50 years ago, UFO sightings in the United States went bust

Excerpt from the June 26, 1971 issue of Science News

a screen capture from a declassified video of an unidentified object

In 2020, the Pentagon declassified video of an unidentified object (shown) taken by a military plane five years prior. A surge in the number of reported UFO sightings in the U.S. coincided with news of the video as well as the start of pandemic-related lockdowns.

U.S. Navy

cover of June 26, 19761 issue

What happened to UFOs?Science News, June 26, 1971

Since 1968 the number of UFO sightings has dropped off, along with public interest in them.… [The] scientific debunking of the UFO phenomena and the subsequent, though not necessarily connected, decline in sightings presents an interesting behavioral pattern…. UFO reports usually run in five-year cycles and 1972 should be the start of another cycle.


Reports of unidentified flying objects have had their ups and downs. In 2020, people in the United States made more than 7,200 reports of UFO sightings — about 1,000 more than in 2019 and nearly 4,000 more than in 2018, according to the National UFO Reporting Center in Davenport, Wash. A quarter of last year’s reports occurred in March and April, when much of the country was under lockdown due to the pandemic. Many of these UFOs turned out to be drones or satellites (SN: 3/28/20, p. 24). In late April, the Pentagon officially released naval footage of “unidentified aerial phenomena” that had been shared online, which may have primed some people to seek UFOs in their own backyards.

Lillian Steenblik Hwang is the associate digital editor at Science News Explores. She has a B.S. in biology from Georgia State University and an M.S. in science journalism from Boston University.

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