Project Blue Book: Spotting UFOs in the Film Record
This week, we’ll be taking a look at Project Blue Book, via the National Archives’ film holdings.
Project Blue Book was not the United States Air Force’s first investigation into the reports of unidentified flying objects. It wasn’t even the second.
Project Blue Book was actually the third formal analysis of UFO sightings, coming after Project Sign and Project Grudge. The 1952-1969 Project Blue Book investigation is the most well-known, however, and the records at the National Archives are abundant, including a number of related motion pictures.
The two films in today’s post provide an overview of the goals of Project Blue Book and the investigation’s findings up to 1966. The interviews in these records are particularly interesting because they appear to have been scripted and filmed by the Air Force for public release.
The first featured film was shot four months after the genesis of Project Blue Book, and two days after a press conference held by the Air Force to address a rash of UFO sightings over Washington, D.C. In this interview, Major General John A. Samford explains the Air Force’s mandate to identify and analyze potential threats that come by air, while also assuring the citizenry that there was no known threat.
Major General John A. Samford and Donald Keyhoe, 7/31/1952
The fabric “UFO” dangling from the ceiling in the opening sequence of this film just might be the best thing I’ve seen all month.
According to General Samford, between 1947 and the time of the interview (a span of about five years), there were between 1,000 and 2,000 reports collected. “The great bulk” of them could be explained as hoaxes, mistakes, or naturally occurring phenomena. The rest of the sightings, which were made by “credible observers of relatively incredible things” were what the Air Force was “attempting to resolve” with Project Blue Book.
Also present in this film to offer a differing opinion is Major Donald Keyhoe. Keyhoe was a vocal believer in the existence of extraterrestrial visitors. His book, The Flying Saucers are Real, is referenced in this interview.
In the second film, produced toward the end of the Project Blue Book investigation, clearer goals and data are set out by Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Tacker (who, himself wrote a book called Flying Saucers and the U.S. Air Force) and Major Hector Quintanilla, who led Project Blue Book from 1963 until the investigation’s cancellation in 1970.
A note on this film: the quality of the original is quite poor. This video is the result of a full HD transfer and some audio processing to improve sound quality. Use of the closed captioning option is recommended.
According to Major Quintanilla, there were two defined goals of Project Blue Book. The first was to determine if the reported UFOs were a threat to national security. Secondly, the Air Force wanted to analyze the sightings to find evidence of technology that could lead to useful research and development.
By this point, more than fourteen years into Project Blue Book, Quintanilla reported 10,000 sightings, with 646 that were truly unexplained. Major Quintanilla also emphasized that Project Blue Book was a completely unclassified investigation and that all information was available and open for journalists to request (this is true, although all reports have names redacted for privacy reasons).
As in the 1952 film, the overarching message of this publicity interview is that the reports did not prove that Earth had been visited by extraterrestrial beings. Further, the official statement read by the interviewer at the conclusion of the film asserts that the sightings did not represent a real threat. In fact, some believed that public panic was a greater risk to national security. Emphasizing the lack of imminent danger was helpful in allaying fears.
In 1985, the United States Air Force released a final statement about Project Blue Book (available on the NARA website), indicating that citizens should report sightings to scientific organizations or to local law enforcement if they feel there is an immediate danger.
The fact sheet also provides a final set of statistics for Project Blue Book. Between 1947 and the close of the investigation at the end of 1969, a total of 12,618 UFO sightings were reported. 701 of those, or about five percent, remained unexplained by the Air Force.
Quoting from the fact sheet, Project Blue Book resulted in three main conclusions:
(1) no UFO reported, investigated, and evaluated by the Air Force has ever given any indication of threat to our national security; (2) there has been no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as “unidentified” represent technological developments or principles beyond the range of present-day scientific knowledge; and (3) there has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as “unidentified” are extraterrestrial vehicles.
Finally, the Air Force wanted to clarify that no alien bodies or vehicles had ever been held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (Whether or not these objects may have been held at another location is a question left unanswered.)
For those who want to do more in-depth research into Project Blue Book, NARA holds 42 cubic feet (approximately 84,000 pages) of records, available for viewing on microfilm in the research room at Archives II in College Park, Maryland. These records are searchable online at the unaffiliated Blue Book Archive.
Thanks go to Mike Taylor for searching the textual records to find additional background information on these two films (we couldn’t find any).
Stay tuned for home movies of UFO sightings– more of the motion picture records of Project Blue Book preserved at the National Archives!