Earlier this week I posted an interview with Dr. Beatriz Villaroel regarding her research into some very unusual astronomical plates from the early 1950s. Do check it out if you missed it.
During that discussion, I added quite a bit of information regarding Dr. Donald Menzel, who of course ran the Harvard Observatory back then — aside from being the world’s most prominent UFO debunker. While talking about all this with Beatriz the week before, I did my own dive into Menzel and put together quite a bit of information. It’s now available for me to post here and I do think many of you will find this quite interesting.
I’ve got to say, Menzel always came across as a pompous boor, but even more so when diving into his career to this level. I was lucky to have access to a relatively little known but truly priceless historical collection by Loren Gross, who privately published numerous volumes of UFO history from the 1980s to the early 2000s. I didn’t have access to his work when I was writing my own histories but it’s fully available as PDF now. Very much worth it for the true UFO Geeks out there!
DONALD MENZEL CHRONOLOGY
Donald Menzel, prominent astronomer and well-known debunker of UFOs, was discovered by UFO researcher Stanton Friedman to have led a “double life.” Menzel was a classified consultant for the U.S. intelligence community, a fact that was unknown even to his wife.
Friedman obtained permission from Menzel’s widow to visit his archives at Harvard University. There, he discovered that Menzel had a secret life as a leading cryptographer and elite member of the U.S. intelligence community. As Friedman explained in his classic article, “The Secret Life of Donald H. Menzel” [International UFO Reporter Jan./Feb. 1988: 20-24], Menzel had high clearances and met regularly with the leadership of the NSA, CIA, and other intelligence organizations.
Menzel’s involvement with the intelligence community was not just as a consultant, as many scientists have done, but he was a leading figure within that community. He had a longstanding association with the National Security Agency (NSA) and its Navy predecessor. He held a Top Secret Ultra clearance with the CIA and did classified work for 30 different companies. He was also an expert in cryptanalysis and even taught the subject.
In a 1960 letter to President-elect John F. Kennedy, Menzel mentioned his Top Secret clearance and “some association” with the CIA. In the 1970s, Menzel wrote that he “was a consultant with Top Secret Ultra Clearance to the National Security Agency.”
Menzel’s secret life was not publicly known until after his death. His role in the intelligence community and his work on classified projects were discovered through research into his archives and correspondence. His involvement with the intelligence community has led many to speculate that his public debunking of UFOs was part of a disinformation campaign.
Another thing that comes across loud and clear in a review of Menzel is (a) his unbelievable egomaniacal opinion of himself and (b) his generally clownish explanations for any and all UFO reports. The fact that this man was an esteemed Director of the Harvard Observatory ought to leave any normal person simply speechless.
In putting this chronology together, I made extensive use of the exceptional historical research of Loren Gross, who published many private volumes of UFO history during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. For years, these were very difficult to find, but the entire collection has existed for some time in PDF at the Project Sign Historical Website. https://sohp.us/collections/ufos-a-history/
As the Project Sign website put it, Gross’s approach to UFO studies focused on observational descriptions, creating a detailed chronology of UFO sightings and reactions from official agencies, scientific organizations, and popular culture. The series also covered pranks, hoaxes, and the rise of “conspiracy theories” and otherworldly beliefs. His work revealed previously unexplored aspects of the UFO phenomenon. While writing his series, over 150,000 pages of official UFO documents were released, providing abundant supplementary material. He initially intended his series to end in 1959, but he extended it to 1963. It’s a priceless collection of historical material.
May 1946. Navy Commander Menzel returns to Harvard.
With the rank of Commander in the US Navy, Dr. Menzel now leaves the service and returns to Harvard University where he takes over as head of the astronomy department.
July 2 1947. Menzel’s Mysterious Visit to White Sands Amidst 1947 UFO Sightings
Around the time of the Roswell crash and the inundation of flying saucer reports in the American Western region. Dr. Menzel and Dr. Walter Orr Roberts travel to White Sands, New Mexico, on a special research airplane provided by American Airlines. The purpose of their trip is initially unclear, and the Denver Post reports on July 6 that there was a meeting in New Mexico between Los Alamos officials and Dr. Roberts, but attempts to locate Roberts or the officials were unsuccessful. Dr. Roberts, who is a regular contributor to the Denver Post, explains upon his return to Denver on July 7 that the trip was for the viewing of a V-2 launch on July 2, which had been suddenly canceled. However, there are doubts about this explanation, as there is no record of a V-2 launch on July 2, and the word “cancellation” seems evasive. It is also unclear why Roberts and Menzel remained at White Sands until July 7 if there were no launch results to collect and study. The nature of the meeting with Los Alamos officials and its connection to the V-2 launch remains uncertain.
May 12, 1949. Menzel witnesses and is puzzled by a UFO.
Menzel is a passenger in a vehicle leaving Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Through the window, he observes two unusual “stars” above the horizon. He notes the fuzzy appearance and peculiar position of these lights, which he estimated to be of zero to first stellar magnitude. Despite considering the possibility that these could be clouds, Menzel finds their behavior unusual and the phenomenon puzzling. He reports the incident to Air Force Intelligence under the title “Report of an unusual (?) natural (?) phenomenon”, expressing that there seemed to be no completely satisfactory explanation for what he witnessed.
Nov. 3, 1949. Menzel: Advocate for the ‘Green Fireball’ Phenomenon in 1949.
Menzel is mentioned in a meeting among high level scientists and military personnel regarding the “Green Fireball” phenomenon in New Mexico. He is well known and respected by those in attendance. Interestingly, he is described as an advocate of the phenomena being very “puzzling.” This position is noted to be 180 degrees from his behavior years later when he became very quick to pronounce any UFO report as something mundane. In this context, at least, Menzel finds the subject of unexplained aerial phenomena to be interesting and perplexing.
June, 1951. Menzel gets USAF appointment.
Menzel is appointed director of the USAF financed high-altitude observatory at Climax, Colorado.
Spring 1952. UFO Wave of Sightings.
Massive increase in UFO sightings throughout the U.S. Military and civilian. Extensive coverage in the media.
1952. Menzel’s Flying Saucer Obsession.
Throughout the year – Menzel is clearly obsessed with the flying saucers and debunking them in any way he could to the USAF (not always successfully), and definitely to the press.
Mid-May 1952. Menzel Meets with Air Force Officials about Flying Saucers.
USAF Captain Edward Ruppelt (Head of Project Blue Book) attends a meeting with Dr. Donald Menzel, a Harvard astronomer, and several other military officials. Menzel claims to have solved the UFO problem for the Air Force, stating that he has been studying the phenomena for a long time and has done development work for the cameras in Project Twinkle (Green Fireballs in New Mexico 1948-9). However, Ruppelt is skeptical of Menzel’s claims, as he is familiar with the project and had never heard of Menzel’s involvement.
Menzel also discusses his UFO sighting while at White Sands Proving Ground (1949) and believes it to be a mirage of some sort. He conducted some experiments with liquids of different densities to prove his ideas. However, his explanations are not convincing to the others at the meeting.
Menzel then announces that he had sold a story of his ideas to Time and Look magazines and wants the Air Force to publicly back him up 100% in these publications. This request is met with resistance, and it is suggested that Menzel conduct more research before making such claims.
Ruppelt asks Menzel to leave a copy of his work for review by ATIC’s consultants, but Menzel refuses. Later, Ruppelt learns that Menzel had tried a similar approach with the Navy, offering to donate his time as a consultant in developing a special gun, only to be discovered as a prime backer of the organization that had made a high bid for the contracts.
When Menzel’s article was published in Time, it is met with criticism from Dr. Joseph Kaplan and Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who believes Menzel is using low tactics to make money.
July 1952 – Washington D.C. UFOs.
Washington experiences a series of UFO sightings (weekends of July 19/20 and 26/27). Radar operators at Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base track multiple unidentified targets moving across their screens. Jets are dispatched to intercept the targets, but pilots report the UFOs would vanish or move away as they approach.
July 1952 – Menzel debunks to the media.
Menzel in the news, blaming quirks of human imagination or tricks of atmospheric phenomena as sources of explanations of UFO reports.
July 29, 1952. General John Samford Press Conference.
The recent UFO sightings cause significant public concern and media attention, leading to a press conference by the Air Force to explain the events as misidentified natural phenomena or false radar readings. General John Samford leads it, the largest since the end of World War II. He attributes the sightings to faulty radar returns caused by a weather phenomenon known as “temperature inversion,” where a layer of warm air becomes trapped between two layers of cooler air, affecting radar returns. This explanation was disputed by the radar operators involved, but they are not permitted to speak at the press conference. Accompanying Samford is General Roger Ramey, who had previously been involved in debunking the Roswell event. The press conference successfully defused the situation and controlled the narrative around the UFO sightings. However, doubts remain among many observers and officials.
Summer 1952 – Menzel’s Access to Classified UFO Files Delays Air Force UFO Study.
The U.S. Air Force commissions the Battelle Memorial Institute to conduct a statistical study on UFO reports as part of the Blue Book project. The study is intended to support the conclusions of the Robertson panel (Jan 1953). However, the process is delayed due to an incident involving Donald Menzel and a Dr. Aiken. Menzel is writing his first book on the subject and had requested access to the Air Force’s classified UFO files. Despite initial resistance due to Menzel’s apparent lack of clearance, the Air Force agrees to lend three years’ worth of reports to Dr. Aiken, who is working for the Air Force at the time and has the necessary clearance. The reports, which were finally and very belatedly retrieved from Harvard University (in a state of disarray), caused a delay in the completion of the Battelle study. When Menzel’s book is finally published (Feb 1953), it contains *classified information from these reports,* leading to suspicions about Menzel’s and Aiken’s handling of classified data. It is later learned of course that Menzel had a Top Secret Ultra clearance and a history of working with the CIA. The delay in the study meant that the Battelle study played no part in the January 1953 Robertson Panel meeting.
Nov. 1952 – General Samford Rejects Menzel’s Theories.
The November issue of See magazine features an interview with Chief of Air Force Intelligence General John A. Samford by the periodical’s Washington editor Serge Fliegers. The General, for the most part, repeats what he said during the big press conference at the end of July. He acknowledges that 25 percent of UFO reports are made by military personnel, rejects professor Menzel’s atmospheric theories, and insists that evidence of visitors from space is lacking. (I don’t have specifics on what Samford said regarding Menzel.)
Late 1952 – Harvard University a bastion of UFO skepticism.
Air Force advisor J. Allen Hynek expresses frustration, noting his inability to sway military generals who are already influenced by Harvard’s Astronomy Department, particularly Donald Menzel. “They were already listening to Donald Menzel and the other boys over at the Harvard Astronomy Department …. ” Other Harvard astronomers, including Dr. Harlow Shapley and Dr. Theodore Dunham, publicly dismiss UFOs at the International Astronomical Union convention in Rome. Dr. Percy Bridgeman, another Harvard academic, supports Menzel’s dismissive stance.
October 1952. Menzel initiates Destruction of Harvard Astronomical Plates.
Shortly after assuming his role as director of Harvard University following Dr. Harlow Shapley’s retirement in September, Menzel makes the controversial decision to destroy a significant portion of the university’s photographic plate collection. This collection, which consisted of over 550,000 plates, had been used in advanced astronomical research for over a century. Menzel’s decision, now often referred to as the ‘Menzel gap’, was reportedly due to constraints related to storage space and budgetary limitations. However, it’s interesting to note that fifteen years later, upon Menzel’s retirement, Harvard resumed its surveillance of the sky.
January 1953. CIA’s Robertson Panel.
The Robertson Panel is a CIA-sponsored group of high-caliber scientists that convenes secretly from January 14 to January 17, 1953. The panel, chaired by H. P. Robertson, a leading American mathematician and physicist, is tasked with reviewing UFO reports and making a recommendation. The panel’s conclusions, which were reportedly written before the members even met, suggests that the profile of UFOs should be kept as low as possible while the real investigation could continue. The panel is also used to sanction a policy of extreme secrecy regarding UFOs, both from the public and from the majority of military personnel. The Robertson Panel is known for its role in debunking UFOs and for its influence in shaping policy and public perception regarding UFOs.
February 1953. Menzel’s first book on Flying Saucers is published.
Menzel heavily debunks flying saucers. The book receives outstanding support from the mainstream establishment. Many “respectable” libraries feel Menzel has answered all questions about UFOs and will stock no other book on the subject. However, researchers easily see that Menzel’s work on UFOs is simplistic in the extreme and even contains obvious mathematical errors. Menzel maintains that all UFO reports can be attributed to misinterpreted natural phenomena and dismisses any unexplained cases. Over the years, Menzel authors three anti-UFO books, each offering a different explanation for the famous Kenneth Arnold sighting. His work is later criticized by nuclear physicist Stanton T. Friedman for its use of propaganda techniques, character assassinations, selective choice of facts, misrepresentations, and lack of field investigations. All true criticisms. One might also wonder — how did Menzel get his book published in Russian and to be distributed within the Soviet Union? Did Menzel get official Russian approval to circulate the book behind the Iron Curtain? Who suggested the idea? Who paid for it? Did Harvard University foot the bill or did Menzel pay? Did the U.S. Air Force play a role?
1953 – Mystery Satellites?
Rumors begin to circulate about large unidentified bodies being detected in low orbit (100-500 miles) around the Earth. These rumors are largely based on a story by Warren Smith (not sure who he was), who claims to have received his information from an unnamed CIA informant. According to Smith’s account, a highly sophisticated Air Force radar tracked these mysterious objects on 13 different occasions throughout the year. In response to the initial discovery of these “little moons,” a special radar tracking station is established at White Sands Proving Grounds, New Mexico. This station is placed under the directorship of Dr. Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto. The existence of this tracking station is confirmed by the February 1954 issue of the journal published by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The journal also confirms Tombaugh’s directorship and the station’s sponsorship by the U.S. Army Ordnance Research Department. However, the official purpose of the project is announced as a check on the possibility of tiny natural satellites in orbit.
Early 1953 – The Menzel Gap Begins.
In the midst of the “mystery satellite” controversy, Menzel makes the bizarre decision to halt the university’s observatory from conducting further photographic plate surveys of the sky. At the same time, he is overseeing the destruction of approximately one-third of the plate collection, as detailed in the first paragraph of Chapter 6 in Dorrit Hoffleit’s book about Harvard and Menzel. It is worth asking: why amidst a great public mystery about “mystery satellites,” would the world’s leading observatory not wish to add to its fame and identify them? Interestingly, prior to this, the former Observatory director, Shapley, and Hoffleit had evaluated the quality of the plates and concluded that very few were of poor quality and needed to be discarded. The plate collection, which dated back to 1882 and covered the sky from pole to pole, was once the largest in the world. Following Menzel’s decision, Hoffleit becomes persona non grata. Currently (2024), there is a digitization project called DASCH, led by Josh Grindlay, which aims to digitize the Harvard plates and make them available. However, the project’s webpage has been experiencing issues for several years, and the reason for this is unclear.
1953 and beyond – Menzel Becomes Full-Time UFO Debunker?
Menzel stays very much on top of UFO related publications and makes sure to attack any that got positive attention. This includes a 1954 study by French researcher Aime Michel. I suppose doing actual astronomical research became boring to Menzel? Indeed, one can assert that his full time job really became UFO debunker, not astronomer. He is quoted throughout the 1950s with one anti-UFO statement after another, providing “explanations” to every case that garnered any attention. THIS was his real job, it seems to me.
October 1953: Menzel’s ‘Government Business’.
In a letter to Major General Samford, Air Force Director of Intelligence and later Director of the NSA (1956-60), Menzel states: “I am planning to be in Washington on government business … . . October 22 and 23  … . . From various reports I judge that some of my explanations of flying saucers have been misinterpreted or misunderstood. … I should be delighted to meet with as many members of ATIC [Air Technical Intelligence Center] as I find it convenient to come.”‘ What was the astronomer’s “government business’’? Had Menzel’s debunking statements gone too far for those in Air Force Intelligence circles who were convinced that genuinely anomalous reports existed for which rational explanations were redundant? Or did he have other more important matters he did not wish to discuss in a letter – such as the destruction of Harvard’s astronomical plates?
January 14, 1954 – Clyde Tombaugh Uses New Telescope to Search for “Tiny Moons”.
New York newspapers state that Dr. Clyde Tombaugh of Lowell Observatory, is searching the skies for a group of tiny moons believed to be circling the earth at altitudes of from 10,000 to 240,000 miles. He is using the new Schmidt telescope. These little satellites are from one foot to 120 feet in diameter. The new telescope can photograph a forty-two foot object 100,000 miles away, and a four foot object 10,000 miles away. The U.S: Army Ordnance Corps is interested, because for one thing, the discovery can assist in estimates of the cost of establishing stations out in space.
March 3, 1954 – U.S. Army-Funded Project Led by La Paz and Tombaugh Searches for Natural Moons Orbiting Earth.
Dr. Lincoln La Paz and Dr. Clyde Tombaugh are leading a U.S. Army-funded project to search for natural moons orbiting the Earth. The project utilizes special telescopic equipment with automatic tracking cameras. Tombaugh reveals that they are looking for moons near the equator that emit little light. During this time, Donald Keyhoe, a UFO researcher, is informed by a source, Paul Redell, about two visual contacts with strange orbiting bodies. Redell mentions three tracking stations involved in the project, located in New Mexico, Arizona, and near Berlin, Germany. He also suggests that a large body had left orbit and descended to an altitude of 60,000 feet over the Atlantic in the last week of February (1954), although he did not disclose his reasons for this belief.
August 23, 1954 – La Paz Identifies the Two Orbiting Bodies, “Easing Fears.”
Magazine Aviation Week reports that the Pentagon expressed relief when a sky search, led by Dr. Lincoln La Paz, identified two objects orbiting the Earth. Contrary to initial fears that these might be Russian artificial satellites, they are reported in the newspaper to be natural bodies located 400 and 600 miles from Earth. This discovery is said to alleviate concerns about the U.S. falling behind in the space race, as these “little moons” are not evidence of advanced foreign technology. The specific nature of these bodies is not further detailed. It is important to note that to this day (2024) there are NO acknowledged natural satellites of Earth other than the Moon. So the question remains: what were these people actually doing and talking about?
1955-57. Menzel working the mainstream media on UFOs.
1955: “There’s not a scientist alive who would even hint that what we saw are objects fran outer space carrying little men.” San Diego Tribune, February 17, 1955.
1956: After “a long and careful study of the saucer claims, l know definitely that they exist only in the imagination…. These phenomena are due to reflections from solid material objects like planes or weather balloons, scattering of light from birds, spiderwebs, refractions from water droplets or ice crystals or the passage of brilliant fireballs or meteors.’ Speaking to an audience in Boston, March 19, 1956
1957: Menzel debunks a major sighting in Levelland, Texas, calling it nothing more than a mirage. Meets with heavy pushback from witnesses. Menzel’s flawed approach is evident during a press conference to explain the Levelland sightings. People notice his discomfort when he tries to explain the sightings. He quickly and nervously tries to change the subject when asked about the car’s ignition and failure of lights. He attributed the engine stalling to “nervous feet”, but fails to explain why the headlights also went out. Nov 6 1957
Jan 22 1958. Menzel Cringeworthy TV Performance.
Menzel appears with Kenneth Arnold and Donald Keyhoe on a UFO discussion for a TV program, The Armstrong Theater. Menzel faces much criticism, and his odd behavior is noticed by people nationwide. One viewer feels that Menzel showed “comic disdain” for pro-UFO arguments. Another individual, whose impressions were gathered from the numerous letters sent to the Air Force, CBS, and the media after the show, describes Menzel’s behavior as “egotistical buffoonery.” According to historian Loren Gross, “Anyone who has had the opportunity to read Dr. Menzel’s unpublished autobiography would be struck by his ego. In his own opinion, he was the ‘greatest everything.’”
May 16, 1960. Menzel Admits to Keyhoe … During a Dave Garroway TV program,
Menzel admits to Donald Keyhoe that he didn’t have detailed Air Force reports when he dismissed many UFOs as mirages and illusions. As Keyhoe recalls it, Menzel claimed the Air Force would have silenced him if they had given him the cases. [NICAP Special Bulletin, May 1960]
1962 – Menzel and Blue Book Kiss and Make Up.
Menzel re-emerges during this period after being relatively quiet for some time. He had been prominent during the earlier 1950s, often participating in UFO debates. However, his public profile diminished when even the Air Force began to question the adequacy of his theories for explaining complex cases. Moreover, Menzel had been critical of Blue Book at times, arguing they were too lenient regarding atmospheric illusions (his go-to UFO argument). Menzel’s resurgence can be attributed to a change in staff at Blue Book, or possibly a strategy by higher authorities to use Menzel to counter potential Congressional hearings. It can also be a combination of both. Correspondence between Menzel and ATIC starts appearing in Blue Book records, with Menzel expressing approval of Blue Book’s recent more “scientific approach”. However, this is untrue, as many UFO sightings are undeservingly being dismissed as “atmospheric phenomena”.
1963 – Menzel’s second book.
Menzel as co-author publishes his second UFO book, The World of Flying Saucers. It has the official endorsement of the US Air Force on the back cover.
1966-67. Condon calls Menzel “Nuts.”
Menzel had long come across as an egomaniac with a strange personality. He calls Dr. Edward Condon during the University of Colorado UFO project. Despite Condon being a UFO skeptic, Menzel calls him to discuss his anti-UFO theories, leading Condon to label Menzel as “nuts”.