Believing in aliens didn’t used to be so hard. In the past century, eerie tales of outer space visitors have dominated both pop culture and the public consciousness. But the idea of blaming the unexplained on extraterrestrials reaches as far back as the ancient Greeks, whose philosophers were among the first to coin the idea that life on Earth may have originated from another world.
Only relatively recently in human history have UFO sightings and alien folklore become more mainstream. Research shows this kind of “pseudoarchaeology” is catching on across the internet—just as modern technology lets more people collect photos, share videos, and share reports of bizarre data, providing more fodder for speculations and even government probes.
But for scientists and military professionals who assemble this evidence and throw their hats in with true believers, there’s a huge stigma behind bringing up aliens and UFOs in serious discussions.
As NASA prepares to mount a surprisingly robust investigation into unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, the shame and at times, censure, of submitting such reports could die down. Additionally, the Department of Defense (DOD) recently launched a UAP task force, though the two missions are separately run. NASA has stated there’s no evidence that these objects are extraterrestrial in origin, but with access to thousands of hours of both classified and public aerial data, the agency is uniquely positioned to discern whether UAPs may be a real danger to research and military craft inside US airspace.
During a news conference announcing the study’s formation earlier this month, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate, said the agency will focus on identifying available data, how best to collect future data and how the agency can use this data to move scientific understanding of UAPs forward.
When the conversation shifted to normalizing UAP talk in research settings, Zurbuchen said he hopes the study will communicate that science is a process, one that works to reveal the truth behind any and all problems, including the concept of unexplained sightings in the skies.
“Frankly, I think there’s new science to be discovered,” he said. “There’ve been many times where something that looked almost magical turned out to be a new scientific effect.” For example, noctilucent clouds—Arctic clouds that give off a silver-blue glow—were once linked to mysterious origins, until their strange shine was found to be caused by reflecting sunlight.
The study will last for nine months, but in the name of transparency, NASA has stressed that its findings will be made public after the mission’s conclusion. The move could encourage people to have more informed discussions on aliens out in the open, though it’s unclear whether it will lift the stigma for good.
Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, says about one out of three individuals believe that UAPs could be alien spacecraft. More government-backed reports makes the phenomenon easier to investigate, but it also puts the concept under more scrutiny than in years past. While many are of the opinion that unexplained events can sometimes have supernatural explanations, you’d be hard pressed to get a space expert to agree that aliens walk among us, Shostak says.
“You won’t find many scientists who think there’s anything to the UAP phenomenon if you think that those are alien craft or not some sort of drones,” he says.
While talk of sinister saucers whizzing past aircraft or disappearing into the sea has often been relegated to conspiracy theory circles, educated experts who believe in extraterrestrials have historically been met with derision, disbelief and social excommunication. One SETI researcher and proponent of alien activity, ironically, became an internet meme.
According to Shostak, the main difference between astronomers searching for life in the cosmos versus hunting for aliens on Earth is where they’re hoping to find it. Astrobiologists look for chemical traces of life all over the solar system, but only those who believe in UAPs are concerned with whether there are organisms intelligent enough to abduct cows back on terra firma.
It also isn’t as if the government ignored extraterrestrial concerns before. “The military has always been involved in these UFO reports, because if there’s something in our airspace, obviously we need to know about it,” says Shostak.
For instance, Project Blue Book, a codename for a top-secret Air Force project meant to catalog and understand UAPs, recorded more than 12,000 UAP sightings between 1947 and 1969. Some of these events included the Roswell Incident, America’s most infamous extraterrestrial mystery, as well as when military officers delivered reports of UAPs appearing during NATO’s war game, Exercise Mainbrace, in 1952.
Yet in the past few years, air incidents involving UAPs have increased, spurring the DOD and other federal branches to plead with personnel to pipe up after encounters. Encouraging people to come forward, however, is a task easier said than done.
Last year, the DOD sought to shift UAPs away from the fringes of scientific concern by establishing the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The group’s goal is to detect and identify objects of interest that may “pose national security challenges.” Earlier this year, Congress also took a step forward in giving credence to UAP cases, as it held its first public hearing on the topic in 50 years.
During the panel, Pentagon officials testified that the number of UAPs reported by pilots and other service members had recently grown to 400. In learning more about these incidents, Ronald Moultrie, the Biden administration’s under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, said that he was confident the government would be able to strike a “delicate balance” between maintaining the public’s trust on the matter and protecting service members in the skies.
“By combining appropriately structured collected data with rigorous scientific analysis, any object that we encounter can likely be isolated, characterized, identified, and if necessary, mitigated,” said Moultrie. Other officials later remarked that the stigma associated with UAPs has long gotten in the way of intelligence-gathering, and fearful of a “skeptical national security community,” the DOD often swept incidents under the rug. Now NASA plans to pull the rug out from under the community, challenging them to accept that while these objects remain unexplained, they are deserving of real scientific inquiry.
Simply put, there’s a lot riding on NASA over the next year. And while the search for extraterrestrial explanations feels like a zero-sum game at the moment, only time will tell if the hunt was worthy of pursuit. “What you don’t want is a precooked answer,” Shostak says. “You want them to look at the evidence and decide.”