Organized Session

UFOs and Ufology as Transnational Phenomena

Organizer

Greg Eghigian

Pennsylvania State University

Chair

Roshanna Sylvester

University of Colorado Boulder

Metadata

Session Abstract

In recent years, cable television, YouTube, and news and social media outlets have served as popular venues for many to explore the possibility that unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are not only real, but also are the work of extraterrestrials. Stories about the existence of a secret Defense Department UFO investigation unit (Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program), an anomalous interstellar object dubbed "Oumuamua" which one prominent astronomer conjectured could be an alien spacecraft, and the raid-turned-festival #StormArea51 have further fed the kind of speculation already inspired by shows such as _Ancient Aliens_ and _UFOs: The Lost Evidence_.
Since the first reports of "flying saucer" sightings over the United States in June 1947, the UFO phenomenon has attracted the attention of millions of Americans. Studies by sociologists, historians, ethnographers, and folklorists have consistently shown two things, however. First, UFOs have not just been passively spotted - they also have been actively promoted by enthusiasts and popular writers. Second, sightings and investigations of unidentified flying objects have hardly been restricted to the United States. Instead, they have been part of an international movement, with self-proclaimed UFO researchers operating in numerous countries across six continents.
This panel examines the history of UFO research (ufology) and speculation from a comparative and transnational perspective. Developments in the United States, Canada, and the USSR will be discussed in detail, but attention also will be paid to the ways in which ufological knowledge has traveled across national boundaries and linguistic communities. In doing so, the aim is to gain a more refined understanding of how international ufology emerged, changed, and grew as a form of crowd-sourced science.

Presenter 1

The Tunguska Event in Soviet UFOlogy

Andy Bruno

Northern Illinois University

Abstract

This presentation will examine the distinctive origins and development of the study of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the Soviet Union. Around the same time as interest in the topic arose in the West, the Soviet public began to discuss a different mystery that some thought might be attributable to an encounter with a spacecraft from outer space: the 1908 Tunguska explosion.
Between Russia's revolutions of the early twentieth century, a large blast occurred over a remote part of Siberia, leveling a huge swath of taiga forest. Though the earliest scientists suspected that it had been caused by a massive meteorite, initial field research to the site failed to find a crater or any remnants. This inconclusive evidence led to speculation about what else might have triggered the explosion. Just after US atomic bombs fell on Japan in 1945, a science fiction writer developed the idea that a nuclear explosion, which must have been triggered by an accident of an atomically-powered alien spaceship, explained Tunguska. This idea soon moved from the realm of fiction to an alternative hypothesis that excited the Soviet public and later sparked ongoing amateur expeditions to hunt for clues of an alien encounter. Moreover, some of the main figures in the development of Soviet UFOlogy as a self-conscious endeavor in the 1960s had already helped popularize the alien theory about Tunguska in the late 1940s.
Tunguska's prominent role in the study of possible extraterrestrial encounters in the USSR gave rise to distinctive epistemologies and means of investigation. Soviet aliens were both more and less threatening in varied ways and learning about them required research that more readily collaborated with mainstream science. Such distinctions separated the Soviet experience with UFOs from much of the rest of the world, despite the obvious Cold War and Space Age affinities that have defined UFOlogy as a global phenomenon.

Metadata

Presenter 2

Countercultural Religion in Extraterrestrial Space: UFO Theologies as Cold War Logics

Kate Dorsch

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

In 1967, atmospheric physicist James McDonald received a letter from a California man celebrating McDonald's UFO research and "forthright [pro-UFO] positions." The man purported to be a technical, mathematical researcher himself; his study of the UFO phenomena subsequently revealed to him "knowledge of the mathematical creation/design of the planet by a Creator/Designer," evidenced by his method of applying mathematical and engineering principles and cryptanalysis and the Torah code to sighting reports. The letter wound up in the "crackpot" section of McDonald's correspondence filing system.
Scholars across the humanities and social sciences have tied the philosophies, politics, and personalities of UFO religions to their respective historic contexts and shown how these movements have positioned themselves on the American religious marketplace to join economic values to Eastern spiritualisms and traditional biblical religious practice. Scholarship, however, has centered largely on UFO religions in the 1950s, and again in the 1970s through 1990s. Consequently, little has been written about religious UFO ideology in the 1960s.
This paper discusses technoscientific-religious theories of UFO phenomena in the late 1960s and explores their connections to other forms of civil discontent of the period. It focuses specifically on how civilians drew on scientific language and practice and religious doctrine and tradition in equal measure to provide global theories of UFO phenomena. Drawing from the archived correspondence of leading scientists involved in scientific study of UFOs, I argue that these letters, manifestos, images, etc., capture a public utilizing the tools and practices of hegemonic Cold War scientific expertise to the political power of that same expertise, while foreshadowing the individualist politics and economics of the New Age movements of the 1970s.

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Presenter 3

UFO New Supercraft Under Test: Science, Conspiracy Theory, and the Public Response to the 1967 Shag Harbour UFO Incident

Noah Morritt

Memorial University of New Foundland

Abstract

Reports of a downed UFO near the coastal community of Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia, Canada in October 1967 intensified a simmering public debate about the nature of the UFO phenomenon and the responsibility of scientists and governments for their study. Regional news coverage of the incident focused on the joint investigation of the Coast Guard, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Canadian Navy. Editorials and letters from the public, however, expressed dissatisfaction and distrust in reports of the investigation's failure to recover physical evidence of a UFO crash. In its aftermath, the Shag Harbour UFO incident sparked speculation and controversy, including claims that secret, experimental American military technology may have been responsible. Comments from respected scientists attempting to offer conventional, natural explanations too were questioned, signalling the skeptical response of Canadian scientists to UFO phenomena provoked growing distrust of scientific authority and expertise, what Neil Nevitte calls "the decline of deference" in Canada. This paper locates these debates within the cultural history of Canada's Cold War and attends to the varied responses of commentators, scientists, and the public to UFO sightings during the late-1960s. In particular, it examines the relationship of aerospace technology to public concerns related to Canadian sovereignty and public safety, arguing that public suspicion and distrust of "official" responses to UFO sightings during this period illustrates the emergent role of conspiracy theory in redefining the place of science and technology in Canadian society and culture.

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Presenter 4

How UFOs Went Global: The Internationalization of Ufology, 1947-1980

Greg Eghigian

Pennsylvania State University

Abstract

The first report of "flying saucers" over the United States in the summer of 1947 drew the attention of news outlets across the globe. In short order, sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) were being reported worldwide, as military intelligence agencies began tracking developments. It was not until the early-1950s that the first civilian UFO investigators began to establish themselves, soon followed by the formation of UFO enthusiast groups. Over the course of the next two and a half decades, these self-proclaimed researchers and flying saucer clubs set about to establish the legitimacy of a new discipline whose object of study was UFOs: ufology.
While many ufologists harbored hope that the field would one day become an academic discipline in its own right, this never occurred. As a result, ufology developed as a decentralized, crowd-sourced endeavor outside government and academic circles. With little to no funds and few, if any, institutional resources, dedicated amateurs succeeded in creating a transnational infrastructure and network for researchers.
This paper examines how ufology developed as an international enterprise over the course of its first three decades. It shows that ufologists largely modeled themselves on contemporary mainstream science by painstakingly collecting, analyzing, and exchanging data, developing methodologies, practicing forensic fieldwork, adopting English as its lingua franca, and founding periodicals, national organizations, and international conferences.
A lack of consistent funding, its reliance on charismatic figures, and the persistence of internal divisions, however, meant that ufology was chronically plagued by instability. Yet, even as initiatives routinely foundered, ufology persevered. While its internationalization exposed many of its more parochial shortcomings, it also contributed to a process of standardization by which a stock set of questions, language, stories, and theories circulated globally.

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