History Channel’s Project Blue Book has come and gone, and much like the actual Air Force study of the same name, which operated between 1952 and 1970, it didn’t really accomplish much and we’re left with the dreadful threat that this isn’t the end of the story.
The not-really-based-on-actual-events dramatic series has paid lip service to classics of UFO history, like foo fighters and the green fireballs, and completely the cases of the scoutmaster encounter and the seminal Betty and Barney Hill alien abduction. In the season finale, Blue Book took on an appropriately terrifying group of events that occurred in Washington, D.C., on consecutive weekends in July of 1952.
In the 21st century, when ubiquitous cell phones fail to catch alien spaceships on camera, and the average person has a little better understanding of just how difficult interstellar travel is, it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like living in the early days of the nascent flying saucer craze. The unfathomable destructive capability of atomic weapons had proven the might a civilization could wield, and Wernher von Braun’s rockets made slipping our earthly bonds seem almost possible. Why couldn’t someone, somewhere else, had gotten an earlier start and found their way here?
Even more frightening, as reports began to pour in around research facilities and military installations, what if the UFO pilots were not curious extraterrestrials, but down-to-Earth enemies? If Nazi Germany could develop rockets, who’s to say what kind of fantastic technology was cooking behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet Russia?
So when strange lights and even anomalous radar reflections were observed over our nation’s capital, you can’t begrudge people for freaking out a little bit.
Of course, there weren’t UFOs buzzing parks in broad daylight, as depicted in Blue Book. The sightings were all at night, many from airplanes, raising the specter of autokinesis, the same kind of illusion that probably caused George Gorman to unknowingly engage with a weather balloon. And no one saw anything until the weird radar targets were reported, so they were already expecting to find something.
The Air Force explained the multiple radar hits as the the result of a temperature inversion that was present over Washington on both weekends. A temperature inversion occurs when hotter air becomes trapped above colder air, high in the atmosphere, which can cause what’s called “anomalous propagation” of radio waves.
Under such conditions, radar can be refracted back down to the surface, so that the targets identified actually represent objects on the ground, not in the air. Sure enough, the crew of one plane saw no objects when they were told of radar hits near them, becoming convinced the instruments were actually reading a steamboat down below.
It doesn’t matter much that so many different radar installations had the same readings, either. If all your rulers are graded wrong, they’ll give you the same bad measurement, but that doesn’t suddenly mean there are eight and half inches in a foot. There’s probably a good reason radar identification of UFOs plummeted after the advent of Doppler radar, which better eliminates erroneous, “stable” reflections.
Nevertheless, the biggest Pentagon press conference since the war was called to address the sightings, and President Harry Truman (as played on Blue Book by Bob Gunton) was concerned enough to have Captain Edward J. Ruppelt (the analogue of whom is Michael Quinn) questioned about the whole thing. This suspicion would eventually lead to the Robertson Panel, a CIA-suggested, independent appraisal of the UFO phenomenon, and of Project Blue Book itself.
Which is pretty understandable, really! Post World War II, beginning of the Cold War, the world was a very uncertain place, and fear puts people on high alert, which can tend to make mysterious mountains out of mundane molehills. Thankfully, we’ve seen enough UFOs now to know there really isn’t much to it.
Likewise for Project Blue Book. Sadly, some people will still persist on promoting them both, regardless.