By Lee Speigel
Nothing kills a career faster than being branded a kook, and in many circles, that's what you are when you admit you've seen a UFO.
The stakes are raised, of course, if we're talking about academic communities, and even more so among astronomers -- people who study the skies.
Many astronomers say there's nothing of any scientific merit that could result in the study of UFOs.
With the career suicide stakes for astronomers so high, some UFO researchers believe many of them are hesitant to step forward. Certainly, the Air Force's Project Bluebook -- the last officially announced government study of unidentified flying objects -- concluded that five percent of the cases investigated could not be immediately explained away.
Nevertheless, one nationally renowned astronomer, Derrick Pitts, tells The Huffington Post that it might be time for a thorough study of unexplained aerial phenomena.
(Courtesy of The Franklin Institute)
Pitts, pictured at right, is also a NASA Solar System Ambassador. He told HuffPost about the idea that most serious astronomers give no credence to UFO reports.
"I can speculate about what many astronomers would say if you ask them that question. Many of them would say, 'I haven't seen anything, so I can't say that they exist. I can't say that this five percent are alien spacecraft.' But if you ask them in the same breath, 'Would you be willing to engage in a research project to figure out what these things are,' I don't know what that answer would be.
"I'd say, yeah, let's find out, let's take a look at it, because here we have a phenomenon that causes a tremendous amount of interest. Why not try to understand what it is?"
A careful look at historical records reveals how astronomers have, indeed, not only endorsed efforts to study the UFO phenomenon, but in many cases, have themselves seen unexplained objects for which they couldn't account.
In the late 1940s, astronomer -- and UFO skeptic -- J. Allen Hynek became the scientific consultant to Project Blue Book. During the nearly 20 years that Hynek was charged with explaining away UFO reports, he prepared a "Special Report On Conferences With Astronomers On Unidentified Aerial Objects."
Included in the study of 45 astronomers was a general feeling that "if they were promised complete anonymity and if they could report their sightings to a group of serious, respected scientists who would regard the problem as a scientific one, then they would be willing to cooperate to the very fullest extent."
Watch J. Allen Hynek discussing astronomers and UFOs
Hynek later went on to coin the phrase, "close encounters of the first, second and third kind," which described the various types of UFO reports made by people. As the director of the Center for UFO Studies, he was also the technical consultant -- with a cameo appearance -- in Steven Spielberg's 1977 film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Also in 1977, astrophysicist Peter Sturrock created a survey based on responses of members of the American Astronomical Society concerning UFOs. One respondent wrote: "I find it tough to make a living as an astronomer these days. It would be professionally suicidal to devote significant time to UFOs. However, I am quite interested in your survey."
A year after Sturrock's survey, Hynek found himself addressing the United Nations, pictured below, on the topic of continuing global sightings of UFOs.
"If it were not worldwide, I should not be addressing ... these representatives from many parts of the world," Hynek told the UN Special Political Committee in 1978. "There exists a global phenomenon the scope and extent of which is not generally recognized. It is a phenomenon so strange and foreign to our daily terrestrial mode of thought that it is frequently met by ridicule and derision by persons and organizations unacquainted with the facts.
"Yet, the phenomenon persists; it has not faded away as many of us expected it would when, years ago, we regarded it as a passing fad or whimsy. Instead, it has touched on the lives of an increasing number of people around the world."
Joining Hynek at that milestone UN initiative to try and get the world body to create an internal UFO committee was astronomer Jacques Vallee, portrayed by Francois Truffaut in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
"We are beginning to pay the price for the negative and prejudiced attitude with which our scientific institutions have treated sincere witnesses of UFO phenomena," Vallee told the U.N. delegates in 1978. "Lack of serious, open-minded research in this field has encouraged these witnesses to think that science was incapable of dealing with the phenomena.
"This attitude has led many people to seek answers outside the rational pursuit of knowledge to which science is dedicated. Only an open exchange of information on the subject could now correct this dangerous trend."
Vallee, pictured above, closed his remarks at the United Nations, saying, "All the great nations of the world are represented on this committee. Let us keep in mind that the UFO phenomenon may represent an even greater reality. It is our choice to treat it as a threat or as an opportunity for human knowledge."
Watch Jacques Vallee discussing UFOs at the 2011 Global Competitiveness Forum in Saudi Arabia.
Still close in our collective memory are all of the UFO reports that emerged from China in 2010, making almost daily headlines as unexplained lights and objects were seen throughout the country, and in some cases, responsible for airports temporarily closing down until the UFOs left the area.
Wang Sichao, a planetary astronomer at the Purple Mountain Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that the UFO reports "refer to events of credible facts backed by observation. But these facts cannot yet be explained by existing scientific knowledge or natural phenomena."
Wang has investigated UFO sightings in China for four decades and told the Beijing Review why there hasn't been much progress in available UFO information.
"The reason is that a UFO only appears randomly and often disappears rapidly in a few minutes. By the time large professional telescopes are started up, it has already disappeared. So, we can only rely on information from occasional sightings or encounters by observers," he explained.
Back in Philadelphia, Pitts suggests what needs to happen to ultimately lend more credibility to people who want to study UFOs and eventually solve the mystery, one way or another.
"There are two ways in which this can happen. The first way is if a UFO lands on the front lawn of the White House -- that would take care of all of that right away," Pitts said.
"Then, the other way is if some legitimate, recognized scientific institution engages in research about these particular objects. And something that would help it is if we change the name of what it is that's being investigated, because that immediately causes problems.
"If that helps to legitimize the research and makes it acceptable in a way that will bring the strength of others to bear on resolving the questions, then that's a good thing."