Fifty years ago, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, an event celebrated this week with parties all across the globe and in orbit aboard the International Space Station.
That's what history says, anyway. But there are those who believe otherwise. They'd say the first humans in space were unwilling passengers abducted by aliens and spirited away to orbiting mother ships, where they were probed in a very uncomfortable place. That's because highly advanced life forms capable of interstellar travel have nothing better to do than journey millions of light years to play proctologist while passing along touchy-feely messages about how we all need to be nice to each other and take care of our planet.
Or, in the words of Michael Rennie, "Klaatu barada nikto."
No, I don't put much stock in reports of UFOs. Sure, there are "unidentified flying objects" in the strict sense of the term. But there is little evidence that any such objects reported over the decades are actually spaceships from other planets. And UFO sightings from astronomers, the people who spend the most time looking up at the sky, are virtually unheard of. Why? Because astronomers — not to be confused with astrologers — are trained professionals who know what they're looking at. So, they're rarely going to run across anything they can't identify, such as an aircraft, a meteor or a planet.
Venus, which is very bright in the evening sky and orbits much closer to the sun than Earth — so that it appears to change position relatively quickly — is commonly mistaken for a UFO. Just ask President Carter.
But as the saying goes, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and if the pattern holds, we're due for a new peak in UFO sightings.
The first wave of UFO sightings occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and it spilled over into entertainment in the form of popular movies like "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still," as well as unpopular movies like "Plan 9 from Outer Space."
Things seemed to calm down in the 1960s, but by the '70s, there was another peak of UFO interest, which coincided, interestingly enough, with the release of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
The '80s were relatively quiet again, but the '90s saw another rise in sightings, in conjunction, as it happens, with the debut of "The X-Files," "news" programs like "Sightings" and "Encounters," and "alien autopsy" specials on network television.
Since "The X-Files" left the air, UFO reports have declined again.
So, I have a not-so-out-of-this-world theory to explain all of that.
Kids who grew up with the first UFO mania of the 1950s became Hollywood producers in the '70s. They made movies and TV shows about alien visitors, which in turn got people interested in UFOs again.
Suddenly, lots of people were back to mistaking mundane things for alien spacecraft. Then, in the 1990s, a new generation of TV and film producers that grew up in the 1970s repeated the cycle. And now we're reaching the time when the kids of the '90s, feeling nostalgic for Mulder and Scully, will start the cycle anew.
In fact, it may have already started. In the past week, the Internet and certain media outlets have hyped a 1950 FBI memo that allegedly supports the story of a UFO crashing in Roswell, N.M., in 1947.
There's just one small problem: It doesn't. The memo isn't new, it wasn't secret and it doesn't have anything to do with the purported Roswell incident, according to Benjamin Radford writing for Livescience.com.
So, why is it creating such a stir now? Probably it's just a coincidence. But, maybe, it's just that time again.