Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Rocket Expert Who Stopped the War on UFOs

Looking for perspective on the flying saucer panic of 1952, newspapers turned to experts in science and space travel. The Washington Daily News, July 28, 1952, quoted a rocket specialist: 

“Several scientists, tho stumped for an explanation of ‘flying saucers’ today said they’re convinced the mysterious objects really exist.

‘I definitely believe the objects sighted over Washington were not a figment of someone’s imagination,’ said Robert L. Farnsworth, president of the U.S. Rocket Society, a reputable organization devoted to the study of rocket travel. He said, ‘there is a possibility’ they are interplanetary space ships.” 

R. L. Farnsworth would go on to make one of the most famous statements ever on the topic of UFOs and aliens. We’ll look at who was, his beliefs, and the organization he led. 

The Rocket Society 

The American Rocket Society was founded in 1930 by some space enthusiasts, however, it rapidly evolved into a prestigious professional and technical association. According to the group’s history by 1934, “Most of the original science fiction crowd had left, to be replaced by scientists and engineers.” The ARS had very little to do with flying saucers* but there was another group, and the press probably mixed up the two.

In 1942, an organization with a similar name sprung up in Illinois, the United States Rocket Society, founded and led by Robert Lee Farnsworth (1909-1998). Farnsworth was in the real estate business for most of his life, but his passion was for the stars. The USRS was essentially a fan club for proponents of rockets and space travel, and Harry Warner’s science fiction fanzine Spaceways was listed as their “official organ.”

Well before the UFOs of 1947, Farnsworth believed in the likelihood of extraterrestrial life and visitations. In his 1943 booklet, Rockets: New Trail to Empire, Farnsworth said, “In times to come the Nation which owns the Moon will rule the universe!" It shouldn’t be the Nazis, he said, “Let’s get there first, - AMERICA!” In another passage he alluded to what’s become known as the “Ancient Aliens”' hypothesis, and lauded Charles Fort, “Many of the phenomena he reported pointed to life and exploration from other worlds!"

The U.S. Rocket Society received some publicity in 1944 and 1945, for Farnsworth asking US authorities about the possibility of land ownership of the moon, and of the use of atomic powered rockets to fly there. 

NEA item, Aug. 19, 1945 

Farnsworth capitalized on the media attention and reprinted the Rockets pamphlet in 1945. Arthur C. Clarke (of the British Interplanetary Society) received a copy and wrote a scathing essay in opposition to the idea that the moon and space should be the subject of national or commercial exploitation. In “The Moon and Mr. Farnsworth” (Later collected in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!: Collected Essays, 1934-1998) Clarke also said, “The brochure will, I am afraid, have a deplorable effect on any intelligent layman and will attract the most undesirable type of member, if indeed it attracts any at all.” 

In 1946, USRS launched their own quarterly fanzine, Rockets: The Magazine of Space Flight, featuring a mix of content about aerospace developments and science fiction. Ads for it appeared in pulps like Fantastic Adventures, and in the classifieds in magazines like Popular Science

Farnsworth believed in the possibility of extraterrestrial visitations. After the reports by Kenneth Arnold and others, he speculated further. From The Decatur Daily Review, July 8, 1947: “Illinois' Disks Vary in Color, Speed, Height” by the Associated Press: 

“But whatever their shapes, sizes or behavior, R. L. Farnsworth, a Chicago amateur astronomer and member of the U. S. Rocket society, suggested they might be animate and came from Venus or they might be electronic eyes from Mars. It is possible, he added, that Venus had evolved a form of life able to fly by use of electric currents, such as a sting-ray fish which has an electric charge. And if they really are fish from Venus, Farnsworth said, they might find themselves out of bounds in buzzing the earth because they might not be able to survive in its atmosphere.” 

The Butte Montana Standard, July 8, 1947, carried a similar lengthier article where Farnsworth discussed Charles Fort, and the fact that strange things had been seen in the skies for hundreds of years. 

The Butte Montana Standard, July 8, 1947

Saucers were not mentioned in the United Press article from July 11, 1947, about Farnsworth’s editorial, but it reported on his speculation that long ago, the moon might have been an atomic battleground for “Ancient Aliens.” Inhabitants flew from the dying moon to our young planet, and he hinted their secrets might have been sunk with Atlantis and Lemuria. 

United Press, July 11, 1947

Startling Stories Sept. 1948

The science fiction and fantasy pulp magazine Startling Stories, Sept. 1948 published Farnsworth’s essay on rockets, “First Target in Space,” where he speculated there might be life on the moon and our surrounding planets. Their May 1949 issue featured a sequel where he speculated about the future discoveries that space travel would allow. Farnsworth was confident Mars held life, and he speculated that the “Dipodomys Deserti” might be found there. “This little mammal resembles a gopher, a rat, a rabbit and a miniature kangaroo!” 

For a while, things were relatively quiet in the press for Farnsworth, but he ran as a candidate for Congress from Illinois' 14th District in 1950 and again in 1952, both times unsuccessfully. Then came the famous saucer flap in the summer of 1952. 

The Scranton Tribune, July 29, 1952 

"Scoops" 1954 trading card from Topps

Shoot Them Down 

From Flying Saucers From Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe, 1953:

“…INS had reported a new Air Force order—if saucers ignored orders to land, pilots were to open fire. At Washington, [radio show host] Frank Edwards had picked up the flash and repeated it on the Mutual network. Telegrams protesting the order were now coming in from all over the country.” 

One of those telegrams was sent to US President Harry Truman.


From here, we’ll let Farnsworth tell the story. From Rockets: The Magazine of Space Flight Vol.3. Nol. January 1953. pp.13-14.[As quoted by Loren Gross in UFOs: A History, 1952: July 21–31 (Supplemental Notes) page 88)

"On the night of July 27 Mr. Farnsworth was called by United Press and asked to give his opinion or a statement about his view of these releases [of UFO news of the day]. This was given wide publicity, over the entire United States and should be to the Society's credit. Next night we were called by the Society Vice-President, Mr. John M. Griggs in New Jersey, and told of a news dispatch which purported to say that the Armed Forces had orders to shoot these objects down on sight. At this Mr. Farnsworth immediately sent the following wire to the President of the United States, to the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army and of the Navy:

'I respectfully suggest that no offensive action be taken against the objects reported as unidentified which have been sighted over our Nation. Should they be extra-terrestrial such action might result in the gravest consequences, as well as possibly alienating us from beings of far superior powers. Friendly contact should be sought as long as possible.

Signed, Robert L. Farnsworth, President, U.S. Rocket Society, Inc.' 

The next day, July 29, 1952, through the courtesy of Radio and TV station WGN, Mr. Farnsworth appeared on a short news interview given by Spencer Allen at 6:45 Chicago time." 

Here are a few samples of the coverage in the newspapers in the following days:

Long Beach Independent, July 30, 1952
Lodi News-Sentinel, July 30, 1952

Daily Globe (Ironwood, Michigan), July 31, 1952

That was the last significant UFO-related press on Farnsworth, but his interest in the topic continued. Rockets vl. 2 no. 3 from 1952 was largely devoted to the Tenth Anniversary World Science Fiction Convention (which included some UFO programming) held in held on Labor Day weekend in Chicago. Farnsworth privately paid for a suite there for the purpose of promoting the USRS. Rockets also featured two items about flying saucers, a notice for the International Flying Saucer Bureau, and commentary on the news of the day about military balloons being reported as UFOs.

Ad for WorldCon

Rockets vl. 3 no. 2 from 1953 carried several items about flying saucer clubs and publications. Farnsworth had been a member of the Fortean Society and frequently submitted clippings to their journal Doubt up until the mid-1950s. The collection of the USRS’s magazine online is not complete, but the July 1956 issue of Rockets contained no mention of anything UFO-related, indicating he may have given up on the topic. We found no other documentation of Farnsworth being connected with UFOs for his next four decades. Joshua Buhs on Farnsworth’s final years:

Rockets continued into the late 1950s... By that point, Farnsworth had relocated to Nevada, reaching that state in 1955. … [His wife] Evelyn died in 1970. Robert died 3 August 1998, exactly one month after his 89th birthday.”

Obituary from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 13, 1998:

“Robert Lee Farnsworth, 89, of Las Vegas died Aug. 3 in Las Vegas. He was born July 3, 1909, in Chicago. A resident for 43 years, he was a real estate appraiser, president of the Tennessee Uranium Mining Co., former congressional candidate in Illinois, early advocate of space flight, founder and president of the United States Rocket Society and member of the Masons and Shriners.”

Farnsworth’s association with the flying saucers was relatively brief, but he made a lasting impact. He is still frequently quoted today for his plea not to shoot them down, and we’ll never know for sure, but he may have also saved our planet.

Robert L. Farnsworth, one of...

The Ufologists That Time Forgot

. . .

For more biographical data on Farnsworth, see:

Robert L. Farnsworth as a Fortean by Joshua Buhs


* The Other Rocket Society President

The same 1952 UFO Washington, DC, events that led to Farnsworth’s famous telegram also resulted in something else. The Central Intelligence Agency convened a panel on UFOs, under the direction of Professor Howard P. Robertson. The CIA’s Robertson Panel concluded the population should be educated about UFOs to avoid fear or panic, “The ‘debunking’ aim would result in reduction in public interest in ‘flying saucers’…"

Naval Aviation News, April 1951
Frederick C. Durant (1916-2015) was an engineer that rose to prominence for his expertise in rocketry and served as president of the American Rocket Society in 1953. He was also a consultant to the Department of Defense, and the CIA, serving as the author of the Robertson Panel’s conclusions, known as the Durant Report.

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