- On a cold Monday morning 22 years ago, Jean-Jacques Velasco
was sitting in his office when a gendarme rang to tell him about a strange
incident. Renato Nicolai, a retired technician, had been working in his
garden in Trans-en-Provence, near Nice, when he saw a dark, round object
come down from the sky, settle on the ground and take off again, the gendarme
said. Over the years, Velasco has heard many such stories, and disproved
most of them. But this one was different - this one was credible, he believes..
Something seems to have landed in Trans-en-Provence, he says, and that
something has never been identified.
- But who is Velasco? Another crackpot determined to find
a flying saucer? No, he is a scientist working for the state-run National
French Centre for Space Studies (CNES), where he heads a department responsible
for analysing what are commonly called unidentified flying objects (UFOs)
but what are officially known as unidentified aerospace phenomena (UAP).
- A neatly-dressed, bespectacled man, Velasco talks with
the careful precision of an academic who is keen to be understood. He is
not saying that he has come across visitors from another planet; he is
saying merely that events occur for which science has yet to find an explanation,
and which merit further inquiry.
- Velasco's department was set up in 1977, the year that
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released amid a global UFO fever.
Across the world people thought they saw strange figures, flying saucers
and bright lights.
- But there were few serious attempts to probe the issue.
The CNES set up the Service for Expert Appraisal of Atmospheric Re-entry
Phenomena (Sepra). Based in Toulouse, the department is as pedantic as
its title sounds: the staff are state-employed scientists, shaped by a
prudent, rigorous and somewhat bureaucratic culture. In France such bureaucracy
can often be cumbersome and painfully rigid. Yet in this domain at least,
this rigidity offers a guarantee of impartiality that is rare as far as
UFOs are concerned.
- Last year, when the CNES was told to reduce its 1.3 billion
budget, the organisation's president, Alain Bensoussan, ordered an audit
into Sepra's work. A wide range of French scientists was asked whether
it was worth continuing research; almost all said yes.
- One reason is because, unlike most other UFO-hunters,
Sepra's staff are neither seeking publicity nor peddling an obscure belief
in extraterrestrial civilisation. They say they do not know whether extraterrestrial
beings exist or not, and look disparaging when you ask them to voice their
hunches on the question.
- They do not have hunches, only statistics. Yet the statistics
that Velasco has made public are eloquent. Since, 1977, Sepra has received
some 6,000 reports of alleged UFO sightings. Of these, 110 are from civil
or military aircraft crew, and the rest from ordinary French people who
have almost invariably contacted their local gendarmerie.
- In 21.3% of cases there is a clear, indisputable and
banal explanation: a firework display, a novel lighting system involving
a luminous balloon, a cloud above the Pyrenees that is shaped like a flying
saucer. In 24.9% there is a probable explanation, and in 41.3% the information
is too vague to be of use. But in 12.5 per cent of cases about 750 sightings
since 1977 the evidence is detailed and inexplicable, and is thus categorised
as an unidentified phenomenon.
- Most alleged UFOs are spotted by the sober and sensible,
says Velasco. "In all our statistics on the people who see these phenomena
only one in 1,000 is not credible because of alcohol. People go to gendarmerie
spontaneously; mainly because they want to know what they have seen."
- Yet a witness's good faith is not enough, and the story
must be corroborated. Consider, for instance, a case reported in 1994,
when the crew of an Air France flight from Nice to London saw a dark, 300-metre
long object over the Paris region. The object disappeared before the aircraft
had got near it, and the flight continued without difficulty. A few days
later Velasco travelled from his office in Toulouse to the military aviation
control centre outside Paris, where he was given a read-out of the radar
information from the day in question. It revealed that an unknown object
had indeed flown over the French capital.
- Consider, too, the Trans-en- Provence case. Velasco went
through the usual checks with the gendarme. Was there evidence? The apparent
answer was yes, as there were marks in the grass where the object had supposedly
- Velasco drove to Trans-en-Provence and took ground samples.
These showed that the area had been heated to between 300ºC and 600ºC,
that it had been compressed by something weighing up to a tonne and that
the plants there had been affected by a strong electromagnetic field. Velasco
concluded that Nicolai had indeed witnessed a strange happening. So should
we conclude that little green men were taking a look at Provence from their
spaceship? Velasco dismisses such ideas.
- "We cannot say whether there is a link between the
question of extraterrestrial life and that of non-identified aerospace
phenomena," he says. "But we can show that UFOs exist. The problem
is interpreting them, and I hope that scientists, and other people, look
at this question more seriously."