Only thing Defense’s UFO probe proves is power of political favors

Only thing Defense’s UFO probe proves is power of political favors
© NASA

The Defense Department ran a secret and now defunct government project to discover the truth about unidentified flying objects (UFOs), revealed by The New York Times in December.

The program had a somewhat bland title: Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification. Just $22 million was spent on the project from 2007 through 2012, when it was shut down. However, an effort to study UFOs remains in existence on a lower-level rung by Defense Department personnel who also have other duties.

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The study collected accounts and videos of encounters with UFOs, mainly by military personnel. A reference also exists to buildings where “metal alloys and other materials” said to have been recovered from “unidentified aerial phenomena.” The project was run out of the Pentagon by a man named Luis Elizondo who has since resigned from the Defense Department and is running a private UFO research organization.

 

While a subsequent story in New York Magazine suggests that there was less than met the eye to the story, mostly due to a dearth of fact checking, a great deal of excitement was kindled in the media. Has the Defense Department discovered evidence of aliens visiting the Earth? If so, why is no one taking about it? Fox Mulder, call your office.

The more fascinating aspect of the story was how the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification program came to be. More than 10 years ago, Nevada hotel tycoon and aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow called then-Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidKavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow Dems can’t ‘Bork’ Kavanaugh, and have only themselves to blame Dem senator: Confidential documents would 'strongly bolster' argument against Kavanaugh's nomination MORE (D-Nev.) to discuss his theories about aliens visiting the Earth. Reid, intrigued no doubt at the possibility of rewarding an important campaign contributor, arranged for the project to be funded, along with then Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) without a debate on the Senate floor. The project was part of the Pentagon’s black budget.

The funding was directed to Bigelow Aerospace, which conducted the research. The subcontractors hired by Bigelow collected audio and video recordings of UFO encounters and interviewed people who had close contact with the encounters. Some were examined for physical effects of their close encounters.

The story would be just another example of pork barrel spending arranged by a powerful senator for a constituent had it not been about such an exotic subject. Americans have been conditioned to think that at least some UFO phenomenon are alien in origin from movies and TV shows such as “The X-Files.” Many also believe that the government knows about alien visitations and is covering it up for its own nefarious reasons.

The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of UFO incidents can be explained by natural phenomena, misidentified aircraft, and even hoaxes. A handful of instances remain unexplained. However, evidence of alien visitation is thin at best.

A simple thought experiment would suggest that if aliens were visiting the Earth, no one would know about it. Modern militaries have the ability to observe enemies undetected with remotely piloted, stealthy drones. An advanced civilization would be able to do the same to Earth without using huge spaceships hovering about for all to see. Tiny, even microscopic probes would suffice to gather all the data needed about the planet and its volatile inhabitants without anyone being the wiser.

Nor is a vast, government conspiracy to conceal the truth about UFOs likely. According to the BBC, an Oxford mathematician David Grimes concluded that the more people are in on a conspiracy, the sooner it is likely to come to light. That’s why people find out about real conspiracies, such as Watergate and Iran Contra, and they find that phony conspiracies, such as faking the moon landing, 9/11 being an inside job, and aliens landed at Roswell do not exist.

Does that mean we should ignore unexplained UFO phenomena? Decidedly not. If the small number of unexplained UFO phenomena are not aliens, they could constitute a threat of a more terrestrial origin.

However, Bigelow, for all of his accomplishments, is the wrong man to conduct such a study. He is too emotionally invested in alien visitation to have an open mind. A serious examination of UFOs should be conducted by scientists and other experts with no preconceived notions, much like the Air Force’s Project Blue Book of the 1950s and 1960s. The study should be done as transparently as possible, so that its results will be widely accepted by all but the most credulous. 

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.