Project Blue Book had two goals: to determine if UFOs were a threat to national security, and to scientifically analyze UFO-related data. Thousands of UFO reports were collected, analyzed and filed. As the result of the Condon Report, which concluded there was nothing anomalous about any UFOs, Project Blue Book was ordered shut down in December 1969. This project was the last publicly known UFO research project led by the USAF.
By the time Project Blue Book ended, it had collected 12,618 UFO reports, and concluded that most of them were misidentifications of natural phenomena (clouds, stars, et cetera) or conventional aircraft. A few were considered hoaxes. 701 of the reports — about six percent — were classified as unknowns, defying detailed analysis. The UFO reports were archived and are available under the Freedom of Information Act, but names and other personal information of all witnesses have been redacted.
Though many accepted Blue Book's final conclusions that there was nothing extraordinary about UFOs, critics — then and now — have charged that Blue Book, especially in its later years, was engaging in dubious research, or even perpetuating a cover up of UFO evidence. Some evidence suggests that not only did some UFO reports bypass Blue Book entirely, but that the U.S. Air Force continued collecting and studying UFO reports after Blue Book had been discontinued, despite official claims to the contrary.
Sign was officially inconclusive regarding the cause of the sightings. However, according to U.S Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt (the first director of Project Blue Book), Sign's initial intelligence estimate (the so-called Estimate of the Situation) written in the late summer of 1948, concluded that the flying saucers were real craft, were not made by either the Russians or U.S., and were likely extraterrestrial in origin. (See also extraterrestrial hypothesis.) This estimate was forwarded to the Pentagon, but subsequently ordered destroyed by Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, USAF Chief of Staff, citing a lack of physical proof. Vandenberg subsequently dismantled Project Sign.
Project Sign was succeeded at the end of 1948 by Project Grudge, which had a debunking mandate. Ruppelt referred to the era of Project Grudge as the "dark ages" of early USAF UFO investigation. Grudge concluded that all UFOs were natural phenomena or other misinterpretations, although it also stated that 23 percent of the reports could not be explained.
The new name, Project Blue Book, was selected to refer to the blue booklets used for testing at some colleges and universities. The name was inspired, said Ruppelt, by the close attention that high-ranking officers were giving the new project; it felt as if the study of UFOs was as important as a college final exam. Blue Book was also upgraded in status from Project Grudge, with the creation of the Aerial Phenomenon Branch.
Ruppelt was the first head of the project. He was an experienced airman, having been decorated for his efforts with the Army Air Corps during World War II, and having afterwards earned an aeronautics degree. He officially coined the term "Unidentified Flying Object", to replace the many terms ("flying saucer" "flying disk" and so on) the military had previously used; Ruppelt thought that "unidentified flying object" was a more neutral and accurate term. Ruppelt resigned from the Air Force some years later, and wrote the book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, which described the study of UFOs by United States Air Force from 1947 to 1955. Swords writes that "Ruppelt would lead the last genuine effort to analyze UFOs".
Ruppelt implemented a number of changes: He streamlined the manner in which UFOs were reported to (and by) military officials, partly in hopes of alleviating the stigma and ridicule associated with UFO witnesses. Ruppelt also ordered the development of a standard questionnaire for UFO witnesses, hoping to uncover data which could be subject to statistical analysis. He commissioned the Battelle Memorial Institute to create the questionnaire and computerize the data. Using case reports and the computerized data, Battelle then did a massive scientific and statistical study of all Air Force UFO cases, completed in 1954 and known as "Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14" (see summary below).
Knowing that factionalism had harmed the progress of Project Sign, Ruppelt did his best to avoid the kinds of open-ended speculation that had led to Sign’s personnel being split among advocates and critics of the extraterrestrial hypothesis. As Michael Hall writes, "Ruppelt not only took the job seriously but expected his staff to do so as well. If anyone under him either became too skeptical or too convinced of one particular theory, they soon found themselves off the project. In his book, Ruppelt reported that he fired three personnel very early in the project because they were either "too pro" or "too con" one hypotheis or another. Ruppelt sought the advice of many scientists and experts, and issued regular press releases (along with classified monthly reports for military intelligence).
Each U.S. Air Force Base had a Blue Book officer to collect UFO reports and forward them to Ruppelt. During most of Ruppelt's tenure, he and his team were authorized to interview any and all military personnel who witnessed UFOs, and were not required to follow the chain of command. This all but unprecedented authority underlined the seriousness of Blue Book's investigation.
Astronomer Dr. J. Allen Hynek was the scientific consultant of the project, as he had been with Projects Sign and Grudge. He worked for the project up to its termination and initially created the categorization which has been extended and is known today as Close encounters. He was a pronounced skeptic when he started, but said that his feelings changed to a more wavering skepticism during the research, after encountering a few UFO reports he thought were unexplainable.
Ruppelt left Blue Book in February 1953 for a temporary reassignment. He returned a few months later to find his staff reduced from more than ten, to two subordinates. Frustrated, Ruppelt suggested that an Air Defense Command unit (the 4602nd Air Intelligence Service Squadron) be charged with UFO investigations.
In July 1952, after a build-up of hundreds of sightings over the previous few months, a series of radar detections coincident with visual sightings were observed near the National Airport in Washington, D.C. (see 1952 Washington D.C. UFO incident).
After much publicity, these sightings led the Central Intelligence Agency to establish a panel of scientists headed by Dr. H. P. Robertson, a physicist of the California Institute of Technology, which included various physicists, meteorologists, and engineers, and one astronomer (Hynek). The Robertson Panel first met on January 14, 1953 in order to formulate a response to the overwhelming public interest in UFOs.
Ruppelt, Hynek, and others presented the best evidence, including movie footage, that had been collected by Blue Book. After spending 12 hours reviewing 6 years of data, the Robertson Panel concluded that most UFO reports had prosaic explanations, and that all could be explained with further investigation, which they deemed not worth the effort.
In their final report, they stressed that low-grade, unverifiable UFO reports were overloading intelligence channels, with the risk of missing a genuine conventional threat to the U.S. Therefore, they recommended the Air Force de-emphasize the subject of UFOs and embark on a debunking campaign to lessen public interest. They suggested debunkery through the mass media, including The Walt Disney Company, and using psychologists, astronomers, and celebrities to ridicule the phenomenon and put forward prosaic explanations. Furthermore, civilian UFO groups "should be watched because of their potentially great influence on mass thinking… The apparent irresponsibility and the possible use of such groups for subversive purposes should be kept in mind."
It is the conclusion of many researchers that the Robertson Panel was recommending controlling public opinion through a program of official propaganda and spying. They also believe these recommendations helped shape Air Force policy regarding UFO study not only immediately afterwards, but also into the present day. There is evidence that the Panel's recommendations were being carried out at least two decades after its conclusions were issued (see the main article for details and citations).
In December 1953, Joint Army-Navy-Air Force Regulation number 146 made it a crime for military personnel to discuss classified UFO reports with unauthorized persons. Violators faced up to two years in prison and/or fines of up to $10,000.
The same month, investigative duties started to be taken on by the newly formed 4602nd Air Intelligence Squadron (AISS) of the Air Defense Command. The 4602nd AISS was tasked with investigating only the most important UFO cases with intelligence or national security implications. These were deliberately siphoned away from Blue Book, leaving Blue Book to deal with the more trivial reports.
General Nathan Twining, who got Project Sign started back in 1947, was now Air Force Chief of Staff. In August 1954, he was to further codify the responsibilities of the 4602nd AISS by issuing an updated Air Force Regulation 200-2. In addition, UFOs (called "UFOBs") were defined as "any airborne object which by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type, or which cannot be positively identified as a familiar object." Investigation of UFOs was stated to be for the purposes of national security and to ascertain "technical aspects." AFR 200-2 again stated that Blue Book could discuss UFO cases with the media only if they were regarded as having a conventional explanation. If they were unidentified, the media was to be told only that the situation was being analyzed. Blue Book was also ordered to reduce the number of unidentified to a minimum.
All this was done secretly. The public face of Blue Book continued to be the official Air Force investigation of UFOs, but the reality was it had essentially been reduced to doing very little serious investigation, and had become almost solely a public relations outfit with a debunking mandate. To cite one example, by the end of 1956, the number of cases listed as unsolved had dipped to barely 0.4 percent, from the 20 to 30% it had been only a few years earlier.
Eventually, Ruppelt requested reassignment; at his departure in August 1953, his staff had been reduced from more than ten (precise numbers of personnel varied) to just two subordinates and himself. His temporary replacement was a noncommissioned officer. Most who succeeded him as Blue Book director exhibited either apathy or outright hostility to the subject of UFOs, or were hampered by a lack of funding and official support.
UFO investigators often regard Ruppelt's brief tenure at Blue Book as the high-water mark of public Air Force investigations of UFOs, when UFO investigations were treated seriously and had support at high levels. Thereafter, Project Blue Book descended into a new "Dark Ages" from which many UFO investigators argue it never emerged. However, Ruppelt later came to embrace the Blue Book perspective that there was nothing extraordinary about UFOs; he even labeled the subject a "Space Age Myth."
In 1955, the Air Force decided that the goal of Blue Book should be not to investigate UFO reports, but rather to reduce the number of unidentified UFO reports to a minimum. By late 1956, the number of unidentifed sightings had dropped from the 20-25% of the Ruppelt era, to less than 1%.
In fact, there was actually little or no investigation of UFO reports; a revised AFR 200-2 issued during Gregory's tenure emphasized that unidentified UFO reports must be reduced to a minimum.
One way that Gregory reduced the number of unexplained UFOs was by simple reclassification. "Possible cases" became "probable", and "probable" cases were upgraded to certainties. By this logic, a possible comet became a probable comet, while a probable comet was flatly declared to have been a misidentified comet. Similarly, if a witness reported an observation of an unusual balloon-like object, Blue Book usually classified it as a balloon, with no research and qualification. These procedures became standard for most of Blue Book's later investigations; see Hynek's comments below.
Heartened by Friend's efforts, Hynek organized the first of several meetings between Blue Book staffers and ATIC personnel in 1959. Hynek suggested that some older UFO reports should be reevaluated, with the ostensible aim of moving them from the "unknown" to the "identified" category. Hynek's plans came to naught.
During Friend's tenure, ATIC contemplated passing oversight Blue Book to another Air Force agency, but neither the Air Research and Development Center, nor the Office of Information for the Secretary of the Air Force was interested.
In 1960, there were U.S. Congressional hearings regarding UFOs. Civilian UFO research group NICAP had publicly charged Blue Book with covering up UFO evidence, and had also acquired a few allies in the U.S. Congress. Blue Book was investigated by the Congress and the CIA, with critics -- most notably the civilian UFO group NICAP that Blue Book was lacking as a scientific study. In response, ATIC added personnel (increasing the total personnel to three military personnel, plus civilian secretaries) and increased Blue Book's budget. This seemed to mollify some of Blue Book's critics, that but it was only temporary. A few years later (see below), the criticism would be even louder.
By the time he was transferred from Blue Book in 1963, Friend thought that Blue Book was effectively useless and ought to be dissolved, even if it caused an outcry amongst the public.
Physicist and UFO researcher Dr. James E. McDonald once flatly declared that Quintanilla was "not competent" from either a scientific or an investigative perspective. However, McDonald also stressed that Quintanilla "shouldn't be held accountable for it", as he was chosen for his position by a superior officer, and was following orders in directing Blue Book.
Blue Book’s explanations of UFO reports were not universally accepted, however, and critics — including some scientists — suggested that Project Blue Book was engaged in questionable research or, worse, perpetrating cover up. This criticism grew especially strong and widespread in the 1960s.
Take for example, the many mostly nighttime UFO reports from the midwestern and southeastern United States in the summer of 1965: Witnesses in Texas reported "multicolored lights" and large aerial objects shaped like eggs or diamonds. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported that Tinker Air Force Base (near Oklahoma City) had tracked up to four UFO’s simultaneously, and that several of them had descended very rapidly: from about 22000 feet to about 4000 feet in just a few seconds, an action well beyond the capabilities of conventional aircraft of the era. John Shockley, a meteorologist from Wichita, Kansas, reported that, using the state Weather Bureau radar, he tracked a number of odd aerial objects flying at altitudes between about 6000 and 9000 feet. These and other reports received wide publicity.
Blue Book’s explanation was widely criticized as inaccurate. Robert Riser, director of the Oklahoma Science and Art Foundation Planetarium offered a strongly-worded rebuke of Project Blue Book that was widely circulated: “That is as far from the truth as you can get. These stars and planets are on the opposite side of the earth from Oklahoma City at this time of year. The Air Force must have had its star finder upside-down during August."
A newspaper editorial from the Richmond News Leader opined that "Attempts to dismiss the reported sightings under the rationale as exhibited by Project Bluebook (sic) won’t solve the mystery … and serve only to heighten the suspicion that there’s something out there that the air force doesn't want us to know about", while a Wichita-based UPI reporter noted that "Ordinary radar does not pick up planets and stars."
Another case that Blue Book's critics seized upon was the so-called Portage County UFO Chase, which began at about 5.00am, near Ravenna, Ohio on April 17, 1966. Police officers Dale Spaur and Wilbur Neff spotted what they described as a disc-shaped, silvery object with a bright light emanating from its underside, at about 1000 feet in altitude. They began following the object (which they reported sometimes descended as low as 50 feet), and police from several other jurisdictions were involved in the pursuit. The chase ended about 30 minutes later near Freedom, Pennsylvania, some 85 miles away.
The UFO chase made national news, and the police submitted detailed reports to Blue Book. Five days later, following brief interviews with only one of the police officers (but none of the other ground witnesses), Blue Book's director, Major Hector Quintanilla, announced their conclusions: The police (one of them an Air Force gunner during the Korean War) had first chased a communications satellite, then the planet Venus.
This conclusion was widely derided, and was strenuously rejected by the police officers. In his dissenting conclusion, Hynek described Blue Book's conclusions as absurd, given that in their reports, several of the police had unknowingly described the moon, Venus and the UFO: they noted that the morning of the chase there was a bright "star" very near the moon. This was Venus. Ohio Congressman William Stanton said that "the air force has suffered a great loss of prestige in this community … Once people entrusted with the public welfare no longer think the people can handle the truth, then the people, in return, will no longer trust the government."
In September 1968, Hynek received a letter from Colonel Raymond Sleeper of the Foreign Technology Division. Sleeper noted that Hynek had publicly accused Blue Book of shoddy science, and further asked Hynek to offer advice on how Blue Book could improve its scientific methodology. Hynek was to later declare that Sleeper's letter was "the first time in my 20 year association with the air force as scientific consultant that I had been officially asked for criticism and advice [regarding] … the UFO problem."
Despite Sleeper's request for criticism, none of Hynek's commentary resulted in any substantial changes in Blue Book.
Quinatnilla's own perspective on the project is documented in his manuscript, " UFOs, An Air Force Dilemma” Lt. Col Quintanilla wrote the manuscript in 1975, but it was not published until after his death. Quintanilla states in the text that he personally believed it arrogant to think human beings were the only intelligent life in the universe. Yet, while he found it highly likely that intelligent life existed beyond earth, he had no hard evidence of any extra terrestrial visitation.
Following U.S. Congressional hearings, the Condon Committee was established in 1966, ostensibly as a neutral scientific research body. However, the Committee became enmired in controversy, with some members charging director Edward U. Condon with bias, and critics would question the validity and the scientific rigor of the Condon Report.
In the end, the Condon Committee suggested that there was nothing extraordinary about UFOs, and while it left one case unexplained, further research would not be likely to yield very significant results.
Researcher Brad Sparks, citing research from the May, 1970 issue of NICAP's UFO Investigator, reports that the last day of Blue Book activity was actually January 30, 1970. According to Sparks, Air Force officials wanted to keep the Air Force's reaction to the UFO problem from overlapping into a fourth decade, and thus altered the date of Blue Book's closure in official files.
Blue Book's files were sent to the Air Force Archives at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Major David Shea was to later claim that Maxwell was chosen because it was "accessible yet not too inviting."
Ultimately, Project Blue Book stated that UFOs sightings were generated as a result of:
These official conclusions were directly contradicted by the USAF's own commissioned Blue Book Special Report #14. Psychological factors and hoaxes actually constituted less than 10% of all cases and 22% of all sightings, particularly the better-documented cases, remained unsolved. (See section below for details and Identified flying object.)
As of April 2003, the USAF has publicly indicated that there are no immediate plans to re-establish any official government UFO study programs.
Additionally, Blum reports that Freedom of Information Act requests show that the U.S. Air Force has continued to catalog and track UFO sightings, particularly a series of dozens of UFO encounters from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s that occurred at U.S. military facilities with nuclear weapons. Blum writes that some of these official documents depart drastically from the normally dry and bureaucratic wording of government paperwork, making obvious the sense of "terror" that these UFO incidents inspired in many U.S.A.F. personnel.
Project Blue Book Special Report No. 14 was their massive statistical analysis of Blue Book cases to date, some 3200 by the time the report was completed in 1954, after Ruppelt had left Blue Book. Even today, it represents the largest such study ever undertaken. Battelle employed four scientific analysts, who sought to divide cases into "knowns", "unknowns", and a third category of "insufficient information." They also broke down knowns and unknowns into four categories of quality, from excellent to poor. E.g., cases deemed excellent might typically involve experienced witnesses such as airline pilots or trained military personnel, multiple witnesses, corroborating evidence such as radar contact or photographs, etc. In order for a case to be deemed a "known", only two analysts had to independently agree on a solution. However, for a case to be called an "unknown", all four analysts had to agree. Thus the criterion for an "unknown" was quite stringent.
In addition, sightings were broken down into six different characteristics — color, number, duration of observation, brightness, shape, and speed — and then these characteristics were compared between knowns and unknowns to see if there was a statistically significant difference.
The main results of the statistical analysis were:
(More detailed statistics can be found at Identified flying objects.)
Despite this, the summary section of the Battelle Institute's final report declared it was "highly improbable that any of the reports of unidentified aerial objects... represent observations of technological developments outside the range of present-day knowledge." A number of researchers, including Dr. Bruce Maccabee, who extensively reviewed the data, have noted that the conclusions of the analysts were usually at odds with their own statistical results, displayed in 240 charts, tables, graphs and maps. Some conjecture that the analysts may simply have had trouble accepting their own results or may have written the conclusions to satisfy the new political climate within Blue Book following the Robertson Panel.
When the Air Force finally made Special Report #14 public in October 1955, it was claimed that the report scientifically proved that UFOs did not exist. Critics of this claim note that the report actually proved that the "unknowns" were distinctly different from the "knowns" at a very high statistical significance level. The Air Force also incorrectly claimed that only 3% of the cases studied were unknowns, instead of the actual 22%. They further claimed that the residual 3% would probably disappear if more complete data were available. Critics counter that this ignored the fact that the analysts had already thrown such cases into the category of "insufficient information", whereas both "knowns" and "unknowns" were deemed to have sufficient information to make a determination. Also the "unknowns" tended to represent the higher quality cases, i.e. reports that already had better information and witnesses.
The result of the monumental BMI study were echoed by a 1979 French GEPAN report which stated that about a quarter of over 1,600 closely studied UFO cases defied explanation, stating, in part, "These cases … pose a real question." When GEPAN's successor SEPRA closed in 2004, 5800 cases had been analyzed, and the percentage of inexplicable unknowns had dropped to about 14%. The head of SEPRA, Dr. Jean-Jacques Velasco, found the evidence of extraterrestrial origins so convincing in these remaining unknowns, that he wrote a book about it in 2005.
After what he described as a promising beginning with a potential for scientific research, Hynek grew increasingly disenchanted with Blue Book during his tenure with the project, leveling accusations of indifference, incompetence, and of shoddy research on the part of Air Force personnel. Hynek notes that during its existence, critics dubbed Blue Book "The Society for the Explanation of the Uninvestigated".
Blue Book was headed by Ruppelt, then Captain Hardin, Captain Gregory, Major Friend and, finally, Major Hector Quintanilla. Hynek had kind words only for Ruppelt and Friend. Of Ruppelt, he wrote "In my contacts with him I found him to be honest and seriously puzzled about the whole phenomenon". Of Friend, he wrote "Of all the officers I worked with in Blue Book, Colonel Friend earned my respect. Whatever private views he may have held, he was a total and practical realist, and sitting where he could see the scoreboard, he recognized the limitations of his office but conducted himself with dignity and a total lack of the bombast that characterized several of the other Blue Book heads."
He held Quintanilla in especially low regard: "Quintanilla's method was simple: disregard any evidence that was counter to his hypothesis." Hynek wrote that during Air Force Major Hector Quintanilla's tenure as Blue Book's director, “the flag of the utter nonsense school was flying at its highest on the mast.” Hynek reported that Sergeant David Moody, one of Quintanilla’s subordinates, “epitomized the conviction-before-trial method. Anything that he didn’t understand or didn’t like was immediately put into the psychological category, which meant ‘crackpot’.”
Hynek reported bitter exchanges with Moody when the latter refused to research UFO sightings thoroughly, describing Moody as “the master of the possible: possible balloon, possible aircraft, possible birds, which then became, by his own hand (and I argued with him violently at times) the probable.”