Resurgence of UFO stories in 2017 reflects growing American anxieties

Resurgence of UFO stories in 2017 reflects growing American anxieties
© NASA

UFOs are back. In the past few weeks, public attention has been turning increasingly toward outer space.

First came the fascination with an unidentified flying object discovered last October by astronomers at the University of Hawaii. Initially, it looked like just another asteroid or comet. But, scientists soon realized that this thing was different.

The object was as long as a football field and shaped like a rocket unlike most asteroids, which are spherical. Its speed, motion, and trajectory were also highly unusual. Torqueing along at almost 200,000 miles an hour, the object was too fast to be pulled into the sun’s gravity. And, its rapid rotation and hyperbolic trajectory set it apart from typical asteroids or comets. Even the cryptic name scientists gave to the object — "Oumuamua" — suggested something weird was going on. The hard-to-pronounce word is Hawaiian for “scout” or "first messenger."

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Most people don’t know what to make of this unidentified flying object. Is it just space debris? Or, could it be an alien probe or even a spaceship?

 

The vast majority of scientists believe Oumuamua is a natural object, but they insist it could be the first documented case of an object that came from beyond Earth’s solar system. Hoping to learn as much as possible before the interstellar visitor leaves our solar system, astronomers honed in on Oumuamua with sophisticated equipment designed to pick up radio signals or other artificially produced transmissions.

The preliminary findings were negative. Still, the science-based evidence didn’t calm everyone’s fears prompting headlines like, “‘Alien probe’ asteroid is dead quiet, but is that good news or bad news?” 

Oumuamua wasn’t the only thing that came from outer space in 2017. Just as the mysterious object was exiting our solar system, the New York Times launched its own UFO probe, revealing that a secret Pentagon program began investigating UFOs in 2007.

The Defense Department insisted that the program closed down in 2012, but admitted that officials continue to investigate cases brought to their attention.

Former Senate Majority leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHow the Clinton machine flooded the FBI with Trump-Russia dirt … until agents bit Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees Harry Reid knocks Ocasio-Cortez's tax proposal: Fast 'radical change' doesn't work MORE, who secured bipartisan funding for the secret unit noted, “It’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service.” Arguably, life was just imitating art because in 2017 moviegoers also had their pick of numerous films about aliens and other things that go bump in the deep night of outer space. Some of the more popular include "Life," "Alien: Covenant," and "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

All this fascination with UFOs and outer space recalls the Flying Saucer hysteria of the late 1940s and ‘50s. Back then, UFOs seemed more common than Chevys. There were sightings throughout the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia. Many believed a UFO actually crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. The U.S. Air Force launched Project Blue Book in 1952 to investigate sightings.

Not surprisingly, popular culture shared the public’s UFO obsession. Science fiction movies such as "The Thing" in 1951 and "It Came From Outer Space" in 1953 landed in movie theaters across America. Even rock 'n' roll got in on the action with hits like Buchanan and Goodman’s “The Flying Saucer” in 1956 and Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” in 1958.

True believers insist that UFOs were real in the 1950s and are just as real today. But, there’s another way to explain past and present UFO phenomena. Throughout history, people frequently turn toward the heavens and the supernatural when they feel overwhelmed by worldly problems. Following World War II, many Americans were anxious about the post-war economy, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the emerging civil rights movement. Contemporary Americans have at least as much to fear due to terrorism, tribal politics, never-ending culture wars, and rapid social and economic change.

The resurgence of UFO stories in 2017 reflects the growing anxieties of many Americans. Today’s UFOs — like flying saucers back in the 1950s — offer distraction, catharsis, maybe even a way to cope with troubled times. Good aliens can provide hope for a better future, while even bad ones remind us that things could always be worse. If nothing else, the renewed interest in UFOs might be evidence that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCoast Guard chief: 'Unacceptable' that service members must rely on food pantries, donations amid shutdown Dem lawmaker apologizes after saying it's never been legal in US to force people to work for free Grassley to hold drug pricing hearing MORE is making America paranoid again.

As Oumuamua speeds off past Pluto, I can’t help but wonder if there might be little green men, women or transgender people aboard searching for intelligent life in the universe. That might explain why that unidentified, cigar-shaped object is hightailing it away from our planet as fast as inhumanly possible.

Alternately, what happens if Oumuamua suddenly does a U-turn and returns to Earth? Will these illegal aliens be hostile like those in "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" from 1956? Or, will they turn out to be benevolent creatures like Michael Rennie’s character in "The Day the Earth Stood Still' from 1951? Then again, their approach could be more ambiguous. Perhaps the aliens will simply land in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and say, “Take me to your leader.” Sad.

Richard Aquila is a professor emeritus of history at Penn State University and a Distinguished Lecturer of the Organization of American Historians. A specialist in U.S. Social and Cultural history, his latest book is Let's Rock! How 1950s America Created Elvis and the Rock & Roll Craze (2016).