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The Close Encounters of 'Project Blue Book,' and how the system has changed


The Close Encounters of ‘Project Blue Book,’ and how the system has changed

There’s more to it than some mashed potato mounds and a few recognizable notes.

“Close Encounters” was a strange episode of History Channel’s Project Blue Book, a docudrama series ostensibly based on the Air Force investigation of UFOs with the same name. It jumped between time periods, from the 1953, CIA-suggested Robertson Panel to 1976, with astronomer and Blue Book scientific consultant J. Allen Hynek on the set of Steven Spielberg’s now classic science fiction film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

While the Robertson Panel questioned the purpose of Project Blue Book and ultimately decided the UFO phenomenon was nothing the public had to worry about, Close Encounters of the Third Kind introduced more Americans to the idea that human beings could be brought on board alien spacecraft. The film was named after a classification Hynek himself developed but, strangely enough, it might no longer fit in the modern day.

As a scientist, Hynek felt the need to classify different kinds of UFO sightings, to make talking about them and sorting them easier. His “scale” differentiated between faraway things — “daylight discs,” “nocturnal lights” (usually point sources, like the Lubbock Lights), and radar returns (like over Washington, D.C., in 1952) — and “close encounters,” which were, one would think, more reliable and less subject to misidentification.

A Close Encounter of the First Kind (CE1) is one step up from a daylight disc or nocturnal light, in that it’s just a person (or group) seeing something in the sky, except it’s less than 500 feet away. Sadly, this ignores what we know about how bad people are at judging distances and sizes when no easy reference is present, or in times of fear. But then you do get some good ones, like the foo fighters seen near the wings of planes during World War II.

The Close Encounters of 'Project Blue Book,' and how the system has changed

Project Blue Book’s depiction of the Lubbock Lights

A Close Encounter of the Second Kind (CE2) occurs when the UFO leaves some kind of physical trace behind, like the scorched vegetation of the “scoutmaster” encounter, or the “slag” from the Maury Island incident. Needless to say, this is a lot rarer and requires some physical testing, in addition to thinking about the usual issues with perception.

Close Encounters of the Third kind (CE3s) are where we go from “I don’t know what that is” to “it must be aliens” — because they involve actually seeing aliens as part of a UFO sighting. Project Blue Book has tackled some classic ones, in the Flatwoods Monster and the Kelly-Hopkinsville goblins.

I say “classic” because you don’t really get many CE3s anymore, in favor of something even further down the rabbit hole. Hynek stopped his scale at #3, maybe because he didn’t anticipate that the Betty and Barney Hill story would start a new trend that would come to be called “alien abductions.”

Later researchers tried to codify alien abductions by calling them Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, which honestly better fits what happens at the end of the film. It’s become pretty widely accepted, but then others tried to coin Close Encounters of the FIFTH kind to mean ANY kind of contact with beings (telepathic or otherwise) and … I think I’ll stop before getting to “killed by UFO” stories and alien/human hybrids. Yes, people have given those reports their own numerical classifications, too.

As you can see, it’s been a long, strange trip to get from flying saucers to whatever the hell Tom DeLonge is doing now. A lot of “nuts and bolts” researchers like to stay grounded in those first couple close encounters, but they’re becoming fewer as a new “space brothers” type of spiritualism is sweeping the scene, an oddly retro and likely unknowing nod to the people no one ever believed, the contactees of the 1950s.

The Close Encounters of 'Project Blue Book,' and how the system has changed

Bronson Pinchot made a good approximation of a contactee in “Close Encounters.”

It’s probably pretty telling that despite the growth of the surveillance state and everyone having an advanced camera in their pocket, the less fantastical UFO encounters are actually on the decrease. There’s conflicting information on whether overall UFO sightings are declining, but according to researchers Chris Rutkowski and Curt Collins, the trace cases and up-close sightings (CE2s and CE1s) are vanishing, along with even the classic flying saucer, leaving most reports as the boring old nocturnal lights, that honestly might be attributed to the presence of more satellites and even drones.

That’s despite “a quarter to a third of all UFO reports” now coming with photos and even video, according to Rutkowski. Draw your own conclusions on why that is.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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