Life, liberty and the pursuit of aliens

At an annual conference, UFO believers argue for acceptance from the academy.

Published July 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On the Fourth of July in Washington, while most people were herding onto the monument grounds to ooh and aah over fireworks, about 200 true believers hunkered down on the ground floor of the Crystal City Hyatt Regency to discuss another kind of light in the sky -- UFOs.

Welcome to the 1999 International UFO Symposium, a three-day bonanza sponsored by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), an international scientific organization dedicated to the scholarly study of the intergalactic affairs of alien life. The symposium crowd included a melting-pot ensemble of pocket protector-packing Ph.D.s, well-dressed corporate types with closet conspiracy theories, a few spaced-out soul searchers and a whole slew of retirees decked out in Bermuda shorts and crepe-soled walking shoes -- all of them drawn together by the enduring human belief that we are not alone.

Between lectures like "Alien Orchestrated Human Bonding Dramas" and "Alien Abduction: Perception and the Mental Health Establishment," one could stroll through the abductee art exhibit (impressionistic depictions of otherworldly spacecraft, childlike renderings of almond-eyed aliens) or scour the hall of alien-friendly vendors for rare UFO books, pamphlets and must-have collectibles ("I Believe in UFOs!" T-shirts, flying saucer key chains and Area 51 shot glasses were among the shopping highlights.)

This year's theme, "Transcending Politics and Comfort Zones in Ufology," reflected one of the UFO community's ongoing battles for legitimacy -- especially within the university, where ufologists would like to see more scientists researching UFOs. The transcendence theme was trotted out in every corner of the symposium -- in the speaker presentations, the panel sessions, the Q&As and the lunch-break chitchat. Everywhere you went, you heard the plea for academics to break through their personal comfort zones, stop snickering and take a more serious approach to extraterrestrial studies. As they say on the MUFON Web site, these folks "firmly believe that a concentrated scientific study by dedicated investigators and researchers will provide the ultimate answer to the UFO enigma."

As a result, in the push to make contact with alien beings, it's not the academics but the visionary geeks of Silicon Valley who are leading the movement. With organizations like SETI at the helm, high-tech bigwigs with lots of expendable cash are channeling their brain power -- and their purchasing power -- into the pursuit of all things paranormal. On hand at the MUFON Symposium, as a prime example, was Joe Firmage, a man crowned "the Fox Mulder of Silicon Valley" after he dumped his $3 billion Web service company to launch the International Space Sciences Organization and hunt alien life.

Yet for John F. Schuessler, a retired Boeing Co. aerospace manager, university professor and current MUFON board member attending the conference, it's the academics who should be paying more attention to a field that could yield such important knowledge about the universe. Schuessler's own love affair with extraterrestrial life had unusually scientific beginnings. In the 1960s he worked for McDonnell-Douglas Corp. on Project Gemini, the program that produced a two-man craft capable of rendezvousing with other craft in outer space, a link that eventually made Apollo's trip to the moon possible. "There were a couple of flights," Schuessler said, "where the astronaut crews said they saw unidentifiable objects in space. That stimulated me to look into it."

He began interviewing pilots, university professors and other reliable professionals who had reported sightings. "I thought I could look into it and give [the astronauts] some kind of answer real quick, but I found that it's a much deeper mystery than that."

In addition to working at McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing, Schuessler has taught engineering and future studies -- aka technology forecasting -- at the University of Colorado. About ufology's uneasy standing in the academic world, he said, "It should fit into traditional academia because science is originated to investigate mysteries and provide responsible answers to them. In general, though, science has failed when it comes to UFOs. Why? Because it doesn't fit the standard scientific paradigm of something that you can examine in the laboratory."

Dr. Richard Berendzen, a NASA consultant and professor of physics and astronomy at American University, thinks there's a different reason why serious scientists have steered clear of ufology. "It does not meet even the minimum threshold of admissibility in the court of science," he says. Berendzen has appeared on "Nightline" and the "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to discuss ufology's pitfalls. "One of the first tenets in science is that a subject has to be vulnerable, it has to be testable, so that it can potentially be disproved." And ufology, Berenzen says, comes up short in the testability department.

When academics do get around to investigating ufology, they often take a folklorist approach, studying the people who study UFOs rather than the UFO data itself. Many skeptical scientists view ufology as a cult of mystics who, as Berendzen puts it, "deserve only a passing reference, like other belief systems such as astrology or witchcraft. It's a religious belief, and you can't dissuade a believer."

Schuessler points out that the MUFON board includes consultants from all branches of science, engineering and astronomy. And though some academics are finally coming out of the closet to study UFOs, he still thinks that mainstream academia hasn't delved into the subject nearly enough.

"There's a larger database for the study of UFOs than most any other subject," he said, "and it's good data. It extends back 50 years and there's a lot of thorough research -- a lot done by the government, a lot done by university professors. We have an embarrassment of riches."

So what does Schuessler think is the reason that most mainstream academics refuse to even consider the data? "A lot of people are intimidated by ridicule," he says, "so they won't take the risk. Other people are afraid to touch something that they feel is on the fringe of science because it might affect their research money. Your income drives your beliefs."

Schuessler believes that if more grant money were going to universities to fund UFO research, professors would be shoving each other out of the way to scan the skies for flying saucers. "They give grants to university professors to determine why children fall off tricycles, the mating habits of owls -- all kinds of silly things," Schuessler says. "The professor who studied tricycles went on the Johnny Carson show, he got laughed at. But he got paid for his research, so he didn't care. The bottom line is money."

"That's just a standard argument used by pseudo-scientists," Berendzen says. "It's very dangerous to guess someone else's motivation." He says that plenty of astronomers engage in extraterrestrial study -- through astrobiology and exobiology, for example -- in the quest to find the origins of our own terrestrial life. "Many of us believe there could be life off planet Earth. But these are serious scientists conducting serious research. The problem with ufologists is that there's not a scintilla of verifiable evidence to support their claims."

In John Schuessler's perfect world, well-funded research departments would employ scientists to systematically examine each element of the UFO phenomenon, breaking the data down to its barest elements to see what, if anything, the mystery means. Berendzen says, "That would be a horrendous ploy played on American taxpayers. Do you want your money to go to study these claims? Let's fund studies of unicorns and sea serpents while we're at it." For Berendzen and most UFO naysayers, there's one fundamental question: "Where is your proof?" he says. "Put up or shut up."

Schuessler, like all ufologists, can't put up any proof, but he won't shut up, either. Although he continues to hold out hope that intellectuals will begin to investigate alien life more seriously, he's not waiting for Harvard to found an institute. Bypassing the world of books, peer-reviewed panels and irritating academic standards, he's aiming straight for the stars, with individual space exploration. Recently he's embarked on a second career as a consultant in space tourism, which might eventually lead to more independent investigations of alien worlds. "I believe that there is a vital role for humans in space," he said. "Everyone who wants to go should be able to."

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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