UFOs? After years of avoiding any serious discussion of these things, NASA is on to it.
The space agency announced yesterday that it will form a team dedicated to studying unidentified aerial phenomena “that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena”. Starting this fall, the team will examine existing data on these objects and brainstorm new ways to collect future data. All of the work, which NASA expects to take nine months, will be done “from a scientific perspective”.
This is the turn of events. Of course, there may have been, in people’s minds, an association between the space agency and unidentified flying objects: the term UFO has been synonymous with alien spacecraft since the day it was coined in the 1950s, and one of NASA’s missions is to find signs of life beyond Earth. But today’s announcement marked the first time that NASA has entered so publicly – and this significantly – into the broader discussion of UFOs in the agency’s 64-year history. Not only has NASA changed its approach to reporting mysterious sightings in the sky, it will also build a UFO research team led by a respected astrophysicist and have public meetings on its results.
“We have the tools and teams that can help us improve our understanding of the unknown, and we are prepared to use these powerful tools of scientific discovery in this case,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions, told reporters at a news conference. . conference. “Unidentified phenomena in the atmosphere are of interest for many reasons. Frankly, I think there is new science to be discovered. And there were many times when something that seemed almost magical turned out to be a new scientific effect.”
As NASA itself said today, there is still no evidence that UAPs (the government’s preferred term, meaning “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena”) have alien origins; the agency is far more interested in looking for life deep in the solar system and far beyond. So why take such a formal interest now? For the same reason, it seems, US lawmakers recently held the first Congressional hearing on UAPs in 50 years: Everyone is talking about them. Later The New York Times newspaper published a story in 2017 about a secret Pentagon program dedicated to UFO cataloging, lawmakers asked the Department of Defense and US intelligence agencies in 2020 to compile a report on all of their UFO data. The following summer, as the government prepared to release this highly anticipated report, a reporter asked Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, what the agency was doing about UAPs. Nelson, a former senator who was privy to classified information, said he spoke to pilots who had seen UAPs and were convinced they saw something worth investigating. “So I talked to [Zurbuchen] about what specifically we could do from a scientific perspective, in addition to an intelligence perspective, to try to shed some additional light on this,” Nelson said in 2021.
What exactly is the “scientific perspective” or “new science” that NASA hopes to unlock? David Spergel, the astrophysicist leading the new team, said in a statement that the group’s first task is to “gather the most robust set of data we can,” including existing data “from civilians, government, nonprofits, businesses.” Zurbuchen, in a presentation to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine today, suggested that the group would also consider data from astronomy and Earth observation missions. “We are looking at the sky all the time. We’re looking at Earth all the time,” Zurbuchen said. “What types of scientific data currently collected and archived by NASA or civil government entities should be separated and analyzed?” And what new data should NASA gather to help understand the nature of UAPs?
NASA leadership is aware of how this all sounds. Zurbuchen said a dedicated UAP research effort poses a “reputation risk” for the agency. “It’s clear that in a traditional kind of scientific environment, talking about some of these issues could be considered selling or talking about things that aren’t real science,” Zurbuchen told reporters. “I really vehemently oppose it.”
This is indeed unusual terrain for NASA, an agency that has spent years gently trying to counter claims that the moon landings were faked. A scientist working on a spacecraft currently orbiting the moon once told me that she carries photos taken by the robotic mission of the Apollo landing sites, just in case she encounters a disbeliever. The agency also struggled to set the record after Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, said in a 2005 television interview that the Apollo 11 crew had seen unidentified objects on their way to the moon. The raised eyebrows that followed almost reached the stratosphere. Some UFO believers thought that Aldrin had intentionally withheld this information. But NASA had solved the mystery in 1969, and the culprit wasn’t an alien: it was sunlight reflecting off the panels of their spacecraft. NASA simply never released those details – which Aldrin didn’t realize.
Surely the agency must understand that, even now, raising the subject of UAPs means walking carefully between national security concerns and more, shall we say, creative theories. Unfortunately, NASA’s leadership is already straying from the safest path. Officials said today that the new UAP research work is unrelated to NASA’s programs to find alien life beyond Earth, but spoke of both efforts at the same time. Zurbuchen even opened the press conference by talking about the real ways NASA is looking for extraterrestrial life: A rover is currently looking for fossilized microbes buried on the surface of Mars. A NASA telescope is trying to discover new exoplanets, and another will soon be scanning their atmosphere, looking for molecules associated with life. The space agency is planning to send a probe to a moon of Jupiter with an entire ocean beneath its icy crust. NASA is serious about looking for signs of technologically advanced civilizations out there. And when officials discuss UAPs alongside their other programs to search for alien life, they are planting a seed in people’s minds. Even claiming that there is no extraterrestrial explanation for the UAPs, they lend credence to the claim that there is some connection.
NASA said today that in addition to the “scientific interest” surrounding UAPs, the agency is concerned about the safety of aircraft in our skies. Fair enough: the first A in NASA stands for aeronautics, after all. But today’s announcement came from NASA Science department, not the aeronautical division, as well as funding for this effort. And the work will be led by a Princeton theoretical astrophysicist whose interests, according to his academic biography, range from “the search for planets around stars close to the shape of the universe” – an ambition far more dreamy than aircraft safety. . On a very basic level, NASA now has to take UFO claims seriously – and anyone with a new sighting to report will know that.
The UAP’s modern history has been filled with quite a set: lawmakers, defense officials, UFO activists, Blink-182 rock star Tom DeLonge. Now the roster includes the world’s largest space agency and its arsenal of sophisticated telescopes and space probes. NASA officials said they would make all of their findings available for anyone to see. Without secrets! But that doesn’t mean NASA will be able to control the public narrative around this effort or any discoveries. Once NASA starts talking about UFOs – well, like it or not, it’s a whole different conversation.