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The story of the American government's search for UFOs

This long exposure picture shows the Orion Nebula.
This long exposure picture shows the Orion Nebula.

On June 24, 1947, a veteran rescue pilot named Kenneth Arnold took to the skies in Washington state to search for a downed military transport plane near Mt. Rainier. What he said he saw helped kick off a UFO-sightings craze in the U.S. over the coming months.

At first, Arnold assumed the nine objects in front of him were light refracting off his cockpit window from another plane. But slowly, he realized they were supposedly solid, flying in formation, and moving at high speed. He watched them for about three minutes.

Upon returning to the ground, he told this story to friends at an airport, local reporters, and eventually radio hosts. U.S. intelligence officials, squaring Arnold’s story with maps and documents he would have never seen, concluded at the time that the pilot’s story could very well be fact.

It’s a story that captured the imagination of the American public, for better or for worse. It’s also one of the first stories author and historian Garrett Graff uses to illustrate our fascination with the possibility of life beyond the stars in his new book,“UFO.”

We sit down with Graff to talk about unidentified craft in the skies, how the American public thinks about the possibility of alien life, and what the government has told us it knows and doesn’t know about what lies beyond the stars.

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Chris Castano