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Project Blue Book: A Look at the Facts Behind History’s New UFO Drama Series

After much excitement and anticipation, the new historically-themed television drama Project Blue Book debuted last night on History, the A&E Networks-owned digital cable and satellite television network.

Project Blue Book, as UFO enthusiasts and history buffs are well aware, was the official U.S. Air Force inquiry into unidentified flying objects that ended in 1969. According to the website of the U.S. National Archives, “From 1947 to 1969, a total of 12,618 sightings were reported to Project BLUE BOOK. Of these 701 remain ‘Unidentified.’ The project was headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, whose personnel no longer receive, document or investigate UFO reports.”

Based loosely on this USAF investigative study, the new History series is centered around American astronomer J. Allen Hynek, portrayed by actor Aidan Gillen, who is tasked with lending a scientific perspective to the Air Force inquiries into unidentified flying objects. Historically speaking, Hynek really was the primary scientific adviser to the Air Force study, and even after its closure in 1969, Hynek continued to advocate the scientific study of UFOs (see Mark O’Connell’s biography on Hynek, The Close Encounters Man, for further background on Hynek and his scientific work).

However, from the outset of the first episode of Project Blue Book, it will be clear to those with some historical knowledge of the real USAF program that the series blends some actual historical characters and events with a healthy dose of myth and speculation, drawing from other UFO literature unrelated to Hynek or past USAF studies.

Promotional image accompanying the release of History’s “Project Blue Book” (Credit: A&E Networks).

Our intent here is not to “fact check” the program; it is, after all, merely a drama series which, as we will see, takes some pretty significant liberties with the actual historical facts (as much of History’s programming has done over the years). However, while obviously intended solely as entertainment, the inevitable result of programming like this is that it will be perceived by some viewers as a more accurate retelling of historical events than intended. Hence, it might be interesting to look at a few elements that appear in the first episode of the series and contrast them with actual historical facts and records.

Majestic 12

One of the earliest tropes from UFO literature that appears in the Project Blue Book series is that of Majestic 12 (or MJ-12 as it is often called). Even prior to the program’s opening titles, viewers are shown a clandestine-looking smoky room where 12 men are positioned around a circular table, the surface of which details an arresting (but overstated) eagle with North America in the grip of its talons. As they sit watching The Day the Earth Stood Still (just the sort of thing you’d imagine an Above Top Secret, presidentially-appointed UFO study group would do), actor Neal McDonough explodes into frame as General James Harding, angrily shouting at someone off-camera to “turn that thing off!” The rationale given for why this group of government insiders would be watching such a film is that such “propaganda” helps to control the official public narrative on the idea of extraterrestrial visitation.

While it makes for good storytelling, one of the problems with the Majestic 12 narrative is that it likely isn’t true, and therefore had little to do with the real-life Project Blue Book. Speculations about this secretive government group appointed by President Harry Truman are largely attributed to a series of documents that were anonymously sent to filmmaker Jamie Shandera in 1984. Analysis by ufologist Stanton Friedman led him to believe that at least some of the documents contained within the batch were real; however, a subsequent FBI analysis of the documents referred to them, famously, as “completely bogus,” and that the MJ-12 affair had been nothing more than a hoax. The origins of these documents remains a point of contention in UFO circles today, with many (including Friedman) arguing that while much of the information contained within is obviously fraudulent, certain other information from the batch could have some basis in fact.

One of the primary arguments Friedman and others have made in defense of the documents has to do with a separate document located in Record Group 341, entry 267 of the National Archives, popularly known as the “Cutler/Twining memo.” Since this document was located apart from the batch sent to Shandera in 1984 (and found at the National Archives, no less), it initially seemed to provide additional support for the idea of a Majestic 12 group. However, there are a number of problems with the document.

According to data provided at the website of the National Archives:

The document in question does not bear an official government letterhead or watermark. The NARA conservation specialist examined the paper and determined it was a ribbon copy prepared on “diction onionskin.” The Eisenhower Library has examined a representative sample of the documents in its collection of the Cutler papers. All documents in the sample created by Mr. Cutler while he served on the NSC staff have an eagle watermark in the bond paper. The onionskin carbon copies have either an eagle watermark or no watermark at all. Most documents sent out by the NSC were prepared on White House letterhead paper. For the brief period when Mr. Cutler left the NSC, his carbon copies were prepared on “prestige onionskin.”

Additionally, The National Archives performed a search of the Official Meeting Minute Files of the National Security Council, where they reported that they found “no record of a NSC meeting on July 16, 1954. A search of all NSC Meeting Minutes for July 1954 found no mention of MJ-12 nor Majestic.” The Cutler-Twining memorandum is widely suspected to also be fraudulent, planted in the National Archives as part of an effort to bolster the claims in the documents released to Shandera. This raises a number of questions, of course, as to who might have released the bogus documents in the first place, let alone who was tampering with files at the National Archives and then tipping off prominent UFO researchers about where they might be found.

Who Coined the Term “UFO”?

In the first episode of the Project Blue Book series, while J. Allen Hynek is speaking with his companion and USAF liaison Captain Michael Quinn (portrayed by actor Michael Malarkey), he refers to one of the alleged objects they are studying as a UFO, to which Quinn expresses some confusion. “Unidentified flying object,” Hynek explains. “I’m simply condensing the terminology you’ve been using, with my own touch. This is a new science we’re creating here, it needs its own terminology.”

The irony here is that Malarkey’s character, Captain Quinn, appears to be loosely based on Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the first chief officer of Project Blue Book, appointed to the position in 1952 by Lt. Col. N. R. Rosengarten. Although Hynek’s scientific work and advocacy probably did more than anyone else to promote the UFO concept in his lifetime, it had actually been Ruppelt that coined the “UFO” acronym. Ruppelt felt that “flying saucer,” the popular term for UFOs up until that time, had not been ambiguous enough to accurately convey the physical appearance and other facets of the aerial phenomena being studied. Hence, he offered that unidentified flying object would be a suitable replacement, shortened to UFO (which Ruppelt pronounced “you-foe“).

Hynek: Cautious Believer, or Hopeful Skeptic? 

The Project Blue Book series so far depicts Hynek as being a cautious scientist, but one who nonetheless seems to believe there is something to the UFO mystery. This contrasts with the perspectives of Captain Quinn, whose instructions from “Higher Brass” (i.e. General James Harding) are essentially to write reports, and most importantly, play down the significance of the phenomenon.

J. Allen Hynek.

However, in real life, the circumstances had been just the opposite: from the outset, Hynek had actually been the skeptical party, and Ruppelt had seemed more inclined to believe that a valid and real phenomenon was at work. Point in case, it had been none other than J. Allen Hynek whose famous proposition of “swamp gas” in relation to odd lights seen over Michigan evoked so much ire in UFO circles. However, with time and further analysis, Hynek began to find it difficult to ignore some of the better UFO incidents; specifically, Hynek cited the famous Socorro, New Mexico incident of 1964, involving landing traces left by an unidentified aircraft observed by police officer Lonnie Zamora, as a turning point in his attitude toward UFOs.

Ruppelt, on the other hand, in his book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, had seemed to lay out the case that there was some kind of technology at work in at least some of the better UFO cases from the outset. However, in a second, revised edition of his book, Ruppelt toned down his apparent advocacy and took a more sharply critical tone toward UFOs, even referring to them as a “space age myth.” This led to speculation among some in UFO circles that Ruppelt had been “advised” to produce the more cautious update by those in higher authority; while there is no evidence for this, it remains true that no one had an opportunity to ask him about his change of heart: Ruppelt died shortly after publication of the second edition, shortly after having suffered a heart attack. He was only 37.

In sum, while Hynek is portrayed in the series as a “cautious believer” in conflict against a shadowy government organization who keeps a tight leash on his partner in crime, Captain Quinn, historically this dynamic was just the opposite: Hynek began essentially as a skeptic, and gradually warmed up to the UFO subject, while Ruppelt did just the opposite.

One final note about Ruppelt is warranted here, and that has to do with his relationship to the character of Captain Michael Quinn in the series. Although Project Blue Book director David O’Leary admits that the character is based somewhat on Ruppelt, he explained in a recent interview that he “changed (Quinn’s) name to dramatize certain aspects of his character, molding him into the perfect on-screen partner for Hynek.” This might help explain the contrast between the historical Ruppelt, and his on-screen counterpart (whose last name might have been inspired somewhat by Hector Quintanilla Jr., the last chief officer to oversee Project Blue Book before it was closed in 1969).

The Men in Black 

In the series, right from the outset we see that Hynek is pursued by shadowy “men in black,” whose identity and relationship to the broader UFO phenomenon remain in question. As with other aspects of the program that we’ve analyzed here, the idea of “men in black” is another that is borrowed from broader UFO lore, rather than one having to do with Hynek (although, as we’ll see, there may indeed be some relationship to Project Blue Book).

Perhaps the earliest mention of men in black, as far as UFO cases are concerned, occurred in reference to the 1947 Maury Island UFO Incident where one of the witnesses, Harold Dahl, claimed he had been advised to keep mum about what he saw by “a man in a black suit.” However, the more famous early appearance of men in black occurred when Albert K. Bender, founder of the International Flying Saucer Bureau, claimed he was approached by three men in black suits, a story later commemorated in his book, Flying Saucers and the Three Men. 

In his book, Bender ascribed supernatural powers to these men, which included the ability to communicate with him telepathically. Whether or not the experience was rooted in any kind of fact or not (as some have speculated that the episode might have been inspired by a dream Bender had) is unclear. However, Bender’s associate Gray Barker would later publish a book that detailed the alleged event called They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers. It was not the last book by Barker that would touch on the subject, and future publications continued to detail the ongoing mythos of the mysterious “men in black.”

In his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies, John Keel further popularized the idea of men in black, recounting such incidents as the visitation of a Mrs. Butler by a man claiming to be with the U.S. Air Force, but who drove a Mustang and wore a civilian business-type suit, with leather shoes so new that she couldn’t see any scuff-marks on the bottoms when he sat cross-legged. Keel surmised that this man, who identified himself as “Richard French,” was no real USAF officer at all, but was instead an “impostor.”

Richard French

However, it turns out that there actually is an ex-USAF Lieutenant Colonel named Richard French, who worked with Project Blue Book during the Quintanilla years, which would have coincided with the period described by Keel in his book (it should also be noted that French’s claims about observing UFOs over the years, which include a submerged craft below the ocean off the coast the Newfoundland coast, seem preposterous). Hence, we can at least make the argument that there is a connection between a former USAF officer who was associated with Project Blue Book and claims of “men in black” that appear in UFO literature.

Altogether, History’s Project Blue Book is a fun show about an interesting subject, with some characters and themes that are at least loosely based in fact. However, as we illustrate here, the show borrows a number of themes from other UFO literature in order to “flesh out” the story, in addition to blending pure fiction with the appearance of at least a few actual people, namely the late J. Allen Hynek. In light of this, Project Blue Book is far from being an accurate representation of what Hynek and the U.S. Air Force were undertaking back in the 1960s, and to be clear, its producers never claimed that it would be.

All that said, as far as being an entertaining television program goes, we give it two thumbs up. So in conclusion, Project Blue Book may be one of the better UFO-themed productions to come out in recent years, and though it may not become renowned for its historical accuracy, it nonetheless presents some fun and entertaining food for thought on a subject that has remained both perplexing, and controversial, for many decades.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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