In 1967, as unmanned orbiters landed on the moon and Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the world's first successful heart transplant, a $500,000 federally funded investigation of UFOs was well underway at the University of Colorado.
Led by prominent physicist Edward U. Condon, a team of scientists attempted to determine once and for all if UFOs existed.
Eight boxes of raw data collected during the two-year study were made public by Texas A & M University in September, providing a behind-the-scenes look at what is arguably one of the most curious government investigations ever.
"We had quite an organization set up to look into reports of UFOs. It was all taken pretty seriously," said Roy Craig, the chief field investigator for the project, who donated his records to the university. "I went into the project hoping that I could find some actual, physical evidence that would pass muster."
To Craig's disappointment, he said, most sightings of alien spaceships could be explained by science. Among his file folders stuffed with meticulous, handwritten notes are artifacts such as a silvery material said to be taken from an alien spacecraft. It turned out to be a hunk of magnesium. A rusty muffler that flew off a lawn mower had some believing they'd seen a tiny spaceship with a tail of fire.
"Guys like Roy did what they could to come up with a result they could hang their hat on," said Hal W. Hall, curator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection at Texas A & M. "Anybody can come in and look at the appointment books, memos and field notes -- real background of what went into the report. They'll see the enormous amount of work that took place as they applied scientific principles to the evidence."
The project results, which came to be known as the Condon Report, were an outgrowth of classified Air Force investigations that came under criticism as UFO sightings increased in the 1960s
"Some of the congressmen got convinced there were flying saucers out there and the government was keeping secrets from their constituents. They wanted to know whether it was anything they should be concerned with for national security," Craig said.
In 1966, more than 30 Condon commission staffers -- including university professors, psychologists and scientists from private laboratories -- began sifting through thousands of UFO reports, then went on field trips to collect evidence and interview witnesses. Experts in radar and meteorology were drafted to help explain mysterious flashing lights. Elaborate laboratory tests were conducted on puzzling materials and photos of elliptical objects in the sky.
In September 1968, Craig wrote himself a note and put it in a file folder: "The existence of either alien flying vehicles or unknown natural phenomena is not indicated by evidence as we have examined. We are left with no artifact of alien cultures, no direct or indirect physical evidence of anything extraordinary, few [if any] pictures that cannot be shown to be fake ... and many examples of impressive reports which lost their strangeness as their claims were investigated."
This view was reflected in the more than 1,000-page Condon Report released in January 1969, which the Air Force used to close its own investigation of UFOs. The report was denounced by UFO believers, who called it a sham meant to calm a jittery public. A former project member criticized Condon, who died in 1974, for taking an anti-UFO stand from the start and wrote a book called "UFOs? YES! Where the Condon Committee Went Wrong."
More than 30 years later, the Condon Report still rankles those who study UFOs.
"It's clear to many of us in the field that the government is trying to get the minds of the American people off the UFO phenomenon. It would not be surprising if the Condon Report was sort of a red herring," said Peter Davenport, director of the Seattle-based National UFO Reporting Center, which has posted 23,000 sightings on its Web site since 1995. "When one looks at the cases that the Condon commission settled on for investigation to the exclusion of other more dramatic cases, a reasonable person would come to the conclusion that these people did not want to get to the bottom of the phenomenon."
Still, Davenport said, he and other UFO authorities -- who call themselves "ufologists" -- can't wait to read the notes and materials donated by Craig. "It's a treasure trove for someone like me," Davenport said. "Going through the pages line by line, comparing it with what we know, it's like gold mining. Every once in awhile you come up with a gold nugget."
Craig, now 79 and raising llamas on a ranch in Colorado, said that he relished his time as a government ufologist. "Dr. Condon was sorry he had any part of it, but I had fun. It's a historic study that will never get outdated. I don't think anything is ever going to happen during most people's lifetimes that will change the conclusions of the study."
Skeptics can think what they may, Craig said, but "we gave it an honest try."