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THE YEARS TICKED by. The Trents got back to their lives, and the hubbub settled down. The topic of UFOs, though, was just starting to heat up. By the end of the decade, thousands of people were claiming to have sighted alien spacecraft in the sky, and the usual hordes of imaginative charlatans were crowding the field with claims and hoaxes of widely varying degrees of believability.
During this time, the U.S. Air Force had been trying to get a handle on the issue. This was proving hard to do. Nearly everyone had a strong opinion on the subject and a high degree of contempt for the opposite position.
Finally, in 1965, the Air Force found a legitimate university with a well-credentialed physicist who would be willing to undertake a thorough study of the matter: Dr. Edward Condon of the University of Colorado.
Condon’s report was released in 1968, and pretty much firmly established UFOlogy as a “border science,” well outside the mainstream. Of course, UFO enthusiasts countered that Condon had had strong confirmation bias to contend with — if he had ended up concluding that UFOs were real, they claimed, his academic reputation would have been ruined. So, he had a strong incentive to minimize the evidence in favor and maximize the evidence against. They professed themselves unsurprised when he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to consider UFOs as a reasonable possibility.
Even so, Condon’s report admitted that it was unable to falsify the Trent photographs, or find damaging inconsistency in the story they’d told in the countless interviews they’d given in the year or two after their sighting.
“This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical, appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses,” the report noted.
However, it did leave open the possibility that the object had been a model suspended from an overhead line one or two dozen feet from the camera — a theory that continues to resonate with skeptics today.
BY GIVING GRUDGING praise to the Trent photographs, the Condon Report brought them to the attention of a new cadre of amateur debunkers. Over the decades that followed, numerous theories emerged: a trash-can lid on a string, a side-view mirror from a 1947 Ford pickup, and so on.
The Trents both died in the late 1990s, and both insisted until the end that the photos were legitimate. And, even today, amateur analysts are disagreeing about whether they were lying. The conclusions these analysts have reached, so far, have been very predictable: confirmed skeptics conclude definitively that the whole thing was a hoax, and confirmed UFO believers assert positively that the photos were demonstrably real.
All the intense scrutiny over the years has successfully proven only one thing: that the photos are extraordinarily resistant to being definitively debunked — or, for that matter, confirmed.
But then, the McMinnville UFO sighting is a bit like the D.B. Cooper mystery: If someone ever were able to put the question to rest, the whole thing would probably stop being interesting. And if that ever happened, the annual McMinnville UFO festival — held for the past two decades or so on the first full weekend after May 11 — might dry up and blow away, which would be a real tragedy. So really, the whole thing is probably better left as a tantalizing mystery.