Sign Historical Group

Odishaw:  and The Condon Report


Letters to the Editor


J. Richard Greenwell

I have read with interest Philip Klass's article (SI Summer 1986) on the troubled University of Colorado UFO Project (1966-68), funded by the U.S. Air Force and directed by the late physicist Edward Condon, which concluded that UFOs did not merit scientific attention, and the subsequent exchange between Klass and Ron Westrum (SI Winter 1986, 87).

One point of debate between Klass and Westrum is the "clean bill of health" given the Colorado report by a special panel set up by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) which endorsed the project's scope, methodology, and conclusions. I can now shed some light on that aspect of the Colorado Project that has not appeared in print before. This information came to me through personal acquaintance with the late geophysicist Hugh Odishaw, Condon's long-time confidant and friend, who served as secretary of the Division of Physical Sciences at NAS during the Colorado Project.

Odishaw was dean of the College of Earth Sciences at the University of Earth Sciences at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, and I was thus in contact with him more or less on a weekly basis for several years. At one point—I don't remember the exact date, but I believe it was sometime in 1977—I had lunch with Odishaw and asked him about his recollections of the Colorado Project. I knew that he had been Condon's assistant when the latter was Director of the National Bureau of Standards between the end of the war and 1951. He was there to help Condon with vast paper work when he came under attack by Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950s—losing his needed security clearance twice—and by then Congressman Richard Nixon. Odishaw, a well-known scientist in his own right, later played a key role in the development of the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) and was the author of many important geophysical texts, thus his appointment to NAS. I suspected that, because of his close personal relationship with Condon, Odishaw might reveal interesting new information on the Colorado Project, and this he willingly did.

As it turned out, Odishaw had closely followed the Project through its evolution. Condon informed Odishaw of all major events as they happened, [such as] when the problems with University of Arizona atmospheric physicist James McDonald intensified, and when the Project's internal disputes occurred. Condon was often on the phone to Odishaw to seek both his solace and advice. Condon's many trips to Washington during the time of the Project also included personal visits to Odishaw at NAS to discuss the study's progress and problems, and to get advice.

Thus when the report neared completion, Odishaw was already intimately but unofficially aware of the Project's status and results, or at least as these were perceived by Condon, the director. So, when the Air Force officially sent the news report to NAS President Frederick Seitz, a former student of Condon, Odishaw was ready. He was the one who, working behind the scenes, organized the review panel, selecting its members and providing them with background information and materials. (The NAS panel was allocated two weeks to examine the 1,465-page Colorado report, followed by two meetings in Washington, on December 2, 1968, and January 6, 1969.)

Naturally, Odishaw selected individuals who he thought would endorse the report's negative UFO findings. He did not look upon this as any sort of "conspiracy." Based on our conversation, I think he honestly viewed it more as his duty to science, as well as his loyalty to an old friend. Odishaw also had some uncomplimentary things to say about James McDonald, and even Allen Hynek, but they are irrelevant to this historical footnote. I urged Odishaw to publish these recollections in more detail, perhaps in his memoirs. He said it was a good idea but would have to wait until retirement, as he was too busy at the time.

I myself did not want to publish this information, given to me in confidence, as I felt it was not my place to do so, at least while Odishaw lived. I feel that his death permits me to do so now.

I do not believe that Odishaw's name appears anywhere in the Colorado Project report or in the NAS review panel report, but he quietly had a significant influence on the outcome of both. While the NAS endorsement may have looked like part of a larger "whitewash," or "conspiracy" to outsiders, based on what Odishaw told me, I think he and Condon perceived such actions as following the normal way of "getting things done" through social networking. I am sure that neither saw anything unethical in what they did, but perceived themselves as defenders of rationality and science.

  J. Richard Greenwell  
Tucson, Arizona  

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