For the first time in more than half a century, the U.S. Congress held a hearing in May on unidentified flying objects—or as the American government now officially refers to them, “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Members of the House of Representatives discussed the mysterious happenings as potential threats to national security, a serious issue the U.S. government needs to address with more transparency—and without the longstanding stigma associated with science-fiction portrayals of UFOs as alien spacecraft. Members of Congress and Pentagon officials at the hearing noted 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 understand and explain sightings.
Since the early 2000s, according to U.S. Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray, the United States 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. In early June, 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 puzzling 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 stories about conspiracies and cover-ups.
Graham Vyse: How did the American government become so concerned with these occurrences?
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—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. That 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, 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.
[May’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 aliens on earth.]
Vyse: In public debates about UFOs, what are the most common explanations you hear for what they might be?
Shostak: 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.
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.
Vyse: What did you take away from last month’s House hearing on UFOs and NASA’s announcement of its own study of the subject?
Shostak: I watched the hearing. In fact, I got up at an ungodly hour here in California in order to spend two hours watching it. Basically, all they discussed was the further study of the phenomena, which officials said would be open and honest.
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 thought it was notable that NASA said everything it finds with its study will be open-source. The Office of Naval Intelligence has to keep some secrets for national-security reasons, but NASA doesn’t keep secrets. That’s good, because the real bugaboo in all this is secrecy. It’s why so many people in the UFO community are convinced we’re being lied to.
Roughly 8,000 people a year in the U.S. report seeing something they think might be alien. I get calls and emails every day from people who’ve seen something and want to know what it is. Usually, I don’t know, but I ask them if they have photos or videos and then I give them my opinion based on those. The public is endlessly fascinated by this stuff, especially since there are all these ideas about conspiracies and coverups—X-Files stuff.
Vyse: What historical precedent is there for the U.S. government’s interest in the subject?
Shostak: Historically, the U.S. government hasn’t been all that interested in UFOs. In the 1940s and 1950s, there were a number of government studies—Project Blue Book, Project Sign, Project Grudge—but none of those investigations claimed to have found anything interesting. They were ultimately discontinued, in part because of how much money they cost. It may be that Americans were moved by the videos circulated by the media since 2017—and pressured members of Congress who don’t remember the 1950s and think there’s something new to investigate.
Vyse: In what ways are the government investigations today different from investigations in the past?
Shostak: Certainly, the technology is different today. We have better cameras. Everybody has a camera in their pocket. The scientific evidence is also different, though I’m not sure it has any different relationship to the question of whether objects in the sky are aliens.
It’s very difficult to come here from another star system, by the way, despite what you see on television. I admire the aliens if they are here, because they don’t do anything. They don’t bother anybody. They just flitter around.
But earnestly, I agree it’s important for America’s national defense to know what’s up in the sky, if there is anything up there. We didn’t have drones in the 1950s. Flying objects were harder to build.
It’s very difficult to come here from another star system, despite what you see on television. I admire the aliens if they are here, because they don’t do anything. They don’t bother anybody. They just flitter around.
Vyse: How do you understand the fact that a number of American political elites—presidents, would-be presidents, a former Senate leader, a top White House aide—have all talked about UFOs as representing a public issue and, in some cases, initiated investigations on them?
Shostak: As you say, several U.S. presidents have talked about UFOs—and before they were elected, even promised the electorate they’d look into the issue. They know there’s a constituency for that, even if it’s not important to most Americans. It gratifies certain people who think the government knows more than it’s telling the public. None of these presidents delivered anything while they were in office, so either they forgot about it or there wasn’t much to tell.
Vyse: I take your point about an electoral constituency for UFO curiosity in America, but people like former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Clinton administration White House Chief of Staff John Podesta obviously have had a genuine personal interest in this subject over the years and they did, in fact, spend time looking into it.
Shostak: It was a cause celebre for those guys, particularly Reid.
Vyse: Despite your skepticism about UFOs being alien crafts, you’ve spent your career as an astronomer looking for extraterrestrial life in the universe. Do you believe it exists?
Shostak: 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.
Vyse: How do you and your colleagues at SETI search for extraterrestrial signals?
Shostak: We do what Jodie Foster did in the movie Contact [the 1997 film based on a 1985 novel of the same name by the late scientist Carl Sagan, a prominent SETI supporter, who served on its board of trustees].
We have lots of antennas that we point at the stars. We now know most stars have planets around them. Every second or third star will have a planet that’s more or less the same size as Earth, with the same average temperature. A lot of habitats out there that could support intelligent life. Our thinking is that if you look at enough of them with big antennas, you’ll ultimately find one that’s making some radio noise.
Vyse: To that point, you’ve said publicly that humanity will likely find evidence of extraterrestrial life in the next two decades or so. Why did you say that?
Shostak: I sometimes regret having said that, because I bet everyone a cup of coffee that it will prove true, and this could get expensive for me if it doesn’t. The reason I said it, though, is that the speed of SETI experiments is increasing exponentially. By the end of the 2030s, we’ll have looked at a million star systems, and my thought was that a million star systems could plausibly lead to success. Still, it was based on a gut feeling—not a tip I received from aliens that they’ll be broadcasting to us in 2033.