How UFOs evolved from science fiction to a national security priority

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The true story of how UFOs evolved from science fiction to a national security priority

While you were enjoying your summer, the U.S. government has decided it is really, really interested in UFOs.

The renewed federal interest — new investigations and a new openness to UFO reports, rebranded as “unidentified aerial phenomena” (or UAPs) — follows years of breathless cable-television documentaries, declassified fighter pilot video releases (and news coverage), an inconclusive report from U.S. intelligence agencies and a congressional hearing, all over strange stuff seen in the sky.

The result is a new era in “UFOlogy,” according to friends and foes alike, with the field groping toward a legitimacy — or at least funding — long denied its advocates. “In my estimation, a small group of people with good contacts in the media and intelligence agencies have succeeded in fundamentally changing the way the UFO issue is talked about publicly by publishing previously classified information,” said Andreas Anton, a sociologist who studies public attitudes about aliens and the occult at Germany’s Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, referring to widely reported military jet videos released in 2017. The U.S. military seems to observe with some regularity phenomena in the sky that cannot be explained conventionally, Anton added: “Until 2017, there was no public talk about this. This has now changed.”

In August, the Senate Intelligence Committee directed the Department of Defense to create an Unidentified Aerospace-Undersea Phenomena Joint Program Office to merge its UFO tallying and investigating efforts. The committee said that “cross-domain transmedium threats to United States national security are expanding exponentially,” in a bill expressing disappointment with DOD’s past efforts. That came weeks after the Defense Department in July named a former Defense Intelligence Agency scientist to head its UFO investigating office, and NASA in June announced a small, $100,000 study to figure out what data there is on UFOs that is worth further research. A NASA official told agency personnel that the study might be done by October, calling it a “high priority.”

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The new UFOlogy

The UFO community has greeted the moment with excitement, intrigued by recent congressional language expanding the search to underwater objects (the “transmedium” reference from the Senate committee) as a sign of government revelations to come. One of the most prominent names behind the declassified videos, former Defense Department official Lue Elizondo, on Monday called for turning UFOlogy into a legitimate science. “Rather than a Wild West approach, I want to instill rigor, discipline, and professionalism,” he wrote in Liberation Times, a UFO news site.

Some astronomers and astrobiologists, who have support from NASA for studies of potential life on Mars, Jovian moons and planets in other solar systems, are less enthusiastic. Columbia University astrobiologist Caleb Scharf criticized an intermingling of legitimate scientists and fringe figures in a Science magazine report about a new UFO-spotting project headed by Harvard University astrophysicist Avi Loeb. That project has signed up Elizondo as an adviser.

Loeb, the author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth,” rejects the criticism as close-minded. He said the Galileo Project he started to scan the nighttime sky for curious objects should begin collecting observations in January and be done in a year, presenting open data on the real frequency of unexplainable occurrences in the sky. He points to meteors and comets from other solar systems spotted in recent years to explain scientific interest in UFOs. The best known one is ‘Oumuamua, a likely interstellar comet that in 2017 whizzed by Earth — at 196,000 miles per hour; Loeb proposed (to some criticism) that it was an alien spacecraft.

“We could be on the cusp of starting an accelerated process of learning,” said Loeb. “But it could go in the direction of learning, ‘Oh everything we see is birds and airplanes and things like that,’ nothing else.”

However, the scientists who choose to study UFOs, like Loeb, are overwhelmingly enthusiasts for the existence of aliens, which creates a huge risk of bias in their studies, said Mick West, a UFO video analyst and author of “Escaping the Rabbit Hole.” (West is best known for debunking videos like the Navy jet ones and the “pyramid” video released by the Defense Department.) “Everyone else who comes to this without that perception, when they do start to look into it, they very quickly discover the quality of the evidence that is available to study is very, very poor,” he said. “Why would they spend their time and money on it?”

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On top of their low quality, the cellphone and cockpit UFO videos in wide circulation pose another huge scientific bias: We only get to see the things weird enough to be puzzling. “Pilots see a million confusing things looking out their window every day that we never hear about because they are not interesting,” said West. “We only get the ones that can’t be readily explained, usually because they are too blurry.” Those end up on the news. And while baffling mirages, optical illusions and “radar angels” have been explained for centuries after sightings in the sky and over the water, they are not really the purview of any one scientific discipline — making it less likely that scientists will take the time to debunk them.

Flying saucer summers

In the spring of 1909, observers all over Great Britain and Ireland began reporting sightings of zeppelins, a newly invented technology in Germany with a range far less than the English Channel, all over their islands. The Edwardian UFO scare matched the temper of the times, anxious about new technologies and conspiracy-minded about foreigners. Early summer was the traditional “silly season” for British newspapers as well, giving them a certain license.

In the U.S., the federal government has shown concern about UFOs since the initial “flying saucer” summer of 1947, at the dawn of the Cold War. The current episode dates to those 2017 videos, revealed in the New York Times to come from a defunct Defense Department program. That program’s history is truly weird, driven by then-Sen. Harry Reid’s working in concert with hotel magnate, campaign funder and UFO enthusiast Robert Bigelow, and To The Stars Academy, an entertainment company headed by Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge. The academy’s consultants included former defense and intelligence industry figures with an interest in UFOs, including Elizondo, who had compiled the UAP videos before his retirement from the Pentagon in 2017. At that time, Elizondo had the videos declassified, and they subsequently ended up in the news everywhere, producing what Politico called “an engineered feedback loop” that led to both a History Channel show on the paranormal and Congress’ demand for last year’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence report on UAPs. That set up this summer’s flurry of moves toward UFO studies at NASA and the Defense Department.

The back story to this back story is even weirder, detailed in the 2021 book “Skinwalkers at the Pentagon,” an account by former Defense Department officials of the 2008 origins of the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program (AAWSAP), which preceded Elizondo’s efforts. AAWSAP was meant to investigate a Utah ranch home to (reports of) paranormal werewolves, dinosaur-sized beavers, blue lights and, of course, its own show on the History Channel, “The Secrets of Skinwalker Ranch.” In a sign of the intermingling of the entertainment and defense industry that characterizes the modern UFO moment, one of that show’s stars, Travis Taylor, was an informal chief science adviser to the ODNI report on UFOs, according to Science Magazine. Taylor told Las Vegas TV journalist George Knapp, a co-author of the Skinwalkers book, that he was invited to work on the report — which in the end couldn’t explain 143 of the 144 UAP reports it noted, including ones subsequently debunked by West — by the Defense Department official heading the effort. The Defense Department did not reply to a request from Grid to clarify the employment status of either Elizondo or Taylor.

“A lot of this stuff has risen to public notice because, for want of putting it a better way, people want to be polite,” said West. Observations with a Defense Department or CIA imprimatur are supposed to be taken seriously, despite past episodes such as Special Forces teams that tried to kill goats with psychic energy, CIA “mind control” experiments with LSD and Air Force “teleportation” studies. “We can’t criticize military pilots because they are the cream of the crop, and they are giving their lives for the country, so we have to trust them,” said West. “So basically there is the accumulation of things that somebody says go without question, or they have credentials, and we are supposed to trust them.”

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Destigmatization

Outside the U.S., the recent moves to investigate UFOs have raised suspicions of a deliberate misinformation program meant to obscure classified military drone technologies, said Anton, the German sociologist. Reports of strange lights over Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico in the late 1970s are suspected by Anton and others to be part of a past U.S. cover story for military research that has added to UFO confusion ever since. Today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has started testing swarms of hundreds of drones, for example, the kind of thing that could certainly look confusing to someone not expecting them.

“In fact, this was initially my favored working hypothesis,” said Anton. However, it is the entertainment industry, in the form of To The Stars Academy, that has driven the eruption of UFO interest. The Defense Department, in contrast, has responded tardily to congressional demands for more information and study of UFOs.

This “destigmatization” of UFO studies could lead to it “becoming more and more a legitimate scientific research topic,” added Anton. “This would indeed be a great step forward and could, in the best case, lead to new knowledge about UFOs.”

From a historic standpoint, the current moment most resembles the period from 1966 to 1969, said historian Greg Eghigian of Penn State University, when key members of Congress, including future president Gerald Ford, held hearings on UFOs and the Air Force conducted a study of its Project Blue Book sightings. That study concluded there was nothing of scientific interest in UFO reports, making it an object of fury for enthusiasts ever since. And things could go that way again.

A congressional panel in March devoted to UFOs made an effort to emphasize the national security concerns over military pilots being distracted by unexplained phenomena, rather than plumping for aliens. And the Defense Department official, Naval Intelligence Director Scott Bray, testifying about the record of military UAP observations, now 400 in all, was careful to say that none looked “non-terrestrial.” A key purpose of the new office is to legitimize pilots reporting UAPs, previously regarded as a sign of psychological problems. (One congressman, Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a retired Marine officer with a Ph.D. in international relations, spent his time asking about a highly dubious report of a “glowing red orb” — probably Mars — claimed to have shut down a nuclear missile base in 1967, and another hoax report of the government hiding aliens.)


Even West, the video analyst and practiced debunker, agrees that more serious study of UFO observations could produce some beneficial knowledge. “The reports that pilots are seeing things they can’t identify, regardless of what it is, that is an issue,” he said. “Why are these things pinging radars. Is there something wrong with the radar, is it a weather phenomenon?”

“These are real issues worth looking into,” he said. “But then there is all the crazy stuff as well.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dan Vergano
    Dan Vergano

    Science Reporter

    Dan Vergano is a science reporter for Grid.