Between 1947 and 1969 — the height of the Cold War — the government recorded more than 12,000 UFO sightings, spanning from “dogfights with mysterious white orbs” to cattle mutilation and conversations with “little green men”. The now-declassified project, Project Blue Book, was aimed at empirically investigating evidence of alien life and evaluating if sightings may be a threat to humans.
While the project may have ended in 1969, UFO sightings haven’t. In fact, in 2019, The National UFO Reporting Center recorded over 6,000 UFO sightings just in North America alone. This number was nearly double the 3,300 sightings in 2018.
And recent sightings aren’t just from your average Kevins and Karens — they’re from military professionals who understand the ins-and-outs of aerial vehicles, too. Just this April, The Pentagon released footage of a Navy pilot’s encounter with a “Tic Tac”-shaped UFO. This is the third confirmed Navy pilot UFO sighting in recent years — the other two occurring in January of 2015.
A declassified report from the DOD describes the aircraft as a white “elongated egg or Tic Tac shape”, with “no visible control surfaces” or “means to generate lift”. On several occasions the aircraft descended very rapidly — from 60,000 feet down to 50 feet — in a matter of seconds. It also had the ability to travel underwater and “cloak” (or become invisible to the human eye).
To be fair, just because an object is unidentifiable doesn’t mean it’s operated by aliens. However, encounters like this are certainly strange enough to warrant a thorough investigation. So why are so few people investigating?
We know that the lack of research around unidentified flying objects isn’t driven by a lack of public interest. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that one-third of Americans believe some UFOs are actual sightings of alien spacecraft, and two-thirds believe that the government knows more about UFOs than they have publicly stated (hence the popular “Storm Area 51” movement in late 2019).
It’s not that all UFO encounters can be easily explained away as natural or human phenomena, either. Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, recently stated in an interview with Business Insider that about 10% of UFO sightings didn't have explanations.
Here are a few thoughts on what we know, and what’s holding us back:
WHAT WE KNOW.
According to the New York Times, the once-disbanded Project Blue Book is still underway. Renamed the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force and tucked inside the Office of Naval Intelligence, this program primarily investigates encounters between strange aerial vehicles and military pilots.
But no one should get their hopes up that government leaders are seriously investigating UFO life today. According to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is the acting chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force is primarily aimed at identifying “breakout” foreign aircraft technology that may threaten national security. While extraterrestrial explanations may still be on the table, discovering evidence of other worldly beings is not the primary goal, nor the focus, of this program.
Thus, despite the existence of the Aerial Phenomenon Task Force, alien studies is still considered pseudoscience in public research labs. And, because most research is either conducted by the government or funded by government grants, there’s a strong bias against UFO research; and it’s nearly impossible to get funding. In fact, Seth Shostak explains that the majority of his research at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute is funded by small donations between $10 and $20 — a far cry from the multi-million dollar price tags that many of these research devices carry.
WHAT'S HOLDING US BACK: TABOO.
Alexander Wendt, professor of international relations at Ohio State University and amateur ufologist, has a theory for why there is such a strong taboo against state-run and -funded alien research: it threatens government legitimacy. In his 2008 academic paper “Sovereignty and the UFO”, Wendt argues that modern societies are highly anthropocentric; meaning they’re focused on humans — human success, happiness and suffering — alone. That means if you acknowledge the possibility of extraterrestrial existence, you challenge the superiority of human beings — and, by extension — the institutions that rule us (i.e. state actors).
Wednt explains in an interview with Vox: “In ancient times, it was the gods or nature that was thought to rule over everything. Now it’s human beings. And this principle is embodied in the state. And if you call that into question, if you call into question that the state is not the only potential sovereign here, the whole legitimacy of the state is called into question.”
Anthropocentrism is the prevailing view in several other academic fields, like environmental studies, too. Take, for example, that the majority of people only care about climate change insofar as it affects human life. If we can’t even take animal life seriously, how can we begin thinking about life from other planets?
WHAT'S HOLDING US BACK: FEAR.
Aside from a taboo in research communities, much of this culture of silence is driven by fear. Sure, you might be afraid of “little green men” destroying our planet. But personally, I don’t think our fear of earth’s destruction supersedes our curiosity to investigate UFOs.
I’m talking about a more philosophical, existential fear.
Bringing extraterrestrials into the equation — or even beginning to seriously investigate the possibility of their existence — shakes our “human-centered” beliefs to their core. If we take the human-centered view out of society, we may learn that we’re not the smartest, or most important thing, in the universe. And that can be scary.
Finding serious evidence of extraterrestrials would be a revelation equivalent to Copernicus suggesting that the Earth is not the center of the universe. His theory took more than a century to become widely accepted not only because it broke the status-quo, but also because it terrified people to learn that God didn’t have humans at the forefront of his creation.
When we investigate aliens, we confront difficult questions. What else don’t we know? And if we aren’t the only intelligent life, do we still matter?
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering: so what? Especially with all that’s happened in 2020, maybe ETs aren’t at the top of our priority list.
But if extraterrestrials are trying to interact with us — for reasons good or bad — it may be the single most important discovery in all of human history. It will take a lot of preparation to communicate this to the public, as it will challenge almost everything we hold true about human existence and human superiority. It will take even more preparation to coexist with alien life, if necessary.
Even if we don’t discover any alien life, the investigative process is still valuable in and of itself. Acknowledging the possibility of extraterrestrial life disarms our “human-first” mindset, and opens us up to the possibility that other life may matter just as much as ours. Leaning into our natural curiosity to learn more about the universe around us, we can break down our anthropocentric views and explore our place within the universe. We can, in essence, discover a bit more about what it means to be human.
Who knows? We might even make some new friends.