Few people realise the immensity of vacancy in which the dust of the material universe swims. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)
Current discussions in the archive world are awash with talk about extra-terrestrials. Releases announced by national archives trigger a choking exodus to vulnerable websites. Conspiracy theorists, agnostics, and the generally curious head for the cyber show, often crashing the website in question with salivating, mouse-clicking eagerness.
The French were first in the queue of ET-releases, divulging an impressive record of files spanning 50 years last year. Interest was intense. The website of the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales crashed last year after more than 220,000 users deluged it with traffic.
That in itself was not surprising. Keen UFO gazers would be aware of the French interest in “Un-identified Aerospace Phenomena” (PAN). The Rare Aerospace Phenomena Study Department (SEPRA), based in Toulouse, was charged with developing a methodology for examining such sightings. It was closed in 2004.
Britain’s National Archives site has also gone public this month on its collection of UFO sightings, releasing a series of documents from the Ministry of Defence (MoD - an acronym that is curiously extra-terrestrial in its import). MoD had little choice in revealing these “X Files”, drowning in requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. Some 160 or so files will be kept at the archives for perusal.
A quick peek then at what these files have to offer - eight of which have been made available on the archive site. The dates: 1978 to 1987. To justify its interest in reporting such incidents, the MoD made it tediously obvious: it was only keen, as a note made in January 1983 says, to catalogue such curiosities to “establish whether they reveal anything of defence interest (eg. aircraft)” (DEFE-31/172).
Besides, surely they could be nothing peculiar about these space oddities, despite the occasional “strange” object moving through the sky. For the cold realists within the MoD, “there are adequate material explanations for these - satellite debris re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, ball lightning, unusual cloud formations; meteorological balloons, aircraft lights, aircraft at unusual angles etc”.
Any initial excitement in perusing such reports is dampened quickly, and the dull dismissive language of the humourless MoD pen pusher proves infectious. The prosaic bureaucratic language does little to raise expectations. The sightings assume a monotonous sameness. Both the witness and the recorder are engaged in an exercise of banal recall. If only such sightings could be that more inventive.
Sightings are nothing short of predictable. Airports are unsurprising venues for alien intruders. Rather naughtily, they like “flashing” (that’s the lit variety). They also persist in using saucers more like pet bowls as their preferred mode of transport. As the French records show, the Trans-en-Provence man who, in January 1981, saw such an object 2.5m in diameter is little different from his English or American cousins.
Records do little to endear one to the lack of inventiveness of the observers. On January 26 1985 the observer in question, while walking the dog, observed a “Bright light”. Another description from an observer in a car, in December 1984, for a duration of 10 minutes at 8.45 in the evening: “Witness observed the object when driving along, he stopped and flashed his light, object turned, approached and dropped an orange ball of light, car radio went dead.” Nothing to make you fall off your chair.
Little has changed from those first “flying saucer” sightings in June 1947 made by pilot Kenneth Arnold from the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. After 1950, such objects came to be called UFOs (unidentified flying objects) in the familiar jargon of Captain Edward Ruppelt’s Project Blue Book of 1950.
A civil servant who worked at the UFO desk of the MoD, Nick Pope, sounded exasperated. “There simply is no saucer-in-a-hangar smoking gun” (Guardian, May 15, 2008). Pope was, however, happy to throw ufologists a bone in December last year, claiming that some sightings were “highly credible” (Daily Telegraph, December 12, 2007).