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Extraterrestrial encounters: UFOs, science and the quest for transcendence, 1947–1972

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Beginning in 1947, with the first waves of UFO sightings, and continuing in the subsequent decades, debates on the existence and gestalt of extraterrestrial life gained unprecedented prominence. Initially an American phenomenon, flying saucer reports quickly became global in scope. Contemporaneous with efforts to legitimize the possibility of spaceflight in the years before Sputnik, the UFO phenomenon generated as much sensation in Europe as in the USA. In the public imagination, UFOs were frequently conflated with technoscientific approaches to space exploration. As innumerable reports of sightings led to a transnational movement driven by both proponents and critics, controversial protagonists such as ‘contactee’ George Adamski became prominent media celebrities. Incipient space experts including Willy Ley, Arthur C. Clarke, and Wernher von Braun sought to debunk what they considered a great swindle, or, following C.G. Jung, a modern myth evolving in real-time. Yet they failed to develop a response to the epistemic-ontological challenge posed by one wave of UFO sightings after another. Studying a phenomenon whose very existence has been non-consensual since its genesis presents a particular challenge for historians. Posing complex questions of fact and fiction, knowing and believing, and science and religion, this article analyzes the postwar UFO phenomenon as part of a broader astroculture and identifies transcendental and occult traditions within imagined encounters with extraterrestrial beings.

Keywords: Europe; UFOs; astroculture; evidence; extraterrestrial life; outer space; transcendence

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2012-09-01

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