A Brief History of UFO Sightings

  • UFO newspaper headline
UFO newspaper headline
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UFOs aren’t just a modern phenomenon: If we look back through history, we find that people have reported seeing unidentified flying objects since ancient times. In classical Greece and Rome, the philosopher Plutarch wrote of flaming spears and shields that moved in formation in the heavens; the historian Livy told of a “phantom navy” seen shining in the sky; and the writer Julius Obsequens told of golden spheres of fire that flew through the air. It’s only far more recently, however, that the idea of UFOs as an indication of extraterrestrial life has become established in the wider public consciousness — whether we believe in visitations from little green men or not. 

Scientifically and statistically speaking, there’s a rational argument to be made for the existence of intelligent species in the universe apart from ourselves. When it comes to UFOs, however, the question is whether these species have actually crossed the vast expanse of space to visit Earth. This is where things get complicated. As the scientist Enrico Fermi posited in his famous Fermi paradox, if there are other civilizations spread throughout the galaxy, then why haven’t we heard from them? Scientists continue to tackle the question, with theories such as the “Great Filter” (that alien civilizations have existed but were wiped out) and the “zoo hypothesis” (that extraterrestrial life exists, but is choosing not to contact Earth). Then there are the ufologists and budding Fox Mulders out there who argue that the aliens are already here — that UFOs are spacecraft from other worlds, and the truth is out there for anyone willing to accept it.

The modern history of UFOs is, of course, full of tantalizing details that have convinced many to believe that actual UFOs of the extraterrestrial variety have visited Earth and continue to do so. According to recent polling, 42% of Americans believe in UFOs, and most of these Americans believe that unidentified flying objects are alien spacecraft visiting Earth from other planets or galaxies. Here are some of the most pivotal events in the history of UFOs — events that have helped convince many people that aliens are indeed among us. 

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Kenneth Arnold and the Flying Saucers

On June 24, 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold was flying close to Mount Rainier in Washington state when he saw nine shiny, circular objects flying in formation. Each object was about 100 feet across, and each one flew at what he estimated as about 1,200 miles per hour (roughly twice as fast as any known aircraft at the time). The report was soon picked up by the Associated Press, which described Arnold’s strange sighting of “nine bright saucer-like objects.” The story then exploded across the United States, with the new term “flying saucers” on everyone’s lips. Just like that, the modern age of UFO sightings had begun. 

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The Roswell Incident

Ten days before Kenneth Arnold saw his flying saucers, a rancher named W.W. “Mac” Brazel and his son were driving across their ranchland about 80 miles northwest of Roswell, New Mexico. They came across a patch of land in the desert strewn with rubber strips and metallic-looking, lightweight fabric. Baffled, they returned home. It wasn’t until weeks later on July 4 that they returned to collect the debris—unaware of the nationwide flying saucer fervor that had recently begun—which they then delivered to the local sheriff. From there, things escalated quickly, and the case passed up through the military ranks until it reached the commander of the Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas. Then, the Air Force made a curious decision. Rather than admit the true nature of the wreckage — it was a crashed Air Force balloon that was part of the secretive Project Mogul — they released an extraordinary press release stating they had recovered a “flying disk.” 

Naturally, the story spread like wildfire. The Air Force soon tried to backtrack, stating that it was actually a weather balloon carrying a radar target, but the damage had been done. To this day, conspiracy theories permeate the so-called Roswell incident, which in some accounts has been embellished to include recovered gray aliens and extraterrestrial technology. 

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