UFO? After years of avoiding serious discussion of such things, NASA is on it.
The space agency announced yesterday that it would form a dedicated team to study unidentified aerial phenomena “that cannot be identified as known aircraft or natural phenomena”. Starting this fall, the team will review existing data on these objects and think about new ways to collect future data. All of the work, which NASA says will take nine months to complete, will be done “from a scientific perspective.”
This is exactly 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 extraterrestrial spacecraft since the day it was invented 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 NASA has waded so publicly – and significantly – into the broader UFO discussion in the agency’s 64-year history. Not only has NASA changed its approach to reporting mysterious sightings in the sky, it will build a UFO research team led by a respected astrophysicist and hold public meetings about its findings.
“We have the tools and the teams that can help us improve our understanding of the unknown, and we are ready to use these powerful tools of scientific discovery in this case,” NASA associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen told reporters. for scientific missions. conference. “Unidentified phenomena in the atmosphere are interesting for many reasons. Frankly, I think there is a new science to discover. And there have been 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 extraterrestrial origins; the agency is far more interested in searching for life deep within the solar system and far beyond. So why bother with it so formally now? For the same reason, it seems, that US lawmakers recently held the first congressional hearing on NAPs in 50 years: everyone is talking about it. After The New York Times published an article in 2017 about a secret Pentagon program devoted to cataloging UAPs, lawmakers asked the Department of Defense and US intelligence agencies in 2020 to compile a report on all their UAP data. The following summer, as the government was about to release this highly anticipated report, a reporter asked NASA administrator Bill Nelson what the agency was doing about UAPs. Nelson, a former senator who was privy to classified information, said he had spoken with pilots who had spotted UAPs and were convinced they had seen something worth investigating. “So I spoke to [Zurbuchen] on what we could do specifically from a scientific point of view, in addition to an intel point of view, to try to shed some additional light on this,” Nelson said in 2021.
What exactly is the “scientific insight” 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 was to “assemble the strongest data set possible”, including existing data “from civilians, government, non-profit organizations, corporations”. Zurbuchen, in a presentation to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine today, suggested the group would also look at data from astronomy and Earth observation missions. “We look at the sky all the time. We are looking at the Earth all the time,” Zurbuchen said. “What types of scientific data currently collected and archived by NASA or civilian government entities should be set aside and analyzed?” And what new data should NASA gather to help understand the nature of UAPs?
NASA management is aware of how this all sounds. Zurbuchen said a dedicated UAP research effort poses a “reputational risk” for the agency. “It’s clear that in a traditional-type science environment, talking about some of these issues can be seen as selling or talking about things that aren’t real science,” Zurbuchen told reporters. “I vehemently oppose it.”
It is indeed unusual ground for NASA, an agency that has spent years trying to softly counter claims that the moon landings were rigged. A scientist who works on a spacecraft currently orbiting the moon once told me that she was carrying pictures taken by the robotic mission of the Apollo landing sites, just in case she came across a no -believer. The agency also tried to set the record straight 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 the way to the moon. The raised eyebrows that followed almost touched the stratosphere. Some UFO believers believed that Aldrin intentionally withheld this information. But NASA had cracked the mystery in 1969, and the culprit was not extraterrestrial: it was sunlight reflecting off the panels of their spacecraft. NASA had simply never made those details public, which Aldrin had not realized.
Surely the agency must understand that, even now, raising the subject of UAPs means treading carefully between national security concerns and more, shall we say, creative theories. Unfortunately, NASA executives are already straying from the safest path. Officials said today that the new UAP research work was unrelated to NASA programs to find extraterrestrial life beyond Earth, but spoke of the two efforts in the same breath. . Zurbuchen even opened the press conference by talking about the very real ways NASA searches for extraterrestrial life: A rover is currently searching 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 atmospheres, looking for molecules associated with life. The space agency plans to send a probe to a moon of Jupiter with an entire ocean under its icy crust. NASA is even serious about finding signs of technologically advanced civilizations there. And when officials discuss UAPs alongside their other alien life search programs, they plant a seed in people’s minds. Even though they claim there is no extraterrestrial explanation for the UAPs, they give credence to the claim that a connection exists.
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 aerospace division, and so will funding for this effort. And the work will be led by a theoretical astrophysicist from Princeton whose interests, according to his academic biography, range from “finding planets around nearby stars to the shape of the universe” – a far dreamier ambition than the safety of planes. On a very basic level, NASA now needs to take UFO reports seriously – and anyone with a new sighting to report will know that.
The modern history of the UAP has been populated by everything from lawmakers, defense officials, UFO activists, Blink-182 rock star Tom DeLonge. Now the cast includes the world’s largest space agency and its arsenal of sophisticated space telescopes and probes. NASA officials said they would make all of their discoveries available to everyone. No secrets! But that doesn’t mean NASA will be able to control the public narrative surrounding this effort or any findings. Once NASA starts talking about UFOs, well, like it or not, that’s a whole other conversation.