“Keep watching the skies!”

These were the words of reporter Ned Scott (played by Douglas Spencer) in the 1951 U.S. science fiction film, The Thing from Another World. People listened. Especially after the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the ensuing “space race” put Americans’ eyes on the skies as never before. The prospect of space travel, the possibility of encountering alien life forms, and mass interest in “unidentified flying objects” (UFOs) also kept astronomers in the media limelight.

Case in point: Thornton Page, director of the Van Vleck Observatory from 1960 to 1971 — the heart of the space race. Page had a long history of involvement with the US military and intelligence services from World War II onward; he also worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), American’s civilian space agency, during the 1960s. In the process, he became something of an authority on UFOs. In this film clip from 1966, you can see him being interviewed by news great Walter Cronkite (“the most trusted man in America”) together with fellow astronomer Carl Sagan (who you may know as the host of the 1980s TV series, Cosmos). Watch as Page, Sagan, and Cronkite talk about the existence of UFO’s and the possibility of contacting alien civilizations (with thanks to my colleague Matt for pointing me to this clip):

The introduction explains that radio signals can be used as “electronic ears” to determine whether or not we are alone in this universe. You’ll also learn that Carl Sagan acted as a consultant to an Air Force scientific panel, while Page had sat on a CIA committee that investigated UFO reports. In 1952, the committee concluded there is no evidence of UFOs (although perhaps elements within the FBI took longer to get the message.)

Subsequently, in December 1969, Page chaired an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Symposium on UFOs. He and 14 other scientists presented papers which were later published in a book called UFO’s: A Scientific Debate, edited by Sagan and Page. Partly as a result of this Symposium, Page served as a panelist and judge of papers submitted for the APRO Award and wrote the article on UFOs for Encyclopedia Britannica.