Exclusive interview with member of CIA panel on UFOs

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you were going to cast the character of a brilliant eccentric scientist for a Spielberg-type sci-fi movie, the late NASA astrophysicist Dr. Thornton Leigh Page (1913-1996) would fit the role perfectly. He had a big beard, used a pirate-like eye patch (he had lost an eye in a car accident in 1961) and constantly smoked a pipe. In ufological history, Dr. Page is best known as one of the five top scientists who sat on the CIA’s Scientific Advisory Panel on Unidentified Flying Objects—better known as the Robertson Panel after its chairman Dr. Howard P. Robertson—convened secretly by the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, DC on January 14-17, 1953.

Dr. Thornton Page during the time he worked at JSC. (Credit: NASA)
Dr. Thornton Page during the time he worked at JSC. (Credit: NASA)

By all accounts, the Robertson Panel produced one of the U.S. government’s most influential policy decisions on UFOs, although the key role of the CIA was kept secret for many years. If you want to know more about this event including its genesis, proceedings and impact on the government’s handling of UFOs (including the USAF’s Project Blue Book), I direct you to my article, “Revisiting the 1953 CIA’s Robertson Panel,” published in issue 18 of Open Minds magazine. You can also consult directly and download many of the original declassified documents on the CIA’s own Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room. Just type UFO in the search box, and a complete chronological list of their declassified files on the subject will appear.

It was in the early eighties when I met Dr. Page at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, where he worked during the last phase of his very active career in science, academia, and government. I traveled often to Houston in the period between 1981 and 1984 because my late sister and her family were living there at the time. I spent a lot of time going to JSC and doing articles and interviews on the space program for a science column I was then publishing in The New York City Tribune. I also got to know and interview some of the ufologists at JSC like John Schuessler, who became later the director of MUFON, the brilliant scientist Alan Holt, and James Oberg, the well known UFO skeptic, space expert and author.

It was Oberg, in fact, who first took me to Dr. Page’s office during one of my earlier visits to JSC. I still remember the gist of our first conversation. He had just received back then a packet of documents from Lee Graham about the so-called “Blue Room” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where UFO secret files and/or artifacts were supposedly kept; and where Senator Barry Goldwater was denied access, as he later stated on the record in a number of letters. (For background on this story you can read Michael Schratt’s article “Inside the Blue Room” in Open Minds magazine issue 3. Dr. Page told me on that first meeting that he had just sent the package of “Blue Room” letters to Dr. J. Allen Hynek at CUFOS, of which he was a member of the Board of Governors.

Aerial view of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where Dr. Page worked during the last phase of his career. (Credit: NASA)
Aerial view of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where Dr. Page worked during the last phase of his career. (Credit: NASA)

The second anecdote had to do with his not too friendly relationship with Dr. Edward Condon, the director of the famous USAF-sponsored Scientific Study on UFOs conducted by the University of Colorado in the late sixties. Their feud had to do with who would write the UFO entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Condon wanted the assignment and so he was furious when Page got it instead. Dr. Page provided a little more background on this “exchange” between the two scientists in the Abstract for a talk he gave on “The CIA Robertson Panel on the UFO problem” for the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) in Austin, Texas, in 1987:

The final anecdote has to do with my being invited to write the article on UFO for the Encyclopedia Britannica. I thought it only right to check my text with Condon, so I phoned him at the University of Colorado. When I explained the situation, there was a loud crash, and the phone went dead. When I called back, the secretary explained that Dr. Condon was so angry that he had not been approached by the Britannica that he dashed the phone to the floor.

The author next to big rocket engines at JSC in 1984, during the period he met and interviewed Dr. Thornoton Page. (Credit: A. Huneeus)
The author next to big rocket engines at JSC in 1984, during the period he met and interviewed Dr. Thornoton Page. (Credit: A. Huneeus)

In subsequent trips to Houston and the JSC, I made sure to always visit Dr. Page, and he eventually agreed to do an interview for my science column in The New York City Tribune, which took place at his office on June 22, 1983. By this time, Dr. Page had moved his office to literally the end of JSC, where he had his library and his own world. The place was so far from the main JSC buildings that you had to take a special cab to get there. The bulk of the interview, however, was not on UFOs but on Dr. Page’s extensive research in astronomy and space exploration, including an experiment he conducted with “a powerful ultraviolet camera” that was set up by the Apollo 16 astronauts on the lunar surface. Page trained astronaut John Young on how to use the camera, and he also used to teach basic astronomy to NASA astronauts. We also discussed comets and his astronomical research on the “dark matter” in the universe. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my article in the Tribune so I cannot post it here, but that article dealt only with Dr. Page’s astronomical research. The UFO part came at the end of the interview and it was never published, until now. However, before posting the transcript let’s review first briefly the colorful career and personality of Dr. Thornton Leigh Page.

J. Antonio Huneeus - OpenMinds