NORWOOD PARK — One of the world’s biggest questions leads to a local man’s basement: Are we alone?
“If a UFO landed on earth tomorrow, I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Mark Rodeghier, director of the Center For UFO Studies, one of the longest-running research outposts on the existential — and possibly extraterrestrial — subject.
The center, grounded on earth in Rodeghier’s Norwood Park basement, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But it’s still galaxies away from answering “what would be the biggest scientific discovery in human history,” Rodeghier said.
“Aliens could already be visiting us, even if it’s only their probes,” Rodeghier said. “What we know for sure is that there’s a long history of people seeing things, up close and clearly, that there’s no terrestrial explanation for.”
The center is part of a small collection of academics and scientists stretched across the globe, working in their spare time to document and archive “the UFO phenomenon,” Rodeghier said.
During a recent visit, the volunteer researcher fussed through 16 cabinets in his basement office. Each was filled with thousands of UFO “witness forms,” blurred images of flying objects, CDs with recordings of magnetic fields and decades-old government investigations with “secret” stamped across the top. The shelves are stuffed with UFO books “from sci-fi to the very serious,” Rodeghier said.
The underground headquarters is just one of a few places dedicated to studying the “shunned science,” Rodeghier said.
“I’m sure there’s intelligent life out there. And I’m convinced we’ll ultimately find definitive evidence for it,” Rodeghier said. “The universe is very old, much older than Earth, so there could have been life on planets like Earth for billions of years before us. It’s not implausible they’ve hung around and expanded through the galaxy.”
Each year, hundreds of people mail handwritten testimonies of their encounters with UFOs to the center at Rodeghier’s ultra-modern house. Rodeghier has interviewed many who say they’ve been abducted, he said.
“The classic symptom is losing time you can’t account for,” Rodeghier said. “You can’t prove it, but there’s so many stories over time.”
UFO sightings more commonly describe “flying triangles instead of discs,” Rodeghier said.
“In some cases, there’s hundreds of witnesses to one incident, they look up and see a UFO, it’s hovering and then all of a sudden it starts to move,” Rodeghier said. “It disappears over the horizon in a second.”
In the ’80s, the center was the first to excavate the 1947 crash site in Roswell, New Mexico, which has long sparked craze about possible “flying saucers.”
“We dug holes there and didn’t find anything besides a few military buttons,” Rodeghier said. “But that doesn’t mean the phenomenon isn’t real.”
Now, the center is scanning more than 80,000 UFO cases to create what will be the largest public database on the topic, Rodeghier said.
Encounters with the otherworldly are far from crazy, Rodeghier said. A study done by the center examined the psychological makeup of people who said they were abducted and found half of them were “normal by all standard measures,” Rodeghier said.
And Chicago and its suburbs are not without UFO sightings, although they’re more common in rural areas, “where there’s more space and visibility,” Rodeghier said.
In November 2006, a “flying saucer-like object” — dark gray metallic, 6 to 24 feet in diameter and hovering just below the clouds — was spotted over O’Hare Airport by pilots, airline management and mechanics, according to the Tribune. The FAA dismissed the incident as a weather phenomenon.
In 2004, hundreds of people around suburban Tinley Park said they saw three red lights in a triangular position moving in unison and hovering without sound, according to the Tribune.
A wave of UFO sightings in 1973 is what first brought the late J. Allen Hynek, a lifelong Chicagoan, to open the center, Rodeghier said.
Hynek had previously been a consultant for Project Blue Book, a secret program started by the Air Force in the early ’50s to investigate UFOs as security threats. But Project Blue Book had a second-class budget, rookie scientists and “was never intended to rock the boat,” Rodeghier said.
The government had long been “downplaying the UFO subject,” with concerns calls about UFO sightings would “clog up the phone lines in government communications, pre-internet,” Rodeghier said. The UFO phenomena was “rejected as something beyond the pale,” and any research the United States conducted was done quietly to maintain possible military advantages over the Soviets during the Cold War, Rodeghier said.
But Hynek thought “UFOs needed be discussed out in the open,” Rodeghier said.
The Northwestern astronomy professor opened the center’s first office in Evanston, dodged pushback from colleagues and got together enough donations from well-off believers to hire a secretary, Rodeghier said.
“The stigma was and still is real,” Rodeghier said. “So it’s left to people like us to the do the little we can.”
Hynek’s books on UFO sightings became staples of the field — and fodder of Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Hynek had a cameo.
The eccentric, sharply dressed professor, who smoked a churchwarden pipe and sometimes forgot his leather briefcase on the “L,” made him a true believer, Rodeghier said. Hynek died in 1986.
“He was a good friend,” Rodeghier said. “And in the very long run, when we’re all gone, he’ll be seen as a seminal figure in the early days of UFOs, who was one of the first scientists to recognize sightings were a serious problem.”
Rodeghier, an independent data analyst by day, has a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics and doctorate in sociology from UIC. In his free time, he started working under Hynek and “just found everything he was putting forward to be absolutely fascinating,” Rodeghier said.
People’s view of the field has shifted favorably in recent years, Rodeghier said. A 2017 New York Times story revealed a UFO research program by the Pentagon and footage of possible sightings by military pilots. The recent shoot-down of a Chinese surveillance ballon and three unidentified objects led to “a lot of curious people calling the center,” Rodeghier said.
“I can’t say we’re closer to solving the phenomenon, but we now have more interest and better tools,” Rodeghier said. “Fundamentally, what’s most critical is getting physical evidence: pieces of a UFO, a magnetic field, gamma rays, microwaves, any real-time physical data.
“That’s the holy grail.”
At lectures, Rodeghier is often asked: Why don’t UFOs land?
“I don’t know how they think. You don’t see ‘alien space commander’ stitched on my shirt,” Rodeghier said. “I stick to the science. I can’t worry about their motives and rationale. Because with that, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
Rodeghier tucked away his basement X-files for the day.
“But I can’t deny the fact I’d like to know,” he said.
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