On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold was piloting a plane near Mount Rainier in Washington when he observed nine luminescent objects streaking across the sky. That night, the local newspapers reported that Arnold had seen ''flying saucers'' the first recorded appearance of this phrase. There the story might have ended. But three weeks later Kenneth Arnold asked the Air Force to investigate. A file was opened; reports were gathered; a special committee was convened. And so began the U.S. government's improbable quest for extraterrestrial intelligence a 43-year search that is the subject of Howard Blum's Out There.
A veteran reporter, Blum stumbled onto his topic in 1987 while working on a book about the Walker spy case. One of his sources told him that the government had recently asked a top-secret panel to investigate UFOs. The idea seemed bizarre, but to Blum's astonishment, the tip checked out: There really was such a top-secret panel, the UFO Working Group, and it became the focus of his book.
Researched with apparent meticulousness and written with a finely balanced sense of irony and open-mindedness, Blum's is a new breed of book, half entertainment, half reporting, a literary equivalent of the television ''docudrama'' which, not coincidentally, it is already being turned into.
With a narrative structure both clever and wide-ranging, Blum explores different aspects of the government's investigation by burrowing through formerly classi ed documents, visiting the U.S. Space Surveillance Center in Colorado Springs, and touring the radio telescopes where the intellectually respectable search for extraterrestrial intelligence goes on. One fact quickly becomes indisputable: Since 1947, the government, in an apparent effort to avoid alarming the public, has essentially been lying about its continuing interest in reports of flying saucers. After all, any unexplained object in the sky poses a potential national security threat.
In addition, several high officials, as Blum discovered, have had a personal interest in taking such reports seriously. Ronald Reagan, for one, had sighted a flying saucer from his airplane during his campaign for governor of California. And Colonel Harold E. Phillips, the man who led the 1987 UFO Working Group, had once had a ''close encounter'' one summer night while walking through an Iowa cornfield. Given his experience, Phillips was determined to get to the bottom of things. Every previous government investigation had failed to turn up either definitive proof or disproof of the existence of UFOs. This was frustrating, even alarming. For as one previous government study, NASA Publication CR-11445, had warned, in rather colorful language for a government paper with a number, ''to a very advanced race'' touring the solar system, we humans ''might appear such a primitive life form as to represent delightful pets, interesting experimental animals, or a gourmet delicacy.''
It was with understandable urgency, then, that Phillips ordered CIA agents in 1988 to visit Elmwood, Wis., a small town where two prominent residents, years before, had given persuasive accounts of UFOs. The agents arrived just in time for Elmwood's annual fair rechristened ''UFO Days'' in the wake of the sightings. Posing as NASA engineers, the CIA men buttonholed Tom Weber, a Minnesota native who was raising money (with the help of Elmwood's mayor) for the construction of a UFO landing field.
Like the mayor, Weber was convinced that visitors from space had picked Elmwood as their destination; he hoped to provide them with a welcome mat, and he was thrilled by NASA's apparent interest in this project. The CIA agents, though, quickly discovered that Weber had no real evidence that his landing eld would ever be used. At the next meeting of his working group, a dejected Phillips tossed a souvenir T-shirt from Elmwood's UFO Days onto the conference table. This, he said with barely concealed disgust, was the only tangible result of the CIA investigation. ''Gentlemen,'' the colonel told his committee, ''we just don't know what's in the skies over Elmwood.''
Oddly enough, Blum, though critical of government secrecy and candid about the lack of evidence to date, ends his book by affirming the rationale behind Colonel Phillips' group. For, Blum confides in a jarringly corny conclusion, ''I have become a believer. There are other worlds.''
This all sounds suspiciously like the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind a hidden model, one suspects, for Blum's believe-it-or-not yarn. Still, he is a scrupulous reporter and a skillful storyteller, and whatever his personal convictions, Out There allows readers to judge for themselves whether the mysterious saucers first sighted on June 24, 1947, really do exist. A-