Interpreting the unknown: the UFO phenomenon in Britain

A central dichotomy of popular cultures of outer space, whether in television, literature or folklore, has been an acknowledgement that space can signify the limits of human understanding, while also acting as a source of transcendence from Earthly bounds. Encapsulating this joint appeal, a significant feature of post-war cultures of outer space in Britain has been the phenomenon of the UFO, the Unidentified Flying Object that is, in the minds of some, assumed to be of intelligent extra-terrestrial origin.

While the appellation ‘UFO’, coined by a US Air Force Captain in 1950, tacitly acknowledges the unknown, other names that have been used to denote such phenomena, including ‘flying saucers’ and ‘ghost rockets’, provide satirical or mystic suggestions to the objects’ provenance. A range of amateur organisations have sought to ascertain the veracity of UFOs, thereby attempting to explain their mysteries. Such accounts have ascribed UFO sightings to astronomical and meteorological phenomena, various types of secret or military aircraft, hoaxes or even hallucinations, tending to conclude that the vast majority of UFO sightings have rational explanations. However, the few remaining unexplained sightings have continued to fuel a speculative ‘extra-terrestrial hypothesis’, perhaps influenced by science-fiction narratives or actual achievements in spaceflight. One commentator of the period gave a sense of the extent of the phenomenon, noting that ‘between 1947 and 1952 some 3,000 flying saucers were reported to have been seen in various parts of the world’.26 Evidence from surveys has since indicated the ongoing prevalence of UFO cultures, with large numbers of people having reported UFO sightings or believing in the past visitation of extra-terrestrials.27 Sometimes involving ‘contactee’ or even alien abduction narratives, UFO cultures bring to bear a complex range of physical, technological, cultural, political and psychological factors, with implications for the ways in which people understand space exploration, life on other worlds and the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Regardless of their ultimate veracity, it is important to acknowledge the UFO’s role as ‘an integral part of the history of spaceflight’, with connections between UFOs, spaceflight promoters and popular culture propagating widely in the mid-twentieth century.28 This reflects the context in which the UFO phenomenon emerged, following the popularisation of space exploration in science-fiction, coinciding with a post-war upsurge of public interest in spaceflight, and preceding the onset of the Space Age itself. A broader range of cultural and political factors have also been taken into consideration in UFO narratives, such as the accelerating decolonisation from European empires in the post-war period, the increasing secularisation of Western societies, and the onset of Cold War geopolitical tensions.29 Acknowledging these contexts, researchers in the social sciences have tended to take UFO cultures at face value, being interested in the subjects of the sightings and the controversies they initiated, rather than assigning the objects any particular cause or explanation.30 The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, for example, considered UFOs as objects that provoke ‘conscious and unconscious fantasies’ in their beholders, relating to a range of archetypal images in Western culture.31 It has also been suggested that the persistence of paranormal beliefs in Western society signifies a ‘haunted culture’ that ‘disturb[s] the ordered rationalism that comforts the late-modern mind’, as similarly outlined above in relation to the Quatermass narratives.32 In Britain, a leading researcher of UFO cultures has recognised ‘Ufology’ as part of folklore, looking to assign cultural or social meanings to the substantial archive

Outer space and popular culture in post-war Britain 69 of UFO reports that have been collected by public and private organisations since the Second World War.33 The question therefore remains, what can UFO sightings tell us about British cultures of outer space, and their geographical meanings, in the post-war period?

In the first incidence of a UK government response to UFO sightings, the Ministry of Defence set up the ‘Flying Saucer Working Party’ in October 1950. This committee was established at the suggestion of Sir Henry Tizard, who was then the chief scientific adviser to the Royal Air Force, and chaired by G L Turney, the head of scientific intelligence at the Admiralty.34 The Working Party’s five-page report, released to the public only as recently as 2002, acknowledged media accounts of UFOs in northern Europe and America in the late 1940s, as well as two US government investigations into UFOs, ‘Project Sign’ and ‘Project Grudge’. These occurrences have been noted elsewhere, with Sweden and Norway in particular becoming ‘the theatre of nearly a thousand sightings of strange phenomena described as rockets of unidentified origin’ in 1946, amid ‘fierce debates about secret weapons and the fear of a third world war’.35 A spate of UFO sightings in America in 1947 started with the account of Kenneth Arnold, who was flying his private aeroplane in Washington State when he perceived nine ‘saucer like’ aircraft flying in formation at great speed, his story being reported widely in the media and ultimately leading to the US Government investigations.36 The interest of military intelligence agencies in UFOs has been linked to ‘the possible defence threat posed by “unidentified” aircraft or missiles’ in the context of the Cold War, and the MoD committee’s acknowledgement of these events indicates the international scale of UFO cultures and their influence among Western states, not only in popular culture but also in government investigations.37 Geopolitical considerations, therefore, played an important part in official understandings of UFO phenomena, whether through sharing of information between allied nations or in suspicion of international adversaries.

Having noted such prior incidents. The Flying Saucer Working Party’s report focussed on an outbreak of UFO sightings in Britain during the summer and autumn of 1950. This coincided with growing public interest in UFOs, with two Sunday newspapers serialising two of the first books on UFOs around this time.38 A number of sightings were investigated by the committee, including one account from a fireman in Derby, the object of which was determined to be a meteor, and three reports from Royal Air Force officers in southern England. Of the latter, there was one from the pilot of a Gloster Meteor flying above the city of Portsmouth, whose sighting appeared to have been confirmed by radar, and two from the ground at RAF Farnborough in Hampshire. One of these sightings was reported as follows:

F/Lt Hubbard, who alone was wearing sun-glasses, states that he saw, almost directly overhead, at first sighting, an object which he describesas a flat disc, light pearl grey in colour, about 50 feet in diameter at an estimated height of 5,000 feet. He stated that he kept it under observation for 30 seconds, during which period it travelled at a speed estimated at 800 1,000 mph. on a heading of 100°, executing a series of s-turns, oscillating so that light reflection came from different segments as it moved.39

Incidents such as these were attributed by the committee to aircraft, weather balloons, radar interference or other rational causes, and the report concluded that no further official investigations into UFOs should be carried out.

What is notable about the Flying Saucer Working Party’s report is the way in which its conclusions were framed in the context of reliable forms of aerial observation. The committee affirmed the observers’ integrity in each case, noting that even ‘experienced observers’ could be mistaken by optical illusions.40 While not doubting the impression of F/Lt Hubbard’s UFO sighting in the eyes of the observer, the report claimed that the absence of corroborating accounts ‘over a populous and air-minded district like Farnborough' made it impossible to verify the pilot’s observations.41 The town of Farnborough in Hampshire, known for its annual air show since 1948 and as the location of the Royal Aircraft Establishment since 1904, was, in the minds of the committee, productive of the kind of citizen that would be particularly conscious of aerial space. This sense of ‘airminded-ness’ in mid-twentieth-century Britain encapsulated aviation’s potential to transform society, while also foreshadowing its ‘darker connotations’, including the threat of aerial bombardment.42 Similarly, popular culture icons such as Dan Dare exemplified in this period the heroic reverence of the airman in post-war British culture, an archetype that in this character completed its logical extension to the realm of outer space.43 This was also a time in which the aircraft industry was growing rapidly, as the Korean War, amid broader Cold War anxieties, helped fuel a massive re-armament programme in the UK.44 Here the spectre of wartime bombing, both past and anticipated, alongside reciprocal associations of heroic air prowess, fed into the discourse that surrounded UFO sightings in post-war Britain, an appreciation that was assigned a particular significance in the case of the UFO sightings above Farnborough in southern England.

UFO sightings can also be understood as cultural signifiers for a wider register of interests, including spaceflight, extra-terrestrial intelligence and the mysteries of outer space. An ongoing fascination with UFOs was manifested in the establishment of the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA) in 1964, which remains one of the longest-running UFO research groups in the world. By the late 1960s, BUFORA’s membership was said to have been approaching 750 individuals, with eighteen separate UFO societies conducting their own programmes of observation, reporting and research around the UK.45 BUFORA’s primary aim was to ‘encourage and promote unbiased scientific investigation and research’ into

UFOs, and its activities in the 1960s included monthly talks at Kensington Central Library in London, the publication of journals and bulletins, and the maintenance of a reference library for members.46 In its activities and publications. BUFORA consolidated UFO culture in Britain and sought to legitimise UFO research as a rational science based on common standards of observation and evidence.

The quarterly BUFORA Journal reported sightings from around the UK and internationally, with an evaluation officer suggesting possible explanations for the causes of the phenomena. For example, an ‘unusual flying object’ with a ‘dome-like protuberance’ spotted in Epping in December 1963 was explained as an aircraft flying with its wing ‘edge-on’ to the observer.47 However, in Macclesfield in August 1964, sightings of a ‘silver coloured object’, ‘behaving erratically' with the shape of a ‘shallow round dome’, were designated as ‘genuine UFO phenomena’ by BUFORA’s evaluation officer.48 The same issue of the BUFORA Journal recounted sightings in Bedfordshire, Northumberland, Sussex, Nottingham, London and Cheshire, demonstrating a genuine popular fascination with the concept of UFOs. These reports also indicated BUFORA’s willingness to accredit UFOs with possible extra-terrestrial provenance, posing an epistemic challenge to their strict adherence to observational accuracy and objectivity.

During this period, the BUFORA Journal also published letters, book reviews and short editorials on various space-related themes, including extra-terrestrial intelligence, spaceflight and astronomical observation, becoming a home for broader speculative discussions about outer space. One article outlined the possibilities of contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence and its implications for human spaceflight, considering the multiplicity of galaxies and planetary systems, while outlining an ethical protocol for contact with inhabited planets.49 Observational astronomy also featured, with readers encouraged to familiarise themselves with the constellations of the night skies in order to ‘minimise the chance of believing a known star or phenomenon to be a UFO’.50 In this way various aspects of space science were discussed and disseminated in the context of UFO observation, comprising a sub-culture of outer space enthusiasm that was overlooked or dismissed by officials, professional science bodies and media commentators. In doing this, the BUFORA Journal also sought to prepare those interested in UFO culture for the prospect of transcendence, whether this would consist of catching sight of a genuine UFO in the night sky, or initiating discourse with prospective extra-terrestrial beings.

Interspersed among space-related articles and UFO reports in the BUFORA Journal were editorials that skirted a line between promoting UFO observation and defending its scientific validity. The journal’s editors were convinced sincerely by evidence for the existence of ‘genuine’ UFOs, pointing towards the ten percent of sightings that could only be explained by the brazen simplicity of an extra-terrestrial hypothesis. At the same time, BUFORA was aware that UFO research attracted individuals described as ‘emotionally unstable persons, cultists and space-struck juveniles’, as it exhorted its members to maintain high standards of scientific accuracy in their observational practise.51 As such, BUFORA represented ‘mainstream' UFO culture in Britain, accepting the concept of extra-terrestrial provenance while rejecting some of the more bizarre forms of paranormal activity, perhaps even representing a ‘haunted culture’, trapped somewhere between rationalism and mysticism.52

UFO culture in post-war Britain came to exemplify various understandings of outer space, including a new awareness of aerial space as an arena of vigilance and potential conflict; an acknowledgement that modern, rational science could not answer all the questions posed by the mysteries of outer space; as well as a popular synthesis of space science involving astronomy, astronautics and life in the Universe. Indeed, while UFO culture helped to stimulate popular enthusiasm for space science, at the same time, it created a problem for the ‘incipient space experts’ of the post-war period, who were at this time attempting to make outer space ‘socially respectable’ in anticipation of a forthcoming Space Age.53 The next sections of this chapter turn to two such figures, Patrick Moore and Arthur C Clarke, to examine their own distinctive cultural engagements at the interface between outer space, science and society in this period.

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