Say you’re out walking in the desert and see a flash of light in the sky that you can’t identify. If this happened between 1952 and 1969, you could report that light to Project Blue Book, the U.S. Air Force’s project to investigate unidentified flying objects—aka, UFOs.
Project Blue Book was the longest-running official government inquiry into UFOs. Based at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the project investigated thousands of incidents. An official questionnaire asked UFO sighters to describe exactly what they saw and when they saw it. A section of the questionnaire instructed:
“Draw a picture that will show the shape of the object or objects. Label and include in your sketch any details of the object that you saw such as wings, protrusions, etc., and especially exhaust trails or vapor trails. Place an arrow beside the drawing to show the direction the object was moving.”
One of the most famous sightings reported to Project Blue Book was the 1964 Lonnie Zamora incident just south of Socorro, New Mexico. Zamora was a policeman who, while on patrol, saw an egg-shaped craft fly over his car and land. He drove over to it and spied two figures outside of the craft, who then entered it and took off again. Of the more than 12,000 UFO sightings between 1947 and 1969 that the Air Force investigated, the Zamora incident remains one of the 701 unexplained sightings.
The Air Force’s investigation of UFOs started in 1948 with Project Sign. The year before, a businessman named Kenneth Arnold had claimed that, while flying a plane near Mount Rainier in Washington state, he’d spied nine crescent-shaped objects speeding along “like saucers skipping on water.” Newspaper accounts that mixed up his words helped popularize the term “flying saucer.”
After the Mount Rainier incident, UFO sightings increased, and the Air Force decided to study them. The country was in the early stages of the Cold War, and some officials suspected that these mysterious objects were secret Soviet Union aircrafts that posed a threat to the U.S.
The Air Force’s first UFO investigation, Project Sign, was succeeded in 1949 by Project Grudge, which shut down at the end of that year after concluding that UFO sightings were the result of hysteria, hoaxes, mental illness or the misidentification of known objects. Although Grudge reported that UFOs warranted no further study, the Air Force’s UFO investigation started up again in 1952 with Project Blue Book.
Since Project Blue Book ended in 1969, there has been no formal government project to which the American public can report UFO sightings. But that doesn’t mean the government hasn’t continued to investigate them. In December 2017, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon, with the help of former Senator Harry Reid, had started a secret Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program in 2007 to look into UFO sightings.
Even though the U.S. government is no longer soliciting public submissions, there are still non-government organizations that will investigate your UFO claims for you. One of them, the Mutual UFO Network, was founded the same year that Project Blue Book ended, and has been collecting and investigating the public’s UFO sightings for fifty years.
“We find in about five percent of the cases that there’s something very unusual,” says Jan C. Harzan, MUFON’s executive director.
Harzan notes that these five percent of cases don’t necessarily represent extraterrestrial life; they’re simply phenomena that MUFON is unable to explain. MUFON receives between 500 and 1,000 reports a month (submission form here)—but hand-drawn pictures have been replaced by photos and video uploads.
One thing that’s remained constant since Project Blue Book is that when it comes to UFO sightings, the believers are out there.
VIDEO TRAILER: Project Blue Book
Watch an exclusive clip of the new series Project Blue Book, premiering Tuesday, January 8 at 10/9c on HISTORY.