NEW YORK — During the 1950s and 1960s, were extraterrestrials visiting the United States? At the time, a spate of panicky sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) thought to be "alien" in origin were reported across the country, prompting the U.S. Air Force to create a top-secret program dedicated to the investigation of unexplained phenomenon related to UFOs.
Under the code name "Project Blue Book," the Air Force documented and scrutinized 12,000 UFO sightings from 1952 to 1969, led by J. Allen Hynek, a former astronomy professor at The Ohio State University. The project's efforts — set against a suspenseful undercurrent of political intrigue — come to life in a new dramatic television series, which shares some of the long-buried secrets of this mysterious initiative.
At a New York Comic Con (NYCC) panel on Oct. 6, actors and creators of the History channel's "Project Blue Book" introduced the audience to the story of federal agents hunting UFOs and the manipulation of the truth happening behind the scenes. Based on declassified files in the federal archive — including 700 cases of UFO-related incidents that remain unsolved — the series confronts a question that still fascinates humans decades after the project's end: Are we alone in the universe? [9 Strange, Scientific Excuses for Why Humans Haven't Found Aliens Yet]
Each of the perplexing and unsettling UFO sightings that appears in the series is based on an actual event described in the recently declassified government records, executive producer and writer Sean Jablonski told the panel audience.
"Every case you see — that really happened," Jablonski said.
One standout incident took place in Washington, D.C., in July 1952. The repeated appearance of mysterious radar blips prompted the Air Force to launch a group of fighter jets to intercept what they thought were unidentified aircraft, according to Jablonski.
But the blips vanished every time the jet fighters drew close, only to reappear when the jets pulled away from the blips' presumed location, one of the pilots reported in an oral history recorded in 1999.
The founder of "ufology"
"Project Blue Book" stars Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger in HBO's "Game of Thrones") as Hynek, the scientist recruited by the Air Force to investigate UFO sightings and related phenomena. Though Hynek was a UFO skeptic when he began working for the Air Force, much of what he saw and heard over his years with the project defied easy explanation. Eventually, the experience transformed him into a passionate believer in UFO encounters representing possible contact with alien life, Gillen told the panel audience.
In fact, Hynek went on to become what is now known as a "ufologist" (UFO expert). He authored several books about UFOs, founded the Center for UFO Studies — a private organization for scientific UFO investigation — and served as a technical advisor for one of the most iconic films about UFOs, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977).
The series also reveals that working on Project Blue Book brought unexpected conflicts for Hynek. Even when his investigations of baffling UFO-related incidents raised more questions than they answered, Air Force agents pushed for debunking and quick closure, frustrating his efforts to uncover the facts about what people saw, according to Gillen.
"He just wanted to find the truth," Gillen said.
But was the U.S. government after the truth? In the show, Hynek soon learns that his Air Force colleagues aren't really interested in getting to the bottom of events that seem impossible to understand. Instead, they seek tidy, reassuring explanations that tell the public there is nothing to be alarmed about. The government's deliberate deviation from witnesses' accounts and evidence — essentially creating "the original 'fake news'" — was an integral part of the "Project Blue Book" narrative, executive producer and writer David O'Leary told the panel audience.
"On the subject of UFOs, part of the story is the cover-up, the lying, the misinformation campaign to control public perception," O'Leary said.
"Project Blue Book" premieres on the History channel on Jan. 8, 2019, at 10 p.m. ET/PT, 9 p.m. CT.
Originally publishedon Live Science.
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Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.