NASA chief Bill Nelson latest official to suggest UFOs have otherworldly origins

In a freewheeling Oct. 19 discussion on space policy, NASA administrator Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead Two trajectories to Mars by the 2030s Russian weapons test endangers the International Space Station MORE spoke passionately about his agency’s mission to seek out life beyond Earth. In his comments, Nelson pivoted almost immediately to a series of U.S. military encounters with mysterious flying objects, many of which appeared to maneuver in extraordinary ways while in restricted airspace.

After speaking with several of the naval aviators who observed the unknown craft, NASA’s chief is convinced that the pilots “saw something, and their radars locked onto it.” Asked to speculate about the nature of the phenomena, Nelson – an Army veteran, former senator and ex-astronaut – responded, “Who am I to say that planet Earth is the only location of a life form that is civilized and organized like ours?”

As surprising as his answer may be, Nelson is only the latest high-level official to hint that UFOs may have otherworldly explanations.

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Asked in June about the military’s recent encounters with mysterious craft, former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFederal judge changes his mind about stepping down, eliminating vacancy for Biden to fill Joe Biden's gamble with history Can America prevent a global warming cold war? MORE – like Nelson – responded by pondering the vastness of the universe and the high probability of life existing beyond Earth. Similarly, former President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden celebrates start of Hanukkah The massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) 'Car guy' Biden puts his spin on the presidency MORE speculated about the extraordinary implications if recent incidents involved otherworldly objects. Of note, Clinton and Obama retain access to top-level intelligence briefings.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Queried about the Navy’s encounters with UFOs, former CIA director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead In dramatic shift, national intelligence director does not rule out 'extraterrestrial' origins for UFOs Durham's latest indictment: More lines drawn to Clinton's campaign MORE speculated that the objects might “constitute a different form of life.” Channeling Clinton, Obama and NASA’s Nelson, Brennan stated that “it’s a bit presumptuous and arrogant for us to believe that there’s no other form of life anywhere in the entire universe.”

In much the same vein, former CIA Director James Woolsey, a longtime UFO skeptic, recently signaled openness to the possibility that such encounters have otherworldly explanations.

John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeThis Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead DOJ charges two Iranians with interference in 2020 election In dramatic shift, national intelligence director does not rule out 'extraterrestrial' origins for UFOs MORE, former President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE’s director of national intelligence, is particularly vocal about UFOs.

In a series of interviews, Ratcliffe ruled out secret U.S. technology and cited “high confidence” intelligence assessments to eliminate foreign adversaries as possible explanations for the most compelling UFO encounters. According to the former head of U.S. intelligence, some UFOs exhibit “technologies that we don’t have and, frankly, that we are not capable of defending against.”

Like Ratcliffe, Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai MORE (R-Utah) ruled out foreign powers or highly classified American technology, leaving few explanations for the phenomena.

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By now, readers should be sufficiently convinced that this topic transcends America’s deepest political fault lines.

Perhaps more importantly, Luis Elizondo, former director of a Pentagon unit that analyzed military encounters with UFOs, has suggested that the most compelling incidents have extraterrestrial explanations. Ditto for Christopher Mellon, the top civilian military intelligence official during the Clinton and second Bush administrations. At the same time, U.S. intelligence analysts are reportedly considering the possibility that recent encounters involved “non-human technology.”

As surprising as these developments may seem, a holistic view of the phenomenon suggests that history is repeating itself.

Reports of unidentified craft maneuvering in extraordinary ways surged in the 1940s, shortly after the first nuclear weapons were detonated. With stark parallels to recent developments, declassified documents show that from 1947 to 1952, U.S. intelligence analysts ruled out foreign adversaries – such as the Soviet Union – or highly classified American technology as plausible explanations for the most credible and compelling UFO encounters. Unsurprisingly, top military officials began “seriously considering the possibility of interplanetary ships.”

In early 1953, however, such objective, open-minded government analyses came to an abrupt halt.

Over several days the previous summer, pilots and radar operators in Washington, D.C., reported extraordinary (and still unexplained) encounters with unidentified objects. But the sheer volume of UFO reports – and the deluge of public queries that followed – spooked America’s defense planners.

Officials grew concerned that future mass UFO sightings would again overwhelm intelligence and communications channels. The Soviet Union, these officials worried, could exploit public interest in UFOs to sow “mass hysteria and panic,” handing Moscow a “surprise advantage in any nuclear attack.”

In response to these Cold War fears, the CIA convened a panel of scientists to assess the UFO phenomenon. Over the course of two days, the scientists, who – critically – were “not given access to the truly puzzling [UFO] cases,” recommended a sweeping government effort to “debunk” UFO sightings.

Fearing another flood of UFO reports, the CIA-convened panel reasoned that a “debunking” campaign would decrease “public interest in ‘flying saucers’” and reduce Americans’ “susceptibility to clever hostile propaganda.”

As investigative journalist Leslie Kean notes, the CIA’s remarkably brief, superficial meetings “would forever change both the course of media coverage and the official attitude toward the UFO subject.”

Indeed, the U.S. Air Force’s two decade-long project to investigate UFO reports morphed into a determined effort to discredit UFO sightings and witnesses, no matter how credible. According to James McDonald, one of the world’s leading atmospheric physicists, the Air Force began applying “meteorologically, chemically and optically absurd” explanations to the most compelling UFO sightings.

Vice Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the first director of the CIA, summarized the situation: “Through official secrecy and ridicule, many citizens are led to believe [UFOs] are nonsense. … Behind the scenes,” however, “high-ranking Air Force officers are soberly concerned…”

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As the Air Force systematically discredited witnesses (many of whom had nothing to gain by coming forward), widespread public and congressional anger followed.

Unsurprisingly, the Air Force’s campaign to “debunk” UFO sightings at all costs fueled widespread perceptions of a government coverup, creating fertile ground for an array of exotic (and enduring) conspiracy theories. Moreover, by wrongfully tarring credible witnesses as kooks, the Air Force further fueled the powerful stigma that continues to stifle good-faith reporting of unidentified objects by reliable observers.

Perhaps worst of all, as astronomer and long-time consultant to the Air Force’s UFO project J. Allen Hynek bluntly stated: The 1953 CIA panel “made the subject of UFOs scientifically unrespectable.”

Ultimately, the two scientists who immersed themselves in the study of UFOs more than any of their contemporaries became fierce advocates of serious academic inquiry of the phenomenon.

Initially skeptics, renowned atmospheric physicist James McDonald and J. Allen Hynek – whose career inspired the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – proceeded to make convincing arguments that the most compelling UFO incidents may have otherworldly explanations.

Sixty year later, as high-level officials speculate openly about such extraordinary possibilities, McDonald and Hynek’s meticulous, undeniably scientific work deserves close examination.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.