INSIDE THE COLORADO PROJECT
by G. David Thayer
[NOTE: This text, revised about 01 September 1987, was sent with a personal letter to Martin Shough 06 September 1987 as an unpublished manuscript. More recently it has not proved possible to contact the author or to ascertain any other acknowledgements that may now be appropriate. Please contact the Collaboration if you have information.]
A great deal has been both spoken and written about the University of Colorado UFO study, some of which makes sense and some of which does not. The typical person remains confused. Was the Project a valid scientific effort or a gigantic hoax? Did those involved really try to solve the problem, or did they merely go through the motions? Who was right in the controversy between Dr. Condon on the one hand and Saunders and Levine on the other? In real life the answers to such questions are seldom simple, nor are they here. Nevertheless, in the hope of better defining some of the issues I hereby offer my own experience in and opinions about the UFO Project.
I became a member of the UFO Project in the early summer of 1968 -- months after the firing of Saunders and Levine -- in response to a call for help. The Project had let a contract to a well-known research institute to prepare a report on "Radar and the Observation of UFOs." Dr. Condon and some of the other staff members believed that this report would contain an evaluation of some actual UFO cases, but a preliminary draft of the report had been received and it contained no such analysis, for the very good reason that the contract had not called for one. Apparently there had been a communication breakdown somewhere.
Now Condon needed someone to bail him out. He turned to Dr. Gordon Little, Director of the Wave Propagation Laboratory of what was then called the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA), a part of the Department of Commerce. Dr. Little had earlier turned down the same Air Force contract Condon was working under, reportedly saying it would be "a disaster" (I later told Dr. Little he was quoted as having said this, whereupon he laughed and replied, "Did I say that?" I got the distinct impression he still felt the same way). This time, however, he was willing to supply some personnel to help out provided they worked there as employees of the University of Colorado and not of ESSA. He then called my boss, Dr. B. R. Bean, who in turn offered the job to me. After some deliberation I decided to accept, telling Dr. Bean that "notoriety is better than obscurity."
A few days later, a meteorologist who worked for me at the time -- Burgette "Scotty" Hart -- and I were given leave without pay from ESSA and hired as consultants to the UFO Project. Our assignment was to evaluate a group of the best radar-visual UFO cases in the Project files to see how many of them might be attributed to anomalous propagation effects, which was our speciality. This request was, by the way, in direct contradiction to Dr. James E. McDonald's allegation, made to John G. Fuller during the course of the UFO Project, that "Condon's disposition was to concentrate on the nut-and-kook cases at the expense of the serious evidence . . . ."  This might have been true of Condon personally, but he asked me to examine only the most credible cases. I believe he felt all UFO cases were "kooky," and therefore the best way to shoot down the whole mess was to concentrate on the best cases.
Before I go on, I should also point out that at no time during my work with the UFO Project was pressure of any kind brought to bear either in me or on Mrs. Hart. In the preparation of my chapter in the Final Report, including the conclusions therein, I called all the shots. Section III, Chapter 5 of the Final Report appears, with two very minor albeit significant exceptions which I shall describe shortly, exactly as I wrote it.
So it was in early July of 1968 I found myself -- with Mrs. Hart as a very capable assistant -- a member of the University of Colorado UFO Project. While there I worked in the same room with Dr. Roy Craig, a full-time Project staff member as well as a competent physical chemist, who was an invaluable source of information on the inner workings of the Project. After a number of conversations with Roy and some observations of my own, I concluded that Dr. Condon's direction of the Project was rather loose. As it appeared to me, Condon viewed the Project as a great ship headed inexorably towards a destination that he, the captain, could clearly see, with only an occasional order barked to the helmsman needed to keep her on course. Before completing my work for the Project I was to find ample confirmation of this picture.
Two weeks after beginning work on the Project I discovered the Lakenheath case in the files. At that time the file consisted of a single letter written to the UFO Project by the man who had been watch supervisor at Lakenheath on the night in question. A few days later there was a general Project staff meeting chaired by Dr. Condon (as I recall, this was the obly such meeting held while Mrs. Hart and I worked there). During this meeting Condon asked me if I had turned up anything significant yet. I replied that I had and related the events at Lakenheath as reported by the watch supervisor. To my surprise Condon became quite disconcerted. Just then Roy Craig -- always the one to have both sides heard -- pointed out that the report came from an unsupported letter written some twelve years after the event.  Instantly relieved, Condon retorted, "In that case I think we should publish it as an example of the sort of rubbish we get from people." Frankly, I was shocked.
As it turned out, it was a good thing we didn't do anything of the sort. When we finally got copies of the official Blue Book files on the Lakenheath UFO case, they supported the letter we had received from the watch supervisor in every major detail. In any event, this episode revealed a great deal about Condon's approach to the UFO question.
Little of significance happened between this staff meeting and the submission of my draft chapter for the Final Report. I worked there for seven weeks full time (Mrs. Hart, about half that), at the end of which I submitted my draft. During this time I had screened over one hundred UFO reports, selecting thirty-five for inclusion in the chapter, most of them rated high in both credibility and "strangeness." For the next several months I visited the Project sporadically on my own time, most of my revisions and editing being done at night.
When I received my draft chapter back from the typist, I noticed something rather strange. Everywhere I had written " a UFO" the typist had typed "an UFO." This seemed senseless. Imentioned it to Roy Craig, and he told me it had been done on Condon's express orders. Astonished, I asked him why. Roy, a look of amusement on his face, said, "He insists it must be pronounced 'OOFO' because it rhymes with 'goofy'." Dr. Condon took pains to point out this rather peculiar pronunciation of "UFO" on page nine of his summary in the Final Report, although he understandably avoided mentioning the reason.  I might add that Condon's view on this was not shared by other Rpoject members; telephones there were routinely answered, "You-foe Project." I have never heard anyone else pronounce UFO as "OOFO."
Not long after this episode, another strange thing happened. The Lakenheath case had to be written up in the Case Stuudies section of the Report, and I was "elected." When I received the type-up of my draft of this, I discovered that all the place names had been deleted; code letters (A, B etc) had been substituted. Once more I turned to Roy Craig for an explanation, and again I was told it was done at Condon's direction, "to prevent nuts from using the Project cases for their own analyses." I cannot remember whether Roy actually heard Condon say this or whether he heard it second-hand. Whichever the case, subsequent events showed that it was almost certainly accurate.
The place names in my chapter, III-5, and the place names on the map that goes with the Lakenheath case in Section IV, Chapter 1 somehow slipped through this filter and into print. The last time I saw Dr. Condon, early in 1969, he was in his office in the JILA (Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics) Tower, busy at work deleting these place names from the Bantam copy that was to be used as a 'master' by Dutton for their hardcover edition of the Final Report (which I have never seen). It might be of interest to the raeder to compare the Bantam and Dutton editions in this respect.
In retrospect, I am convinced that when Condon said "nuts," he had in mind primarily the late Dr. James E. McDonald, an atmospheric physicist from the University of Arizona and an outspoken advocate of the theory that UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin. My own experience was that McDonald's name could not be mentioned in Condon's presence without irritating him. The antagonism between the two of them is borne out by an epilogue.
About two years after working on the UFO Project, I was asked by Dr. Joachim P. Kuettner, who was then chairman of the UFO Subcommittee of the American Institute of Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA), to write up the case for the AIAA Journal.  I agreed to do so and subsequently called Dr. Condon to ask his permission for access to the UFO case files, which had been stored in the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado. I was stunned to hear him say, "They're gone -- I burned the damned things!" I forget what reason he gave, but I was soon to discover the real reason.
The next day Dr. Kuettner suggested we ask Jim McDonald for the loan of his copy of the Lakenheath file. (Dr. McDonald had obtained permission from the Air Force to make copies of files in the BLue Book archives. He had copied the Lakenheath case, among a number of others.) Since Kuettner was acquainted with McDonald, he agreed to do the talking over the phone. He placed the call, told Jim what we wanted, and when he told him what Condon said he had done with the Project files, McDonald exploded. Kuettner winced, and I could not bear to listen. He refused to send us the file. Afterwards, Dr. Kuettner suggested waiting for McDonald to cool off and change his mind.
Later -- just as Kuettner had predicted -- McDonald relented, called him back, and said he would send a copy of the Lakenheath file for my use. He also explained why he had gotten so angry. It seems that some time before he had asked Condon for permission to look through the Project case files, and Condon told him he would have to get permission from the Air Force. This proved difficult. Eventually, he did get the Air Force's permission, and armed with a letter to this effect he showed up at Norlin Library to have a look at the files -- only to be told by the librarian that Dr. Condon himself had come over to the library just a few days earlier and had removed the files in their entirety. Defeated, he returned to Tucson only to have Kuettner call him now to say that Condon had destroyed the files. It must have been quite apparent to McDonald that Condon had done these things simply to frustrate him. (Dr. McDonald sent me a copy of his Lakenheath file on February 8, 1971 with a brief note of transmittal, in which he said, in part, "As I told Dr. Kuettner, my initial reaction on the phone didn't seem the appropriate one -- despite my feeling I have more than casual grounds for being more than a bit annoyed at this whole turn of events. s/s Jim / JEMcDonald.")
As an ironic footnote to this sorry affair, I found out about five years later that Condon was lying when he said he had burned the Project files. He had actually had the files stored in the Archives of the American Philosophical Society in Philapdelphia, Pennsylvania, where they remain today. Why did Condon lie about it? With the advantage of hindsight, I am sure Condon realized full well whatever he told me that night would get back to McDonald.
However these events may be viewed by the reader, it should be obvious by now that Dr. Condon was not objective about UFOs, even though objectivity is indispensable to good science. Nonetheless, one man does not make a project even if he is the scientific director. Of the thirty-six staff members (other than Mrs, Hart and myself) listed in Appendix X of the Final Report, I am familiar with the work of fourteen, nine of them from my Project experience and five of them from experience outside of the Project. With the two exceptions of Condon and Bob Low, in my judgement every one of these was a competent worker and did his or her level best to render a just and objective evaluation of the data available. Based on the contents of the Final Report (other than Condon's "Conclusions and Recommendations" and "Summary of the Study" sections), I have no reason to doubt the competence or objectivity of any of the others whom I do not know.
The Final Report itself -- the so-called Condon Report -- stands or falls on its own merits. Considering the meager time and resources available for its production I believe it is a commendable product. Aside from the introduction by Walter Sullivan (in the published versions) and the two sections by Condon, which in my opinion are either trivia or nonsense, the report presents the results of a scientific study. As to the exceptions, the summary by Dr. Condon in particular bears so little resemblance to the contents of the report (as others before me have noted) that the reader who wishes to know the results of the UFO Project would do well to skip it entirely.
Yet despite this the Condon report settled nothing. Neither positive nor negative results were obtained. Could it have settled the question? I believe not.
In the first place, the amount of the original contract -- $313,000 -- was pitifully inadequate. At the time (1966) this amount was roughly the same as the total annual budget of the small research group in which I normally worked. There is no way that I, had I been in Dr. Bean's position, would have taken on a task of such magnitude on a contract amounting to little more than one year's budget. Even the final amount of the contract after the inevitable extensions -- over $500,000 -- was still far too small. In terms of the realities of scientific research, trying to resolve the UFO question with a contract for $500,000 is something like dumping a bucket of water into the ocean and trying to measure the resulting rise in sea level.
In the second place, I am not at all sure that any amount of money would be adequate to resolve the question. Of course, if the result be negative, proof is impossible. But even to demonstrate the probability of a result, be it positive or negative, is here a task of truly enormous proportions. As I once told Roy Craig, it is like searching through dozens of haystacks, one of which may contain a needle. Even a budget of, say twenty million dollars might well be tantamount to throwing away money, but nothing much less than this would have any real possibility of success. And the reader can well imagine how difficult it would be to find a sponsor for such a project.
The UFO Project has been history for almost two decades. The principal protagonist, Dr. Condon, and the principal antagonist, Dr. McDonald (or perhaps it should be the other way around), are both dead and gone. The song is over; does the melody linger on?
1. See the introduction by John G. Fuller in UFOs? Yes! by David R. Saunders and R. Roger Harkins, page 6 (New York: Signet Books, 1968).
2. Bob Low had already written to Bluebook for the case file on Lakenheath, but we had received nothing -- even though Bob's note dated 3-6-68 is in the Bluebook file and Major Hector Quintanilla Jr., the Bluebook Project Officer, declassified the originally secret reports on March 15, 1968. We received the reports on the Bentwaters sightings some time after the staff meeting referred to in the text, after a second request to Bluebook, but we did not receive the Lakenheath reports until sometime in September, after we had made yet another request. I have no idea how or why this happened.
3. Final Report of the Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Dr. Edward U. Condon, Scientific Director, Daniel S. Gillmor, Editor, Bantam Books, New York (January 1969). See page 9 of the Bantam Edition.
4. This appeared as "UFO Encounter II" in Astronautics and Aeronautics, Vol.9, No.9, pp. 60-64 (1971). "UFO Encounter I" was written by Dr. McDonald and appeared in the same journal, Vol.9, No.7, pp. 66-70 (1971).