The year 1969 was a great time for hippies, a bad year for Beatles fans and an even worse year for UFO enthusiasts. Forty years ago, on Dec. 17th, the U.S. Air Force officially shuttered Project Blue Book, the agency's third and final attempt to investigate extraterrestrial sightings and the country's longest official inquiry into UFOs. From 1952 until 1969, more than 12,000 reports were compiled and either classified as "identified" explained by astronomical, atmospheric or artificial phenomenon or "unidentified," which made up just 6% of the accounts. Because of such a meager percentage and an overall drop in sightings, officials axed the program and ended the research. So much for the truth being out there.
The U.S. government's search for extraterrestrials began in 1948, a year after an amateur pilot named Kenneth Arnold claimed he saw nine crescent-shaped objects in the sky while flying near Mount Rainier in Washington. Arnold evoked images of "saucers skipping on water" to describe how they flew through the air, but a local newspaper misquoted him, and the term flying saucer was born. That same year, a rancher stumbled upon a 200-yard-long swathe of rubber strips, tinfoil, wood sticks and Scotch tape in Roswell, N.M., and decided to haul the wreckage to a nearby Army airfield, where an excited officer issued a press release claiming a "flying disk" had been recovered. It took less than four hours for a general in Forth Worth, Texas, to step in and claim that the wreckage was nothing more than the remnants of an ill-fated weather balloon.
It wasn't until the 1970s, when Vietnam and Watergate sparked a revival of antigovernment conspiracy theories, that the word Roswell started perking ears. In 1975 officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Defense Command agreed to attend the world's first "serious" international UFO conference to hear new evidence, but after a self-proclaimed "abductee" reneged on his promise to take a polygraph test, the federal attendees left the gathering, skepticism intact. That didn't deter conference organizer Allen Hynek, founder of the Center for UFO Studies in Evanston, Ill., and a tireless campaigner to legitimize the field of "UFOlogy." "We need to stop arguing the existence of eggs and get down to cooking the omelet," he told TIME that year.
UFO sightings have been officially recorded in Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Australia and the United Kingdom, but the most complete records were those of Project Blue Book. The earliest UFO sightings in recorded history can be found in 4th century Chinese texts claiming that a "moon boat" hovered above China every 12 years. Other enthusiasts cite the Book of Ezekiel, in which a curious vessel dropped from the sky and landed in Chaldea, in modern-day Kuwait. A wave of sightings occurred near Rome in 218 B.C. and again in Germany in 1561. During World War II, Allied pilots coined the term foo fighters for the bizarre orbs of light that some insisted flew alongside their planes during combat.
Over the years, thousands have stepped forward to claim they've seen or been abducted by UFOs. Among these witnesses are more than a few famous names. Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of the current Japanese Prime Minister, wrote in a 2008 autobiography that one night while she was sleeping "my soul rode on a triangular-shaped UFO and went to Venus." (Her soul was later returned.) U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich provided one of the oddest moments in the tumultuous 2008 presidential elections when he affirmed in a televised debate that in the 1980s, he and actress Shirley MacLaine witnessed an unidentified flying object over her house. "You have to keep in mind," he told Tim Russert, "that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO and also that more people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush's presidency." (In fact, Jimmy Carter did once report seeing a UFO in Georgia and pledged during his presidential campaign to declassify all government files on flying saucers. Once elected, he didn't.)
The real breeding ground for UFO believers seems to be Tinseltown. Forget about the films: just check out the laundry list of celebrities who practice Scientology, or talk to Dan Aykroyd, who signed on as the "Hollywood consultant" for the Mutual UFO Network, one of the oldest and largest organizations of UFO investigations in the U.S. Aykroyd maintains that alien visitors are "coming and going like taxis." Not all are convinced Demi Moore, a native of Roswell, says she never heard about the famous "landing" as a child. But considering how little has so far been made public most of the Air Force's investigations remain top secret for all we know, she could be one of them.