The June 2021 intelligence report to Congress on UFO sightings (now referred to as “unidentified aerial phenomenon” or UAPs) has revived interest in a topic that, since the 1960s, had been relegated almost exclusively to the realm of science fiction and presumed delusion. And this revival has raised questions. If such sightings have indeed been so common, and so well documented by sources as reliable as the US military, and the technology they display does indeed pose a security threat, particularly given UAPs’ unknown origins (are they spyware from China or Russia? are they truly visitors from another world? who knows?), then what has prevented us, as a nation, from studying or discussing them in any serious manner for so long?
Interestingly, two ISU alumni from the 1950s might have been able to answer some of these questions. Both were involved in shaping the conversations that we have (and haven’t) been having about UFOs/UAPs for the past half-a-century.
Both Roy Craig and James Edward McDonald received their undergraduate degrees elsewhere (and McDonald served as a lieutenant in the navy during World War II) before completing their PhDs, within a year of each other, at Iowa State. They would likely not have crossed paths at ISU, however, as they studied with different departments. Craig, class of 1952, completed a PhD in Physical Chemistry (see his dissertation in the ISU Digital Repository here), while McDonald, class of 1951, completed his PhD in Physics (see his dissertation in the ISU Digital Repository here).
Our collections do not contain extensive documentation of either scientist’s time at Iowa State, but we do have a letter/memo providing notice of McDonald’s resignation, when he moved on to a more prestigious appointment at the University of Arizona in 1954, along with a typed draft of a research paper he wrote.
It is unclear exactly what career path Roy Craig took immediately following graduation. However, he was shortly thereafter recruited to the famous government Colorado Project, also known as “The Condon Committee”, by Edward Condon himself to serve as chief field investigator of UFO sightings and reports, which had already been pouring in from numerous sources for decades. The Colorado Project, founded in 1966, constituted the final stage of Project Blue Book , a study created by the United States Air Force in 1947 (perhaps not coincidentally the same year as the mysterious and much-mythologized “Roswell Incident” had occurred) and which had sought, not only to investigate the validity and/or cause of UFO sightings themselves, but to assess any potential national security threat posed by these incidents.
Craig, while reportedly fascinated by the concept of UFOs and their potential to open the public imagination, maintained a firmly skeptical position on their extraterrestrial origins throughout his time with the project. Indeed, his influence at the helm of this committee may have been among the factors that closed the project so quickly. In 1969, he and his fellow investigators released the Condon Report, concluding that there was nothing to be gained from further study on this topic, which led the Air Force to close the project on December 17th of that same year.
ISU’s SCUA unfortunately does not hold any of Craig’s professional papers from his time spent researching UFOs, but Texas A&M University does, and the finding aid for this collection can be found here. Craig also authored a book about his experience working with The Colorado Project in 1995, entitled UFOs: An Insider’s View of the Official Quest for Evidence. It is still in print, and copies can be accessed through Parks Library General Collection TL79 .C86 1995 (see the catalog entry and online version access here).
What Craig and several of his colleagues seemed to view as an open-and-shut case, however, was, in fact, hotly contested amongst the scientific community of his day even before the Condon Report officially dismissed the concept of UFOs’ extraterrestrial origin. And none other than fellow Iowa State alum James. E. McDonald, then a physicist at the University of Arizona, made a name for himself in the public eye by criticizing the Condon Committee’s methods and findings.
According to the July 26, 1968 issue of Science magazine (Vol. 161, No. 3839, pp. 339-342, article accessible via JSTOR at the following link), McDonald was, at that time, also a full-time UFO investigator and had, in conjunction with Air Force chief UFO consultant J. Allen Hynek, expressed concern directly to the National Academy of Sciences in April 1967 about (unspecified)evidence that the Colorado project had and had not taken into account. While the Science article quotes Edward Condon as claiming that “McDonald doesn’t know a damn thing about what we’ve done,” two of Condon’s own Colorado project team members, David R. Saunders and Norman E. Levine, seem to have sided with McDonald’s criticisms and were fired shortly after the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) caught wind of the objections McDonald and Hynek had raised.
A follow up article in Science’s January 17, 1969 issue (Vol. 163, No. 3864, pp. 260-262, JSTOR access available here), which was written after the release of the Condon Report, suggests that Saunders, at least, continued actively publishing criticism of the project even after he was fired from it. His 1968 book UFOs? Yes! Where the Condon Committee Went Wrong is also still available, and its entry in WorldCat indicates that UI, UNI, and Drake all hold copies in their general collections that ISU students could request through interlibrary loan, if interested.
Even more curiously, though, James E. McDonald was found dead in the middle of the desert, north of Tucson, Arizona, in June of 1971, less than two years after the Condon Report had been released and the Colorado project had been closed. The local press coverage of his death (of which we have a photocopy in McDonald’s alumni files, see image below) states that authorities named the cause as “apparent suicide,” which conclusion, at least in my mind, raises more questions than it answers. If nothing else, possibilities for cinematic plotlines abound.
Roy Craig, on the other hand, did not pass away until 2004, when he lost a battle with cancer. You can read the online version of the Iowa State Daily article here, or see the first page of a print-out version imaged below.
As is frequently the case with fascinating historical mysteries, we may never know the full truth of what the Condon Committee did or did not discover, or did or did not obscure. But we do know that the voices and perspectives of these two Iowa State alumni played a critical role in shaping, not only the current mythology of UFOs, alien contact, and secret government conspiracies in the public’s imagination, but also two sides of an ongoing conversation about what is and is not worth the application of scientific study, military resources, and the attention of everyday citizens so barraged with information (and so frequently lacking information literacy) that we already scarcely know who or what to believe, or why.