It wasn’t until 2016 that a researcher finally solved Carter’s sighting and proved him correct — in fact, he was only off by a few minutes and the sighting would have appeared at the almost precise location in the sky he’d recorded. That year, former Air Force scientist Jere Justus read Carter’s description and knew almost instantly what the future president had seen: a high-altitude rocket-released barium cloud.
Justus had worked in the 1960s on Air Force and NASA atmospheric studies that involved releasing clouds of barium to study winds in the upper atmosphere. At twilight and just after dark, the particle clouds can give off a green or blue glow as the barium becomes electrically charged in the atmosphere. As Justus dug into the records, he found that just such an experiment had been launched from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s Panhandle at 6:41 p.m., with the rocket rising into the sky and releasing three different clouds of barium at various heights, through about 7:09 p.m. The clouds — rising and growing rapidly in brightness — would have been visible from Leary about 150 miles away.
“The rapid growth in apparent cloud size and brightness, followed by the subsequent diminishment in both size and brightness, could easily be interpreted by an observer as an ‘object’ first approaching and then receding,” Justus wrote.
He knew from his own experience how to someone unfamiliar with the characteristics of a barium cloud, the rocket launches could appear to be objects moving closer and further away in the dark — and could even appear as almost nearby despite being a hundred kilometers up in the sky. Justus recalled an incident from one of his own experimental launches in the early 1960s: “An Atlanta woman saw a sodium vapor trail, launched one evening from Eglin AFB, about 600 km distant. She viewed the cloud through the bare branches of a deciduous tree, then called a local Atlanta TV station to report that a “UFO had landed in a tree at the end of her street’!”
Carter, as it turns out, might be the only president to run twice against fellow UFO viewers. He was the Democratic presidential nominee against two Republican challengers — incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976 and then California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1980 — and both men had had their own experiences with UFOs. Ford led a congressional investigation into strange sightings in his home state of Michigan in the 1960s, and Reagan had encountered a UFO while flying in a Cessna Citation near Bakersfield, Calif., in 1974.
Reagan’s pilot that night, Bill Paynter, later recounted noticing a strange object several hundred yards behind their plane. “It was a fairly steady light until it began to accelerate. Then it appeared to elongate. Then the light took off. It went up at a 45-degree angle at a high rate of speed. Everyone on the plane was surprised,” he said. “The UFO went from a normal cruise speed to a fantastic speed instantly. If you give an airplane power, it will accelerate — but not like a hot rod, and that’s what this was like.”
Reagan was wowed: “It went straight up into the heavens.”
As Carter campaigned in ’76 against Ford, he promised he would open up the nation’s UFO secrets. “One thing’s for sure, I’ll never make fun of people who say they’ve seen unidentified objects in the sky,” he pledged in his original presidential campaign. “If I become president, I’ll make every piece of information this country has about UFO sightings available to the public and the scientists.”
But, once in the Oval Office, Carter never followed up on his pledge. Whatever the government was hiding would stay hidden.
‘Here come the little green men again’
Four years later, when Reagan defeated Carter, his presidency ended up being fundamentally shaped by the intersection of UFOs and American culture. For much of his life, Reagan had been fascinated by science fiction and dramas of the skies, seeing the stories not so much as fiction but as a road map to the outer bounds of human imagination and future utopias. He loved the drama and mystery of the Kennedy-era space race, and the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs about a Martian warlord named John Carter. His service in World War II had brought him into the motion picture unit of the Army Air Forces, and later as an actor, he’d starred in countless films focused on military operations, as well a couple of science fiction-oriented productions, including Murder in the Air, in which he played a government agent who is asked to impersonate a dead spy in order to destroy a U.S. Navy dirigible and stop a death ray.