Opening a file cabinet at the Center for UFO Studies reveals manila folders marked with spine-tingling titles such as "Alien Luggage Report," "Project Moonwater" or "The CIA's role in UFO Studies." Yet, elsewhere there's a conspicuous lack of secret laboratories with test tubes that hold mysterious substances. Bearded men in white coats and tinfoil hats babbling about far-fetched conspiracy theories are nowhere to be found. And the center's director isn't even convinced that little grey men flying around in disc-like spaceships actually exist.
The Chicago-based research center, in other words, is very little like "The Men in Black," "The X-Files" or any other pop-culture-fueled stereotype people might have about an organization devoted to the study unidentified flying objects.
"A lot of people think we're this massive lab with these huge tentacles reaching out everywhere, but that's not really true. We're a fairly small enterprise," said Mark Rodeghier, CUFOS scientific director.
Indeed, "center" may not be as applicable of a word to describe the organization these days as "network." Though there are a handful of volunteers in the city, most of CUFOS' several hundred members are scientists and academics scattered throughout the world. And in 2010, difficult economic times forced the UFOlogists to close the doors of its longtime headquarters on Peterson Street in Chicago's northern Arcadia Terrace neighborhood. More than 70,000 case files, journals and scientific papers are now split between the Skokie home of the organization's archivist and the basement of Rodeghier's ultra-modern house in Norwood Park.
Dispersed or not, CUFOS remains one of only two major organizations in the U.S. dedicated to the serious (yes, serious) academic and scientific study of UFO activity. Its primary focus is to be something of a think tank of unexplained phenomena--focusing on collecting and documenting information on reported sightings, producing reports and journals and assisting researchers around the world with their own investigations.
Columbia College professor Tony Trigilio made a recent visit to CUFOS to browse through the center's archives. The creative writing professor is working on a book of historical poetry about a UFO abduction case and found a file at CUFOS to be invaluable.
"I was doing a lot of research on people who claim to be abducted, and CUFOs kept coming up in the research I was doing," Trigilio said. "I wish knew about it before because it's such a great archive."
The last report of a sighting recorded by CUFOS was a claim about two months ago of a strange aircraft with orange lights flying over Chicago's northern suburbs, allegedly too close to the ground to be a plane.
"We'll probably going to get more reports like that soon because of the government using drones more domestically," Rodeghier said.
Much of what CUFOS does with sightings resembles police work more than scientific inquiry.
"When we get reports of sightings, we talk to the witness, get the details, and that's really like police investigation work," Rodeghier said. "It only becomes science when you have physical evidence that can be studied. A piece of soil where a UFO may have landed or a car that may have been interfered with. But it's not easy to get that evidence."
Very little has been easy for CUFOS since it was founded by former Northwestern astronomy professor Dr. J. Allen Hynek in 1973. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, Hynek served as the astronomical consultant to the Air Force's Project Blue Book, the government's official investigation into the UFO phenomenon. ("As weird as that sounds now, you used to be able to report a sighting to our government," Rodeghier said.) Three years after that project was closed in 1969, Hynek published the influential book, "The UFO Experience: A Scientific Study," in which he categorized different UFO sightings and coined a phrase that would later be borrowed by director Steven Spielberg for his own take on aliens visiting earth--"Close Encounters."
A year later, Hynek formed CUFOS in an office in Evanston, despite the fact that his colleagues at Northwestern weren't happy about his foray into the controversial new field (a Northwestern astronomy professor declined to comment for this story).
"After a while (Hynek) became a true believer of UFOs, and he became a big embarrassment to other astronomers," said Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Adler Planetarium who cites Hynek as a "childhood hero." "It's sad because he had previously done a lot of great research and work in the field of astronomy. It's a shame that it happened like that."
Hynek retired from Northwestern in the late ‘70s, but continued as director of CUFOS until his death in 1986. He may be gone, but his legacy remains large at the center. Several file cabinets are full of Hynek's papers and research along with newspaper articles, field reports, government documents and any other evidence the center can get its hands on. The collection, widely considered the best in the world, is part of what makes CUFOS so valuable, Rodeghier said.
But beyond being a large library, the center has served as an integral part of the biggest UFO investigations of the last few decades. In 1989, Rodeghier and Regional Director Don Schmitt joined an expedition of scientists and archaeologists seeking new answers in the Roswell crash--a famous sighting in UFO lore, in which witnesses claimed that an object found in Roswell, N.M., in 1947 was a flying saucer containing alien lifeforms. The U.S. government concluded that the alleged spacecraft was part of a top-secret experimental weather balloon program, but many at CUFOS believed they were hiding something.
"I interviewed witnesses in Roswell, and we actually dug where the guy said the object came down and crashed," Rodeghier said. "We didn't find anything significant, otherwise you would have heard of it. So I think Roswell is still a big mystery, which I'm afraid we'll never solve."
CUFOS also put together a team to study what Rodeghier called the "alien abduction craze" in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a period in which hundreds of people claimed they were kidnapped by various aliens and forced into strange medical experiments. The first widely publicized abduction was the Barney and Betty Hill case back in 1961, but the number of abduction claims increased exponentially after the release of a TV movie dramatization of the Hill case, according to Hammergren.
"It's not a coincidence that after a couple of movies came out about these aliens, the James Earl Jones movie and ‘Close Encounters,' that more people started saying they were abducted," Hammergren said.
The CUFOS group employed a psychologist and social worker to interview abductees and their family members and tried to compare them with the normal population. Their conclusion?
"Most people who believe they were taken aboard a UFO are normal people. A small percentage aren't normal, but they're not crazy--they might have certain tendencies like borderline personality," said Rodeghier, who also admits that most cases can be explained by sleep paralysis, disguised memories of sexual trauma and other explanations.
"I can't just say people are being abducted, some people will, but I won't. There's not enough evidence," Rodeghier said. "I can say that I can't explain some of this stuff ... people do have missing time that's not accounted for. It's strange."
Obtaining evidence of UFOs is still a major goal for CUFOS, which is spearheading a project to get high-tech cameras to monitor certain parts of the sky for 24 hours a day. The cameras would gather video, and also track weather conditions and the electromagnetic field. The key is raising the money to buy the cameras and finding the ideal places to put them.
"It's tough because you can't predict where UFOs will be seen," Rodeghier said.
Indeed, UFO spotting has become an increasingly rare thing over the last decade, according to Rodeghier. In decades past, people used to see lots of metallic saucers and various creatures--from little grey aliens and reptilian beings to "Nordic" aliens that were said to resemble tall Scandanavian men. The percentage of sightings have declined, and when people do see UFOs, they don't land on the ground, and there's no sign of aliens.
Hammergren believes the lack of sightings means the public has become more cynical about UFO sightings.
"There are so many other things in the world to be puzzled about and worried about," Hammergren said. "Maybe this one is kind of staid and boring now. Every generation wants their own conspiracy, and there are plenty of other ones out there."
Even within CUFOS, there's no consensus on what UFOs actually are.
"It's absolutely a mystery, it absolutely should be investigated, and some intelligence is behind them, but I can't tell what that intelligence is. That's the three points we'd agree on," Rodeghier said. "Some of us would definitely say that aliens are here and they are causing some of the sightings. Others like myself are more on the fence, but I do know there are some things that are unexplained."
As an astronomer, Hammergren said he'd love to see evidence of UFOs but doesn't see enough to take it seriously.
"Most of the inquiries we get about UFOs are actually planets, bright stars on the horizon and things like that. The continued lack of evidence that would show we're being visited by extra-terrestrials, there's no scientific profit in it. If there was some hint of support or evidence, we would be jumping on that, we'd love to believe that because it would mean travel between the stars is possible and advanced civilizations would be possible," Hammergren said. "It's incredibly disappointing that there's not."
Ryan Smith is RedEye special contributor.
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