"The Truth is out There." This tagline of the 1990s television show "The X-Files" could be considered the battle cry of those people who think that not only are UFOs (unidentified flying objects) real and extraterrestrials among us, but that the government knows and is covering it up.
In a "truth is stranger than fiction" moment, the New York Times reported that in 2007, the US Defense Department created a shadowy agency called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. This agency was tasked with investigating reports by military pilots and others of unexplained lights in the sky they encountered over the course of their work, with many reports being near nuclear facilities.
The funding for this program was modest, a mere $22 million over several years compared to the Defense Department's $600 billion annual budget. Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time, initiated the program through an earmark negotiated with a couple of other senators.
Much of the funding went to Robert Bigelow, owner of a successful aerospace research company and longtime UFO enthusiast. Bigelow was also a friend of Reid.
Other commentators will offer their opinion on the political implications of a secret government program run by a friend of a powerful senator. Politics aren't my forte. I'm much more interested in the program from a technical point of view.
For generations, sober observers have reported unexplained lights in the sky. As far as the general public is concerned, perhaps the first report was made on June 24, 1947 by Kenneth Arnold near Mt. Rainier in Washington state. This was the start of a UFO craze that has never really left us. Believers will tell you that at least some of the observations are extraterrestrial craft -- messengers from another planet.
It's perhaps important to remember that observations by military pilots weren't always regarded as extraterrestrials. In fact, during World War II, pilots returning from bombing runs over occupied Europe reported distant lights that would follow them. They even had a name for them, "foo fighters," and the consensus was that these lights were some sort of German weapon or an attempt to disrupt the airplane's electrical system.
The important point is that this unexplained phenomenon was thought to be a weapon of earthly origin and not a craft from another star. And, when you get right down to it, this is a much more plausible explanation than little green men. And an unexplained weapon is of concern to any military.
As early as 1947, the American military set up a task force to investigate the reports. The most famous of these efforts was Project Blue Book, which ran from 1952-1970. Over the years, they investigated 12,618 sightings and were able to explain most of them as planes, cloud formations, satellites and the like. However, not all sightings could be easily dismissed, and 701 reports are still classified as "unidentified."
Mind you, unidentified doesn't mean flying saucer or a Russian superweapon. It merely means unidentified. Without a doubt, most of these remaining unexplained observations have an unremarkable origin.
When Project Blue Book shut down, the military concluded that there was no indication that the observations were a danger to national security, that there was no evidence that the reports could be explained as a weapon developed by an unfriendly nation, and that there was no reason to believe that we were being visited by extraterrestrials. UFO proponents might passionately disagree with these conclusions, but they were reasonable ones.
The revelation of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program makes clear that it was basically a new incarnation of Project Blue Book. Reports of lights in the sky by sober and well-intentioned military pilots needed to be understood. While the most likely origin is faulty instrumentation, pilot error, or simply misidentified common phenomena, it is obviously worth looking into. After all, at least a few of the reports could be interesting. And there is no question, if they are real, that we should understand what they are.
Though saying so will no doubt result in my inbox blowing up, I personally think it is very unlikely that what these pilots are reporting turns out to be an unfriendly superweapon or an alien craft. But I also would like to see that these reports are investigated, under the premise that the best science is done when as many opinions are considered as possible, preferably in the open and subject to peer review.
But let me tell you why I think the reports of possible flying saucers are overblown. The reports of UFOs being near nuclear facilities is reminiscent of many 1950s movies, but there would be no need for alien craft to get close to power plants or nuclear weapons depots. After all, humans have launched satellites that can photograph objects as small as a foot (and that's the publicly stated capability -- it could be that classified capabilities are even better). Presumably an alien race with technology that allows for interstellar travel will have superior cameras. So why would flying saucers buzz earthly installations?
More broadly, what need is there for craft to surreptitiously enter the atmosphere? After all, we are broadcasting our culture into space. Why not just watch the NFL playoffs from orbit?
Granted, it is hard to know the psychology and motivations of an alien, but it seems that a sufficiently advanced civilization could be more surreptitious if that were important to them. And if they didn't care about being detected, why the hiding?
While I think it is very unlikely that there is anything alien about UFO reports, this doesn't mean that I think they shouldn't be investigated. After all, finding out that we are not alone in the universe would be one of the seminal moments in the history of mankind. If there is any chance at all that it could be true, it's worth spending a nominal amount of our national budget to check it out. And if these reports were a new super weapon, it would be irresponsible for the military not to investigate.
But I think that if we believe that these sightings are of extraterrestrial origin, we should also adequately fund the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program, which uses large radio receivers to search for transmissions from nearby stars. Given the very real difficulty involved in interstellar travel, it seems that our first inkling that we are not alone will come from a radio broadcast and not a visit. (And yes, maybe warp drive or hyperspace or wormholes are real. I'll believe it when I see it.)
Personally, I am fascinated with the idea that there exists intelligent life other than our own. And I think that the government should openly fund modest efforts to investigate these sightings because of the possibility -- no matter how slight -- that they are visits from our hypothetical interstellar cousins. It is very important that we remain extremely skeptical of any claims of intelligent extraterrestrial life, but perhaps another "X-Files" tagline is appropriate: I want to believe.
And the truth really is out there.