Forty-three years ago was the last time the U.S. government considered creating an official commission to investigate and report on UFOs. Despite Washington’s efforts to dissuade the public from any interest in UFOs through the 1969 issuance of the University of Colorado’s Condon Report, UFOs continued to appear. Eight years later, with President Jimmy Carter in office, his administration thought the time was right to officially request that NASA look into the phenomenon.
As put by a NASA scientist in a memo issued around the same time, however, “undertaking a formal [UFO] study at this time appears fraught with perils.” Needless to say, the commission was never finalized, and the 1977 deliberations between NASA, the White House, and other governmental agencies are an almost-forgotten episode in the official history of American ufology.
Jimmy Carter, UFO Witness
The inauguration of Jimmy Carter as the thirty-ninth President of the United States ushered a new round of expectations in the UFO community. After all, it could be said he was a member of that community. President Carter, who was a former Georgia governor, peanut farmer, and U.S. Navy nuclear engineer, not only claimed to have seen a UFO but officially reported it. In terms of UFO data, President Carter’s sighting is not an impressive incident, falling into the category of nocturnal light. The sighting would surely be forgotten if Carter had not become the president.
Steven Spielberg mentions Jimmy Carter potentially releasing UFO information in this video.
The first account of Carter’s sighting appeared in October 1973—during that year’s big UFO flap—when dispatches from Georgia quoted the governor’s first statement on UFOs: “I’ve seen one myself.” The story was picked up in the press, prompting the International UFO Bureau in Oklahoma City and the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) in Maryland to send UFO questionnaires to the Georgia State Capitol. Carter personally filled out both questionnaires and gave permission to use his name as a witness. According to the questionnaires, the sighting occurred “shortly after dark” in October 1969 when Carter and ten other “members of Leary Georgia Lions Club” were “outdoors waiting for a meeting to begin at 7:30 p.m.” The sighting lasted between ten to twelve minutes and the object, located at “about 30 degrees above the horizon,” was described as “about the same size as the moon, maybe a little smaller, varied from brighter/larger than planet to apparent size of the moon.”
President Carter’s UFO story reemerged as he gained prominence during the 1976 presidential campaign. On June 8, the National Enquirer published a short interview with Carter in which he said, “I am convinced that UFOs exist because I have seen one,” adding that “I’ll never make fun of people who say they’ve seen unidentified objects in the sky.” In that interview, Carter also made an important promise to the American public: “If I become President, I’ll make every piece of information this country has about UFO sightings available to the public and the scientists.”
Ironically, the only ufologist to really investigate Carter’s sighting was skeptic Robert Sheaffer. The main clue was that Carter claimed to have seen the object while visiting the town of Leary to lecture at the local Lions Club. In his book, The UFO Verdict: Examining the Evidence, Sheaffer recounts that his effort to locate additional witnesses was difficult, but he was finally able to find one who remembered seeing, “like a blue light or something or other in the sky that night.”
However, Sheaffer soon discovered that there was a problem with the date given by Carter as the date of the sighting. Carter always said that in the sighting occurred in October 1969, but the Lions Club in Leary had disbanded in February of that year. Sheaffer eventually located the official records of the meeting at the Lions Club International Headquarters. The exact date of Carter’s speech in Leary was January 6, 1969, “nine months earlier than Mr. Carter’s recollection had placed it.” Furthermore, after computing the position of the planets for that date, Sheaffer discovered that “Venus was a conspicuous evening star, nearing its maximum brilliance. Venus was . . . at 7:15 PM, at about 25º elevation, in virtually the exact position where Carter had placed his UFO.”
The result of Sheaffer’s investigation was mostly ignored because it robbed the public of identifying the president as a witness to a genuine UFO. Yet, there is a high probability that what Carter saw could have been explained. The visual tricks that Venus can play in the eyes of the beholder have been known for decades by competent UFO investigators like Allan Hendry, who has characterized Venus as “the real champion” of the stars and planets that tend to cause UFO sightings.
The sighting, however, was only one aspect of President Carter’s link to ufology. The other was his campaign promise to release all the UFO data held by the government. Stanley Schneider, assistant to President Carter’s White House Science advisor Frank Press, later admitted to the New York Times that “public interest in this has been brewing for several months, slowly building up . . . It was getting to be more than we could handle.” In fact, so many letter about UFOs were sent to President Carter that Virginia ufologist Larry Bryant eventually published a book on the letters entitled, UFO Politics at the White House: Citizens Rally ‘Round Jimmy Carter’s Promise. One indicator of the campaign’s impact was revealed by U.S. News & World Report in its April 18, 1977 edition. Under the heading of “Official Word Coming on UFOs,” the magazine stated that “before the year is out, the Government—perhaps the President—is expected to make what is described as ‘unsettling disclosures’ about UFOs . . . based on information from the CIA.”
NASA’s UFO Past
In an attempt to achieve UFO disclosure, the White House had difficulty in developing a coherent policy, and thus, NASA became the logical candidate. Unlike the U.S. Air Force, NASA had never been officially involved in the UFO controversy, although a link between the two surfaced occasionally. Popular UFO articles, books, and movies often displayed UFO photos taken by NASA astronauts, but the great majority of these images were explained by prosaic phenomena such as lens flares, booster rockets, or items ejected from space capsules.
While NASA never officially investigated UFOs, it did produce a few UFO-related documents such as the Kennedy Space Center’s “NASA Management Instruction (KMI 8610.4)” of June 28, 1967, regarding “Processing Reports of Sightings of Space Vehicles Fragments.” The four-page-document signed by the space center’s director, Kurt H. Debus, contained procedures dealing primarily with manmade space vehicles, but KMI 8610.4 added that “reports of sightings of objects not related to space vehicles” were also included: “It is KSC policy to respond to reported sightings of space vehicles fragments and unidentified flying objects as promptly as possible.” The document provided definitions of “Space Vehicle Fragment” and “Unidentified Flying Objects,” and KSC personnel were instructed to “call in unidentified flying object reports to the Patrick Air Force Base Command Post.”
Additionally, NASA’s name appears often in connection with mysterious space crashes such as the one in Kecksburg, Pennsylvania in 1965, which later led to a lengthy Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against NASA by journalist Leslie Kean. The space agency also appeared as a “forwarding” office in several declassified documents from other government branches.
NASA’s Response to the White House
It was against this background that NASA found itself tasked with official UFO responsibility early on in the Carter administration. That segment of the population that believed Earth was being visited by aliens had not forgotten Jimmy Carter’s campaign promise. The president’s science and technology advisor, Frank Press, became the White House official in charge of the UFO problem, but outside help was sought when the White House became overwhelmed with UFO mail. Press stated in his July 21, 1977 letter to NASA administrator Robert Frosch “that the focal point for the UFO question ought to be NASA.”
“There appears to be a national revival of interest in the matter with a younger generation becoming involved,” wrote Press, adding that “this is a public relations problem as much as anything else.” Press’s problems were twofold: First, the most immediate issue was how to deal with the growing number of correspondence regarding UFOs being received by the White House. Second, Press has to face the substantive issue of whether there was any truth to the UFO phenomenon and he believed that a new “panel of inquiry could be formed by NASA” to review the UFO evidence and “see if there are any new significant findings.”
Subsequent FOIA requests revealed that even before Frosch responded to Press on September 6, 1977 the U.S. Air Force was already meddling in the affair. One of the most significant and prophetic pieces of paper to come out of this period is a four-line letter written on September 1, 1977 by Colonel Charles H. Senn, the chief of the air force’s community relations division. The addressee was another former air force man, Lieutenant General Duward L. Crow, who was, at that time, the assistant deputy administrator of NASA. Along with an enclosed “UFO Fact Sheet and standard response to UFO public inquiries” that Crow had requested, Senn wrote, “I sincerely hope you are successful in preventing a reopening of UFO investigations.” Considering what took place in the ensuing months, when NASA literally turned down an official request from the White House, one does not need to be particularly conspiratorial to see that the air force was not a neutral party in this drama. Before Frosch’s response to Press was sent on September 6, the letter was rewritten twice by Crow.
Bob Frosch’s letter was courteous, but not encouraging. The strategy for responding to UFO inquiries from the public through “form letters” and “information sheets” was discussed, as both NASA and the air force had discovered long ago that it was the most economical method. It obviously had its problems, continued Frosch, such as the lack of a “focal point for technical appraisal of sightings.” No quick action was to be taken regarding the proposed UFO panel or commission, wrote Frosch, “before . . . we should assure ourselves that an inquiry is justified.” His suggestion, therefore, was to name “a NASA project officer to review reports of the last ten years” and “provide a specific recommendation” by the end of the year.
Press’s response to Frosch a week later stated he was “pleased . . . that NASA can handle the public inquiries” so as to “relieve my staff of a responsibility we are not equipped to handle.” Frosch never said in his letter that NASA would handle the mail for the White House; instead, he had only referred to the air force and NASA’s experience in using form letters. Press agreed fully with Frosch that the NASA commission was something that should be weighed carefully and wrote, “I can understand your reluctance to commit the agency to a formal program.” He conceded that it was up to the space agency to review the UFO situation as it best saw fit.
NASA’s review of the UFO question was not a formal study, but an in-house analysis of the options available. The key document is a four-page memo, “UFO Study Considerations,” dated November 8, 1977 written by Dr. Noel Hinners, NASA’s associate administrator for space science. Dr. Hinners considered “the question of what NASA could reasonably do in both the short and the long term,” he wrote in his memo to NASA’s assistant administrator. The scientist went about his task in a straightforward manner, outlining succinctly the current UFO scene which included
- “Widespread interest” with about half of the American population believing “something” exists;
- Interest in forming a “specialized agency” in the United Nations;
- A formal study group being set up by the CNES, NASA’s counterpart in France;
- Several solid private UFO organizations in the USA “with responsible membership”;
- An increase in reports of what Hinners referred to as “the near encounter type”; and
- A wider acceptance within the UFO community of a government cover-up, meaning not only that the Government “knows far more than it has released,” but that it “may even have pieces of UFO hardware in hand.”
Dr. Hinners analyzed the problems facing a NASA UFO review: the “apparent lack of any tangible or physical evidence for laboratory analysis,” and the “absence of any sound scientific protocol for investigating the phenomenon firsthand.” The word “apparent” in the first line is to be noted while the word “absence” in the second line is questionable. After three decades of amateur investigations, by 1977, civilian UFO organizations had achieved a degree of this so-called “scientific protocol.” Other problems outlined by Dr. Hinners were the abundance of “secondary source materials” or “hearsay”; the prejudices on the part of investigators; hoaxes; “the delicate interface,” as Hinners put it, between the government and UFO witnesses; and “the danger of projecting an inaccurate NASA or Administration image.” Dr. Hinners’s conclusion was that, “all in all, undertaking a formal study at this time appears fraught with perils.”
Dr. Hinners presented two choices to NASA. The first option was to reject the White House’s idea for “the Federal government and specifically NASA, to investigate the UFO phenomenon.” As Dr. Hinners opined, this option would give added fuel to the “charges of cover-up” by the UFO community, but it would also avoid “controversy . . . within the science community NASA deals with.” There were budgetary advantages too in keeping the current policy of form letters and not spending extra resources, but Hinners had the intelligence of pointing out that choosing this option “would also be begging the question.”
The second option was for NASA to consider creating a commission to investigate the topic. This option seemed almost identical to the early, positive days of the Condon Committee. Basically, Hinners’s thought was that the commission could request major UFO organizations “to submit their ‘best’ cases,” put “this material into a usable format,” update and revise it, and finally “ask for a peer review.” On the basis of this preliminary study, NASA would decide whether some form of permanent UFO investigative branch should be established. Hinners also recommended something that was later used by Bob Frosch in his final and formal rejection of the commission that, “as a minimum, having gone so far and this publicly, NASA should stand ready to investigate new hard evidence that might come in.”
In late November 1977, the White House decided to go ahead publicly with formally requesting a NASA UFO commission. The wire services carried the story and quoted David Williamson, NASA’s assistant for special projects, saying the agency was “not anxious” to study UFOs. Like Dr. Condon, Williamson appeared to disqualify any existence of UFOs before any official conclusion had been reached. “There is no measurable UFO evidence such as a piece of metal, flesh or cloth,” he said.
When Bob Frosch finally responded to Frank Press on December 21, 1977, nobody in Washington was surprised. The main theme was “the absence of tangible physical evidence available for thorough laboratory analysis” coupled with the willingness to analyze “any bona fide physical evidence from credible sources” submitted to NASA. Frosch also mentioned the lack of “a sound scientific procedure for investigating these phenomena” as a reason that a study “would be wasteful and probably unproductive.” The shadow of Dr. Condon, deceased since 1974, seemed to pervade this letter. Condon had concluded eight years earlier that science could not be expected to gain anything by studying UFOs. Frosch reached the same conclusion without even embroiling himself in a thousand-page report at a cost of over half a million dollars. After turning down the White House’s request, Frosch left a way out, just in case, writing, “I wish in no way to indicate that NASA has come to any conclusion about these phenomena as such; institutionally, we retain an open mind, a keen sense of scientific curiosity, and a willingness to analyze problems within our competence.”
In 1978, NASA released its revamped “Information Sheet No. 78-1” on UFOs. It stated that other than answering UFO-related mail sent to the White House, “NASA is not engaged in a research program involving these phenomena, nor is any other government agency.” The six-page document was an updated version of the old air force form letter, yet NASA added an interesting paragraph not to be found in the Pentagon’s counterpart: “Reports of unidentified flying objects entering United States air space are of interest to the military as a regular part of defense surveillance. Beyond that, the US Air Force no longer investigates reports of UFO sightings.” In other words, NASA provided an admission that NORAD and the U.S. military still keep an eye on UFOs with possible national security implications. The NASA document quoted extensively from the administrator’s letter about the “bona fide physical evidence” and lack thereof.
It is interesting to see how quickly and effectively the government muzzled this revival of UFO interest. Although numerous FOIA lawsuits were being pursued by researchers, many months and even years would pass before some of these documents were obtained, processed, and publicized. But, the interaction between the White House, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force during this little known episode in President Carter’s administration offers a window into how the federal government deals publicly with ufology. The failed NASA UFO commission attempt by the Carter administration in 1977 is the last time the U.S. government even considered launching a new formal study. Given the current state of affairs in Washington, it’s extremely unlikely that a new effort will be attempted anytime soon, but the phenomenon itself is certainly not likely to go away.
A version of this article originally appeared in Issue #23 (December/January 2014) of Open Minds UFO Magazine. Back issues can be found here.