June 24, 2024

UFO Fever Is Taking Over Congress

Earlier today, three witnesses came before Congress to testify about their experiences with unidentified flying objects. A former Navy pilot spoke of the mysterious objects that he has seen with his own eyes and through radar, and how frequently pilots encounter them in the air. A retired Navy commander described the time he pulled his jet up to a Tic Tac–shaped object hovering over the ocean, then watched it suddenly speed up and vanish.

The most anticipated remarks, however, came from a former military-intelligence officer named David Grusch, who went public with his account just last month. Grusch told the House oversight subcommittee on national security that the American government has spent decades secretly recovering mysterious vehicles that have crashed on the ground, and has determined the material to be of “non-human” origin. The government also attempted to reverse engineer some of the technology, according to Grusch. And it’s doing all of this clandestinely, without proper supervision by Congress.

In the hearing, Grusch expanded on his previous claims in response to lawmakers’ questions. If elected officials had never heard about this effort before, how did it get any funding? The military pilfered money that had been allocated for its other programs. A defense official recently testified before Congress that the U.S. military hasn’t found any evidence of extraterrestrial activity on Earth; is that statement correct? It’s not accurate. Has any of the activity been aggressive or hostile? My colleagues have gotten physically injured. By UFOs, or by people within the government? Both.

After not holding a hearing on UFOs for more than half a century, Congress has recently held two in as many years. In that sense, we can count today’s events as historic. But as in the other hearings, this one had no big reveal, no grand answer to humankind’s most existential questions about our place in the universe. The hype surrounding the hearing—and there has been considerable hype—says more about the people who tuned in than about Grusch’s claims. Just as it did in the late 1940s, when stories of flying saucers over Washington state and crash landings in New Mexico captivated the nation, UFO fever today indicates that Americans feel that their government knows more than it’s letting on.

That sentiment is not new, nor is Americans’ belief in conspiracy theories. Though research suggests that conspiracy thinking is not getting worse in the modern-day United States, we are in a moment of acute public curiosity about—and acceptance of—conspiracism. Compared with QAnon, vaccine microchips, and stolen elections, a big UFO cover-up might seem almost reasonable—even if that cover-up involves, as Grusch previously claimed in an interview, the military discovering the “dead pilots” of alien craft. (In Congress today, Grusch declined to give specifics about this and many other claims, saying that there was only so much he could disclose to the public and that he could elaborate in a closed setting.)

The past several years have coincided with an unprecedented mainstreaming of UFO culture. In 2017, when an interstellar object showed up in our solar system, most scientists agreed that it was an asteroid or a comet, but some said it could have been an alien spaceship. (The Harvard professor leading the latter camp, Avi Loeb, recently led an expedition to the seafloor to recover material that he believes could be from alien spacecraft.) Later that year, The New York Times and other news outlets revealed that the Pentagon had a covert program dedicated to cataloging UFOs. Then NASA decided to weigh in on the topic after years of steering clear, and convened a team to consider UFOs in a “scientific perspective.” And who can forget the spy balloons that the military shot out of the sky this year?

These events have unfolded against a shift in public knowledge about the universe beyond Earth, which might help explain why people are interested. In the 1940s, the only planets we knew of were the ones around our sun, and scientists had only recently determined that there were galaxies other than our own. Today, astronomers have discovered more than 5,000 exoplanets, and telescopes can see nearly all the way back to the Big Bang. In the face of so many wonders, the question of whether we’re sharing them with anyone else becomes more urgent, and might even seem more answerable. “I think people are just ready or at least excited about the possibilities of alien contact, maybe more than ever,” Jacob Haqq Misra, an astrobiologist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, told me.

Congress has contributed to this mainstreaming too. Under the instruction of lawmakers, the Pentagon last year established a special office dedicated to investigating reports of unexplainable phenomena in the sky, at sea, and on land. The effort has been unusually bipartisan, with both far-right Republicans and progressive Democrats calling on the military to be more transparent. This month, Senator Chuck Schumer introduced legislation that would create a commission with the authority to declassify government documents about UFOs. “The American public has a right to learn about technologies of unknown origins, non-human intelligence, and unexplainable phenomena,” Schumer said in a statement.

Yes, we do. But some undisclosed documents about UFOs is not synonymous with incontrovertible evidence that aliens have visited Earth. UFOs are just that—objects that are flying, and that we cannot yet identify. If the military is misusing taxpayer money to investigate mysterious debris it doesn’t recognize, that’s bad, whether it’s the remnants of drones from another nation or a non-human craft. “If that’s the case, and auditors have not been allowed into these programs and there’s illegal layers of secrecy,” Haqq Misra said, “then that’s really important to disclose, independent of any connection to anything else”—anything otherworldly. But even as lawmakers assert that UFOs are primarily a national-security concern, by invoking aliens in their discussions, they lend credence to the idea that a connection between the two exists.

Grusch was careful to tell lawmakers that he was only “speaking to the facts as I have been told them”—that is, he has not seen any evidence of alien wreckage or its inhabitants himself. And in general, though his claims are steeped in the language of authority, he simply has not been able to offer any concrete proof. The news website that first published Grusch’s claims reported that the Pentagon had cleared him to speak publicly, but that means only that his remarks don’t contain classified information, not that they’re true. Testifying under oath before Congress is not a measure of truth, either. Outside the hearing, some lawmakers seemed like they didn’t know what to make of the claims.

The prospect of extraterrestrial interlopers may be a national-security question, but it’s also a scientific one. Science requires data, and secondhand accounts just aren’t data. “When NASA brings back rocks on the moon, those rocks are shared with qualified people,” David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton who chaired NASA’s committee on UFOs, told me. “Imagine we had some samples of some craft, [and] we really want to understand what it was. You would make materials from those small samples available for labs anywhere in the world.” In other words, meaningful testimony would show evidence of alien ships and pilots, not just tell the public about them. “That would be pretty awesome,” he said, but it’s not what we’ve got. Today, we heard some extraordinary claims, and, to quote Carl Sagan, they require extraordinary evidence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *