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Monday, October 18, 2010

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The BYTE Fiasco


 I wrote this some years ago at the request of the late Carl Pflock, an old friend who was convinced that UFO's were real, but was quite rational about it. He got a grant to do a book on Roswell, which at the time was considered a real case with real evidence and real witnesses. He was quite excited. Here was his chance to do it right, and prove that there was something there: that UFO's were real, and perhaps to get some idea of that they are.

Alas, it didn't turn out as Carl wanted. When he finished the book he still believed in flying saucers, but not that there had been any at Roswell.

Writing the preface for this book required me to think out my views on UFO's. They have not changed much in the years since I wrote this. There is less and less reason to believe that there is anything inexplicable about them, just as there is now great reason to doubt that there is intelligent life on any other planet in this solar system. If there are real extra-terrestrial visitors, they must have come from another star. That would mean faster than light travel, and that is something we can all hope is possible.

We can hope.






Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe

Carl Pflock



 A Preface


Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


This is a courageous and important book, and I use neither word lightly. It will take me a bit to explain, and a bit more to show that I’ve got some right to make such pronouncements. Bear with me.


Karl Pflock opens this book with the bald statement that he is “a ‘pro-UFOlogist,’”. This means that on the balance of evidence he believes there is something there: that when you consider the data in detail, you will find events that cannot be explained by any explanation employing accepted and generally known science and technology. This doesn’t mean he is naïve. He knows that most cases do have such explanations. Of those, most are misinterpretations of real and explicable events.


Some of those events can be extraordinary. For example, there were the Peruvian and Chilean sightings: big objects in the sky leaving fiery trails as they fell to earth. They were seen by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, and were certainly “real”. They were accompanied by well articulated stories of alien spacecraft and actual alien sightings. Those stories sprang up everywhere after the sightings.

They were UFO’s all right, in the sense of being Unidentified Flying Objects: but they had a rational if not easily discovered explanation. There was even a government conspiracy.

During the Cold War treaties forbade putting weapons in orbit, or building and testing orbital bombardment systems. This was interpreted to include FOBS, Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems, in which a weapon is placed into Earth orbit, but de-orbited to re-enter before it makes a complete orbit around the Earth: in other words, it depends on what the meaning of the word orbital is. The USSR, for what seemed to them good strategic reasons – with a FOBS system they could attack the US from the south, and thus avoid our Early Warning systems – decided to develop and test orbital weapons. In order to avoid detection the weapons were launched southward and made to re-enter the atmosphere over South America. Those re-entering dummy warheads were seen by far too many people to be simply dismissed as hallucinations. An explanation was needed, and the KGB provided one: they spread UFO stories including stories of sightings of aliens. Meanwhile, the US didn’t want the USSR to know just how much we knew about their experiments, so the CIA did nothing to counter the rumors. In a word, there was a coverup in which the leading intelligence services of the world pursued different ends to accomplish the same result: people believed they had seen “real” UFO’s, and neither side was interested in debunking the stories.

This interplay between real events and official lies is not uncommon. Often there’s another factor: people make statements they later wish they hadn’t made but are embarrassed by the prospect of being caught out, so they stick to their stories and embellish them. Then come the commercial hype artists who make money writing up those stories.


All of this makes it very difficult for me to sum up my position as sharply and succinctly as Plfock has done, but I think I ought to try.


My first introduction to “serious” UFO investigations came when I was in charge of special projects at Aerospace Corporation, Ballistic Systems Division, which was headquartered in San Bernardino, California. Aerospace provided technical support to the US Air Force Systems Command. One of the jobs the Air Force had in those days was investigation of UFO reports. The sole mission of those investigations was to determine if there was a threat to the United States. This was a “George job” assigned to the junior officer on the base, which meant frequent changes of personnel, but sometimes brought in a young enthusiast who took the position seriously. I watched perhaps five investigations, and noted that while they always found a plausible explanation for the reports, it generally took a lot longer and cost a lot more when the investigation was done by a “believer” – but always with the same result, misinterpretation of something real followed by confusion, embellishment, and often outright fraud.

My major task at Aerospace Corporation was to edit a compilation of missile and rocket technologies: Project 75, which was supposed to put together everything we could do in 1964, and everything we would be able to do ten years later (in 1975). For obvious reasons this was a highly classified project. It also gave me official access to everything officially known, certainly by the Ballistic Systems and Foreign Technology Divisions of USAF. General Schriever of Systems Command created Project 75 and took a personal interest in it. He directed that Dr. Dorrance the Project 75 Director, and me, the Editor, be given access to everything affecting rockets, guidance, targeting, reentry, weapons, and space flight. No one but a damn fool would assume he knows everything, but if anyone did know everything about space technology at that time I was one of them. I suppose it is possible that somewhere in USAF there was a store of technology derived from study of recovered alien spacecraft and carefully kept secret from the people responsible for restructuring the Strategic Offensive Forces (SOF) – that was the point of Project 75 – but I seriously doubt it. What would be the point? What would it be kept secret for? Rebuilding the SOF was the most important task the Air Force had; certainly all the generals thought so.


Years later I became the science editor of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. Unsurprisingly I got a lot of “flying saucer” stories. Most of them were hogwash, but once in a while I’d get one that I couldn’t figure out. In those days I met a lot of UFO enthusiasts. They didn’t seem sufficiently skeptical. On the other hand I met and interviewed a lot of people, including some of the leading figures – pro and con – in the UFO world of the 1970’s, and I got pretty familiar with the evidence.

I was also President of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and was often on book tours promoting my books, so I got asked about the subject a lot. As it happened, I was on one television show – I think David Susskind – with Isaac Asimov, and when the subject of UFO’s inevitably came up, Isaac said “They can’t exist. If they were real, they’d come to the government and say ‘here we are,’ unless of course they have some reason to be secret, but if they do want to be secret, any technology that would let them be here at all would be enough to let them BE secret. There’s no possible explanation of those sightings! If they want to be secret, they’ll be secret.”

That irritated me, and I shot back “Isaac, you don’t work much with students, do you? Suppose the Alpha Centauri University department of Xenothropology wants to study us and forbids the students to contaminate us with knowledge of their existence, do you really think seniors and grad students might not get drunk and play some tricks?” To which Isaac had no answer, but he remained convinced: there were no such things, there never were, and that’s that. If the standard UFO investigators seemed to me insufficiently skeptical, Isaac seemed overly so.

So eventually I wrote my own take on the subject, which was pretty close to Karl Pflock’s today: I hadn’t found any single case that convinced me, but there was just so much there! And I said in my article that we have convicted people of murder on less evidence than we have for the existence of “real” UFO’s.

All of which is the long way around to answer the question, do I believe in UFO’s, and what do I think of people who do? And I would have to say that over the years I have become less inclined to be a “pro-UFOlogist” than Karl.


Which brings me to this book and why I call it both important and courageous. It’s important because the subject is important. The subject is important because it opens the possibility of data unexplainable by our current knowledge: and there’s very little more important than that.

Years ago I was charged by a major aerospace firm to investigate the “Dean Drive”, a gadget that could theoretically convert angular acceleration to linear acceleration: in other words, a “spacedrive”. Such a thing is totally impossible within physics as we know it, but if one existed and worked, then clearly we need new theory, and the company that owned such technology would be in line to make a lot of money, not to mention Nobel prizes for some of the scientific staff. I won’t go into details, but I didn’t buy the Dean Drive. Later I discovered that another major company had a team in Washington at the same time I was there: Boeing wasn’t the only company smart enough to see how important such a thing would be it in the highly unlikely event that it worked.

In the course of chasing down the Dean Drive I came across some pretty respectable people who thought they had seen it work. Unfortunately they had never been given the chance to do extensive tests, and the demonstrations they had seen left plenty of room for misinterpretation or outright fraud. One person who took Dean seriously was Col. William Davis, Ph.D, USAF, who developed a series of equations called “Davis Mechanics” that seemed to open the possibility of a spacedrive. Most physicists didn’t agree: they called him Willy Spacedrive Davis.

Twenty years later I was given a small grant to put together a meeting of people who had once taken Davis Mechanics seriously. I also brought in the last of those who had actually seen the Dean Drive, and Dr. Robert Forward, a Hughes physicist open to new ideas. Nothing much came of the meeting, but in the course of it Dr. Forward said something I never forgot: “Get a result. A contrary result is worth more than all the theory you’ll ever develop.”

And of course he was right. Most scientific progress comes from experimental results that aren’t in line with what you expected. And clearly, if UFO’s are real in the sense of being unexplainable by contemporary theory, then that fact is one of the most important things we’ll ever learn.


Secondly, this book is important because it is thorough and complete and definitive. When you finish this book you will know about as much as we will ever know about “Roswell”: what happened, what didn’t happen, and why we believed so much that ultimately turned out not to be true. This is as thorough and definitive a case investigation as I have ever seen.


Finally we come to courageous. This book is courageous because it honestly examines what has become the best known UFO incident in history. Ask anyone what they know about UFO’s and, unless they are of that small group that takes the subject quite seriously, they will begin to talk about the Roswell incidents—and some of the major UFO experts will do so as well. Roswell is the most important UFO incident of all time.

Years ago, Ted Sturgeon was asked what it would take to get him to believe in “flying saucers.”  His reply was “wreckage and bodies.” Ted died before Roswell became famous, but he would have been highly interested. Wreckage and bodies. For most people that’s what Roswell promises.

When you finish this book you will know everything you need to know about Roswell. You may not like the conclusions Pflock draws, but it’s hard to quarrel with them. They aren’t the conclusions that Karl Pflock, or his publishers, or most of his readers hoped to come to.

Seeking the truth means taking the truth seriously and following the facts where they lead, no matter what you want to believe. That takes courage.


As I said, an important and courageous book.


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