Reinvigorating the UAP legacy of Sen. Harry Reid
The passing away of Harry Reid, the former longtime Democratic senator of Nevada, was a sad reminder that we cannot stop the train of time. It keeps going, and while anticipating an end to any journey, we better look through the windows of our train cabin and enjoy the ride while it lasts. Beyond the standard spectacle inside the cabin of tumultuous D.C. politics, Reid dared to look out the windows and in doing so left a permanent legacy.
In 2007, while serving as Senate majority leader, Reid worked with Sens. Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, and Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii, to secure $22 million in funding for the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The program investigated reports on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP, then called UFOs), of which some videos and photographs from these encounters have been made public. The government has continued to study UAP, most recently through the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force.
Reid seemed to believe that that there is a great deal we don’t understand about these encounters. In May, he wrote, “I have never intended to prove that life beyond Earth exists. But if science proves that it does, I have no problem with that. Because the more I learn, the more I realize that there’s still so much I don’t know.”
From my perspective as a scientist, the most unusual unclassified sighting over the past five years was that of the first interstellar object traced near Earth, known as `Oumuamua, which appeared different from all celestial objects we had observed before. Its many anomalies led me to the intriguing hypothesis that it might be extraterrestrial equipment. The immediate action item derived from this experience was to collect better data on `Oumuamua-like objects in the future, in order to identify their nature. This realization led to the establishment of the Galileo Project on July 2021, a month after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) delivered a new UAP report to Congress. This was my way of following Reid’s legacy (an act that prompted him to state publicly that he loved my book “Extraterrestrial” and the Galileo Project). I wish he would have been around for another year to witness the scientific data that our new telescopes will collect.
Six months after the ODNI report, President Biden signed into law — with bipartisan support in Congress — the establishment of a new UAP office. The office, to operate by June 2022, will have the authority to start a coordinated effort of reporting and responding to UAP and significantly improve data-sharing between government agencies on UAP sightings. This new office, which stems from Reid’s legacy, will be administered jointly between the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, and will empower military and civilian personnel as well as the intelligence community to report incidents and information involving UAP.
Complementing the classified government-owned data, the Galileo Project’s data will be open to the public and its scientific analysis will be transparent. The related scientific findings would expand humanity’s knowledge, with no attention to borders between nations.
By now, the Galileo research team includes more than 100 scientists who plan to assemble the first telescope system on the roof of the Harvard College Observatory in spring 2022. The system will record continuous video and audio of the entire sky in the visible, infrared and radio bands, as well as track objects of interest. Artificial intelligence algorithms will distinguish birds from drones, airplanes or something else. Once the first system will operate successfully, the Galileo Project will make copies of it and distribute them in many geographical locations.
I was recently asked why the search for extraterrestrial techno-signatures would be of interest to a common person, like a taxi driver worried about paying the rent. Interestingly, the congressional task for the new UAP office involves a science plan that aims to, “(1) account for characteristics and performance of unidentified aerial phenomena that exceed the known state of the art in science or technology, including in the areas of propulsion, aerodynamic control, signatures, structures, materials, sensors, countermeasures, weapons, electronics, and power generation; and (2) provide the foundation for potential future investments to replicate any such advanced characteristics and performance.” The taxi driver would care about the second item if it would offer an opportunity for a higher paying job in driving a faster transportation device.
We should continue to revise our assessment of the cosmic environment outside our train cabin as we collect new data. It was recently reported that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, space company Blue Origin and currently the richest person in the world, “observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.”
The reverse must also be true: The expectation by some scientists to usher discoveries out of maintaining the mainstream status quo implies lack of imagination. Sen. Harry Reid understood that.
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as well as the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011-2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.