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Science and the UFO phenomenon:

Some UFO-skeptics bring forth the Condon report of the Colorado project to study UFOs, which is supposed to have solved the question of the UFOS in a scientific and once-and-for-all manner (UFOs do not exist). That, is one of the greatest deception ever. Here is a part of the explanations of this deception. There are other aspects of this deception, including that when one really reads the body of the Condon report and not just the conclusion, it contains UFO cases evaluations for which it is concluded that there is not a better explanation than that they are extraterrestrial flying machines.

The following history of the Condon report was written by Michael Sword, PhD, presented during the 1995 MUFON Symposium and published 1995 MUFON Symposium Proceedings.

USAF-Sponsored Colorado Project for the Scientific Study of UFOs
Michael D. Swords, Ph.D., 1995 MUFON Symposium Proceedings

1995 MUFON Symposium Proceedings Presentation by
Michael D. Swords, Ph.D.
Professor Natural Sciences
Western Michigan University


One of the most significant elements in the history of UFOlogy was the so-called Condon Project, centered at the University of Colorado in 1967-1968. This paper discusses the origin, methodological philosophy and overview of the research problem, the activities, results, and external impacts of this work. The paper finds a complex mix of personalities, attitudes, and theories enmeshed in political and social forces, which predestined the project's conclusions and crippled its ability to make any scientific contribution toward the solution of the UFO mystery. Its resultant impacts were nevertheless formidable, both negatively and positively.


When telling a story one is told to begin at the beginning, but, time and life being continuous rivers stretching back into the past, where does one really begin? Although starting with the Big Bang and working forward to 1966 might be scientifically most defensible, perhaps beginning with one of my favorite people, J. Allen Hynek, would be preferable. Dr. Hynek, in his famous role as Project Bluebook scientific advisor, had been around the idea of transferring responsibility for UFO research to academia (or some more dedicated non-military research institutions). For over a decade, General Thomas D. White, USAF chief of staff, had suggested as early as 1955 that Air Force Intelligence turn over the UFO problem to an outside contractor, such as Battelle or Rand (Watson, 1955). Hynek, and the military personnel at Bluebook, had in the interim toyed with the idea of enlisting NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Brookings Institution for aid. In the summer of 1965, the Pentagon asked Hynek for his views on involving the National Academy of Sciences. Hynek replied in August of 1965 (Hynek, 1965). Hynek's letter to Colonel John Spaulding agreed that NAS involvement would strengthen the potential for solving both the scientific and the sociological problems, which the Air Force currently faced. And, the structure, a working panel of committed experts, should include both physical and social scientists, and involve itself over a several month period.

Hynek's views, of course, were not acted upon with any immediacy, but they added to the Pentagon's rolling pot of opinions about how to get rid of the UFO problem. The next major step toward the Colorado Project grew out of this stew when a select committee of the Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board met to consider the issue in February of 1966. This was the "O'Brien Committee". The group met for one day, "considered" the information (if such a characterization can be allowed for such a brief affair), and recommended a strengthening of the UFO investigative program. The major strengthening was to be accomplished by contracting a central university (with several allied universities to supply investigative teams) to coordinate in-depth research on about one hundred sightings per year and to be in immediate touch and cooperation with Project Bluebook. The project should be as public in its research as possible, and present its results regularly to interested congressmen (Steiner, 1966). This committee report was released in February of 1966.

Coincident with the release there arrived (mainly in Michigan) one of the biggest UFO flaps in history. The flap energized the UFO community (especially NICAP and James McDonald), but more importantly for our story, it pushed the decision on a university study over the threshold. And Allen Hynek played a primary, and unwanted, role. Hynek's characterization of the Dexter-Hillsdale sightings as "swamp gas" unleashed a howl of anger, protest, ridicule, and raw publicity across the whole globe. Congressmen became so put-off by the apparent USAF irresponsibility that they put heat on the Pentagon to explain how this could be going on. Gerald Ford essentially demanded an apology to his constituents. The level of grief doled out to Allen Hynek finally and inexorably pushed him over his threshold of loyal hyperconservatism as well. Hynek, in a different style, initiated his own "coming out party" at the same time as the more aggressive, flamboyant McDonald. Within the House Armed Services Committee, he, Air Force Secretary Harold Brown, and Bluebook chief Hector Quintanilla were called to testify within a week of the swamp gas furor. Hynek strongly supported the O'Brien Committee recommendations for a university study, and the committee report was attached to the congressional hearings.

In May the Air Force announced that it would begin looking for the recommended universities. Jim McDonald began lobbying for his own participation, and, in his usual over-enthusiasm, succeeded instead in convincing persons like Brian O'Brien not to consider him (or his university presumably). Allen Hynek wrote Secretary Brown supporting his decision to place this in the hands of civilian scientists and out of the military. Little progress was made in getting a topflight scientist to take on the task, however. Through the month of June the Air Force had no expressions of interest. In July the Air Force changed "salesmen" and tried again. At the very end of the month, Colonel Thomas Ratchford of the Office of Scientific Research appealed to Dr. Edward Condon, and a quality that he had displayed continually throughout his distinguished career, patriotic loyalty, and gained his agreement, if the university administration, faculty, and allied institutions would give their support.


Dr. Condon was a very prominent scientist, and very much the governmental and security insider. He played a major role in the development of nuclear weapons in WWII, and became the director of the National Bureau of Standards, where he resided at the start of the UFO phenomenon in 1947. In that capacity he was also a member of the executive committee of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became NASA. He was president of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physics Teachers Association. He was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, and was a member of Washington's elite Cosmos Club. Despite a bout of insane persecution by the McCarthyist House Committee on Un-American Activities, he never lost the confidence of anyone that mattered either in science or in the military. After retiring from the NBS, he bounced around briefly, landing in Colorado at a joint facility funded by the University and the NBS. There, he had settled in as a patriarch of physical science whose activities were more organizational and service-oriented than basic research. His reputation was made. His personal and organizational relations were strong. He had little to risk even in a potentially risky business. Here, he had encountered an administrator who admired him as an American scientific legend: Robert Low.


It is a tribute to the chaos and tribulations of the Project that one cannot set down a straightforward and meaningful listing of the working staff. The original Air Force contract listed seven names: Condon, Colorado Administrator Robert Low, psychologists William Scott, David Saunders, and Michael Wertheimer, plus chairman of psychology Stuart Cook, and atmospheric physicist Franklin Roach. Low would serve as "project coordinator", essentially being Condon's arms, legs, and most of his brains on the running of all phases of the affair. Edward Condon would, as much as possible, make heavy executive decisions and otherwise "play" in the project only as much as he liked. Of these seven named researchers two were virtual immediate drop-outs: Scott and Cook. They cannot in any meaningful way be considered contributing personnel (Brittin et al, 1966).

Many other persons figured in the mix. Some flashed on the scene and were gone. Some were distant contractors working in isolation. Others were intimately involved. Of the latter, there are seven names for whom anyone would grant a significant on-the-ground project involvement with UFO cases and investigation: chemist Roy Craig, electrical engineer Norman Levine, astrophysicist William Hartmann, physicist Frederick Ayer, administrative assistant and preliminary case screener Mary Lou Armstrong, and grad students Dan Culberson and James Wadsworth. Many others were involved. Of these, the ones who contributed significantly in either counseling the project and interacting with it on-site, or in doing field investigations, were plasma physicist Martin Altschuler, radar analyst Gordon Thayer, physicist Gerald Rothberg, and auto engineer Frederick Hooven. These individuals are distinguished from a tribe of others by having some more-than-fleeting direct involvement with project investigations and personnel.

Because of the social conflicts and alleged incompetent leadership of the project, the list of contributors was unstable, and the second half of the project became a disorganized scramble to create a final document from "what was left", but the following is my best estimate of a proper naming of the research staff:

Primary team:

  • Edward Condon, physicist, Colorado
  • Robert Low, administrator, Colorado
  • Franklin Roach, physicist-astronomer, Environmental Science Services Administration
  • David Saunders, psychologist, Colorado
  • Michael Wertheimer, psychologist, Colorado
  • Roy Craig, chemist, Colorado
  • Norman Levine, electrical engineer, Arizona
  • Mary Lou Armstrong, administrative assistant, Colorado
  • William Hartmann, astronomer, Arizona
  • Frederick Ayer, physicist, Colorado
  • Dan Culberson, psychologist, Colorado
  • James Wadsworth, psychologist, Colorado

Secondary contributors:

  • Martin Altschuler, Astrophysics, NCAR
  • Gordon Thayer, physicist, ESSA
  • Gerald Rothberg, physicist, Stevens Tech
  • Frederick Hooven, engineer, Ford Motor Company

All these individuals (and others) worked hard enough to earn their "letters" on the team, but, in the judgment of this author, the hardest workers (for good or ill) were Low, Craig and Wadsworth. Saunders and Hartmann deserve honorable mention. It is interesting to note that a graduate student (Wadsworth) played such a major role in the case investigations.

The organizational structure of the project was, frankly, a mess. It took several months for them to even attempt to decide on an organizational structure. Major debates occurred regarding what they were supposed to be doing. Each primary academic had a different (and strong) opinion about how to do the research. The rough concept of Colorado as a central coordinating research focusser allied to investigating teams dispersed in other schools around the country fell apart almost immediately. Colorado would have to do basically what was done itself, and contract out specific bits of academic research studies elsewhere (studies, by the way, with no necessary connection to the more mysterious core of UFO reports). The Air Force was supposed to be completely cooperative in notifying the project of new cases, providing on-site help if there was an air base involved, and generally digging out older cases and other inside information. They were only marginally cooperative on all but the provision of old Project Bluebook data. There was also to be a hotline where Air Force, pilot, press et al could reach the Project with new sightings. With the short time span for organization, this too was only marginally effective. Different members of the "team" (it is a bit absurd to call it that) took on tasks to which they were drawn, or, which they essentially insisted on doing. Many things were planned and very few completed. It is a miracle of last-minute creativity that the final report achieved any semblance of organized research at all. This is merely to state a fact, not to blame. It was ridiculous to think that a two year project (including the writing time) could start from total ground zero on a topic like UFOs and even get going smoothly by the time the grant ran out. Still, it could have proceeded with a lot better direction than it had.


And here was the rub. The Colorado Project was an unusual scientific research grant in that it was almost forced upon a scientist who knew little about the research problem, rather than empowering a scientist who knew all about what he wanted to do. Robert Low, of course, was in no better position to figure out what to do. There were apparent scientific experts available who could have helped them immensely, but there were problems. Allen Hynek, still employed by the USAF, was tainted by that connection, and was, in fact, ordered not to get too close to the Project. The only other two obvious candidates, James McDonald and Donald Menzel, were in such intellectually and emotionally polarized positions that the Air Force could not risk involving them either. The civilian experts, NICAP and APRO, were even less acceptable in an academic testing ground. So the naive eggheads had to blunder forward on their own, albeit receiving lots of "advice" from all sides.

One member of the Colorado team, who in most ways contributed little to the research, at the beginning of the thinking period produced a concept which had a powerful effect on all the deliberations. Michael Wertheimer was a psychologist and interested in perception. He used his interests, and philosophical reasoning, to verbalize what became known as the "Wertheimer Hypothesis". It has two components: one psychological, one epistemological.

The psychological problem: In analyzing a UFO report one is usually interested in the initial stimulus, which precipitated the report. This agent is called the "distal stimulus". This event sends wavelengths (light, sound) through the environment, which is often able to distort those signals. When they finally land on the eye or the eardrum, they are labeled the "proximal stimulus". Are these two stimuli identical (or better, is one a faithful messenger of the other)? The sense preceptors turn the proximal stimulus into neural impulses with more or less accuracy depending on chronic or temporary factors within the individual's central nervous system. Upon reaching the cortex, these impulses must be accurately perceived (sort of gelled into a proper relation to themselves) and then cognition (knowing) must take place (they are placed into a proper relation to what's already known or believed). At every stage there is some risk of distortion. Once the reporter reports to the UFO researcher, that researcher must not automatically take the report as an accurate representation of the distal stimulus, which initiated it.

Wertheimer's point here, beyond the obvious, was that there has been little in the way of testing "everyday folk" under observation circumstances anything like those involved with UFO reports. Therefore there is no data baseline against which to judge how much distortion is likely to occur in raw reports. UFO researchers like McDonald and Menzel obviously were operating on very different assumptions regarding this matter.

The epistemological problem: The UFO research scientist receives a large pile of such reports with various degrees of puzzling elements and unknown degrees of distortion. He goes into these honestly and with great skill and energy. If he is intellectually honest, there will never be the day when he can claim to have simply, unambiguously solved all the reports. He will be faced with piles labeled "IFOs", "insufficient evidence", and "UFOs". Let us assume that he has been paid a lot of money to test the hypothesis: some UFO reports refer to extraterrestrial spacecraft. The fact that there exists, still, a pile called "UFOS" (actually for strict philosophy's sake, even the "insufficient" pile will do) indicates that the scientist cannot prove that no UFO reports refer to ET craft. However, the converse is also true. Barring something truly astounding in the evidence, the existence of the "UFO" pile cannot prove that the pile or any of its members relates to extraterrestrials either. All it says is that the reports remain a mystery. Wertheimer suggested the word "framasands" to categorize these cases, simply to emphasize that we could not say what they were.

Anyone is free to disregard such logic and decide to go with their own intuitions and "common sense", of course, but philosophically, and even in most ways, scientifically, the argument is pretty tight (especially given the psychological, stimuli-distorting precautions of the Wertheimer preface). The argument staggered Condon. He wondered whether there was any way to fruitfully proceed on the problem. It angered the USAF representative, Colonel Robert Hippler, who wanted to argue that you could, within reason, disprove the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis. It nettled David Saunders, an ETH-sympath, for the opposite reason. This was presented as the lead-off idea to a briefing of USAF officials (Ratchford, Hippler, Quintanilla, and others) in January of 1967. A debate on methodology naturally ensued (UFO Study Project, 1967).

This briefing laid down the polarized positions of the main project members, and the key USAF people, pretty clearly. Michael Wertheimer wanted to create UFO-simulation events and then sweep through the area studying the perceptual, memory, and reporting accuracies of the population. Another psychologist, Stuart Cook, supported that. Colonel Hippler said absolutely not. That's all we need: Inventing fake UFOs to fool people; a public relations catastrophe for the Air Force. Cook, Condon, and Low wanted to focus on the observer and the conditions surrounding the observation (a Menzelian debunking-oriented strategy). Colonel Ratchford thought that this would be interesting science. Colonel Hippler said that this was the road to another public relations catastrophe. Don't emphasize this either. Franklin Roach preferred to downplay the Wertheimer perceptual concerns and concentrate on powerful cases (a Hynek-NICAP-type approach). Condon immediately challenged that as not being able to approach an ETH decision. Jack Evans of the Sacramento Peak high-altitude observatory suggested looking at cases involving credible experienced observers, such as pilots (the other half of the Hynek-NICAP approach). Hippler thought that might be worth doing. Evans also suggested trying to bypass the observer problem and get real time data using large sensor grids. Hippler replied that lots of grids already exist. Maybe they'd be useful.

David Saunders stayed silent a long time. He then suggested the "other" psychological approach: mass data (which de-emphasizes individual idiosyncrasies) and attempts to find correlations between discrete qualities of the reports. Low immediately directed this idea at tests of the credibility of the observations. Saunders said it went way beyond that. Condon changed the subject to the social problems UFOs were causing the Air Force and the public. Finally, Colonel Ratchford thought that concentrating on case categories, which might pay off scientifically in data on ball lightning or other rare physical and perceptual phenomena would be a good idea. Condon was still confused about what they were supposed to do and why. He still thought studying the observers was a good idea. Ratchford and Hippler finally said: all we're "asking you to do is to take a look at the problem" (U'FO reports, not observer problems), and make a recommendation about what we (the USAF) should do about it in the future. You may not solve the problem, but you may be able to decide whether it's worth going on. Condon ended with: "It is a very puzzling problem, gentlemen ... We said we would have an answer on this phase of the work (methodology) ... by the end of January. But it does not appear that we will make that deadline." On this, they never made any deadline at all.


The Project engaged in many activities and this is no time to attempt to chronicle them. However, a selection might give the reader a useful picture of what went on. Early in the game, they attempted to go to school from a variety of experts. All sorts of individuals traipsed through Boulder to give them advice: McDonald, Menzel, Hynek, Vallee, Keyhoe, Hall, as well as science and technology types who knew little about UFOS. Some individuals, such as Bob Wood and James Harder, insisted on audiences whether they were invited or not. Of these visitations the one everyone was most concerned about involved Keyhoe and Hall. It seemed to go well to both sides and set up a temporary cooperative and respectful exchange between the two organizations. Project members (especially Low) also attempted education by various trips to areas where experts or other unique information sources resided. One of these trips created part of the problem that the project suffered internally. This was Low's trip to Europe. Such a trip was obviously worth making considering the presence overseas of two UFOlogical giants, Aime Michel and Charles Bowen. Because Low decided to combine more than one type of business, and some pleasure, he chose a time when neither expert was available. Some of the project team were outraged by this strategy coupled with a stay at Loch Ness to compare UFOs with the "monster". Whatever excuses one might make, there is no escaping that Low blew it on this. A dedicated research project requires dedicated research trips. If the two main reasons for going aren't available, you pick another time. Project members viewed this correctly as a lack of seriousness on Low's part. Some of the other trips ended up with "purchases" (subcontracts) from high-priced think-tanks of technical reports which Condon and Low hoped would add (literally) weight to the final report.

A major activity demanded by Roach and Saunders was the collection and analysis of significant old reports. Condon fought against this consistently but the weight of opinion almost everywhere else insisted that something at least be done. The agreed-upon idea was that project members would read piles of candidate cases, discuss them, and nominate the most interesting for an inclusion into a Case Book of powerful reports. This Case Book would turn out to be a large significant thing with many pages per case. Condon, as an absentee project head, and Low, wilting under general opinion, could not police this very well. The procedure was begun but as the project work grew and people became spread thin, it fell into disuse, which, of course, was fine with Condon. A few remnants of the idea remain in the archives at the American Philosophical Library in Philadelphia, and its "ghost" became Chapter 2 of Section IV of the report. Many excellent early cases were nominated and folders prepared, which never made it into the "scientific study". The only areas where responsible coverage of such cases exists in the report are the chapters dedicated specifically to photographic evidence (William Hartmann) and radar evidence (Gordon Thayer). Persons such as Saunders, Levine, Roach, Hynek, McDonald, Keyhoe, and Hall had legitimate reasons to being displeased with the coverage of important "old" cases, especially when data was abundantly, easily available (even right in the office).

Everyone agreed (even Condon) that field studies on new cases were a good idea despite their problems. So, a procedure was set up with a UFO hotline with someone available to answer at any time. Mary Lou Armstrong typically was the first screener, and Saunders or Low would usually rule on whether it was hot enough to "go". Certain persons volunteered for field research, and Roy Craig and Jim Wadsworth were the mainstays. It's hard to decide exactly how to count these field trips, but, roughly, the team went on about thirty-eight of them between August 1966 and the end of 1967. Most of the cases were trivial; things none of us would have made much of an effort on today. Still there were a few so-called (by Low) "super cases" (ex. Michalak; Schirmer). Later critics objected that the project didn't seem to be getting, or perhaps selecting, quality cases. At one time even Condon wrote to complain to the USAF about slow and incomplete reporting from that source. By the end of the year the Wright Pat project admitted to nineteen unknowns, most of which either didn't get to Colorado or weren't deemed important enough to research if they did. And, as a separate issue regarding current field research on an "old" case John Fuller had paved the way for a Benjamin Simon hypnosis of Betty and Barney Hill, if Colorado was interested. They weren't.

Meanwhile, David Saunders had become somewhat overloaded pursuing his own favorite idea - the computer catalog database. Hopes were high that at least five hundred cases would be entered in time for the project report. Simultaneously, Saunders became impressed with Aime Michel's concept of Orthotenic lines, as an indication of intelligent activity in UFO waves. A major brou-ha-ha ensued over his insistence on the importance of orthoteny, and its inclusion in the report. Low was, putting it mildly, unconvinced. An outside statistical expert was brought in to critique the work. Though the exchange seems to have been civilized, the bad relations were further frayed. When Saunders (and Levine) were fired, all this cataloguing and statistics collapsed. At least, much later, this work emerged as the CUFOS UFOCAT project.


Our last brevity about project activities will come under the heading of "goofiness". This was the element in UFOlogy chosen by Edward Condon as his own interest. To put this decision in the best light, consider Ed Condon as someone who doesn't want to do this UFO project, is near the end of his science career and has paid his dues, and might as well have some fun while he's involved with this chore. There are, of course, worse lights one could shine on it. Condon considered all this sort of material under the titles of "Magic" or "Religion, Cults, Psychological". In several places he is obviously having a grand time trying to track down malefactors like "Mel Noel", or strange stones like that of the Tulli Papyrus or the Allende nonsense of the Philadelphia Experiment. He shared his enjoyment of the stones of the congenial lunatic "Dickson/Dicksun of the second and third universes" with Dr. Urner Liddel, the old anti-UFO warhorse of the Office of Naval Research. He ordered Jim Wadsworth to the Bonneville Salt Flats to check out a "psychic prediction", just in case a UFO really lands. He wrote to the governor of Utah to see if he would like to attend. He created a card system for each "cult", whereupon he hoped to list its membership, publisher, date of origin, "channel", and home planet among other pertinencies. This piece of science never materialized, and consequently did not make the final report. His most controversial act was his highly publicized act of attending the "little boys having fun" Congress of Scientific UFOlogists held in New York in June of 1967. Despite heavy pleadings and protestations from the group, he absolutely insisted on watching the fools’ parade. His presence did much to increase publicity to its damaging (to UFO research) best. And, without saying anything, it was his clearest statement about what he felt about the field.


The most concrete result was the approximately thousand-page paperback that most serious UFOlogists have sitting on their shelves (Gillmor, 1969). To those of us who have opened it, it has a peculiar structure, almost audibly saying, "don't try to read me". Paranoia aside, this probably is not deliberate. Reading the primary documents of the project indicates very clearly that the organization's chaos and personnel dislocations that afflicted it made the creation of a smooth document impossible.

The project deadline ensured that editing and arranging was a process bordering on the hysterical. When one adds to this a real deliberate decision to obfuscate the individual cases by not precisely locating them in time or space (or, of course, witnesses), it's a miracle that one can get anything out of reading it at all. The late director of Air Force Intelligence, Charles Cabell, had characterized the Project Grudge report as "the most poorly written piece of unscientific tripe I've ever read". One wonders what he would have said about this one?

Of course, in a thousand-page book there are bound to be things worth reading. The main things focused upon here have been the cases and their identifiability. Many heroic readers (inc. James McDonald and Peter Sturrock) noticed that a close look at the report's own results clearly points to an ongoing mystery in the field, and one with at least the potential for important discovery (McDonald, 1969; Sturrock, 1974). This has significance mainly because Dr. Condon said essentially the opposite in his conclusions. This paper being a historical rather than a data analysis, this incongruency of internal versus summary conclusions should be explored by the reader in the document or in the works of Drs. McDonald, Sturrock, et al.

At the larger level of results, the Air Force used Condon's conclusion, with thanks, to do what they wanted to do: they closed Project Bluebook permanently.

The conclusion of the report was stated, briefly, as such: there has been no advance to science through the study of UFOs in the past, and there likely will be no advance in the future. Consequently, the Air Force should give up its official project. There are, therefore, three main elements to the conclusion:

  1. There has been no advance.
  2. There almost surely never will be.
  3. Project Bluebook should close.

Almost everyone would agree to number one. Most, probably, would agree to number three. The problem was number two. Were UFOs worth studying if the study was serious and potent? Condon said no. Hynek, McDonald and Keyhoe said a loud "yes!" What did the Colorado Project, as a whole, say? Here is a listing of the Project members and their opinion, as can be found in project records or commentaries shortly after the report materialized.

Edward Condon: no

Robert Low: no

Franklin Roach: yes

David Saunders: yes

Michael Wertheimer: ?, possibly no

Roy Craig: ?, possibly no

Norman Levine: yes

Mary Lou Armstrong: yes

William Hartmann: yes

Frederick Ayer: yes

Dan Culberson: yes

James Wadsworth: yes

Martin Altschuler: ?, possibly no

Gordon Thayer: yes

Gerald Rothberg: yes

Frederick Hooven: yes

My toting up of the "opinion poll" is two "no's", three undetermineds, and eleven "yes's". Skeptics may say whatever they wish, this array of opinions from the people within the project form a stark contrast to the opinion (and it was an opinion) "concluded" by Condon.


Opinion or not, the report had strong impacts. The Air Force, as noticed, closed Bluebook. This had the desired side effect of lessening the amount of conversation about flying saucers linked to the military. Science magazine welcomed the report, and the bastion of hyper-conservative prejudices, Nature, even more so (Boffey, 1969; Nature, 1969). But the overall result in the scientific community was surprisingly mixed. The mere existence of a university project had brought UFOlogy out of the closet, and, for the moment legitimatised it. Many scientists had written to Condon and the project expressing interest. The report didn't stop this trend. Condon found himself in a position of trying to talk scientists out of holding seminars on the subject. The worst came for Condon when the foursome of Thornton Page, Walter Orr Roberts, Carl Sagan, and Philip Morrison decided to create an all-day symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. Reading the manuscript collections on this battle of power and prejudices (on all sides) is one of the more enlightening experiences to anyone interested in the non-ideal nature of real scientists. The AAAS symposium was ultimately held, and was mainly negative in tone, but it did not put a stop to academic interest either (Page, Sagan, 1972). Rather, the early to mid-seventies were a boom time for academic involvement, albeit mostly behind the scenes rather than, as at AAAS, in the spotlight. It was the main era of the so-called "invisible college", and featured the work of Allen Hynek, Peter Sturrock, Frank Salisbury, Leo Sprinkle, and James Harder, among many others. In the popular eye, however, the period from the end of Condon to the big wave of 1973 was a fade-out era for UFOS. Whether by cause or coincidence, NICAP began to fail and APRO had a bit of downturn. On the other hand, the exact time also saw the rise of another popular power in UFOlogy, the Mutual UFO Network. The Condon project's immediate effect toward down playing UFO research, therefore, was restricted to two areas: the contractor got what it wanted out of the conclusion; and the highest levels of the science establishment firmed in their stand not to give monetary support to UFOlogists.


The Condon report has been much maligned as a document not reflecting the views of the project researchers, nor the data contained therein. Given some reasonable slack for the short time and money available for the work, this maljudgment is still justified. The question which arose, blaringly in public, was: was the project prejudiced from the beginning? People have argued, vociferously, both ways. To this author the answer is completely and documentably clear.

The question of bias could be approached in several ways: (a) Was the contractor biased? Was there a certain answer that it wanted, or worse, even demanded? (b) Was the contractee (lead researcher) biased? (c) Was the project administrator biased? and (d) What did the people who worked on the project say?

A. Regarding the contractor (the USAF): I believe that only the most extreme of position-takers would try to argue that the Air Force had an open mind about what it wanted to see come out of this grant. The Air Force wanted to get UFOs out of the Air Force, period. To do this the phenomenon had to be made to appear trivial, at least in terms of technology and security. Because the Air Force had the responsibility to ensure safety in the skies, even as regards long shot possibilities, the phenomenon probably needed to be trivialized in all respects to rationalize completely dumping it. Fortunately for the historian, none of this has to be laid at the door of assumption. The main information-carriers of both elements in the Air Force critical to the project tell us so in the existent documents. In a belligerent interview with Foreign Technology Division chief, Colonel Raymond Sleeper, Robert Low and Bluebook personnel were treated to the following exchange:

Sleeper: "Do you know what benefit the Air Force has derived from the Bluebook study? ... Zero! UFOs exist because people, faced with an unstructured existence, find the need to structure it. If you'll just find out about that, you'll find the key to the UFO problem."

Low: "Why did you give the contract to the University of Colorado? Do you consider it a waste of money?"

Sleeper: "I do." (Low, 1966)

And, turning to the Pentagon, we have mentioned the briefing to Ratchford, Hippler et al, earlier. Colonel Hippler was the contact point between Colorado and the higher-ups. Low had tried to get him to tell them clearly what the Air Force wanted, during the briefing. Hippler had dodged. We should remember that this was a contract initiated by the USAF, not Condon and Low. Condon and Low were doing this in service to the Air Force, not for themselves. What the contractor wanted was vital to be clear upon. Three days after the briefing, upon returning to the Pentagon, Hippler wrote Condon (Hippler, 1967). He opened by saying that this was an informal letter and not to be taken as official Air Force position. Well, anyone is welcome to buy that, but one would suggest a few visits to a common sense counselor would be helpful. Low, who responded for Condon, showed that he was hip to exactly what he was hearing. Hippler had two things to say. He was unhappy with the Wertheimer Hypothesis, and felt that Colorado could come to an anti-extraterrestrial conclusion. Secondly, he emphasized how costly Project Bluebook had been over the years, and that they'd really like to get rid of it. If Colorado needed an extension in order to come up with a "proper recommendation" that would be arranged (recall that this was January 1967 and the Colorado Project had just started). Low wrote back thanking him, "You have answered quite directly the question that I asked." The Air Force absolutely wanted a recommendation ending Project Bluebook, preferably tied to some trivializing assessment of UFOS. They said so right up front, but only to Condon and Low.

B. Regarding the contractee (Condon): Some writers might want to defend Edward Condon as going into the fray with an open mind, but coming out with a closed one. The "coming out" with closed, and highly emotional, statements is certainly clear, and all over the documentation. "Coming in" takes a little more assessment. What we know for sure is that Condon took the project as a patriotic service, and, therefore, knowing what the Air Force needed, would function accordingly. This is, of course, prejudice enough, but what did he personally feel? Condon made several public speaking "boners" which many take to be spontaneously revelatory of his inner views. Perhaps they were. Condon was however a witty joker, and these faux pas could have been just bad judgment. But when all is weighed, I believe that one must admit a strong negative bias, only held in check by his knowledge that this was a touchy public relations situation. In April of 1967, still very early in the project, Condon received a letter objecting that UFOs are a waste of time. Condon wrote the following (and wisely did not mail it):

"The study of UFO reports is an elusive thing. I'm not sure that the government ought to be spending any money on it ... I did not seek it, and it is not fun. It was thrust upon me, and is distracting me from another job which I would rather do."

He goes on to suggest that the writer send the letter recommending that the government eliminate spending on "uncatchable, unprovable, unidentifiable unthings" to Robert McNamara, USAF Secretary Harold Brown, and members of the House Committee on Armed Services (Condon, 1967). With these initial attitudes it is no surprise Condon could write a report summary so much at variance with his staff. One positive nod to the grand old scientist, however: he knew, despite it all, that something scientifically interesting might be in here somewhere. And so, he carefully crafted his language so as to encourage others to look, but not to encourage funding. More on this in a moment.

C. Regarding the administrator (Low): Robert Low is a more difficult figure to comprehend. He was not a scientist, despite being around science all his working life. He was a savvy administrator, who knew what was important: the contractor, the higher administration, the boss. But he often also demonstrated a refreshing, almost childlike curiosity about these neat things he was delving into. I believe that this put Low into an awkward position: doing a "Condon-imitation" trying to police a project headed toward a fixed conclusion, while being honestly interested in a lot of it himself. In the end, of course, the "administrator" and the job won out. In his administrator's hat Robert Low wrote the infamous "trick" memo of which so much has been written (Low, 1966A). A great semantic debate has been held over the various ways the word "trick" can be used, and everyone is correct. The tale is told, however, by reading the whole memo in the context of the time. The Air Force has just convinced Condon to try the project. Bob Low has just been briefed himself as to his and the university's role. The idea has just been floated by the high administration and all sorts of objections are arising. Low, the effective administrator- politician, is attempting to cast the potential project in a way that will mollify the objectors. Whether he believes any of what he himself is saying or not, he describes the project in ways which emotional, prejudiced people might tolerate. His use of "trick" and all the surrounding words meant to cast the project into a "proper light" for these "UFO negative" people. Of course it ends up sounding prejudicial against UFOs as serious entities. It has to. That's the audience he's writing to. The real question is not the Low memo, it's what Low himself believed. That we may never know. All we can assess is how he acted. In that he was the loyal right arm of Edward Condon, as was his Job. Many of the project staff were unhappy with his actions and interferences, the strongest statement of which is in the resignation letter of Mary Lou Armstrong (Armstrong, 1968).

D. Regarding the views of the project team members: Given that so many of these people disagreed with Condon's concluding opinions, the fact that they viewed the project to be biased early on needs little further documentation. Statements abound in the aforementioned Armstrong letter, the rebutting Saunders-Harkin book (1968), and letters following the project by Thayer, Roach, Rothberg, etc, Toting up the score sheet on evidences of bias, we find strong, usually concretely documented, signs of prejudice in all four venues. Since 100 percent is pretty good coverage, it seems that the conclusion that the Colorado Project had strong early UFO-negative biases is a good assumption.

There is one other element in this to explore, however. The USAF could have received what they wanted out of the conclusions without there being such a strong negative on the UFOs as potentially scientifically interesting. They were obviously of potential scientific interest, as people kept coming up with all sorts of wild physical and psychological hypotheses to explain them. Colonel Ratchford mentioned about a half dozen "spinoffs" he considered intriguing if the project wanted to look into them. But the recommendation was a much stronger negative in the end. Why?

Edward Condon seemed to be open to the idea of further academic study of some elements of this subject until about halfway through the project. Then he changed. What happened? All sorts of scientists began talking about getting government funding for UFO research: Allen Hynek, of course; more surprisingly, Frank Drake, William Hartmann, Frederick Ayer; and most threateningly, James McDonald. A very powerful red flag went up in Condon's mind. Red ink. Funding deficits for other worthier science. 1967 began for the sciences what were to be called the "doldrum years" of government (non-) funding. Cutbacks were severe and everywhere. McDonald, with his characteristic aggression, talked before Congress of a UFO budget dwarfing that of the space program. Others had chimed in, usually with a little more restraint, but everyone was talking serious dollars. Condon knew how many scientists were interested; some, famous names. He knew that the idea was getting a hearing from the non-scientist politicians who controlled money. One more flap and this would become a scientific catastrophe. So Condon did everything he could do. He pounded the hammer down. UFOs were nonsense. They did not seem to deserve any research at all. And they certainly did not deserve to be funded.


The Colorado Project is a very educational research topic. It begins back with idealistic naivete (by Hynek), and ends with pragmatics, economics, and social forces. As the currents of personalities and powers intersected, it became a conclusion waiting for a process to present it. And in the end, who won? The Air Force won. They finally achieved what they needed for twenty years: the deconstructing of the public link between themselves and UFOS. And who lost? The search for the Truth; the ideals of academia and science; and Jim McDonald, to whose death this might have contributed in part.


The author wishes to thank the officials and staff of the American Philosophical Library, the University of Colorado, and the Center for UFO Studies for access to the relevant materials from those archives.


  • Armstrong, Mary Lou (1968). Letter to Dr. Edward U. Condon, February 24, 1968 (APL and CUFOS files).
  • Boffey, Philip (1969). "UFO Study: Condon Group Finds No Evidence of Visits from Outer Space", Science 163: pp. 260-2, January 17, 1969.
  • Brittin, Wesley; Condon, Edward; and Manning, Thurston (1966). A proposal to Air Force Office of Scientific Research for support of Scientific Study Of Unidentified Flying Objects, Boulder, Colorado, November 1, 1966 (APL and CUFOS files).
  • Condon, Edward (1967). Letter to Paul Belzer, April 1967 draft (APL files).
  • Dick, Steven (1992). "Edward U. Condon, UFOS, and the Many Cultures of Science", History of Science Society, Washington, D.C., December 28, 1992.
  • Gillmor, Daniel (ed.) (1969). Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Bantam Books, New York.
  • Hippler, Robert R. (1966). Letter to Dr. Edward U. Condon, January 16, 1967, (reply from Robert Low: January 27, 1967) (APL files).
  • Hynek, J. Allen (1965). Letter to Colonel John E. Spaulding, August 30, 1965 (CUFOS files).
  • Jacobs, David (1975). The UFO Controversy in America, University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.
  • Low, Robert (1966). Notes of Robert J. Low's Trip to Washington, December 1966 (APL files).
  • Low, Robert (1966A). Memo to E. James Archer and Thurston E. Manning, August 9, 1966 (APL and CUFOS files).
  • McCarthy, Paul (1975). "Politicking and Paradigm Shifting: James E. McDonald and the UFO Case Study", unpublished Ph.D. thesis (CUFOS files).
  • McDonald, James E. (1969). "Science in Default: 22 years of Inadequate UFO Investigations", paper presented with his talk at the AAAS Symposium of 1969.
  • Nature (1969). "A Sledgehammer for Nuts", Nature 221, pp. 899-900, March 8, 1969.
  • Page, Thornton, and Sagan, Carl (ed.) (1972). UFOS: A Scientific Debate, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
  • Saunders, David and Harkins, Roger (1968). UFOS? Yes!, New York: World.
  • Steiner, Harold (1966). Special Report of the USAF Scientific Advisory Book Ad Hoc Committee to Review Project "Blue Book", March 1966 (O'Brien Panel: CUFOS, APL, Colorado files).
  • Sturrock, P.A. (1974). Evaluation of the Condon Report on the Colorado UFO Project, SUIPR Report #599, October 1974, Institute for Plasma Research, Stanford University.
  • UFO Study Project (1967). Air Force Advisory Panel Briefing, Boulder, Colorado, January 12, 1967, (APL files).
  • Watson, Harold E. (1955). Letter to Major General John A. Samford, July 7, 1955 (APL files).

See also here.

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