College Station, Texas In 1967, as unmanned orbiters landed on the moon and Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the world's first successful heart transplant, a $500,000 federally funded investigation of UFOs was well under way at the University of Colorado.
Led by prominent physicist Edward Condon, a team of scientists attempted to determine whether UFOs existed.
Eight boxes of raw data collected during the study were made public by Texas A&M University in September, providing a behind-the-scenes look to the investigation.
"We had quite an organization set up to look into reports of UFOs. It was all taken pretty seriously," said Roy Craig, the chief field investigator for the project, who donated his records to the university. "I went into the project hoping that I could find some actual, physical evidence that would pass muster."
To Craig's disappointment, he said, most sightings of alien spaceships could be explained by science. Among his file folders stuffed with meticulous, hand-written notes are artifacts such as a silvery material said to be taken from an alien spacecraft. It turned out to be a hunk of magnesium. A rusty muffler that flew off a lawn mower had some believing they'd seen a tiny spaceship with a tail of fire.
"Guys like Roy did what they could to come up with a result they could hang their hat on," said Hal Hall, curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection at Texas A&M. "Anybody can come in and look at the appointment books, memos and field notes, real background of what went into the report. They'll see the enormous amount of work that took place as they applied scientific principles to the evidence."
The project results, which came to be known as the Condon report, were an outgrowth of classified Air Force investigations that came under fire as UFO sightings increased in the 1960s. "Some of the congressmen got convinced there were flying saucers out there and the government was keeping secrets from their constituents. They wanted to know whether it was anything they should be concerned with for national security," Craig said.
In 1966, more than 30 Condon commission staffers -- including university professors, psychologists and scientists from private laboratories -- began sifting through thousands of UFO reports, then went on field trips to collect evidence and interview witnesses. Experts in radar and meteorology were drafted to help explain mysterious flashing lights. Elaborate laboratory tests were conducted on puzzling materials and photos of elliptical objects in the sky.
In September 1968, Craig wrote himself a note and put it in a file folder: "The existence of either alien flying vehicles or unknown natural phenomena is not indicated by evidence as we have examined. We are left with no artifact of alien cultures, no direct or indirect physical evidence of anything extraordinary, few (if any) pictures that cannot be shown to be fake."
This view was reflected in the 1,000-page Condon Report released in January 1969, which the Air Force used to close its own investigation of UFOs. The report was denounced by UFO believers, who called it a sham meant to calm a jittery public.
Thirty-five years later, the Condon report still rankles those who study UFOs. "It's clear to many of us in the field that the government is trying to get the minds of the American people off the UFO phenomenon. It would not be surprising if the Condon report was sort of a red herring," said Peter Davenport, director of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center, which has posted 23,000 sightings on its Web site.