This potential explanation could not have occurred to those on the ground in New Mexico in 1948. After interviewing more than a hundred witnesses, Dr. LaPaz went on to advise the military and the Atomic Energy Commission of his opinion that the fireballs were likely either top-secret “unconventional defensive devices” being tested by the U.S.—or Soviet spying devices.
When Edward J. Ruppelt, director of the U.S. Air Force Project Blue Book UFO investigations, visited the Los Alamos National Laboratory in early 1952 to interview scientists and technicians, he noted that they became particularly animated when the idea of interplanetary vehicles was suggested.
“They had been doing a lot of thinking about this, they said, and they had a theory,” wrote Ruppelt in The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects (1953). They thought the fireballs were actually extraterrestrial probes “projected into our atmosphere from a ‘spaceship’ hovering several hundred miles above the Earth.”
Officially, government investigators concluded that the green fireballs were some kind of never-before-seen natural phenomenon. Interest in, and investigation into, the fireballs dropped off at the outbreak of the Korean War.
“Writing these off as natural phenomena did not solve the problem,” says UFO researcher Jan Aldrich, who believes the green fireballs were related to aerial phenomena spotted in Fort Hood, Texas, in 1949. “It just pushed it under the table.”
But that hasn’t stopped UFO researchers from speculating more recently.
In his 2008 book UFO and Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites, Robert Hastings, drawing on declassified official documents, suggests that the fireball trajectories align with those of fallout-debris clouds associated with top-secret atomic testing.
But according to Dr. Hughes, there’s another reason to suspect those green fireballs were buoyant balls of plasma: All those unpredictable movements, which suggest their paths may have been following electric field lines above the Earth.
“Personally, I think that the erratic change in direction is reasonably conclusive proof that the phenomenon is electrical in nature,” says Dr. Hughes, citing the more familiar sharp angles of a lightning bolt streaking through the sky.
“If the ball lightning phenomenon was a solid mass, there would be enormous inertia, making it very difficult to explain the source of energy for such extreme acceleration. In the case of a plasma ball, an internal energy source is not required—in the same way that a bolt of lightning does not need some kind of electrical rocket motor to rapidly change direction on the way to the ground or between clouds.”
Still, at this stage, it’s hard to shake the sense that equating the green fireballs with ball lightning is tantamount to explaining a mystery with another mystery.
“I’m a believer in the sense I believe that UFOs exist,” says Dr. Hughes, who finds the name apt: “They are unidentified flying objects. I just don’t think there are little green men at the controls.”
Don't miss the return of Project Blue Book, Tuesday January 21 at 10/9c on HISTORY.
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