In the latter part of 1957, due to the International Geophysical Year and the launchings of the Soviet satellites, a program was initiated that drove many people outdoors, looking at the sky. The program was called

Operation Moonwatch.

Moonwatch was mainly composed of amateurs under the supervision of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), directed by Harvard meteor expert, Dr. Fred Whipple, and assisted by J. Allen Hynek. Moonwatch's goal was the accurate plotting of Soviet and U.S. satellite orbits.48 The program was supported by some excellently-designed tracking telescopes, the "Baker-Nunn" cameras. People were excited about the human race breaking into space, and many persons volunteered.

As far as UFOs were concerned, this project put many trained and semi-trained observers into place to scan the heavens. From most viewpoints this was a good thing, but not necessarily to the Air Force.They did not want more UFO stories coming in from a government program. In practice, things should have been fairly well controlled. Project Director Whipple was Donald Menzel’s closest friend on the Harvard Astronomy Staff and a consultant to Blue Book. What could be a better-controlled situation? As it turned out, the situation could have been much better for the Air Force. Citizens talked, and Allen Hynek began to let his curiosity get the better of himself. Hynek began to think that, at a minimum, there were things in the UFO observations that pointed to at least one new natural phenomenon, if not several. Whereas some higher personnel in the SAO Moonwatch organization did not want citizen observers to log “unidentifieds” even if they obviously were not satellites, Hynek wanted the cases and
he was not alone.49 One of his assistants, Bud Ledwith, was very interested; so was a young apprentice named Walter Webb. Both went on to do research on UFOs beyond Moonwatch, and Webb made a lifetime of it. So signals to the citizen observers were mixed. Many logs of unidentified “non-satellites” were received. Doubtless more were never logged. Hynek gathered additional information by “personal communication.” But these observations were generally kept very quiet. Only in later years would anybody outside the SAO, Hynek, Webb, et al., have any inkling of the numbers. It is a story still untold. But we will tell a little of that story in the next chapter. Suffice it to say for now that in those times the science media used Moonwatch as an argument against UFOs: with so many trained observers looking, surely Moonwatch would have seen unidentified objects if there were any; and, of course, they have not.50 It was just one more peculiar untruth in what seems to be an endless continuous stream of disinformation.

Sputnik went up in early October and so did UFO reports. Some commentators say that those reports were Soviet hysteria; some say it was just because people were outside looking for Sputnik. In October, reports were about twice what the earlier months averaged, but when the 1957 flap occurred in early November, the cases shot up to ten times the earlier rate.51 The flap is much too dense and powerful to describe thoroughly in a few pages here. Instead, our coverage of the flap will concentrate upon two main topics: how the phenomenon, for the first time in the United States, “came closer,” manifesting itself with “close encounters” involving physical effects on both technology and people; and how the government dealt with these issues to keep the country from becoming too excited or frightened.

Table 1 shows what the Air Force had to deal with as the number of cases exploded.52 It represents what UFOlogists would call a concentrated national “flap.” The year 1957 was proceeding fairly quietly until the very end of October. Then case reports rocketed off the chart, spiking on the 5th and 6th of November. The rate of incidents was far beyond the capability of the Air Force to properly investigate. And this flap was distinctively different. Hidden within the sheath of old-fashioned UFO reports was the sharp blade of a new (for the United States) phenomenology: close encounters. These close encounters mainly bore a distinct characteristic: the failures of automobile engines (and often other devices, such as lights and radios) that were coincident with the presence of an unidentified object, and felt by the witness to be due to that object. Also embedded in the flap, in lesser, but still interesting, amounts, were several cases in which the witnesses seemed to have received a mild “burn” from the light, heat, or other radiation from the offending object. Both of these UFO-related or UFO coincident phenomena were very rare in previous American records. Both of these were much more personal and potentially threatening than what military and civilians had typically dealt with before. How would the citizenry react? How would the military?

Table 2 is also worth a short commentary. It graphs the numbers of close encounter “vehicle interference” cases year-by-year.53 The year 1957 is broken down into quarters to show the concentration in the 4th quarter of the year. As is easily seen, it was completely out-of-the-norm for any previous U.S. experience. It remains the highest peak of such phenomenology ever. In the mid-to-late 1960s, when UFOs sightings increased all around America, “close encounter vehicle interference” cases came back. But during those years they were sprinkled across the months and never concentrated again as in November of 1957. The graph ends in 1979, the year before Dr. Mark Rodeghier published his catalogue of these events, but, as he and others have kept track over the succeeding years, such cases have essentially vanished from the reports.
All of this is part of the mystery: each era is partly distinctive, partly the same. The sameness would lead students towards linking the phenomenology, the differences to tearing the phenomenology apart. It was always this latter element­that the phenomenon would not present a tight, predictable pattern­that had been the strongest Air Force tool for arguing against it, and the argument that was featured in Blue Book 14. But sometimes intensity will overcome everything else, and this was an intense flap with spectacular aspects. How would it play out?

Earlier in the year (August 22, near Cecil Naval Air Station, Florida),54 Blue Book had become aware of an isolated case of a vehicle stoppage and had written it off as the sighting of a helicopter (ignoring the car engine problem). Earlier still, several radar-interference cases caused some to think that UFOs could generate electromagnetic radiation, perhaps even as directional pulses.55 Of course, no one was yet thinking about UFO electromagnetic pulses stopping automobile engines, but, as time went on, UFO researchers would wonder about this and government labs (such as Los Alamos and Sandia) would initiate research programs on such things as a non-lethal battlefield tool.56 All of this gained a feeling of concrete reality in Western Texas on the night of November 2 and 3.