The center receives thousands of calls each year from people who believe they may have encountered extraterrestrials.
HARRINGTON, Lincoln County — “That door,” he says with dramatic pause. “That door weighs 4,000 pounds. It’s been reinforced to withstand a nuclear blast.”
Peter Davenport has a radio voice, the kind of exaggerated baritone that cuts through walls and most doors, but not this one. This is solid steel and a foot thick.
It is Davenport’s door, opening into a tunnel leading below ground to what was once a nuclear-missile complex here in the scrubland of Eastern Washington.
The Air Force decommissioned the site in the mid-1960s, and it sat empty for most of the time since. Davenport, longtime director of the National UFO Reporting Center, a nonprofit clearinghouse and 24-hour hotline for UFO sightings, bought it for $100,000 two years ago to turn into his new headquarters.
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Why does a man buy an old, windowless missile complex deep underground, only to spend his days tracking unidentified objects flying through the sky?
Davenport doesn’t have an answer. But he’s a full-time UFO investigator with one of the world’s most comprehensive, though unofficial, UFO databases, and his life already runs counter to convention.
The center, in operation since 1970, is known worldwide among those interested in UFOs. The hotline is posted on various UFO Web sites, and calls — as many as 20,000 a year — come from people who believe they’ve seen or experienced something unusual potentially involving extraterrestrials.
If the case seems compelling and isn’t too distant, Davenport will investigate. He takes written reports, records testimony and consults experts in specialty areas.
Davenport, 60, is a passionate, cerebral man with a haughty disdain for the media. “The work of studying UFOs is of immense consequence to every living thing on this planet,” he says. “If I sense you are wasting my time, I will be blunt.”
His life revolves around a question, namely: Are we alone in the universe or are we not?
“He’s not the normal guy on the street, but crazy? No. He’s not crazy,” Robert Frost says of Davenport, whom he’s known for most of the past two decades. The former chief engineer for Boeing’s portion of the B-2 bomber project, Frost met Davenport, a fellow techie, in Seattle.
“The guy’s brilliant,” Frost says. “Personally, I think he’s going to prevail on this thing.”
By that, Frost means time will prove Davenport correct on his hunch that UFOs represent a real phenomenon.
Davenport earned degrees in biology and Russian at Stanford University and graduate degrees in genetics and biochemistry of fish at the University of Washington. He became founding president of a Seattle-area biotechnology company, BioSyn, and nine years later, in 1994, sold his stock and made a small fortune.
That same year, he received a phone call from Robert Gribble, a retired firefighter in Seattle who long had acted as a one-man clearinghouse for UFO information and operator of a national UFO hotline.
Gribble wanted to pass the torch. Davenport accepted and has been director of the National UFO Reporting Center ever since, maintaining the hotline and funding the operation out of his own pocket. Cost can range from $500 to $5,000 a month, depending on travel.
Davenport has few other expenses. He never married, never had kids. He drove old cars. For a dozen years he ran the center out of a rented home near Seattle’s University District. Then he got the notion that he wanted his own missile site.
“There was an allure to the idea,” he says. Davenport, who had long been interested in aircraft and rocketry, had heard of missile silos for sale in Eastern Washington.
One in particular was going for a bargain price: Atlas Missile Site No. 6, in which the previous owner had killed and dismembered a visitor.
“I don’t know about the kind of people who buy these things,” Davenport says, his voice trailing off. He leaves the steel door propped open and fumbles for lights.
A series of clicks, and the room turns pale yellow. He stands in an entryway, all concrete and steel, and dank like a cave. He takes a tunnel to the right and clomps down a metal tube about 50 yards long to a cave about the size of a basketball court. Piles of debris can be seen in the semidarkness.
“Launch control room,” he says with his radio voice.
Toward the back, shrouded in darkness, sits Davenport’s life work: a collection of tens of thousands of reports on UFO sightings. He kept files long before the television show “The X-Files” brought the paranormal to prime time. The information is meticulously labeled and filed in a long row of mismatched metal file cabinets. They form the shape of a miniature city skyline.
The plan was to live and work in here, but the place leaks and has poor ventilation and a bat problem.
For now, the center’s phone and answering machine will stay at Davenport’s Harrington apartment, a few miles away, until Missile Site No. 6 is fixed up. Davenport is doing most of the fixing up himself.
Davenport says most UFO sightings, up to 90 percent, are explainable: weather balloons, military aircraft, satellites and hoaxes. But in a tiny percentage, maybe only a handful each year, something was definitely seen — often by multiple reliable sources — and defies explanation.
He believes that clues lie buried in the hill-sized mounds of paper he has meticulously cataloged, if only the government or a well-funded university would do the research.
“I’m willing to share data,” he says. “I’m willing to throw all of it to anyone who wants to know.”