Culture Wars/Current Controversies

What explains the U.S. government’s revived interest in UFOs?

What explains the U.S. government’s revived interest in UFOs? Seth Shostak on mysterious phenomena, human psychology, and alien life.
Artem Kovalev
(Originally published 2022 | 06.24)

For the first time in more than half a century, the U.S. Congress held a hearing in May 2022 on unidentified flying objects—or as the American government now officially refers to them, “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Members of the House of Representatives discussed these mysterious occurrences as potential threats to national security, amounting to a serious, real-world issue that must be addressed with more transparency and without the longstanding cultural stigma associated with science-fiction portrayals of UFOs as alien spacecraft. Members of Congress speaking and Pentagon officials at the hearing emphasized that this stigma has deterred military pilots from speaking up about unidentified objects they came across over the years—though the military has been working to encourage reporting in its ongoing, and increasingly public, efforts to explain these sightings.

This week, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer testified to Congress that his government has been concealing a longstanding program to retrieve and reverse engineer unidentified flying objects. The Pentagon has denied it.

Since the early 2000s, according to Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray, the U.S. has seen “an increasing number of unauthorized and/or unidentified aircraft or objects” in military training areas and other designated air space. Bray was testifying at the hearing nearly a year after the Office of the Director of Naval Intelligence released a landmark report on UFOs. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Congress, the military, and the intelligence community aren’t the only elements of the U.S. government paying attention to the subject. Earlier last year, NASA announced it would begin its own independent study of “observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena—from a scientific perspective.” What’s behind these investigations, and where are they leading?

Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which is dedicated to the “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” in the universe. According to Shostak, Congress’ renewed interest in UFOs followed public revelations in 2017 about Pentagon research into the subject and mysterious U.S. Navy videos of apparent objects in the skies. Shostak says American military and intelligence authorities are now trying to make investigating and communicating about these objects a higher priority–responding to increased public curiosity and new directions from Washington—though officials’ recent public statements demonstrate how many questions about UFOs remain unanswered. Shostak sees no evidence supporting theories of their connection to extraterrestrial visitors, but he says more openness and transparency from the American government—something NASA’s new investigation especially holds the promise of—will help keep such theories from taking off into elaborate narratives about conspiracies and cover-ups.

Graham Vyse: Why has the American government been so interested in UFOs recently?

Seth Shostak: It goes back to 2017, when The New York Times published an article featuring three videos taken by the U.S. Navy planes, including footage taken off the coast of San Diego. In all three videos, something in the frame couldn’t be identified. It seemed like the government had evidence of things in our skies other than what we already know is up there. To many in the UFO community—by which I mean at least a third of Americans, who believe Earth has been visited by alien spacecraft—this was a chance for the government to prove it was honest and not withholding information from the public. The fact that a reputable source, namely the Navy, had evidence of this strange phenomenon created pressure for investigations.

Vyse: What exactly did the videos show?

Shostak: They all came from cameras on Navy planes—infrared cameras used to target enemy aircraft. They showed these shapes—round blobs, or blobs that look like peanuts, or blobs resembling Tic Tac mints. Sometimes the things would disappear, swinging out of the field of view at what’s apparently a very high speed. Now, that “apparently” is important, because you can’t judge speed unless you know the distance of these things, but the pilots—whose voices can be heard in the videos—clearly didn’t know what they were.

Vyse: The Times story also described a secret Pentagon program that had investigated UFO reports for many years. What effect did the public revelation of this program have?

Shostak: It appeared that the government had been studying UFOs despite claiming it was done with all that. Ultimately, lawmakers on Capitol Hill decided to spend some money and look into it. In 2020, Congress said U.S. intelligence agencies needed to produce a report on the subject, which came out last summer.

The report had two parts—a public portion and a classified portion. The public portion was really anodyne—really milquetoast. It basically said, We don’t understand a lot of these things. Not one word of it referred to the possibility that these objects might be extraterrestrial crafts. Even so, I believe many in the UFO community thought the classified portion of the report had evidence of extraterrestrials. That’s the thing about conspiratorial arguments—you can’t disprove them. [The month’s congressional hearing also had a closed, classified portion, which members of the U.S. Congress stressed was kept private only for reasons of national security, not to hide evidence of extraterrestrials on earth.]

Darya Jum
More from Seth Shostak at The Signal:

There are three types of explanations put forward for those Navy UFO videos. There are the prosaic explanations—that, for instance, we could be seeing the exhaust of a commercial jet. Another type of explanation is that we could be looking at an aircraft from another country—maybe drones sent to spy on American military exercises—but that strikes me as implausible. Other countries are checking out what the U.S. Navy is doing off the coast of San Diego? It could be, I suppose. Then, of course, there are the explanations involving extraterrestrial craft having come to Earth to observe the Navy. That idea is totally perplexing to me. Why would aliens, advanced enough to get all the way to Earth, be interested in observing what the U.S. military can do? It would be like going back to Ancient Rome and spending all your time looking at a place where they manufacture swords—it might be interesting, but it’s of no real importance.”

I don’t think the government is malevolent on these issues. I don’t think they’re trying to hide anything. In fact, they couldn’t hide anything. I mean, how could aliens have arranged things such that only the U.S. government could find evidence for their presence? What about all the other countries in the world? What about the fact that there’s radar for commercial aviation all around the globe? There are 100,000 flights a day, and they need to know what’s up in the air. If something were visiting us in their airspace, honestly, commercial aviation would grind to a halt. They’d stop putting planes in the sky until they figured out what it was.”

I believe aliens are out there, yes. We at the SETI Institute are trying to find them, but we don’t claim we’ve found anything yet, which sets us apart from the UFO crowd. If we were to find a signal made by a transmitter that we believed was truly extraterrestrial, we’d immediately call up people in other countries with other equipment and ask them to verify that signal—and if it couldn’t be verified, we wouldn’t believe it ourselves. That makes us different from someone who only has witness testimony of once seeing something in the sky. That’s just a story, and stories don’t carry a whole lot of weight in science.”

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