You’ve heard about the young boy in Colorado who supposedly launched his father’s “flying saucer” balloon and then hid for several hours while the world worried that he was inside the balloon and in great danger. [Image courtesy of KGMH] The good news, of course, is that he was not in the balloon and never in any danger. The bad news is that this whole thing apparently was a publicity stunt and that both parents appear to have been deliberately attempting a hoax. Some sources even have said that they were trying to signal aliens and that they believed devoutly that the world would end with the explosion of the Sun in 2012.
This whole bizarre episode got me to thinking. The final landing point for the silver coated flying saucer craft was only about 25 miles from my home, but I never saw it for real in the sky. Still, judging from the appearance in news photos and reports of how fast it appeared to be moving, it would have been an intriguing sight for anyone had just crawled out of hibernation and didn’t know what it was.
Now before you get me wrong, I am not going to claim or even imply that all UFO or “flying saucer” reports are hoaxes or misidentifications of aircraft. Not at all. That would be far too simplistic. There are of course many other explanations, including the possibility that some could genuinely be real observations of alien spacecraft. Admittedly, I don’t put too much store in that last possibility, but I cannot completely rule it out. There are some reports — such as famous cases from Phoenix and Mexico City — which if taken literally and at face value cannot be easily dismissed. (On the other hand, my experience with people’s often faulty memories and over active imaginations make it very hard to accept personal descriptions and literal interpretations without hard, physical evidence.)
Still, I ask you to imagine your own reaction upon seeing this 20-foot wide silver saucer, several thousand feet in the sky, and zipping along at what apparently seemed a rapid speed. (The speed in the videos appeared exaggerated due to the motion of the helicopter taking the photos.) Would it give you pause, make you think, make you want — at least a little — for it to be real evidence of ET? Frankly, if many of the media reports are true, that is exactly what the perpetrators of this event wanted you to think.
Truth is, I know that most who read this are intelligent, at least semi-seasoned observers, and not prone to snap judgments. But what if you were an average member of the public, without any particular experience in observing objects in the sky, and indoctrinated by years of (unsubstantiated) claims of UFO enthusiasts? I would hazard to guess that for many, if not cementing an already formed opinion of the reality of alien spacecraft visiting Earth, it would at least make you more sympathetic to the reported sighting.
Humans tend to be prejudiced in favor of initial impressions. That’s why the first few minutes of any job interview are so important. If the first impression you get of something is that it is an alien spacecraft, then that impression will persist, sometimes permanently — even in the light of subsequent evidence to the contrary.
No one who has seen the rising Full Moon (and not just Harvest Moons) can deny that it truly looks bigger than when it is high overhead. I have experienced this personally many times and I agree completely with anyone who marvels at how big it looks at that time. It is truly amazing, wondrous and beautiful. It would be easy to believe that there is some physical, geometric process going on about which we have no current knowledge. For some people it could border on the mystical.
However, the fact is that it is not bigger when it appears near the horizon. We know this not only by simple mathematics (which by the way, actually insists that it is ever so slightly smaller in appearance near the horizon), but by repeated measurement. In addition, it is not the Earth’s atmosphere creating some kind of magnification of the image. That pretty well leaves us with a psychological connection between the eyes and the brain. The effect is real, but it is due to a kind of “mystery of the mind,” rather than a mystical or unexplained process in nature. Yet, despite indisputable evidence to the contrary, our brains continue to insist that the Moon is actually larger on the horizon than high overhead.
Not long ago I was returning home from taking my dogs for a walk, to the East of my house and well up in the sky a bright, moving object caught my eye. It appeared much like many of the photos and descriptions of UFOs that fill the literature. I simply could not see it well enough to tell exactly what it was. Left at that — which is where many people would leave it — I would not be able to say for sure what it was. There would always be that possibility that it was something unusual — even an alien spacecraft. Frankly I was intrigued and just a little hopeful that it really was something truly unusual. I have said it before and no doubt will say it again, but no one — NO ONE — would be more pleased and excited to find undisputable proof that some advanced alien species was visiting Earth.
Fortunately I had a digital camera and had time to take a couple of shots. With just a 3X zoom and small screen I still couldn’t tell much, but later I was able to blow the image up to a more reasonable size. Not surprisingly — but still disappointingly — it was unquestionably a pair children’s party balloons, tied together. If I, a confirmed skeptic, can be confused by a couple 40 cm party balloons, how much more would someone not familiar with the sky be of a metallic looking 6 meter saucer shaped balloon?
My point is simply that many people become convinced of the reality of something based on first impressions. For some people, no amount of evidence or logic, given after the first impression is formed, can change it. For those folks, it becomes a classic case of “Don’t confuse me with facts — I know what I saw.” But I ask, do you … really?
N.B. My last comment. (“do you… really?”) is a rhetorical question. It is specifically intended to get you to question first impressions. As such, it is a valid instrument of rational thought. Ironically, though, this also is a technique very often used by “UFOs as alien spacecraft” proponents to cast doubt on more rational explanations, especially when they have no good evidence to support their stories. I am not shooting down any partcular theory here (except, of course, the “Balloon Boy” debacle), and as such I offer no particular evidence. But I do intend that it should work to get you thinking.
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.