February 05, 2003
If the truth really is out there, the French are taking serious steps to find it
|ON A cold Monday morning 22 years ago,
Jean-Jacques Velasco was sitting in his office when a gendarme rang to tell
him about a strange incident. Renato Nicolai, a retired technician, had
been working in his garden in Trans-en-Provence, near Nice, when he saw
a dark, round object come down from the sky, settle on the ground and take
off again, the gendarme said.
Over the years, Velasco has heard many such stories, and disproved most of them. But this one was different — this one was credible, he believes. Something seems to have landed in Trans-en-Provence, he says, and that something has never been identified.
But who is Velasco? Another crackpot determined to find a flying saucer? A follower of Claude Vorilhon, the Frenchman who founded the Raelian sect amid claims that he was the son of an extraterrestrial being? No, he is a scientist working for the state-run National French Centre for Space Studies (CNES), where he heads a department responsible for analysing what are commonly called unidentified flying objects (UFOs) but what are officially known as unidentified aerospace phenomena (UAP).
It is a unique department, the only permanent government-financed scientific project set up by a developed country to unravel fact from fiction in the debate about UFOs.
In an area that draws the deranged and the dreamers, this is a serious research programme. “We have shown that there is a category of events that are not part of the classical physical scheme of things,” says Velasco. These may be a light, or an object moving across the sky on “an abnormal trajectory”, sometimes noiselessly.
“In some cases, there is a feeling that the phenomenon is adapting its behaviour to the environment. In others, people claim to have seen small material objects very close to them, which may even land. In the most extreme cases, people claim to see objects with beings next to them.”
A neatly-dressed, bespectacled man, Velasco talks with the careful precision of an academic who is keen to be understood. He is not saying that he has come across visitors from another planet; he is saying merely that events occur for which science has yet to find an explanation, and which merit further inquiry.
“Two hundred years ago, the French Academy of Science said meteorites did not fall to Earth, that the phenomenon did not exist,” he says. “Now we know it does.”
Velasco’s department was set up in 1977, the year that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released amid a global UFO fever. Across the world people thought they saw strange figures, flying saucers and bright lights. Sects such as the Raelians claimed to be in contact with extraterrestrial life. And amateur associations pledged to shed light on the burning question: are we alone? But there were few serious attempts to probe the issue. The US authorities had studied it ten years earlier and concluded that it was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Most other countries, including Britain, thought likewise. Only France took the matter seriously, partly because it has the centralised state apparatus necessary to do so, and partly, no doubt, because of a vainglorious belief that if a UFO is to be found, France should be the one to find it.
The CNES duly set up the Service for Expert Appraisal of Atmospheric Re-entry Phenomena (Sepra). Based in Toulouse, the department is as pedantic as its title sounds: the staff are state-employed scientists, shaped by a prudent, rigorous and somewhat bureaucratic culture. In France such bureaucracy can often be cumbersome and painfully rigid. Yet in this domain at least, this rigidity offers a guarantee of impartiality that is rare as far as UFOs are concerned.
Last year, when the CNES was told to reduce its €1.3 billion (£853 million) budget, the organisation’s president, Alain Bensoussan, ordered an audit into Sepra’s work. A wide range of French scientists was asked whether it was worth continuing research; almost all said yes.
One reason is because, unlike most other UFO-hunters, Sepra’s staff are neither seeking publicity nor peddling an obscure belief in extraterrestrial civilisation. They say they do not know whether extraterrestrial beings exist or not, and look disparaging when you ask them to voice their hunches on the question.
They do not have hunches, only statistics. Yet the statistics that Velasco has made public are eloquent. Since, 1977, Sepra has received some 6,000 reports of alleged UFO sightings. Of these, 110 are from civil or military aircraft crew, and the rest from ordinary French people who have almost invariably contacted their local gendarmerie. In 21.3 per cent of cases there is a clear, indisputable and banal explanation: a firework display, a novel lighting system involving a luminous balloon, a cloud above the Pyrenees that is shaped like a flying saucer. In 24.9 per cent there is a probable explanation, and in 41.3 per cent the information is too vague to be of use. But in 12.5 per cent of cases — about 750 sightings since 1977 — the evidence is precise, detailed and inexplicable, and is thus categorised as an unidentified phenomenon.
Before reaching such a conclusion, Velasco conducts an extensive investigation using a method dubbed exemplary by Peter Sturrock, a British academic who founded the Society for Scientific Exploration. It involves inquiring into the psychological and social background of the person claiming to have seen a UFO, checking the initial witness statement against all other available evidence and working with different branches of the French administration. For instance, Sepra has a formal procedure to be followed by every gendarmerie that deals with an alleged sighting. Officers seal off the area, take ground samples and ask pre-established questions to weed out the mad and the drunk.
But most alleged UFOs are spotted by the sober and sensible, says Velasco. “In all our statistics on the personalities of the people who see these phenomena only one in 1,000 is not credible because of alcohol. People go to gendarmerie spontaneously; in 99 per cent of cases it is because they genuinely want to know what they have seen.”
Yet a witness’s good faith is not enough, and the story must be corroborated. “What interests the scientist is not so much the tale that is told, but to go further and check the tale against objective data, to measure these phenomena,” says Velasco. So he has established links with laboratories that analyse samples found at the scene, and an agreement with the civil and military aviation authorities to provide radar details of any unidentified flights.
Consider, for instance, a case reported in 1994, when the crew of an Air France flight from Nice to London saw a dark, 300m (1,000ft)long object over the Paris region. The object disappeared before the aircraft had got near it, and the flight continued without difficulty. A few days later Velasco travelled from his office in Toulouse to the military aviation control centre outside Paris, where he was given a read-out of the radar information from the day in question. It revealed that an unknown object had indeed flown over the French capital.
Consider, too, the Trans-en-Provence case. Velasco went through the usual checks with the gendarme who had rung him. Was the witness, Nicolai, reeking of alcohol or babbling incoherently? The answer was no. Was there any evidence to back up his story? The apparent answer was yes, since there were marks in the grass where the object had supposedly landed.
Velasco drove to Trans-en-Provence and took ground samples. These showed that the area had been heated to between 300C and 600C, that it had been compressed by something weighing up to a tonne and that the plants there had been affected by a strong electromagnetic field. Velasco concluded that Nicolai had indeed witnessed a strange happening.
So should we conclude that little green men were taking a look at Provence from their spaceship? Velasco dismisses such ideas. “We cannot say whether there is a link between the question of extraterrestrial life and that of non-identified aerospace phenomena,” he says adding: “But we can show that UFOs exist. The problem is interpreting them, and I hope that scientists, and other people, look at this question more seriously.”