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That Time When NASA Was Asked to Look into the UFO Problem, and Said NOPE

Earlier this month NASA officially announced they are commissioning an independent study on UAPs (the sanitized acronym replacing UFOs everyone has to use now to be taken seriously). The goal of the study, which will focus on available data –including what has been gathered by civilian organizations– and is expected to spend no more than US $100,000, is to create ‘an open roadmap’ for future inquiries on UFOs “by applying the tools of science to shed light on their nature and origin.”

“NASA believes that the tools of scientific discovery are powerful and apply here also,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We have access to a broad range of observations of Earth from space – and that is the lifeblood of scientific inquiry. We have the tools and team who can help us improve our understanding of the unknown. That’s the very definition of what science is. That’s what we do.”

Indeed, that’s what they should have been doing. But what if I told you NASA was once expressly asked by the White House to conduct a scientific study on UFOs… and they flat out refused?

It all started back in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was running for president. Unlike most politicians, Carter didn’t shy away from the UFO question and was in fact very open about his own close encounter sighting, which happened in 1969 while he was still governor of Georgia. Carter, who was perceived as an outsider by Washington D.C.’s hoi polloi, was running on a liberal platform of renewed transparency in government; a breath of fresh air after the stench of the CIA mind-control programs and Watergate still lingered in the corridors of power.

That pledge of openness was also extended to UFOs: During a campaign stop on March 31, candidate Carter made a promise to release all available data which might be withheld by the government to the public, provided it didn’t compromise national security. Civilian UFO organizations were elated, especially because it was around this time that stories about crashed saucers allegedly recovered by the US military –including the diminutive bodies of their non-human occupants– were beginning to attain prominence in the field. Researcher Leonard Stringfield gathered dozens of such claims from different retired or acting military personnel, but unfortunately these compelling accounts were never substantiated by any tangible evidence.

In 1977 Carter was inaugurated, and the White House began to be flooded with letters from private citizens and groups demanding the new president to make good on his ‘UFO pledge’. According to Richard Dolan’s UFOs and the National Security State: The Cover-up Exposed, Press Secretary Jody Powell and Science Advisor Frank Press were entrusted to look into the matter of a possible cover-up of UFO information. “Within the first months of the new administration,” Dolan writes, “they asked the CIA and Pentagon if they were withholding documents; both agencies said no.”

“[…] But Press also learned that military security worked on a “need to know” basis. If military censors determined that the White House did not have a need to know, the President would not be told.”

The correspondence of concerned citizens enquiring the White House about UFOs was turning critical. According to Dolan, the Congressional Liaison Office directed by Frank Moore received over 9000 letters. Overwhelmed and understaffed, Frank Press sought help elsewhere –in NASA.

Dr. Robert A. Frosch, NASA Administrator (1977-1981)

On July 21, Press wrote a letter to Dr. Robert A. Frosch, NASA administrator, suggesting the space agency to become “the focal point for the UFO question”: answering all UFO-related letters from the public, but also conducting an active search program. In essence, as Dolan put it in his book, Press was asking NASA to launch a successor to the Air Force’s project Blue Book. “Since it has been nearly a decade since the Condon report,” Press wrote, “I believe that a small panel of inquiry could be formed to see if there any new significant findings.”

It is clear that both Frosch and his NASA colleagues weren’t interested in the slightest to jump to the UFO bandwagon at the request of the Carter administration. By that time, they were too busy planning the launching of the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, which were designed to collect information about Jupiter and the outer planets in the solar system, and eventually venture into deep space. It is not as if NASA was antagonistic to the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe –which is why both Voyager craft carried a golden disc with recorded sounds intended to offer a glimpse of life in planet Earth and human civilization, in case they were ever found by extraterrestrial beings in the future– but that is different from assuming ET has actually landed on our world. By the 1970s the Condon Report mentioned by Frost on his letter had done an effective job in convincing most scientists that investigating UFO reports carried no scientific value.

On September 14, Frank Press sent a second letter to Frosch, further requesting NASA to take the lead on the UFO situation. The White House’s intentions to set up a new “UFO office” became public. On his Forbidden Science journal (Vol. 2), Dr. Jacques Vallée mentions how Peter Sturrock, a physics professor at Stanford University and a longtime collaborator of his, wrote a letter to Press offering his services as consultant; a valiant gesture that was unfortunately not taken into consideration, because both Press and the White House were not really interested in investigating UFOs –they just wanted to get rid of the PR problem they represented.

Responding to Press and the White House, Frosch had accepted the request to respond to UFO-related mail from the public, but regarding the possibility to launch Blue Book 2.0, he had asked for more time to address the situation. Inside NASA, a sad game of bureaucratic “tag game” began: Frosch delegated the problem to Karl Henize, of the science division, who in turn passed it on to Richard Conn Henry, at the section of astrophysics.  As Vallee describes it in Forbidden Science, Vol. 2:

“[…]Thus the bureaucracy is grinding away, trying to digest the President’s request and do nothing (“a flurry of alarmed paralysis” a journalist calls it).

The issue sank further into administrative quagmire when Dick Henry tried to solicit the opinion of his colleagues, which triggered premature publicity.”

At the same time, Frosch had began to make inquiries through the grapevine with other government agencies; both the CIA and the Air Force were advising NASA to avoid the UFO hot potato at all costs. On September 1st, according to Dolan’s book, Colonel Charles Senn, Chief of USAF Community Relations Division, wrote to Lt. General Duward Crow of NASA:

“I sincerely hope that you are successful in preventing a reopening of UFO investigations.”

On September 30th, Vallee had a meeting with Stanley Schneider, assistant director of the Office of Scientific and Technology Policy (Frank Press’s assistant) on Washington D.C. (the encounter appears in both the prologue of Vallee’s Messengers of Deception, as well as in page 398 of Forbidden Science, Vol. 2.). Since the publication of his seminal Passport to Magonia in 1969, Vallee had disavowed the extraterrestrial origin of the UFO phenomenon as it is maintained by the majority of people interested in the phenomenon –including skeptics.

He asked Schneider why was NASA, an agency consisting of space engineers and astrophysicists, was picked by the Carter administration to conduct a new look into a phenomenon which has never been proven to be neither technological in nature nor originated in space, when other government agencies might be better equipped with dealing with the most confounding physical aspects of UFOs; like the Department of Energy, or even the National Institute of Health, given the physiological responses found among close encounter witnesses.

In Messengers of Deception, Vallee writes Schneider’s response: to the public UFOs have to do with space and therefore NASA should be the one looking into it. It was clear to Vallee the White House was addressing the UFO problem the same way their predecessors have always had –as a public relations issue, and nothing more.

In Forbidden Science, Vol. 2, Vallee offers more intriguing details about this meeting:

“Will NASA actually conduct investigations” I asked him, “Or will they simply respond to information requests?”

“That’s one of the things we just don’t know yet. We’re only beginning. Administrator Frosch has until Christmas to decide.”

“As you know, scientific opinion is divided. Some people believe the problem isn’t mature enough for valid research […] but others are eager to go ahead, both here and in other countries.”

“True, but we’re in a politically impossible situation. It’s not surprising that the military folks swept UFOs under the rug. The President could never announce on television that the phenomenon is real without triggering uncontrollable reactions.”

Tehran’s US embassy takeover, 1979

Indeed, the Carter administration was dealing with other uncontrollable reactions elsewhere: The energy crisis of the 1970s was not over, things in the Middle East between the Arabs and Israelis were beginning to heat up once again, and in Iran protests against the American-supported Shah were beginning; a situation which escalated into the Islamic revolution that would bring the Ayatollah Khomeini into power and climaxed with the hostage crisis of 1979.

Sir Eric Gairy, Prime Minister of Grenada

UFOs were simply not a top priority. Not even when Prime Minister Eric Gairy of Grenada delivered a speech before the United Nations asking for an international effort to investigate the phenomenon. His pleas fell into deaf ears, and by late October NASA scientist Herbert Rowe wrote to MUFON to tell them that “at the present moment” the administration lacked the resources to study UFOs.

Three days before Christmas, Frosch replied to Frank Press to officially decline the White House request. According to Frosch, they would agree on continuing to respond to mail inquiries from citizens, but a check with the CIA had convinced him that there was no evidence to the UFO reality, and he emphasized the problem of devising a “sound scientific procedure” to investigate what could clearly be an elusive phenomenon.

“[…]Frosch closed by stressing that NASA as an institution had not come to a conclusion about UFOs (“we retain an open mind”) but that the problem was one of devising appropriate scientific protocols.

Dr. Dave Williamson, NASA assistant for special projects, put the matter this way:

“[…][w]e are not anxious to do it because we’re not sure what we can do. It’s my personal opinion that it’s not wise to do research on something that is not a measurable phenomena. Spending public money for such research is questionable. There is no measurable UFO evidence such as a piece of metal, flash or cloth. We don’t even have any radio signals. A photograph is not a measurement [emphasis mine]… give me one little green man –not a theory or memory of one– and we can have a multimillion dollar program…”

A White House press release on December 27 officially accepted NASA’s position and stated they would not pursue the matter any further. It is as if UFO enthusiasts all across the United States had received a lump of coal that Christmas.

George H. W. Bush, CIA Director (1976-1977)

Why did President Carter decide to forget about his UFO pledge so easily? According to Dolan’s book, shortly after his election in November 1976, Carter met with then-CIA director George Bush so the president-elect could be briefed on issues of national security. It was during this meeting, according to Daniel Sheehan –an attorney associated with Citizens Against UFO Secrecy (CAUS) and who is still very much involved in controversial UFO politics (he is currently representing whistle-blower Luis Elizondo against the supposed attempts to discredit him– when Carter (allegedly) asked Bush to be briefed about whatever information the agency may have on UFOs. Bush refused, claiming the President hadn’t the proper ‘need-to-know’, but that he was willing to hand over their UFO material if Carter kept him at the head of the CIA. Carter refused.

There’s also another story gathered in Dolan’s book, which was shared privately to him by an anonymous source, referring to a close aide to Carter who one day walked into the Oval office in June of 1977, shortly after the President had been briefed on matters related to UFOs. According to the source, the president was “sobbing, with his head on his hands, nearly on his desk.” The allusion being that whatever answers Carter did get from the gatekeepers of the UFO cover-up withing the government, they deeply disturbing.

Regardless of whatever Carter may or may not have learned about UFOs during his tenure at the White Hose, 44 years have passed and now it seems as if NASA is willing to reconsider the potential scientific value of photographs and videos –given how there is little more than that which have been publicly disclosed since the publication of the 2017 New York Times article, which sparked the current renewed interest in UFOs. There’s a chance NASA officials have been secretly briefed on the issue, along with members of Congress and the Senate, which means they may know more about the confounding encounters between military pilots and strange objects which seem to defy our understanding of physics.

But perhaps the biggest difference between 1977 and today, is that NASA is now fully aware that their predecessors were lied to by the CIA and the Air Force, when they were told there was no evidence to the reality unidentified flying objects. Here is hoping they do manage to learn from past mistakes.

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