By far the most popular opinion on the origin of UFOs is that they are spacecraft sent here from other inhabited worlds.
There are many internal variations within the extraterrestrial hypothesis, but this is the basic idea.
In this first installment, we'll examine the evolution of the extraterrestrial hypothesis from its early roots in pulp fiction to its modern incarnation. We'll also expose some of the flaws in the extraterrestrial hypothesis, and explore the possible reasons behind why we believe what we do.
H.G. Wells and the First UFOs
The notion that intelligent non-human beings live on other planets is very old, but the idea that they would build machines and cross the gulf of space to visit us is comparatively new.
In science fiction, men journeyed to other worlds by fanciful means (William Godwin's captive geese, or Cyrano de Bergerac's bottles of dew). Science fiction characters later made attempts at rational methods (Jules Verne's giant moon cannon). But it was H. G. Wells who turned the table on this dilettante dream in his 1897 novel, War of the Worlds.
Wells presents an advanced race of Martians who plot to seize the Earth from humanity. Their motive is self-preservation; Mars is drying out and dying of cold. The Martians arrive in cylindrical projectiles shot from an enormous gun (Wells' cynical reversal of Verne's technology), and there aim is not exploration but conquest.
Wells makes many obvious links between the actions of his Martians and the imperialism of his native Great Britain in Asia and Africa, but the central image of his novel is undimmed by the passing century -- that an intelligent race, superior in technology to the most advanced nations on Earth, would come here with unstoppable technology and aggressive intentions. Wells' simple cylinders are the first UFOs.
The Cold War and the Advent of "Sightings"
Into this climate of fear came the first reports of UFO "sightings." In 1946, "ghost rockets" were seen over Scandinavia. The common explanation at the time was that the Russians were launching captured German V-weapons, but this doesn't seem to be the case. (I wish some enterprising UFOlogist with good Russian connections would investigate this era in the Soviet Union and see if the they were as puzzled by the ghost rockets as the West was.)
Then in June, 1947, disk-shaped objects appeared in the northwestern United States. Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot flying near Washington's Mt. Ranier, sighted nine crescent-shaped things that seemed to be flying at some 1,700 miles per hour. This was a fantastic speed in '47. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier on October 14, 1947, but he did it at 40,000-plus feet at roughly 700 mph. Nothing on Earth but unmanned rockets could fly as fast as 1,700 mph. So what did Arnold see?
There already existed a network of people ready to take an interest in UFO reports. Some of them were Forteans, followers of the eccentric writings of Charles Fort (1874-1932), who for decades had been chronicling erratic and unexplainable phenomena.
Others were science fiction fans. This young, mostly male group had been reading about extraterrestrials for years in such magazines as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. The editor of Amazing, Raymond A. Palmer embraced the "new" phenomenon of flying saucers with the same fervor he'd used to promote the Shaver Mystery in the pages of his magazine (for more on the Shaver Mystery see part three, Ancient and Hollow Astronauts).
The obvious conclusion, accepting the reality that flying saucers were real objects and not hoaxes or mis-perceived mundane objects, was that they were space probes from another planet. This was an easy concept to accept for those who had grown up reading the space-spanning stories of Jack Williamson, E. E. "Doc" Smith, and Edmond Hamilton. But was it true?
Your Captain, Alien Space Brother
The extraterrestrial hypothesis fits neatly with many of the reported characteristics of UFOs. As alien spacecraft, UFOs must exhibit flight capabilities beyond that of terrestrial aircraft -- and they do. UFOs are reported as making 90-degree turns at high speed, hovering, accelerating beyond the speed of sound in seconds.
No earthly device could perform such maneuvers, given the current state of the art in materials strength and propulsion technology. No human pilot could withstand the inertia involved, the high-G forces inherent in such maneuvers would twist the human body into a pretzel.
When we consider reports of UFO occupants, the matter becomes more troubled. Numerous accounts from "contactees" claim that UFO crews are just like us in appearance, or else have minor differences -- long fingers, elongated eyes, etc., which are insignificant from an evolutionary point of view.
Such "Space Brother" aliens are usually tarred with the brush of hoaxery. When we look at the accounts of less angelic creatures associated with UFOs, the sky, so to speak, is the limit. Despite efforts of the pro-abduction movement to generalize UFO occupants as "Grays," an enormous variety of beings are reported. Here is a short list of UFO occupant types, by no means exhaustive:
-- hairy dwarfs
-- giant amoebas
-- "robots" or various sizes and shapes
-- cyclopean giants
-- silver-skinned goblins
-- child-sized humanoids
-- stinking hairy monsters
-- red-eyed winged creatures
-- hooded, eyeless bipeds
-- headless bat-winged things
-- human-size mantids
and so on, with virtually no standardization from report to report. And while the un-human nature of these reported beings suggests extraterrestrial origins, it's also one of the strongest arguments against the extraterrestrial hypothesis.
While it is possible to credit spaceships of a single race might be reconnoitering our planet, it strains credulity to believe that so many different alien races are engaged in surveying our lonely little world. One would have to believe in a universe as diverse as Star Trek in order to accept all these different UFO occupants as extraterrestrial visitors.
Conclusion: Problems With the ET Hypothesis
Another important matter that puts strain on the extraterrestrial hypothesis is the problem of interstellar distances. It's generally recognized that no planet in our solar system is capable of hosting sentient life. Even advocates of the Cydonia Mensae "Face" on Mars usually claim this controversial feature is a monument, either left by passing extra-solar travelers or by a dying Martian race.
In the 1950s, contactees like George Adamski conversed with Space Brothers from Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. It can be confidently stated that no sapient life exists on these planets, so any UFOnauts must be coming from outside our solar system. The problem is, it's so damn far to any star capable of supporting life as we know it.
Even traveling at the speed of light, it would take hundreds of years for a craft to journey from some of the more promising home stars. At a constant acceleration of 1 G, followed by an equivalent period of deceleration, it would take a space ship six years to reach Alpha Centauri, a stellar neighbor of Sol. Six years of constant expenditure of fuel, light, heat, breathable air, water, and food. How could this be done on the scale that matches the large number of UFO sightings and landings?
Theories about faster-than-light (FTL) travel abound, but there is little hard science to support such fancies. Intermediate stages for extraterrestrial flight have also been mooted. Space stations, mother ships, or bases on a celestial body near Earth (the moon and Mars usually) are sometimes suggested, but these are shaky notions that fall into the category of ignotus per ignotum.
The extraterrestrial hypothesis remains the most popular theory of UFOs for several reasons: it is easy to understand, given the wide dissemination of science fiction stories using it as their basis; it fits with historical human behavior of exploration, colonization, and conquest; it seems to answer most of the superficial aspects of UFO encounters, and it is both exciting to contemplate and speculate on.
In most peoples' minds (even skeptics) "UFO" has come to be a synonym for "spaceship." That they may be, but not in the simplistic way implied in science fiction. Answers are seldom simple, so the search for understanding goes on.