On the Fourth of July in Washington, while most people were herding onto the monument grounds to ooh and aah over fireworks, about 200 true believers hunkered down on the ground floor of the Crystal City Hyatt Regency to discuss another kind of light in the sky -- UFOs.
Welcome to the 1999 International UFO Symposium, a three-day bonanza sponsored by the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), an international scientific organization dedicated to the scholarly study of the intergalactic affairs of alien life. The symposium crowd included a melting-pot ensemble of pocket protector-packing Ph.D.s, well-dressed corporate types with closet conspiracy theories, a few spaced-out soul searchers and a whole slew of retirees decked out in Bermuda shorts and crepe-soled walking shoes -- all of them drawn together by the enduring human belief that we are not alone.
Between lectures like "Alien Orchestrated Human Bonding Dramas" and "Alien Abduction: Perception and the Mental Health Establishment," one could stroll through the abductee art exhibit (impressionistic depictions of otherworldly spacecraft, childlike renderings of almond-eyed aliens) or scour the hall of alien-friendly vendors for rare UFO books, pamphlets and must-have collectibles ("I Believe in UFOs!" T-shirts, flying saucer key chains and Area 51 shot glasses were among the shopping highlights.)
This year's theme, "Transcending Politics and Comfort Zones in Ufology," reflected one of the UFO community's ongoing battles for legitimacy -- especially within the university, where ufologists would like to see more scientists researching UFOs. The transcendence theme was trotted out in every corner of the symposium -- in the speaker presentations, the panel sessions, the Q&As and the lunch-break chitchat. Everywhere you went, you heard the plea for academics to break through their personal comfort zones, stop snickering and take a more serious approach to extraterrestrial studies. As they say on the MUFON Web site, these folks "firmly believe that a concentrated scientific study by dedicated investigators and researchers will provide the ultimate answer to the UFO enigma."
As a result, in the push to make contact with alien beings, it's not the academics but the visionary geeks of Silicon Valley who are leading the movement. With organizations like SETI at the helm, high-tech bigwigs with lots of expendable cash are channeling their brain power -- and their purchasing power -- into the pursuit of all things paranormal. On hand at the MUFON Symposium, as a prime example, was Joe Firmage, a man crowned "the Fox Mulder of Silicon Valley" after he dumped his $3 billion Web service company to launch the International Space Sciences Organization and hunt alien life.
Yet for John F. Schuessler, a retired Boeing Co. aerospace manager, university professor and current MUFON board member attending the conference, it's the academics who should be paying more attention to a field that could yield such important knowledge about the universe. Schuessler's own love affair with extraterrestrial life had unusually scientific beginnings. In the 1960s he worked for McDonnell-Douglas Corp. on Project Gemini, the program that produced a two-man craft capable of rendezvousing with other craft in outer space, a link that eventually made Apollo's trip to the moon possible. "There were a couple of flights," Schuessler said, "where the astronaut crews said they saw unidentifiable objects in space. That stimulated me to look into it."
He began interviewing pilots, university professors and other reliable professionals who had reported sightings. "I thought I could look into it and give [the astronauts] some kind of answer real quick, but I found that it's a much deeper mystery than that."
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