But a few cases remained “unexplained.”
By 1952, the UFO-investigation unit was called Project Blue Book, led by Captain Edward Ruppelt at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Ruppelt and his team would probably have continued to investigate a couple dozen sightings a month if not for the April 1952 issue of LIFEmagazine. Just above its knockout cover shot of Marilyn Monroe ran an equally eye-catching headline: “There is a Case for Interplanetary Saucers.”
The article, written with Ruppelt’s full cooperation, explained the Air Force’s national-security interest in UFOs. And it made a convincing case—through the colorful retelling of 10 unexplained UFO “incidents”—that these unidentified objects were extraterrestrial in origin. As one rocket scientist working on “secret” projects for the U.S. told LIFE: “I am completely convinced that they have an out-of-world basis.”
According to The Washington Post, the number of UFO sightings reported to the Air Force jumped more than sixfold, from 23 in March 1952 to 148 in June. By July, the precise conditions were in place for a wildfire of UFO mania: widespread Cold War anxiety, mainstream press coverage of unexplained UFO incidents and a healthy dose of “midsummer madness.” All that was needed was a spark. The Washington National Airport, 1953.
Mysterious radar blips buzzing over the White House
Shortly before midnight on Saturday, July 19, 1952, air-traffic controller Edward Nugent at Washington National Airport spotted seven slow-moving objects on his radar screen far from any known civilian or military flight paths. He called over his supervisor and joked about a “fleet of flying saucers.” At the same time, two more air-traffic controllers at National spotted a strange bright light hovering in the distance that suddenly zipped away at incredible speed.