Fireballs in the Sky

When the government officials explain the origins of strange objects in the sky, not everyone believes them

By Kellyn Brown

A fireball streaked across the Western sky last week. It was visible from Canada to Arizona and a handful of Montanans captured the event on film. The images showed what looked like a close-passing meteor with a long tail. With a backdrop of an aurora borealis display, the spectacle was especially pronounced in Glacier National Park.

But it wasn’t a meteor.

Maj. Martin O’Donnell with U.S. Strategic Command told the Associated Press that it was actually the remnants of a Chinese rocket booster that reentered the atmosphere. While the recent fireball provided an especially spectacular show, these events are fairly common.

In September of last year, Montanans watched a Russian satellite break up in the night sky in what was described as three glowing “rocks” with red and orange streaks. Of course, when the government officials explain the origins of strange objects in the sky, not everyone believes them.

A UFO enthusiast, John Greenewald, spent about two decades filing Freedom of Information Act requests, asking the government to release its files on unusual sightings. And recently, about 130,000 declassified records were published online – called “Project Blue Book.” Although there is a copyright dispute between Greenewald and, bizarrely, Ancentry.com over who owns the digital copies, right now many of the sightings can be searched at www.fold3.com.

Project Blue Book, according to the report, consists of the “U.S. Air Force investigation into UFOs that were sighted between June 1947 and December 1969.” Many were determined to be satellites and rockets, much like the recent fireballs.

But drill down into the documents and you’ll find reports like this from Kalispell in December 1959, when witnesses reported seeing a “long, dark object with white light on nose. Object appeared to go into the ground.”

This would spook anyone, especially a resident in 1950s Montana, and the incident was reported to the local sheriff. But an investigator said it was simply a refueling operation east of the city.

Other reports were more detailed. A source in Missoula in December 1956 turned over “physical evidence” of a UFO – an object he believed was “part of a space ship, containing a self-contained power unit activated by unknown material.” Investigators determined the object was a “black-grey colored volcanic rock.”

Still other incidents were more profound – like an object reported the night of January 18, 1955, in Kalispell.

A man was in his backyard chopping wood. It was 6:15 p.m. when suddenly a bright light lit up the sky. Already dark in the dead of winter, the object was so luminous that the man could see his neighbor’s house across the small lake on which he lived, about three-quarters of a mile away. About five minutes later he heard an explosion.

He wasn’t the only one who saw it. An employee at the U.S. weather station said he had received several “eyewitness reports” about the “disturbance,” including one from a local rancher who saw a “teardrop” shaped object that lit up the ground with a violet color. Five minutes later, he also heard a loud explosion.

A railway conductor reported the same. And whatever it was, with so many reports, it was likely the talk of Kalispell for several days after.

After an investigation, including interviews with witnesses, the government determined that this “disturbance was created by a small meteor penetrating the earth’s atmosphere and exploding from contact with heavier air.”

That’s a logical explanation. Nonetheless, there were apt to be some skeptics in a post-war era when reports like this were common and the government thoroughly documented nearly all of them. I only wish there were more cameras pointed to the sky that night.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.