un-earthlike planetary environment.

This article will show, however, that the case put forward by the non-humanoid

ET protagonists will not stand up to the example of the evolution of

intelligent life on Earth, nor the necessities of morphology that a creature

requires to become intelligent. It is therefore suggested here that any

intelligent life across the galaxy will have evolved into a basically humanoid




A possibility often suggested by more radical exobiologists is that

extraterrestrial life might depend on a chemistry that does not require the

carbon atom. Bracewell [1] has proposed that life could make use of the

chemistry of the silicon atom rather than the carbon atom. Silicon based

organisms would, for example, breathe out silicon dioxide (sand) instead of

carbon dioxide. The rock eating creature has often been suggested as a product

of this biological system. [An example of this can be seen in the ST AR TREK

episode about the horta. AB]

The problem is that silicon polymers of the protein type are unlikely to from

the compounds essential for for chemical evolution. Bieri [2] points out that

the energy requirements for duplicating a living system are fulfilled only by

carbon and the hight energy phosphate bond.

It is very difficult to envisage any life other than that based on the carbon

compounds forming in water. Unfortunately this limits the planetary

considerations necessary for the evolution of larger sized organisms somewhat

severely -- in fact it restricts planets that may have intelligent to those

with broadly Earth-like surface temperatures and pressures. (It also restricts

the type of star that may shine on life producing planets -- the DNA molecule

is sensitive to high levels of radiation, particularly the ultraviolet.

What of possible creatures that could get by without requiring the

availability of an Earth-like oxygen rich atmosphere? The conjectured

'balloon' creatures floating in the gas belts of Jupiter and using, instead of

oxygen, a metabolism of hydrogen -- could they ever become intelligent ETs?

And what is wrong with Fred Hoyle's "Black Cloud," an intelligent gas

cloud thousands of kilometres across? The answer lies in our prime question,

"how could this creature become intelliegent?" Intelligence, it is argued

later, will probably only arise from astimulating predatory existence in a

harsh but survivable physical environment.

Conceding defeat to the necessity for life to be based on carbon in a water

medium, the exotic morphology ET supporters suggest that there are enormous

variations open to chance evolution even under Earth-like conditions. Slight

differences in surface pressure, temperature, gravity or solar radiation, they

argue, will produce widely divergent evolutionary trends [3]. Steen[4]

suggests that intelligent ETs might be insect like, bird like, fish like or

even plant like. They may be spherical in shape, glutinous, jelly-like

creatures, such as a "Quatermass" might meet, or possibly even a planet sized

oceanic intelligence such as that in Stanislaw Lem's novel "Solaris."

For less bizarre (but still very exotic) alien creatures proposed for

extraterrestrial life bearing planets, the exhibits on display at the National

Air and Space Museum's "Life in the Universe" section in Washington, DC

provides some good examples of exotic aliens [5]. Biologist Bonnie Dalzell has

designed for a dry Earth-like world the "hexalope," a six legged antelope. For

a high gravity planet, we are presented with the "bandersnatch," a monstrous

herbivore with eight legs, a large mouth in its chest, two eyes on stalks and

ears along the side of its body -- the creature weighs 30,000 lbs. on its 3-G

world! The intelligent ET that Dalzell presents us with is a six legged toad

like creature.

Life on Earth shows us just how strange creatures can become in the chain of

evolution. The giraffe is a good example of this. But it is highly unlikely

that these creatures could ever become intelligent.



The problem ignored by exotic ET protagonists is that speculation on the

morphology of the ET must take account of the lessons taught us by

evolutionary development on Earth.

(The argument for humanoid ETs given here is based on the works of Robert

Bieri [2], N.J. Berrill [6] and Robert Puccetti [7])

In the early period of the development of life on Earth, organic matter based

on carbon compounds began in a water medium before the invasion of the land.

The early sea bound creatures developed a critical characteristic that would

decide the future form of land dwellers -- that of bilateral symmetry in the

shape of the body. This shape reduced water resistance and turbulence to a

minimum and became the characteristic of all the higher creatures of the sea.

It can be seen that adoption of a predatory way of marine life has

developed bilaterally symmetrical creatures as diverse as the

squid, the penguin, the seal, the otter and the large fish. Radially symmetric

ocean dwelling creatures all adopt a relatively stationary way of life, jelly

fish, sea anenomae etc., having a loss of sensitivity and degeneration of the

nervous system when compared to the more active predators.

Bieri points out that predatory animals with complex nervous systems and

bilateral symmetry possess the largest and most important sensing and grasping

organs close to the mouth. Also, digestion and excretion is most convenient

with an anterior mouth and posterior anus for an active hunting animal. In

order to reduce time for nerve impulses to travel from the sensing organs,

the brain is at the head.




Conceptualisation, it would seem, can arise only in a land animal. Birds

cannot possess brains large enough for this due to the fact that they must be

light in weight and have hollow bones to fly. A large intelligent brain

requires a considerable amount of blood and therefore a heavy cardiovascular

system -- both these factors would lead to an impossible power to weight ratio

for an intelligent airborne creature. It is also difficult to imagine an

intelligent ET evolving from gliding winged creatures such as the the flying

squirrel (which glides from trees with the use of membranes under its front

legs) -- it is too small to evolve intelligence. It is doubtful that even a

gliding creature as large as the extinct Pterodactyl could ever develop a

large enough brain.

The question of intelligence arising in sea animals is somewhat more complex

due to the fact that the whale family happens to possess large brain capacity,



a very advanced system of communication and displays remarkable feats of

intelligence. However, conceptualisation, as Puccetti attempts to define it,

seems to arise in conjunction with a social exisistence, speech and the use of

tools. The development of tool usage undersea is extremely difficult due to

the density and viscosity of water. Predatory sea animals rely on their

natural hunting equipment -- teeth, streamlining, speed, etc. -- rather than

weapons and tools. Only semi-land creatures, such as beavers a nd otters (both

mammals) possess any sort of manipulating appending and these they use on the


How the whale family came to develop such a large cerebral capacity tends to

cast some doubt on the whole question of conceptualisation development. Here

it is assumed that whales are clever, but do not conceptualise on their


An encounter, therefore, with a race of intelligent aliens who are either

aquatic, reptilian or are creatures capable of flight and who developed

conceptualisation characteristics with a high level of technology, seems

highly unlikely. Our intelligent ETs would have to be land dwellers.




It should be emphasized that it seems most likely that all intelligent

conceptualising creatures in the galaxy will have their own origins in

predatory animals. Man's origins appear to stem from herbivore apes that,

faced with climatic and vegetation changes, left the trees, became omniverous

and adapted to running on the savannah, hunting other animals in groups and

using their ability to grasp and manipulate to develop weapons, tools and

eventually a basic technology. It is difficult to imagine a animal b othering

to use weapons and tools, firstly if it was a fully adapted herbivore and

secondly if it was already a competent predator, such as the lion or tiger.

Arthur C. Clarke describes this critical paththat the early hunting apes had

to take extremely well in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (although of course he did not

let his apes develop their technology purely on their own initiative.)

Man has remained the only creature with a technology on this planet because of

his predatory hunting nature, despite the basic ingenuity of creatures such as

the ant with its ingenoius city like hills, chimpanzees which can fish out

termites with sticks, and birds that can break shells with heavy stones and

the sea otter that can break open shells by floating on its back and beating

them against stones on its chest. These creatures have stretched their

manipulative abilities to the limits.




The development of legs, arms and grasping appendages is critical to our

conceptual ET's road to intelligence. A primitive technology will require the

ability to hold and manipulate, with some degree of sensitivity, basic tools

and weapons such as clubs, spears, knives and twine. The intelligent ET must

have this manipulative capability combined with speed of movement, otherwise

it will remain in its comfortable environment (as did the dolphin) and we

would certainly never meet it stepping out of a star shi p.

As a method of movement, sliding, wriggling and rolling are all much too slow

for the land predator. As Puccetti points out, walking is the only viable

means of moving at high speeds and for long distances. The wheel was never

used as a means of locomotion by nature except in some tiny bacteria. Although

the reciprocating knee joint in the human leg can put up with large shock

loads and the shoulder aND hip joints can rotate through a considerable arc,

it is difficult to imagine an organic bearing that coul d rotate through 360


Insect like appendages are unlikely. Insects possess legs that are basically

hollow cylinders with muscles and tendons inside the skeletal tube. The

problem with this arrangement is that if the creature grows in size the tube

will constrain the inner muscle size -- hence the Tarantula being the largest

land insect left since prehistoric times. Hard levers and struts surrounded by

muscles and tendons, as in land walking vertebrates, is a much more likely

arrangement in the predator land dwelling alien.

The question of the number of legs is one of the most contentious when

discussed by those speculating on the morphology of the intelligent ET. The

four legs that we have are the product of genetic inheritance from our

earliest mammal ancestors; but this inheritance allowed us great speed of

movement and thus playeda major factor in the development of intelligence. One

leg is out of the question -- the creature could never get up if it ever fell

over. Odd numbers are unlikely because of balance problems. Mor e than four

can only be found in insects. Galloping after prey with six legs is too

complex for land predators (and herbivores, as we have established, are

unlikely to become intelligent). Each leg has to swing through a wide arc for

speed and with more than four this becomes very difficult.


Monkeys and apes can use their two legs for manipulation but have to run on

both arms and legs together. Indeed the ape cannot use weapons to hunt whilst

running on all fours. It is difficult to imagine the development of an

intelligent hunting animal animal such as man running on two sensitive

grasping appendages. Thus we have the evolutionary step of the conversion of

one pair of legs to manipulating, pushing and pulling devices and the other

pair to movement. In this way the creature optimises between hi gh speed

movement and delicate manipulation.




So far we have formulated the picture of an intelligent ET with a body much

like our own. Its sensory organs, however, show characteristics that are

somewhat different, though not greatly.

Sense organs would largely depend on the characteristics of the aliens

planetary environment and the illumination provided by the local sun.

More than two eyes is rare in land creatures -- the spider possesses multiple

eyes, but they are of doubtful sensitivity, and would confuse a large hunting

creature. Stereoscopic vision near to the brain and high on the body is the

most suitable. Binaural hearing would seem the most logical. This is required

for location bearing -- and thus the ET requires just two ears. Again these

would be on the head. Only one mouth is needed with the smell sensor close to

it and taste sensors inside it. The smell sensor can be used for breathing,

whilst the mouth is occupied with eating and drinking.

Additional sensory devices such as bat like acoustic ranging systems or infra

red sensors similar to those possessed by the rattlesnake, are possible. But

as Bieri points out, the imply a corresponding reduction of vision in the

normal sun illuminated spectrum. As we have established above that carbon life

probably only develops on planets with suns much like our own we can assume

that the visual spectrum would be similar to that on Earth for the alien ET.

Although, therefore, the sensors of the ET are similar to our own, the

placement on the head and their form might be quite different. Odd shaped

heads are likely, different ear shapes and sizes most probable and eye size

and colour would be different.


The argument presented above gives backing to the anthropormorphic view of the

intelligent ET -- that is that the creature would be basically humanoid. But

this only a starting point. What would the intelligent ET look like in detail?

This question is, of course, even more difficult to contemplate than

speculating on the ET's likely basic form. However, here are a number of

possible variables to consider:

1. SIZE AND BUILD -- The height and build of the alien has often been

suggested as being related to the gravity on the creature's palnet of origin.

A planet slightly larger than Earth, witha subsequently higher gravity would

result in the alien being squatter, with heavy bones and a powerful physique

-- in other words, something like a gorilla. On the other hand, a lower

gravity planet would result in taller, more spindly aliens. This argument is a

little simplistic in its conclusion and does not explain th e wide range in

the sizes of Earth creatures -- for example, why is there such a large

variation in the size and build of the apes, all of which are fairly clever




It seems probable that one can draw parameters about the ET's size, the likely

range being between the smallest of the human races (the pygmy) at about 4

1/2 feet tall and the upper limit being around 7 1/2 feet tall. If the alien

is very much heavier than man, he would have problems with running for long

distances in pursuit of prey in his early development as a land predator and

would require a very large supply of readily available food to maintain


One interesting point about man is that we appear to be getting taller due to

our evolution, our bodies are losing their broader muscles and our heads

changing shape. It is more than likely that the humanoid intelligent alien

also experiences this form of slow morphological evolution due to changes in

dietary nutrition and life style. There is, of course, no guarantee tha the

alien will meet man as we appear now. An intelligent alien basing his

conception of what man looks like from previously discovered sp acecraft

message devices (such as those carried by Pioneers 10 and 11), or picked up TV

images in, say, 50,000 years time, may be in for a surprise when he meets a

hairless, chinless, towering egghead from Earth!

Equally interesting is the question of the differences between the male and

the female of the intelligent aliens' species. Would the two be quite

different morphologically as in the case of homo sapiens, or would the two be

virtually indistinguishable as with some creatures on Earth?


2. SKIN COLOUR -- The wide variation in skin colour and tone with creatures on

the Earth is enough to indicate the extreme range that couldoccur with the

intelligent ET. Indeed, why would the ET have a smooth skin? It is possible

that fur may cover the alien having been left behind after an evolution

stemming from a bear like creature, for example. (indeed, it is interesting to

wonder whether whiskers, or some sort of delicate sensory feelers may remain

with an intelligent creature after it has begun to rel y on its hands).


3. FACIAL ARRANGEMENT -- This, as already stated, is mainly constrained by the

smell and taste sensors being close to the mouth and by the need for stereo

vision and binaural hearing. Beyond this the facial arrangement possibilities

would be reasonably wide.

4. NUMBER OF FINGERS/TOES -- Again, variations could be wide although beyond

ten fingers or toes on each hand or leg would seem excessive and difficult for

the brain to coordinate. Less than four fingers on the hand would make basic

technology difficult to manipulate.


5. INTERNAL CHARACTERISTICS -- The internal digestive, cardiovascular and

pulmonary systems inside the intelligent ET would most likely be quite

different and it is not possible to list all the variations within the

confines of this article.


Our immediate impressions of the intelligent ET will be critical to how

society later reacts to the contact. The theme of this article is that,

because of the evolutionary demands to become intelligent and the probable

similarity between Earth and the alien planet, the intelligent ET will be

basically humanoid in form. Therefore, our reaction will most likely not be

too extreme.Various questions, however, remain. For example, how far will

the ET have evolved beyond the humanoid morphology?

It is unlikely that prosthetics will change the basic form of the ET. In

general, artificial limbs (and bionics) are intended to resemble those

currently possessed. The aliens' view of good looks will be determined by the

most perfect and healthy of its species. Consequently any artificial aids will

be designed to blend with the pure form of the alien -- contact lenses

replacing glasses is a good example of this.

It is difficult to imagine the advanced alien ever giving up its basic body

appearance. Some writers have suggested that semi-immortality might be

achieved by removing the brain from the failing body and installing it in a

machine, thus creating the cyborg. If this is ever done it is likely that man

would want the new machine bodyto resemble the original organic body shape. An

even more radical idea is that once the alien has developed very high levels

of knowledge and consciousness, the mind may even be li berated from the body.

If this occurred we might never discover its original appearance.

A final question is to what degree will alien clothing and cosmetics mask the

basic morphology? Fashions can enhance and emphasise body shapes in certain

cases with our own current civilization -- possibly the same will occur in the

intelligent ET's society. Hair styling, however, is an example of how

sometimes fashion can seriously alter the shape of the body. Also, any

spacesuit or breathing apparatus might appear unusual.

Unfortunately, only through the discovery of artifacts or through contact

itself will we ever learn what the actual morphology of the alien may be.

Indeed, the chances are that the first close encounter with an alien

civilization will be via the radio telescope. Video pictures will in this

situation have to suffice for many years in the place of face to face contact.

It is the conclusion of this paper that these images of the intelligent ET

will not shock us; they may surprise and intrigue us, but it is unlikely that

mankind will find the alien fearful in physical appearance.

Hopefully, the ET will feel the same way about us.








Invaders from Elsewhere

Flying Saucers, Weirdness, and Pop Culture

by Bruce Lanier Wright

Let's open with a newsreel, "Citizen Kane"-style, at the beginning that wasn't the beginning, with the saucers that weren't saucers.

June 24, 1947: Afternoon skies over the still-unspoiled Washington Cascades. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot from Boise, ID, takes in the view. Suddenly, he sees nine silvery, crescent-shaped objects flying in tight formation. Later, he estimates their size at 40 to 50 feet wide, their speed at a fantastic 1200 miles per hour. Yet they're moving like no jet, no airplane, would ever move: rhythmically, as if you were to skip a saucer across water, he tells the newspapers. A headline writer garbles the quote and coins a snappy tagline "flying saucers." And Kenneth Arnold earns his footnote in history.

We'll revisit some of the weirdest of those glorious days of our youth and examine some tasty souvenirs for the collector. But, as Bela would say, be varned. If you believe that a complete and accurate picture of our world can be obtained from Newsweek or, God help us, network TV, you will find this puzzling at best. If, on the other hand, you're a big fan of talk radio, you may move your lips when you read, but at least you've been exposed to, um, alternate belief systems.

Saucer Time!

Of course, people have been seeing strange things in the skies for a long time, globes, cigar-shapes and saucers, you bet; old English accounts mention Yorkshire peasants spotting a silver disc in the heavens in the Year of Grace 1290. Dozens of more recent stories can be pulled from the historical records, from the large saucer seen by a farmer near Dallas in 1878 to the "ghost rockets" reported over Scandinavia in the '30s and '40s. But in June 1947, the phenomenon achieved critical mass, God knows why. A philosopher of history once remarked that it steam-engines when it comes steam-engine time, and 1947 manifestly was Saucer Time.

After Arnold's initial report, UFO sightings in our skies exploded. On June 26, four witnesses including a doctor saw a "huge silver globe" moving along the rim of the Grand Canyon; two days after that, an Air Force pilot reported a flight of six discs over Lake Meade, NV. Within days, reports were pouring in from localities as widely separated as Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Louisiana, Quebec and Prince Edward Island in far-north Canada.

And then there was the Roswell Incident.


Another newsreel: Midnight on Friday, July 4, 1947, near Roswell, New Mexico. During a thunderstorm, a rancher named Mac Brazel hears an explosion. The next morning, he discovers an enormous debris field in his pastures, so thick he has to route his sheep around it to drive them to water. The debris is odd: plastic-like beams, wire, scraps of a metal light enough to flutter in the breeze, but impervious to hammer blows and flame. Some foil-like pieces, when bent or twisted, reassume their original shapes without a mark.

The next day, Brazel reports his discovery to the sheriff, who contacts Roswell Army Air Field, headquarters for the 509th Bomb Group. Major Jesse Marcel, an air intelligence officer, visits Brazel's field to investigate. He quickly concludes that the material is literally unearthly. On Tuesday, July 8, the air base releases a story to the AP newswire that begins: "The Army Air Forces here today announced a flying disc had been found." All hell breaks loose.

Just what happened next will always remain murky. The air base is sealed off, and military police close some roads. The FBI squelches a radio station's report. Every scrap of the mysterious wreckage is removed. Roswell receives a series of visitors from Washington and other military installations, and some very unfriendly statements are made to the sheriff and other locals, encouraging them to forget various things they've seen and heard. Mac Brazel spends over a week in military custody. After his release, he doesn't say anything to anyone for a long time. And a little more than 24 hours after the first news report, the world learns that the so-called saucer was only a weather balloon. The nation has a good laugh at Jesse Marcel's expense. Marcel, a good soldier, keeps his mouth shut until near the end of his life. Roswell drops out of the news for 30 years but not forever.


UFOs remained headline fodder throughout the late 40s, to the increasing irritation of the United States Air Force and at least some members of the scientific community. The 1947-49 sightings constituted what came to be called a "flap," an unusually active period for UFO activity. As in all flaps, a "me-too" factor was at work; a hard core of genuinely unusual sightings were surrounded by a great deal more misidentification, wishful thinking and general flakiness. For awhile it seemed as if flying saucers were crashing every week, judging from the regularity with which any shiny metal found in a field was put forward as a saucer remnant.

Hastily prepared attempts to explain away the phenomena were two- a-penny. In July 1947, for instance, an Australian physiologist confidently stated that flying saucers were merely "the effect of red corpuscles in blood passing in front of the retina." Cloud formations, ball lightning, and the planet Venus were trotted out regularly as well. The Air Force mounted an official study effort that in 1949 grumpily concluded the investigation of UFOs should be curtailed. The UFOs may have felt snubbed as saucer reports seemed to taper off for awhile.

Then came the extraordinary Saucer Summer of 1952, when for months, it seemed, you could scarcely leave your house without getting your hat knocked off by a gleaming messenger from beyond. UFO sightings piled up for months, with an impressive number of reports from airline and military pilots. The flap reached its peak in the Washington, DC area in July; an Air Force report declassified in 1985 describes radar sightings involving up to 12 unidentified "targets" at a time near Washington National Airport. At its largest peace-time press conference in history, the Air Force attributed the radar activity to "temperature inversions." Local meteorologists said: no way.

Kooky Kontactee Kults

I don't want to get all Freudian on you, but it's clear that flying saucers answered a deep need in a lot of lonely souls. People were in the market for reassurance. Nuclear terror was in the air. They wanted help. They wanted Space Brothers.

Enter George Adamski, the Grand Old Man of saucer religion, who in 1953 published Flying Saucers Have Landed, an account of his meeting with a Venusian named Orthon (!) near Desert Center, CA. The book, illustrated with his own photographs of various flying saucers and "mother ships," sold well and gave him a group of followers who have not entirely dissipated to this day. Adamski prospered on the lecture circuit, assuming the title "professor" and talking up his connections with Mount Palomar observatory (actually, he'd been a fry cook at a nearby tourist cafe). Adamski's aliens were spiritually advanced and conveniently handsome and Nordic-featured. They took him on joy rides to Saturn and Jupiter.

Adamski's success spawned a series of copy-cat space gurus, each waving his own book of revelations from aliens whose names all sounded like new synthetic fibers. These included Aboard a Flying Saucer (1954), by Truman Bethurum, who chatted with UFO captain Aura Rhanes from the planet Clarion; Secret of the Saucers (1955) by Orfeo Angelucci who once met a space-babe named Lyra in a bus station; and Howard Menger's From Outer Space to You (1959), which reveals, among other mysteries, the alien approach to organic farming. The kindly aliens of 1950s contactee literature came from a bewildering variety of planets, but the message of all these "space brothers," as they were dubbed by their followers, was essentially the same: our earth is a backwater, a dangerous slum on the outskirts of a benign sort of interplanetary U.N., and we must Get Our Act Together.

Space Brotherism is a little starchy for my taste, but the movement produced at least one series of events I would have given a lot to attend, the Giant Rock Spacecraft Conventions held each year in the Mojave Desert from 1954 to 1977. Hosted by George Van Tassel yet another Venusian contactee (and founder of the Universal College of Wisdom and the Cosmic Brotherhood of Christ), in its mid-1950s heyday the annual get-together attracted crowds of up to 10,000 enlightened and out-there folks with vital messages to share (and, on at least one occasion, packages of "genuine Venusian dog hair" to sell). One of these celestial proto-Woodstocks was attended by fantasy filmmaker Ray Harryhausen, who was then planning his own UFO epic, "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers."


The movie business was quick to pick up on the cinematic potential of the UFO phenomenon, and the drive-in screens of the 1950s soon were flooded with a dazzling array of unearthly visitors. The first of these was a fully dressed 1950 turkey called "The Flying Saucer"; its "saucer" is a Russian secret weapon, and about its only other point of interest is that producer/director/"star" Mikel Conrad promoted the film by hinting that his lame saucer shots were actual top-secret government footage.

Better saucer flicks were forthcoming. To make sense of what followed, it helps to remember just how paranoid things were at that time - and not just because of flying saucers. The McCarthy era was in bloom and Cold War jitters spilled over into saucer cinema. In 1951, two sci-fi classics helped to trigger the decade's science fiction movie boom while marking the opposite poles of a distinctly ambivalent attitude toward alien visitors.

April 1951 brought Howard Hawk's "The Thing from Another World," the story of an Arctic military base under siege by an intelligent and hostile alien. "Classic" isn't too strong a label for this claustrophobic and genuinely scary movie, in which the hard- headed Average Joes of the Air Force successfully battle the beast despite the misguided notions of the base's head scientist, who thinks any spacefaring creature must be susceptible to sweet reason. Robert Wise's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," released in September, argues the opposite case with a conviction and forcefulness that seems fairly astonishing considering the nation's mood. "The Day" concerns Klaatu, a wise, saintly alien emissary who lands his saucer in the middle of Washington DC - every saucerhead's dream during the 50s - and warns us that nuclear weaponry and our own natural aggression may lead to our extinction.

The philosophies expressed in "The Thing" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" can be found at war throughout the era's saucer movies. Sometimes the viewpoints are embodied in opposing characters, often, as in 1959's "The Cosmic Man," a scientist and a hot-headed military officer. In terms of sheer volume, though, 1950s saucer cinema comes down firmly on the side of paranoia. In film after film, otherworldly life is simply a menace to be battled and stamped out. Sometimes the aliens arrive in force, like the flying-saucer fleet that ravages Washington in Ray Harryhausen's "Earth Versus the Flying Saucers" (1956). More often, though, they infiltrate quietly as commie-style fifth-columnists and saboteurs, as in Gene Fowler's excellent "I Married a Monster From Outer Space" (1958).

Movies weighing in on Klaatu's side were relatively rare during the 1950s. Space Brotherists weren't a big population segment, after all, and it just wasn't a trusting era. The mistreated alien in Edgar G. Ulmer's "The Man From Planet X" (1951) and the benign interplanetary castaways of "It Came From Outer Space" (1953) were exceptions to a rule of de facto antagonism between Us and Them.

Saucer World!

As the Populuxe years of the 50s and early 60s progressed, UFO sightings continued to pour in from around the world. On August 13, 1956, for instance, a flight of objects buzzed the joint RAF/USAF base at Bentwaters in Suffolk, England and were tracked by three different ground-based radar stations at speeds of up to 4,000 mph. The UFO phenomenon began to seep into society's subconscious in a number of ways. The saucerist movement even mounted a bid for the presidency in 1960, when one Gabriel Green ran with the full backing of the Amalgamated Flying Saucer Clubs of America. (Fraud at the polls!) Flying saucers became totems, an enigmatic addition to the celebration of conventional speed and technology embodied in the era's atom symbols and tail-fins. You can see saucers everywhere in the era's landscape, if you pause to look, from the glorious one atop Seattle's Space Needle to those astonishing lamps that sell for way too much in chic junk stores. (The last rental house my wife and I occupied had not one but two fab early-60s hanging saucer lamps, and like idiots we didn't steal them.) Roadside architecture borrowed from UFO imagery, and many cities are lucky enough to have at least one or two saucerish hamburger stands left.

Inevitably, people began to consider the notion of building our own saucer-shaped flying craft. The December 1950 Science and Mechanics speculated that enormous prop-driven saucers might serve as public transport; "Will 'Flying Saucer' Buses Lick Traffic Congestion?" its cover asked (answer, as you may have noticed: no). In the late 1950s, the Air Force developed the Avro air car, a piloted flying disc lifted by large fans. Despite various hints that the Avro might be behind some saucer sightings, the thing could scarcely get off the ground. With a few tweaks, the Avro could have been the first hovercraft instead of a really large paperweight. In recent years, the Air Force has developed successful saucer-shaped drones, which may explain some recent sightings; but as far as we know, man-piloted saucers have remained in the realm of fiction, like the elegant star cruiser of "Forbidden Planet" and the Robinson's sturdy Jupiter-2 from "Lost In Space."

Illegal Aliens...

While a lot of people clearly were enjoying the UFO phenomenon, in their different ways, governments seem to have regarded it as a migraine.

The 1952 flap prompted the Air Force to revive its UFO investigation. The new effort, Project Blue Book, began in March 1952 under the guidance of Captain Edward Ruppelt. Blue Book seems to have begun as a serious investigation, and by the time Ruppelt left the project in 1954, he was personally convinced that UFOs were extraterrestrial craft. The program he left behind, however, quickly degenerated into a public relations exercise whose "explanations" became a byword for idiocy among students of the subject. A typical case was one in which an Air Force wing commander was guided by radar to intercept a UFO over Japan. The official account ascribed the incident to the planet Jupiter, an object not often tracked by ground radar.

As Blue Book began, other efforts were going on behind the scenes. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency convened a secret scientific advisory body, the Robertson Panel, to examine the UFO question. The panel didn't break much new ground in researching the subject; a participant, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, later characterized the effort as cursory and close-minded. More interesting were the panel's conclusions about the effects of UFO belief. They took a dim damn view of saucer-heads, recommending that all UFO sightings be debunked to preserve public peace of mind, and suggesting that UFO groups be monitored by the government as potentially subversive elements. Subsequent events made it clear that Washington and some other national governments took this advice to heart. A cozy silence settled over the topic, at least on the official level.


The UFO story has been compared to an onionskin. Peel back a layer and you find another layer. One observation, however, is incontestable: many national governments, including our own, have consistently lied about UFOs for nearly 50 years. Much of what is known is due to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and its counterparts in other countries. Since its July 1974 inception, patient investigators have used FOIA to sloowwllly pull documents out of the federal government's maw. It hasn't been quick or easy. Note that few of the folks who confidently assure you our government can't keep secrets have actually tried to obtain one.

When the CIA was first approached for UFO-related documents, for instance, it claimed to have none at all. With continuing pressure, the agency squeezed out 400 pages; after some years, 40,000 pages of reports came to light. In 1973, then-FBI director Clarence Kelley stated that "the investigation of Unidentified Flying Objects is not and never has been...within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI." Three years later, an FOIA request yielded some 1,100 pages of FBI documents on UFOs. And the Feds are allowed to hold back anything deemed vital to "national security." The plucky UFO researcher is quite likely to receive a juicy memo only to find everything blacked out except the words "To" and "From."

Despite these hurdles, some have expressed disappointment that no smoking gun has emerged from the declassified records - no photo of Harry Truman with an ET at a White House smoker, say. This is missing the forest for the trees. Literally hundreds of compelling visual and radar sightings by military personnel have come to light, along with tantalizing hints of study efforts conducted behind the Blue Book window dressing. In all, the sheer weight of evidence points to an interesting conclusion Time magazine may feel there's nothing of interest in UFO sightings. You may feel that way. Governments don't seem to agree.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Something was bubbling beneath the surface, all right. Stories abound of UFO witnesses being visited by government types and having film confiscated or "borrowed," never to be seen again. A lot of these tales may be fiction; some may not. The government rarely tipped its hand in any public way, other than in an interesting 1958 incident in which a live TV program was blacked out by the Feds "in the interests of national security," as Major Donald Keyhoe, a prominent UFO researcher, discussed the need for a Congressional investigation.

Keyhoe, by the way, was a long-time director of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), the most widely respected private research organization of its kind. NICAP was founded in 1956 and operated until 1979, and at various times its board included the ClA's first director and the head of the CIA's psychological warfare staff. After Keyhoe left, he was succeeded by two former CIA agents in a row (although some say you never really quit that fine organization). Company fingerprints are all over NICAP. Why so many spy-boys? Beats the hell out of me. Maybe they all simply had a private interest in UFOs, although the CIA doesn't seem a Space Brotherish sort of place.

The deepest plunge into paranoia was taken by saucer buffs who believed they'd run into the mysterious Men in Black. MlBs, as they came to be called, entered saucer mythology in October 1953, when Albert K. Bender, editor of a flying saucer rag called the Space Review, announced that he'd learned the secret of the UFOs - but couldn't tell anyone, because he'd been threatened. He warned others investigating saucers to be "very cautious" and folded his publication. Later, in an interview, Bender said "three men wearing dark suits had silenced him. Later still, he published a fairly incoherent book called Flying Saucers and the Three Men in Black describing his experience.

Pretty soon, other people were encountering these strange men, and an elaborate series of folktales grew up around them: always traveling in twos and threes, driving dark cars and wearing impeccable dark suits; vaguely "foreign" in appearance, and closed-mouthed except when issuing cryptic warnings and threats to UFO witnesses. Sometimes they appeared to witnesses who'd told no one of their experiences, so the tales go. Reports of MlBs peaked in the 60s. Some saucerheads thought MIB stories were malarkey, and others just assumed they were J. Edgar's boys; but John Keel, a respected if gonzo paranormalist, had dealings with them and he thought they weren't even human.

Swamp Gas

Of course, little of this weirdness was making headlines. For decades, the American mainstream media have, with few exceptions, ignored the UFO phenomena or played it for laughs without investigation or follow-up. People like Gore Vidal have written far more eloquently than I could of the remarkable unanimity of opinion, shall we say, that exists within the U.S. press establishment. But you needn't assume a conspiracy; American journalists are an overworked and harried tribe who are forced to rely on conventional wisdom, and it's a helluva lot easier to turn in a silly-season piece than to conduct an actual investigation.

This pattern of neglect was broken only infrequently, and never with more impact than in the great Swamp Gas Debacle of March 1966, which signaled the beginning of the end for Project Blue Book. In America, 1966 was a flap year, with many sightings and some unusually high-profile witnesses, including the governor of Florida. March brought a series of reports from Ann Arbor, Michigan that caught the attention of the national press and put pressure on the Air Force for yet another explanation.

J. Allen Hynek, who was working with Blue Book from time to time, was approached for what we now call a sound bite. When pressed for an explanation, Hynek said some people might have seen glowing clouds of swamp gas. The press, surprisingly, greeted this notion with a loud and nearly unanimous hoot of derision. It was as if a dam had burst. Reporters who had slept peacefully through more than a decade of equally absurd stories from the Air Force became indignant and demanded "the real facts" about flying saucers. UFO reports began popping up in the mainstream press again. Suddenly, it was almost respectable to believe.


Within a few months, though, interest began to wane again. Klaatu didn't arrive on the White House lawn. A widely seen TV documentary reinforced the official line; scientists tut-tutted and a representative of the military said UFOs had never been tracked on radar, a lie pure and simple. Ufology was represented by the maddest-sounding Space Brotherist the producers could locate. Even so, the Air Force remained stung and embarrassed by the swamp gas fiasco and apparently resolved to wash its hands of the topic.

In November 1966, a federally funded committee convened under the leadership of Dr. Edward Condon, a University of Colorado physicist, to produce a "definitive" study of the UFO question. Condon openly mocked the phenomenon, while the project staff split between the genuinely curious and a debunking faction. When the pro-saucer group produced evidence that the committee had never intended to produce a serious study, they were simply fired. Condon's December 1968 final report concluded that the UFO phenomenon was not worthy of further study. This solved nothing - the Christian Science Monitor called the Condon report "a hatchet job...rarely equalled in the field of scientific scholarship" but it gave the Air Force the excuse it needed to fold Blue Book in 1969 and get out of the explanations business entirely.

A few months later, an American Airlines flight from Phoenix to Washington sighted four UFOs looking like "burnished aluminum." A nearby United Airlines flight and a National Guard plane also reported the objects, which were also tracked by air traffic controllers. But by then, few people were paying attention anymore.

Onward to the Present

And that's pretty much where things stand today. In America, official silence on UFOs is still near-total, although some other governments, including France's and Belgium's, have been relatively forthcoming with radar reports and the like.

The phenomenon rolls on, as various and puzzling as ever, and even after the usual easy misidentifications and lunatics are filtered out, hundreds of interesting new cases pop up each year. In the 90s, there have been spectacular flaps in Belgium and Mexico, and as this is being written, others are under way in Australia and Scotland. These receive almost no coverage in the U.S. mainstream media, because we already know there's no such thing as flying saucers, right? It's one of those things Everyone Knows because, well, because Everyone Knows. And God knows the whole thing is easy enough to ignore. Tabloid TV provides most of what little coverage we do get. Space Brotherism was unfashionable for awhile, but with the coming of the "New Age," credulous UFO religionists are as thick on the ground as ever, and a ripe butt for the usual jokes and sitcom gags.

Some scientists are researching the phenomena, but for obvious reasons they play their cards close to their chests. J. Allen Hynek, the world's most respected UFO researcher, liked to joke that the handful of scientists seriously studying saucers constitute an "Invisible College." Since Hynek's death in 1986, his position has more or less been assumed by Jacques Vallee, who will probably go to his grave best known as the model for the Francois Truffaut character, "Lacombe," in Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." In general, though, science remains a field dominated by careerism: rather pleasant for the tenured and respectable, rather unpleasant for the impoverished grad students and associate profs who do most of the actual work With these stakes, few of the lab-coat set have much time for heresy. You want to make a name in UFO studies, Mr. Budding Scientist? Pack warmly - I hear winters at Moosejaw Community College are nippy.


This void has left ufology almost entirely to self-taught researchers and the hardest-core saucer buffs, or, as they call themselves, the UFO "community." Although "barrelful of snarling hyenas" might be a more apt description, considering the comic-opera wars and vendettas that divide the field. (I won't single people out because they're a prickly bunch, and I don't remember John saying anything about a legal defense fund.) Their dispositions aren't improved by the fact that the Feds still seem to be up to their old tricks. At present, many members of the UFO community spend most of their time accusing each other of being CIA agents.

In the 70s and early 80s, for instance - around the time that Steven Spielberg was updating Space Brotherism with "Close Encounters" and his treacly "E.T." - a number of prominent researchers, including Hynek and Vallee, were approached by bona fide U.S. military personnel and summoned to meetings, at which it was hinted that some earth- shaking revelation about UFOs would be forthcoming from the government, ah, soon. Hynek and Vallee soon smelled a rat and withdrew; others didn't. Most "ufologists" are semi-ordinary men and women, after all, with the espionage talents of furniture. Several prominent saucerheads were strung along for months, waiting for the Big Secret to be revealed, down primrose paths that led nowhere.

Roswell blew back into the spotlight in the 1980s. A handful of researchers (who, naturally, seem to loathe one another) have spent some 15 years tracking down evidence for a 1947 saucer crash. Their efforts have uncovered more than 500 material witnesses attesting to various aspects of a story that, in its most elaborate version, involves the retrieval and inspection of a handful of alien bodies and even the possible recovery of a survivor. The testimony is particularly compelling because of the Norman Rockwell character of the witnesses - ex-airmen and officers, nurses; the guys and gals that whipped the Axis. Our parents, basically.

Of course, their word proves little except to those already disposed to believe, and already a truly bizarre belief pattern has sprung up around Roswell and its surrounding mythology, a nasty world in which our government has already sold us out to two-timing, cattle-mutilatin', fetus-lookin' aliens popularly called greys. Oh, and take a gander at two of the biggest drumbeaters for this depressing new religion: one's ex-naval intelligence, the other flew planes for the CIA in Laos. Hmmmm.

Governments play a lot of nasty games. That's the nature of their business. And one of those games seems to involve UFOs. Why? Probably not because they've made a deal with aliens living in underground bases in Nevada, as the more loosely configured minds on the saucer scene think. Although you never can tell. Maybe toying with the public perception of UFOs is just something a handful of bored Yalies in the Company do for kicks. Maybe it's an ongoing class project at the CIA training academy.

Or maybe they are tinkering with crashed UFOs out in Nevada after all, like some people fervently believe. Or maybe the secret is that, in a way, there is no secret. Maybe they've had pieces of an inexplicable puzzle locked away for nearly 50 years, and still can't make heads or tails of it. Maybe they've just been lying for so long that by now no one sees any percentage in coming clean.

High Strangeness

Of course, most serious students of the UFO question don't really buy the idea that UFOs are spaceships from another world. (You don't hear that much on "The X-Files," do you?) The evidence for an inexplicable effect behind UFOs is out there, as Mulder likes to say. It's a mosaic of first-hand accounts, radar records, photos of varying reliability; of burns and radiation effects on soil, plants, animals, and people. But this evidence doesn't necessarily fit the so-called extraterrestrial hypothesis any better than the notion that it's all misidentifications of Venus.

The sheer number of sightings alone, as Vallee has pointed out, is far in excess of what would be needed to study us or our planet or to keep tabs on our activities. Furthermore, there's every reason to suspect that the phenomenon has always been with us. Close encounters and "abductions" occur everywhere in the world, throughout the historical record, as filtered through and interpreted by the moment's dominant cultural context. People saw plenty of dragons and fairies when people believed in dragons and fairies, and I don't think they were any more stupid than we are (go to the mall if you don't believe me). Polls indicate that, at present, half of us believe in space men.


So what is going on? I kind of like Vallee's take on it. Look at the whole saucer phenomenon in its entirety: an inexplicable technology that appears, at times, to contradict accepted laws of time and space. A phenomenon that appears intelligent and yet absurd, following the dictates of some dreamlogic. Tens of thousands of people, scattered all over the world, have an inexplicable experience that shatters their previous notions of reality. Representatives of ruling orthodoxies disapprove; enough ridicule is heaped on witnesses to ensure that most keep their mouths firmly shut. Committed saucerheads band together and some jockey for control of the subculture. New belief systems bloom. And maybe this has been going on for quite awhile, in different guises.

What does the UFO phenomenon look like? It looks like a conditioning mechanism. Who's behind it? Conditioning us for what? No one knows. Charles Fort, the crotchety granddad of paranormal research, once delivered a glum assessment: "I think we're property." And maybe that's the answer skeptic's old question. Why don't "They" just land on the White House lawn? For the same reason that the chemists at Parke-Davis don't introduce themselves to their rats.