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Bigelow’s Aerospace and Saucer Emporium

Psychic Vibrations

Robert Sheaffer

Volume 33.4, July / August 2009

Perhaps you’ve seen news stories about Bigelow Aerospace, founded by Las Vegas real estate millionaire Robert Bigelow, who made his money with his chain of Budget Suites hotels. Following a path quite different from that of other companies involved in commercial space ventures, Bigelow Aerospace has a bold plan to launch an inflatable, orbiting space station as a destination for space tourists by 2012. The company plans to offer the well-heeled tourist the opportunity for a four-week sojourn in its orbiting space station for $15 million. But unlike some space entrepreneurs whose plans never leave earth, Bigelow Aerospace has already succeeded in orbiting two of its prototype modules on Russian rockets: Genesis I in 2006 and Genesis II in 2007. These are inflatable modules with sophisticated cameras and electronic packages to demonstrate the feasibility of this unique and untried approach. As of this writing, both modules remain in orbit and continue to send back data. In 2006, Bigelow Aerospace was awarded the Innovator Award by the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation.

But there is one space-related issue troubling Mr. Bigelow, one on which he feels the need to obtain, even at potentially great cost, the best counsel available: UFOs. It is not clear whether he fears that UFOs will interfere with his future orbiting hotel chain or if he believes that UFOs harbor some secrets of propulsion or anti-gravity that his engineers might someday be able to put to good use. Whichever it is, Bigelow has contracted MUFON, the largest UFO group in the U.S., with potentially very large sums of money for the pursuit of first-hand UFO information. Indeed, longtime UFO activist Ed Komarek is suggesting that Bigelow’s goal is nothing less than an “alien reengineering project.”

Bigelow has a long history in the matter of UFOs and “paranormal” subjects. He was the principal sponsor of the Las Vegas-based National Institute for Discovery Sciences (NIDS) from its founding in 1995 until it was placed on “inactive status” in 2004. The NIDS Web site is still up (http://www.nidsci.org) but apparently has not been updated since 2004. It reports on a number of UFO investigations, alleged cattle mutilations, and other far-out stuff. The best-known and most controversial project undertaken by NIDS was its purchase of a supposedly “haunted” ranch in Utah (reported in this column back in May/June 1998), which some describe as a “Hyperdimensional Portal Area” or “Stargate.” The ranch is said to be infested by an alien or paranormal shape-shifting creature known as “Skinwalker,” taking its name from Native American legends similar to European legends about werewolves. NIDS researchers investigated the ranch starting in 1996. They compiled an impressive collection of what might be termed “ghost stories” but, in spite of having access to sophisticated electronic equipment, failed to obtain any actual proof that anything unexplainable was going on. For a collection of wild claims and stories about this ranch, check out http://www.aliendave.com/UUFOH_TheRanch.html. Rumor has it that MUFON will now take over the investigation of this “haunted” place.

It might be most accurate to describe MUFON as “the largest remaining UFO group in the U.S.” since there used to be others of at least its size. Founded in Illinois in 1969 by Walt Andrus, it was originally known as the Midwest UFO Network. Geographically, it was positioned between its better-known rivals the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), headquartered in Washington, D.C., and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO) in Tucson, Arizona. However, each of these UFO groups maintained its own far-flung roster of investigators and “scientific consultants” so that any group might have a presence more or less anywhere. Andrus had originally been affiliated with APRO but got into a feud with its directors, the late Coral and Jim Lorenzen, and struck off on his own. With the demise of its rivals, MUFON found itself the last man standing. It reformulated itself as the Mutual UFO Network and picked up many of the fading groups’ most active and valuable members.

Walt Andrus remained at the helm of MUFON until his retirement in 2000. I met Andrus at the National UFO Conference in Phoenix in 1984. He was an irascible man who appeared untroubled by doubts about UFOs and who was barely able to tolerate skepticism in any form. He described my 1981 skeptical book The UFO Verdict as “an insult to the intelligence” of the reader. During the Andrus years, MUFON publicly booted out a number of its most prominent investigators for the sin of being too skeptical about one UFO case or another that Andrus was determined to defend, most notably Ed Walters’s absurdly unconvincing hoax UFO photos from Gulf Breeze, Florida. Probably Andrus found that the publicity over the Gulf Breeze photos was helping MUFON gain members, and thus criticism of the case was unwelcome within MUFON no matter how solid and factual.

John Schuessler took over MUFON until his own retirement in 2006, succeeded by the much younger James Carrion. I heard Carrion speak to Mensa last year in Denver and chatted with him afterward. Clearly more cautious than Andrus and not so hostile to skeptical questions, Carrion admitted to a great deal of uncertainty concerning UFOs and would not even make a defense of the Roswell crash claims. His position is essentially the same as that of the late J. Allen Hynek, former scientific advisor for the U.S. Air Force’s Project Bluebook: he is sure that UFOs represent something unknown and significant but does not claim to know what.

Since it became a national organization (now headquartered in Colorado), MUFON has appointed state directors, subdirectors, and investigators, as well as establishing local groups that sponsor lectures and meetings. Throw a dart at a map of the U.S., and wherever it may land, MUFON will have some person whose responsibility it is to investigate a UFO report at that location. While MUFON may seem large, it is very thin. With 2,500 members spread nationwide, this means that an average-sized state will have about fifty members, most of whom do nothing except receive the publication. In reality, 80 to 90 percent of the members of a volunteer organization typically contribute little if any useful work, which shows how thinly spread organized UFOlogy is.

It is exactly this matter of “a volunteer organization” that Bigelow is seeking to change. Bigelow’s proposal is to generously fund the efforts of MUFON investigators to enable them to respond quickly to alleged UFO incidents. The agreement between Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS) and MUFON sets up a “Star Team Impact Project” (SIP), with an initial funding period from five months to a year, with the option to renew for a second year. Investigations will be limited to cases where physical effects of a UFO are reported or where “living beings” are allegedly sighted or where “reality transformation” is said to occur. “Lights seen in the sky” do not qualify for paid investigation, a decision with which Hynek would have surely agreed. Anyone who is already a MUFON investigator can apply for a position with SIP, although new or inexperienced investigators are expected to demonstrate their skills by performing investigations of routine UFO sightings before moving up to SIP. Additionally, Bigelow is in the process of contracting up to fifty scientists, who are expected to be on the scene within twenty-four hours after significant UFO incidents, to perform state-of-the-art investigations of whatever artifacts or data the SIP investigators may obtain. All of the investigators’ travel expenses will be covered, as well as a paid stipend of $100 per day of investigation. Incentive payments and bonuses are also available for those whose contributions excel. The results of SIP’s first few months of investigations are scheduled to be presented at MUFON’s annual convention in Denver this August.

While Bigelow and MUFON are no doubt expecting great results, perhaps even dramatic breakthroughs, from investigations of UFOs in near-real time, this “Star Team” is not, however, the first attempt within organized UFOlogy to create a “rapid response team” to quickly investigate reports. In an article in Playboy (December 1967), Hynek proposed (and later implemented) a national toll-free UFO Hotline to be “manned 24 hours a day by competent interrogators capable of recognizing a true UFO report from a prankster’s report.... If the report passes preliminary and immediate screening, headquarters notifies the local police and they rush to the scene.” He explained how he expected solid and irrefutable UFO data “within a year of the initiation of such a no-nonsense program.” But in a moment of perhaps unguarded optimism, Hynek added, “if the UFO-1000 program is sincerely and intensively carried out for a full year and yields nothing, this, in itself, would be of great negative significance. Then we could go back to the ‘real, common-sense world’ of pre-UFO days—shrugging it all off with ‘There must have been a virus going around.’”

In an interview in Saga UFO Report (August 1976), Hynek explained how his national hotline was working out: “In an unprecedented move, the FBI printed an article of mine in their monthly bulletin [February 1975]. We furnished them with a special toll-free number which they can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every night we get at least one call ... we contact one of our 300 regional representatives, and they go and interview the witnesses. Geiger counters, soil samples, physiological effects, etc., are all involved in the investigation.” Hynek gave no explanation of why he had not given up on UFOs as he earlier said he would if a year-long study yielded no solid evidence.

Other “rapid response” efforts to catch UFOs have likewise been attempted. Peter Davenport’s National UFO Reporting Center has been collecting UFO reports on its telephone hotline since 1974, many from law enforcement and emergency service agencies, yet UFO proof continues to elude them. In 1977 France’s CNES, their equivalent of NASA, created the agency GEPAN to officially sponsor investigations of UFO reports. It, too, failed to come up with anything really convincing, and CNES terminated all UFO investigations in 2004. In the late 1990s, when according to news reports Mexico City was being inundated by a Saucer Blitz, Mexican UFOlogist and TV personality Jaime Mausson organized Los Vigilantes, who were supposed to be ready to respond to saucer reports with cameras and such at very short notice. They never obtained anything of significance, so far as I am aware. Obviously Bigelow and MUFON must expect that their “rapid response” efforts will bear more fruit than these others did, although I cannot see any reason to expect them to have any greater success than others who valiantly chased the UFO will-of-the-wisp.

Robert Sheaffer

Robert Sheaffer's "Psychic Vibrations" column has appeared in the Skeptical Inquirer for the past thirty years. He is also author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus 1998). He blogs at www.badUFOs.com.