In the good old days, the arrival of UFOs on the front page of America’s paper of record might have seemed like a loose-thread tear right through the fabric of reality — the closest that secular, space-race America could have gotten to a Second Coming. Two decades ago, or three, or six, we would’ve also felt we knew the script in advance, thanks to the endless variations pop culture had played for us already: civilizational conflicts to mirror the real-world ones Americans had been imagining in terror since the beginning of the Cold War.
But when, in December, the New York Times published an undisputed account of what might once have sounded like crackpot conspiracy theory — that the Pentagon had spent five years investigating “unexplained aerial phenomena” — the response among the paper’s mostly liberal readers, exhausted and beaten down by “recent events,” was markedly different from the one in those movies. The news that aliens might actually be visiting us, regularly and recently, didn’t provoke terror about a coming space-opera conflict but something much more like the Evangelical dream of the Rapture the same liberals might have mocked as kooky right-wing escapism in the George W. Bush years. “The truth is out there,” former senator Harry Reid tweeted, with a link to the story. Thank God, came the response through the Twitter vent. “Could extraterrestrials help us save the Earth?” went one typical reaction.
Suddenly, aliens were an escapist fantasy — but also more credible (legitimized by the government!) than mere fantasy. That Pentagon report, which featured two gripping videos of aerial encounters, was just one beat in a recent search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence (or SETI) drumroll: In October, an object passed through our solar system that looked an awful lot like a spaceship; astronomers spent much of 2016 arguing over whether the weird pulses of light coming from a distant star were actually evidence of an “alien megastructure.” An army of Silicon Valley billionaires are racing to make first contact, and our new superpowered telescopes are discovering more conceivably habitable planets every year.
Then, in March, a third video emerged, featuring a Navy encounter off the East Coast in 2015, with the group that released it hinting at an additional trove. “Why doesn’t the Pentagon care?” wondered a Washington Post op-ed — surely the first time the newspaper of Katharine Graham was raising a stink about aliens. The next week, President Trump seemed to announce he was creating an entirely new branch of the military: “We’ll call it the Space Force.” You could be forgiven for thinking you’d woken up in a science-fiction novel. At the very least, it is starting to seem non-crazy to believe. A recent study shows half the world already does.
Searching the Universe for Extraterrestrial Life: A Timeline
Alien dreams have always been powered by the desire for human importance in a vast, forgetful cosmos: We want to be seen so we know we exist. What’s unusual about the alien fantasy is that, unlike religion, nationalism, or conspiracy theory, it doesn’t place humans at the center of a grand story. In fact, it displaces them: Humans become, briefly, major players in a drama of almost inconceivable scale, the lasting lesson of which is, unfortunately: We’re total nobodies. That’s the lesson, at least, of a visit from aliens, who got here long before we were able to get there, wherever there is; if humans are the ones making first contact, we’re the advanced ones and the aliens are probably more like productive pond scum, which may be one reason we fantasize about those kinds of encounters a lot less than visits to Earth. Of course, when the aliens are the explorers, we’re the pond scum.
But a lot of people in the modern world will take that bargain, which should probably not surprise us given how dizzying, secular, and, um, alienating that world objectively is. Most conspiracy theory is fueled by a desire to see the universe as ultimately intelligible — the bargain being that things can make sense, but only if you believe in pervasive totalitarian malice. Alien conspiracy theory keeps the malice (cover-ups at Roswell, the Men in Black). But rather than benzo comforts like order and intelligibility, it offers the psychedelic drama of total unintelligibility — awe, wonder, a knee-wobblingly deep, mystical experience of existential ignorance.
Every extraterrestrial era has its own fantasy of consequentiality. Crop circles began as a phenomenon of the English countryside, then spread to the far corners of the onetime British Empire (Australia, Canada) after World War II, when the U.K. was falling unmistakably back in the ranks of nations and when its provincial subjects would have felt some understandable desire to demonstrate that, somehow, their lives really mattered. American encounters were invariably rural as well — typically farmers and ranchers, mostly in the country’s interior and the deserts and mountains of the West, in decades the country as a whole spent rapidly urbanizing and then industrializing its farmland so systematically it looked like Monsanto was trying to exterminate the American farmer along with the cotton bollworm.
These incidents, which never occurred in cities, where other witnesses could have verified them, were often reported as horror stories even as they may have expressed secret desires. But the pop culture of the same era introduced another mode: the suburban encounter, often still private and personal but more ooey-gooey New Age than abductions and anal probes. The two major authors were Steven Spielberg, who gave us broken-family theology in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., and Carl Sagan, who gave us Cosmos and Contact, which, when it was turned into a movie, featured an eerie seascape that was basically a secular heaven, maintained by offscreen aliens explicitly playing the role of gods. Stephen Hawking, who died in March, was also a godfather of a sort, not just a physicist but a sage and guru for a generation of squishy-lefty seekers curious about life beyond Earth; among his last acts was partnering with Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire building a giant SETI laboratory at UC Berkeley. Americans used to regard the space race with not just national but something like collectivist pride — all those government engineers from the new middle class. Suddenly, it’s the rich kids with the cool toys and the keys to the rocket ship.
Which does mark a change. Beyond the mysticism, American stories of alien encounters have been (often anxious) meditations on the status of American power — meditations informed, surely, by both the memory of European settlers, for whom “first contact” was a story of triumphant genocide, and sympathy for those they trampled. Given the option, America will always prefer to play the cowboy, and through the post–Cold War 1990s, the dominant alien-encounter template was still the swaggering military strut of Independence Day. (The closest thing we got to a counterpoint was the cover-up paranoia of The X-Files, which just expressed a darker faith in the same American power.) By the time we got an alien epic for the War on Terror era, even Spielberg staged it as a story about armed conflict: The War of the Worlds. Of course, in that story, the winner was always going to be the humans — that is, the Americans. And then came the financial crisis, the recession, and Trump, and the new hope that E.T. may take pity on us.
Elsewhere in the world, where things are looking up, relatively speaking, you might expect a different perspective on aliens — and indeed, as The Atlantic’s Ross Andersen documented last fall, the Chinese have recently opened the world’s largest radar facility to listen for signs of aliens, wherever they are out there. But even our future Chinese overlords, projecting power for the first time into the ever-receding reaches of the universe, are a bit nervous about aliens; as Andersen points out, their popular science fiction bears the evidence. And why wouldn’t they be? They have their own memory of colonial contact — the Opium Wars, the end of that empire — to reckon with. And, besides, the unknown is just scary. Things have to get pretty bleak before you take a chance on the arrival of a total blank slate, just for the sake of change. —David Wallace-Wells
1. The Government Literally Just Admitted It’s Taking UFOs Seriously
And, according to researchers, it’s only pretended to end the program.
In 1952, a CIA group called the Psychological Strategy Board concluded that, when it came to UFOs, the American public was dangerously gullible and prone to “hysterical mass behavior.” The group recommended “debunking” campaigns to tamper the public’s interest in unexplained phenomena. But the government seems to have been interested, too: In December, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Created in 2007 by senators Ted Stevens (who reported being chased by a mysterious object), Daniel Inouye, and then–Majority Leader Harry Reid, and funded with $22 million of “black money” from the Department of Defense’s budget, the program investigated and evaluated reports of UFO sightings, many of which came from American service members.
So much of what the program uncovered remains classified, but what little we know is tantalizing. Based on data it collected, the program identified five observations that showed mysterious objects displaying some level of “advanced physics,” also known as “stuff humans can’t do yet”: The objects would accelerate with g-forces too strong for the human body to withstand, or reach hypersonic speed with no heat trail or sonic boom, or they seemed to resist the effects of Earth’s gravity without any aerodynamic structures to provide thrust or lift. “No one has been able to figure out what these are,” said Luis Elizondo, who ran the program until last October, in a recent interview.
Elizondo has also talked about “metamaterials” that may have been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena and stored in buildings owned by a private aerospace contractor in Las Vegas; they apparently have material compositions that aren’t found naturally on Earth and would be exceptionally expensive to replicate. According to a 2009 Pentagon briefing summarized in the New York Times, “the United States was incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered.” This was a briefing by people trying to get more funding — but still.
Some of the accounts Elizondo and his team analyzed supposedly occurred near nuclear facilities like power plants or battleships. In November 2004, the USS Princeton, a Navy cruiser escorting the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego, ordered two fighter jets to investigate mysterious aircraft the Navy had been tracking for weeks (meaning this was not just a trick of the eye or a momentary failure of perspective, the two things most often blamed for unexplained aerial phenomena). When the jets arrived at the location, one of the pilots, Commander David Fravor, saw a disturbance just below the ocean’s surface causing the water to roil around it. Then, suddenly, he saw a white, 40-foot Tic Tac–shaped craft moving like a Ping-Pong ball above the water. The vehicle began mirroring his plane’s movements, but when Fravor dove directly at the object, the Tic Tac zipped away.
The Pentagon has said funding for the program ran out in 2012 and wasn’t renewed. But Elizondo has claimed the project was alive and well when he resigned in October. —James D. Walsh
2. Harry Reid Says We’re Not Taking Them Seriously Enough
The former Senate majority leader is definitely a truther.
Eric Benson: I’m curious about just where your interest in this subject comes from.
Harry Reid: Bob Bigelow [the founder of Bigelow Aerospace and Budget Suites]. He’s a central figure in all this. When he was a young man, he heard a story from his grandparents about driving down from Mt. Charleston, near Las Vegas, where they saw a so-called flying saucer, for lack of a better description. Bob became a very wealthy man. He would pay for these conferences about UFOs, and he would bring in scientists, academics, and a few nutcases.
There were people trying to figure out what all this aerial phenomena was. Bob started sending me tons of stuff. Mainly what interested me is that so many people had seen these strange things in the air.
EB: So tell me how this program got started.
HR: I was in Washington in the Senate, and Bob called me and said, “I got the strangest letter here. Could I have a courier bring it to you?” I said sure. He didn’t want to send it to me over the lines, for obvious reasons.
The letter said, “I am a senior, longtime member of this security agency, and I have an interest in what you’ve been working on. I also want to go to your ranch in Utah.”
Bigelow had bought a great big ranch. All this crazy stuff goes on up there — you know, things in the air. Indians used to talk about it, part of their folklore.
So I called Bigelow back and said, “Hey, I’ll meet with the guy.” The program grew out of that, to study aerial phenomena.
We decided it would be [funded by] black money. I wanted to get something done. I didn’t want a debate where no one knew what the hell they were talking about on the Senate floor.
EB: I saw that you tweeted, “We don’t know the answers, but we have plenty of evidence to support asking the questions.” To you, what’s the most compelling evidence to support asking the questions?
HR: Read the reports. We have hundreds of — Eric, two, three weeks ago, maybe a month now, up in Montana, they had another strange deal at a missile base up there. It goes on all the time.
EB: Do you know things about this program that you can’t discuss publicly?
3. Scientists Are Suddenly Much More Bullish About the Possibility of Life Out There
The universe is really big, people.
Just 30 years ago, we had not discovered a single planet outside our solar system. Now we know of more than 3,000 of them, and we know nearly every star in the night sky has at least one planet in its orbit. “Even people who are not terribly interested in science know that we’ve found that planets are as common as fire hydrants — they’re everywhere,” says Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “One in five or one in six might be a planet similar to the Earth.”
That doesn’t mean we’ll ever find an exact replica of Earth, but maybe we don’t have to. Our study of other planets and moons in the solar system shows us many worlds possess the ingredients necessary for life — an atmosphere, organic compounds, liquid water, and other necessities. (The moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, for example, feature whole subsurface oceans.)
And even though these places are extremely harsh environments, that doesn’t mean as much as we might once have thought it did; recent discoveries on Earth itself demonstrate that life is much tougher than we thought. We’ve found organisms in blisteringly hot geysers in Yellowstone National Park, in the darkest crevices under the most ungodly pressures in the deep ocean, in dry hellscapes like the Atacama Desert in Chile (an analogue for Mars). These “extremophiles” don’t need a warm and fuzzy paradise to call home — in fact, they have already evolved to live in environments as harsh as those on other planets. Some, like tardigrades, can even survive the bleak vacuum of space itself. If there’s life in most of those places, “it’s going to be pond scum,” says Shostak. “But it’s alien pond scum. It shows that biology is all over.”
And where there’s biology, there may well be intelligence, and our increasing understanding of evolution also tells us life can evolve faster than we ever anticipated. Millions of years is a long time for us, but it’s the blink of an eye on the cosmic scale. Blink too fast, and you’ll miss that pond scum turning into an intelligent civilization sending out messages every which way, looking for friends.
And we’re now at the point where we could one day find those messages and send a reply. New technology gives us a better chance to actually make contact with extraterrestrials. Our radio telescopes can scan more of the night sky for an intelligent message than ever before. Our optical telescopes and observatories can peer farther into space and look for new planets, moons, and perhaps even signs of something altogether artificial (see “Tabby’s Star”). Our ability to parse volumes of data in mere seconds means we could conceivably survey much of the galaxy in just a few decades. That’s why, in the past few years, Shostak has continually bet a cup of coffee with everyone he knows that humans will find aliens by around 2029. “We’d have to be dead above the neck if we weren’t interested in this,” says Penelope Boston, the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. —Neel Patel
4. They’re Especially Bullish About These Planets
Adventures in the “Goldilocks zone.”
Scientists now think every one in five or six planets might be habitable, based on two general criteria: They’re rocky, and they reside in a region of the star’s orbit called the “Goldilocks zone,” where it’s not too cold and not too hot, but just right to allow for liquid water to form on the surface. And where there’s water, there can be life. Extraterrestrial researchers and enthusiasts are most excited about these seven:
Proxima B: The closest exoplanet ever discovered is also a potentially habitable world in its own right, if the intense stellar winds don’t make it barren. It’s not totally inconceivable we might be able to actually send a probe and study it directly this century — even travel to it ourselves one day.
TRAPPIST-1 System: The red dwarf at the center of this possesses a whopping seven planets in its orbit — three of which reside in the Goldilocks zone, but all of which seem to possess some degree of potential habitability — and they’re so close to one another that life on one planet could quickly spread to another.
LHS 1140b: This wouldn’t be a planet we could colonize. It’s almost seven times the mass of the Earth and 40 percent larger, making it a “super-Earth.” But its mass means that it would retain a thicker atmosphere capable of keeping it warmer and more comfortable for life than most other places.
Ross 128 b: One of the best chances we have so far at finding life on another planet. It orbits an inactive red-dwarf star, meaning it’s likely not being bludgeoned by solar radiation. And we’ve detected strange signals emanating from the nearby host star — signals that perhaps have intelligent origins?
Mars: Mars has water, as we’ve known since 2015. Although the planet looks like a barren wasteland these days, there’s little reason to write off any chance we might find aliens residing in some cavern or crevice.
The Ocean Worlds (Europa, Enceladus, Titan): Many of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons show signs of possessing a liquid ocean underneath the surface.
GJ 1214b: Nicknamed “waterworld” by scientists; signs of potential clouds give us some hope the planet has an atmosphere.
5. And There Is “Documentation”
In 2012, the photographer Steven Hirsch asked UFO-convention attendees who claimed to have had personal contact with extraterrestrials to draw and describe their experiences. A sampling below.
6. That “Asteroid” Looks an Awful Lot Like a Rocket Ship
For science-minded SETI freaks, the last decade has been a particularly exciting one.
We May Have Just Seen an Actual Flying Saucer
When ‘Oumuamua — the name means “first messenger” in Hawaiian — was discovered floating through the solar system in October, SETI nuts immediately started checking the boxes that suggested the rod-shaped object might be an alien spacecraft of some kind. After all, it’s the first interstellar object we’ve ever seen pass through the solar system. UFO enthusiasts point out that rods (along with flying saucers) are the two most common shapes cited by witnesses in UFO sightings, and the cigar shape would allow it to be slim enough to avoid collision with other objects as well as maximize aerodynamics for travel. Both the SETI Institute and the Breakthrough Listen initiative pointed their instruments toward the object but found no unusual signals emitting from it. Of course, maybe it’s an ancient relic from an interstellar civilization, or maybe the aliens just weren’t interested in making contact (that asteroid-ness could’ve just been camouflage). With the object on its way out of the solar system, we may never know.
And There Could Be an Alien Megastructure Much Farther Out
In the fall of 2015, Penn State astronomer Jason Wright posited that erratic shifts in brightness coming from a newly discovered star 1,280 light-years from Earth couldn’t be explained by exoplanets or other astrophysics that we understand. He theorized, instead, that the fluctuations may be the result of massive objects passing in front of the star, in a kind of orbit — a whole array of massive satellites or other kinds of structures, presumably produced by a civilization of advanced intelligence. Whoa.
Aliens Could Be Dancing to Earth Music Right Now
Last year, two planets were discovered orbiting a red dwarf 12.36 light-years from Earth. At least one of these planets is in the Goldilocks zone, so METI International decided to beam some musical signals over to the planet. With a closer proximity to Earth than most potentially habitable exoplanets, it’d be an exciting planet to start an interstellar pen-pal relationship with — assuming there’s someone around to hear our notes and listen to them as a welcoming tune instead of a battle cry.
And We’re Getting Radio Signals From … Something
Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are one of the most mysterious phenomena ever observed by scientists. Though they last only a few milliseconds, these pulses, first detected in 2007, emit more energy in that time than the sun does in 24 hours. Three more were found this month, and we’re no closer to understanding their origin — except that they’re coming from outside the Milky Way. So naturally, many experts have begun to think perhaps they’re produced by an ultra-advanced civilization from afar, trying to speak to us through signals we can barely comprehend.
7. These Masters of the Universe Are Obsessed (They Are Also All Men)
Which space-besotted billionaire will be the first to make contact?
As a child, Bigelow watched the government test atomic bombs from his bedroom window and he and his classmates could see the mushroom clouds bloom over the Mojave Desert from their school playground. To some, such memories are the stuff of dystopic Cold War hellscapes, but Bigelow remembers them as an epiphany. Even back then, Bigelow knew he wasn’t going to be a scientist (he was lousy at math), so he resolved himself to make as much money as possible in the hopes that he could one day fund his own space program. He went on to make at least $1 billion with Budget Suites of America, long-term motel rentals around the Southwest. He now runs Bigelow Aerospace, which holds contracts with NASA and was a primary contractor for the Department of Defense’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program.
Musk is hell-bent on using his $21 billion to colonize Mars. His company SpaceX has been trying desperately to reduce the cost of space travel in the hopes of beginning a million-person colonization of Mars. “If [we’re not in] a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilization that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mold in a petri dish,” says Musk.
When Congress cut off funding for NASA’s hunt for aliens in 1993, Allen gave millions to the SETI Institute; in 2009, the Allen Telescope Array started searching the cosmos. Allen has given an additional $30 million to the project, a sum that bought him a guarantee that if the array detects an extraterrestrial communiqué, Allen will be the first nonscientist to know.
Last year, Milner — named after a Russian cosmonaut — announced a plan to send spaceships to Saturn’s moon Enceladus in search of alien life. Milner is also funding Breakthrough Listen, a ten-year project to use a telescope in West Virginia to search for messages from intelligent life, and Breakthrough Starshot, in conjunction with Mark Zuckerberg and the late Stephen Hawking.
His company Blue Origin is competing with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to launch reusable rockets (and comically rich tourists) into space. While Musk played himself in a cameo in Iron Man 2, Bezos appeared as an alien Starfleet official in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond. (It was not a speaking role.)
“Why do I feel so much like Sigourney Weaver?” Bezos said last March as he piloted a giant manned robot at Amazon’s MARs conference.
Antonio cofounded Qualcomm, a mobile tech company, in the mid-’80s. He’s also the company’s chief scientist and has given millions to SETI research. Last year Antonio gave $30 million to the University of California San Diego’s school of engineering and followed that donation up with a contribution to Roy Moore’s failed senate campaign.
8. As Are Some Prominent Military and Government Folks
You see a lot more as a test pilot than as a farmer in Iowa.
“Know that there are people who watch our skies to protect the sleeping masses,” Britain’s former chief UFO investigator warns in his memoir. “But also know that not all potential intruders into our airspace have two wings, a fuselage, and a tail, and not all show up on our radar.” Pope’s ominous counsel follows time he spent in the ’90s inspecting thousands of paranormal incidents from crop circles to purported bedside abductions. He took that job certain this kind of stuff “only happened to weirdos,” but unexplainable sightings soon convinced him that “there is a war going on” with aliens. Worse, the U.K. Defense Ministry cut his old UFO desk’s funding in 2009, so whatever’s out there “could attack at any time,” Pope believes. Earthlings’ diminished odds have gotten him more fatalistic lately, too: After scientists suggested ‘Oumuamua — a bizarre-shaped asteroid that’s the first interstellar object to pass through our solar system — might be an alien spaceship, he argued in December we “probably wouldn’t survive an alien invasion” anyway, because if they find us, it’s clear who has the upper hand.
Canada’s Defense minister during the Cold War, now 94, believes that at least 80 species of aliens have been visiting Earth for millennia. One group is called the Tall Whites (because they can reach basketball-goal height) or Nordic Blondes (because they look like they’re “from Denmark or somewhere”). Unfortunately, the others may include ecoterrorists: “We’re doing all sorts of things which are not what good stewards of their homes should be doing,” he told media in 2014. “They don’t like that, and they’ve made it very clear.” Hellyer adds that many technological “breakthroughs” were aped from these extraterrestrials. Microchips and fiber optics, for instance, were taken off crashed alien vehicles and reverse-engineered. The aliens have a special technology that would solve climate change as well, he claims, but the Illuminati are hiding it because it would devastate oil interests.
Corso’s military career was long and illustrious, from rebuilding Rome’s government after World War II as an Army Intelligence captain to having worked the Pentagon’s foreign-technology desk in the ’60s. He doesn’t appear to have said a word publicly about aliens until 1997, when Simon & Schuster published The Day After Roswell — with a foreword by Strom Thurmond — just 13 months before Corso died. It was his tell-all outlining a decades-long Roswell cover-up while plugging his own clandestine exploits, which he claimed involved reverse-engineering technology found on alien spacecrafts. This is how the world got lasers, particle beams, microchips, even Kevlar, Corso said. Skeptics argue that regular Earth people’s R&D behind technology like lasers is impossibly well documented.
Had he won election in 1964, one of his White House’s first acts might have been releasing top-secret UFO files. He harbored a lifelong fascination with the truth about extraterrestrial contact, much of it stemming from his desire to “find out what was in” the mysterious Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, home to the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. In the ’80s, it surfaced he’d spent decades corresponding with UFO investigators and harassing the military for access to the hangar’s so-called Blue Room, where conspiracy theorists believe alien bodies from Roswell are preserved. (“Not only can’t you get into it,” his friend General Curtis LeMay supposedly snapped in 1975, “but don’t you ever mention it to me again.” Goldwater claims he didn’t.) After retiring in 1987, the senator told Larry King the Earth is “one of several billion planets in this universe. I can’t believe that God or whoever is in charge would put thinking bodies on only one planet.”
After he’d served as the first CIA director (he’d been appointed by President Truman), Hillenkoetter retired from a distinguished Navy career in 1957 and took a gig at a brand-new private research group called the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. Its chief purpose was pressuring the government to disclose what it knew about UFOs, via investigations like Project Blue Book. Hillenkoetter went after the intelligence community, writing angry open letters that said things like: “It is time for the truth to be brought out in open congressional hearings.” When he pointed out in 1960 that the Air Force had investigated 6,312 UFO reports to date, but was seemingly trying “to hide the facts,” the military reminded Americans that “no physical evidence, not even a minute fragment of a so-called flying saucer, has ever been found.”
Of course, another theory popped up in the ’80s — that Hillenkoetter had helped run a secret committee all along of politicians, military officers, and scientists called the Majestic 12. Ufologists claimed this cabal was formed in 1947, once Truman started panicking over what to do with all the alien spacecrafts the government kept finding. The group’s existence is based on government files that allegedly materialized in 1984. The FBI denied their authenticity entirely, but they and the Majestic 12 remain popular grist for conspiracy theories, having figured in Blink-182’s song “Aliens Exist” and even one of Twin Peaks’s side plots.
Kucinich’s 2008 presidential campaign didn’t suffer from his admission, made during a live TV debate, that, back in 1982, he’d seen a UFO at friend Shirley MacLaine’s Washington State home. (He was polling around 4 percent at the time.) But the current candidate for Ohio governor got mocked plenty; one joke among Beltway insiders was he wanted the “little green vote.”
Staff were prepped to deny the encounter when reporters asked about the passage in MacLaine’s 2007 New Age self-help book, Sage-ing While Age-ing, that revealed Kucinich didn’t just see a UFO but had also felt “a connection in his heart and heard directions in his mind.” The other witnesses — a Juilliard-trained trumpeter working as MacLaine’s bodyguard and his model girlfriend — also report having seen a trio of triangle-shaped aircrafts flying in tight formation. Her house was 50 miles from Mt. Rainier, a “saucer magnet” for UFO buffs because of all the nearby sightings, including America’s very first “flying saucer” in 1947. Kucinich had the community’s full support, even if he spent years playing coy.
It helped that in Congress he did things like trying to ban space-based weapons. A 2001 bill he authored himself prohibited America from using “radiation, electromagnetic, psychotronic, sonic, laser, or other energies” for the purposes of “information war, mood management, or mind control of such populations.” It explicitly singled out “chemtrails,” a term for jet condensation trails when conspiracy theorists believe they’re being used for biological warfare. In 2008, however, he only confirmed he’d seen a UFO, then pointed out, accurately, to moderator Tim Russert that “more people in this country have seen UFOs than I think approve of George Bush’s presidency.”
When WikiLeaks published the Hillary Clinton emails, a weird number of Podesta’s mentioned aliens and involved contact with believers like Tom DeLonge and astronaut Edgar Mitchell. As Bill Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, he was known as an X-Files fanatic who’d “call the Air Force and ask them what’s going on in Area 51.” In 2014, he spent 13 months advising President Obama — and what was his “biggest failure”? According to him, failing to get government files declassified on the 1965 Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, UFO incident.
Then during Bush’s term, he began publicly crusading for NASA to release UFO documents to journalist Leslie Kean, the person ultimately behind the Times’ Pentagon exposé.
Podesta has kept his personal ET beliefs under wraps, but in Kean’s best seller UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, he gamely wrote a foreword that argues: “It’s time to find out what the truth really is … The American people — and people around the world — want to know, and they can handle the truth.”
Pavel and Marina Popovich
This husband-wife duo was one part world-renowned cosmonaut (Pavel) and one part the Soviet Union’s most celebrated female pilot (Marina). They held among their titles that of sixth human in orbit, first Soviet female to break the sound barrier, and holder of more than 100 aviation world records. Once their illustrious flying careers ended, both became ufologists. Pavel headed up Russia’s UFO association and claimed to have seen an unidentified aircraft zip past his airplane on a trip home from Washington, D.C., with a group of scientists. People onboard said it was triangular, brightly lit, and rocketed by at 1,000 miles per hour.
Marina one-upped him, though — she claimed to have seen multiple UFOs and a “Bigfoot creature” — and after they divorced, she became the acclaimed expert, not Pavel. She began preaching a UFO glasnost of sorts under Gorbachev, claiming the Soviet government had pieces of five spaceships in its possession and reports of 14,000 UFO sightings, yet for decades researchers were “either fired or put in psychiatric hospitals.” Her eventual book, simply called UFO Glasnost, spoke candidly about how Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, and Ray Bradbury were alien mediums and Gorbachev had the markings of an extraterrestrial emissary because “he’s an epoch-making phenomenon.”
9. (And This Genius Thinks He Can Talk to Them)
In January, Stephen Wolfram — a computer-scientist philosopher and the author of a “universal” programming language that informed the alien communication in the movie Arrival — wrote an exceedingly long blog post about how best to communicate with aliens.
Tim Urban: You created a language you think we might be able to use to communicate with aliens. So what exactly is it that we would want to say to the rest of the universe if we had the chance?
Stephen Wolfram: I think the main difficulty is the definitional one. You talk about alien life, you talk about intelligence; what are those things abstractly?
We know the specific example that we have historically been exposed to: life on Earth, human intelligence. The question is, when you generalize away from that, what do you get to? One of the things that I’m fond of quoting is the statement “The weather has a mind of its own.” What does this mean? What is the abstract kind of thing that’s like the mind? It’s the ability to do sophisticated computation. That’s something that exists in the weather, just as it exists in our brains, just as it exists in lots of living systems. And then, what’s different between the weather and its sort-of-mindlike thing and our human intelligence? The fundamental answer to that is our human intelligence has its particular cultural, civilizational history and the weather doesn’t.
TU: So is it that history that we’d want to communicate?
SW: Yes, I think the thing to realize is that we in our civilization have followed a particular path. There are an infinite number of possible paths that we could’ve followed. To any other intelligence, our path would be quite mysterious.
TU: Right, so we actually have unique information to communicate. You could have the most sophisticated species, and we can still tell them something they don’t know about our history.
SW: I’m particularly amused by Elon Musk’s car going into space. That is so extremely aligned with the notion of grave goods from ancient Egypt, where you’re taking things from your everyday life to be buried with you. It’s charming.
10. There Have Been Enough Well-Known Encounters to Fill Encyclopedias
Here, just a small sampling of the classics.
Barney and Betty Hill’s Abduction
The Hills (above) claimed that in 1961 a bright light swooped over their car on a New Hampshire road and that they woke up a few hours later and the car had been “magnetized.” With regressive hypnosis, both were able to recall being abducted and probed by the little gray men, which soon became the de facto alien description. (The Hills’ captors were, interestingly, very similar to Selenites — the five-foot moon inhabitants H.G. Wells invented for The First Men in the Moon.) Betty astonished authorities when she began drawing a map of the constellation the creatures claimed to be from. Initially it looked like nonsense, until a few scientists noticed its resemblance to Zeta Reticuli, a system inside the constellation Reticulum largely unknown in that year. Their case generated widespread publicity, partly because they were a mixed-race couple in the ’60s, and turned into the flagship example of a “close encounter,” though not until years after the fact (skeptics argue the delayed report is a sign it’s a hoax). The hype ultimately culminated in The UFO Incident, a 1975 made-for-TV movie starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons.
Antonio Villas-Boas’s Seduction
In 1957, small aliens with huge heads allegedly came for Villas-Boas, a young Brazilian farmer. Villas-Boas was forced inside their vessel, where the creatures took blood samples from, of all places, his chin, and rubbed in some sort of gel. Soon after, a blonde female with big, almond-shaped eyes joined him. She began rubbing his body, then initiated sex. After they were done, she left quickly, which gave Villas-Boas the impression that he was being used to better the aliens’ “stock.” He didn’t react well, as he suddenly felt exploited as “a good stallion” by these foreign chin-fetishists.
Weird as it was, Boas’s encounter, with its probing and forced sex, became the archetypal alien abduction. Reportedly skittish at first, he eventually told his story to João Martins, the writer behind popular magazine O Cruzeiro’s “Flying Saucers’ Terrible Mission” series. Doctors confirmed Boas had suffered radiation poisoning, but Martins ultimately soured on Boas’s story, for one because his spaceship sketch bore remarkable similarities to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik. He turned out all right, though: He got a law degree, had four kids, and died believing his children had a half-sibling living in space.
The “Wow!” Signal
In 1977, Ohio State’s Big Ear radio telescope intercepted a 72-second burst of sound that bore signs of having come from interstellar space, which could be a sign of extraterrestrial communication. The anomaly measured 1,420 megahertz, a frequency in the “water hole,” the term for a radio-emission range thought ideal for intergalactic messages because it’s unusually quiet. Jerry Ehman, the astronomer who spotted it, was so excited that he scribbled a giant “Wow!” on his printout. Astronomy’s explanations for the bizarre phenomenon include secret spy satellites and a passing comet nobody knew about in 1977. But many admit nothing explains it adequately, and even if the signal doesn’t prove aliens exist, it’s still a “tug on the cosmic fishing line.” To date, it remains the best evidence of alien communication ever obtained.
In the middle of World War II, things took a mysterious turn for Air Force pilots flying overnight missions. They reported seeing lights chasing their aircraft. The number varied (sometimes it was one; other times ten), and so did the colors (red, orange, and green). But the unidentified objects shared in common that they moved very fast, up to 200 miles per hour, yet could dart on a dime. These pilots — among the world’s best — admitted the objects generally flew circles around them. Their lore grew among the squadrons. In 1944, a crew flying along the Rhine in Germany described seeing “eight to ten bright orange lights” whiz by “at high speed.” Neither ground control nor their own planes caught anything on radar, and when one pilot turned toward the lights, they reportedly “disappeared.”
They called their mystery air companions “foo fighters,” an inside joke based on a phrase the comic-book character Smokey Stover used to declare (“Where there’s foo, there’s fire”). The term flying saucer hadn’t caught on yet, or else it would’ve sufficed. Some witnesses assumed they were tracer fire, reflections from ice crystals, or high-tech weaponry developed by the Nazis, while the government had a boring explanation as always: They were “electrostatic (similar to St. Elmo’s fire) or electromagnetic phenomena,” though which one and wherefrom were “never defined.”
Kecksburg UFO Crash
In 1965, an intense fireball streaked over southern Canada and Detroit and dropped debris over Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Officially, it was declared a midsize meteor, but eyewitnesses in the small Pennsylvania town of Kecksburg claimed they’d found an acorn-shaped object about the size of a VW Beetle in the woods that was festooned with hieroglyphics. Newspaper reporters on the ground said the military conducted a “close inspection” of the crash site, and despite the official line being that the search yielded “absolutely nothing,” conspiracists maintain the object was packed onto an Army flatbed truck and that the whole thing was a Roswell-level cover-up. Leslie Kean’s Coalition for the Freedom of Information managed to secure some of the government’s files but reportedly not anything enlightening.
However, a second explanation surfaced in the early aughts: It was Die Glocke, purportedly a top-secret weapon Nazis developed that let them time-travel. By dumb Back to the Future–esque luck, it had come to rural Pennsylvania in the year 1965. These proponents argue Nazi SS officer Hans Kammler was navigating the device when it crash-landed in Kecksburg, allowing him to escape Allied troops in the days before VE Day and successfully integrate into postwar U.S. society.
Kenneth Arnold’s “Flying Saucer”
Kenneth Arnold, a respected pilot, claimed in 1947 he’d seen nine mostly flat objects whip past Mount Rainier at speeds he timed at 1,760 miles per hour. “They were shaped like saucers,” he reportedly explained, “and were so thin I could barely see them.” A neologism was born.
Arnold he demanded military personnel explain what the contraptions were, if they knew, since he’d dismissed any possibility of them being guided missiles or new types of jets. His best guess? “From another planet.” Dozens of others came forward with similar sightings, from as far away as Oklahoma and Arizona. But Arnold didn’t enjoy his newfound celebrity. He said people had started shrieking in cafés when they saw him and fleeing. He described the situation to reporters as “out of hand” and regretted having people “look at me as a combination of Einstein, Flash Gordon, and screwball.”
On March 13, 1997, thousands of people in southern Arizona say they saw weird lights move across the night sky in a flying V. Most of their reports came in between 7 and 10:30 p.m. along a 300-mile stretch from Phoenix, through Tucson, and to the Mexico border. A majority of people spied the pattern passing overhead (it was supposedly several football fields long), but the Air Force also sent a team of A-10 Warthogs from nearby Barry Goldwater Range on a training exercise that same night, and, as luck would have it, those planes dropped some stationary flares just outside Phoenix, considerably complicating any UFO conspiracies with a second set of strange bright lights.
Witnesses claim to have watched the first set of lights — the low-altitude wedge formation — coast by with their binoculars; they say the lights were red, had a singular white one at the V’s tip, seemed engineless, and even banked southeast at one point. Actor Kurt Russell now claims he saw them while up in a private plane near the Phoenix airport, but air-traffic control told him the radar was clear. Governor Fife Symington reportedly witnessed the V-shaped as well. At the time he felt sure it wasn’t aliens, but his mind changed in 2007, after retiring from politics: He told media that as a pilot, he knows “just about every machine that flies,” and these lights definitely weren’t terrestrial.
The “Warminster Thing”
Warminster’s long, controversial association with UFOs began in the English town on Christmas Day in 1964, when a local woman heard a “crackling sound” rip over her head. Other so-called sonic attacks plagued scores of others in town around the same time. Townspeople had no clue what was behind them, so they began blaming the “Thing.” Additional reports of inexplicable lights in the sky made it clear the “Thing” might have hailed from outer space.
Travis Walton’s Abduction
In 1975, a team of loggers claimed their 22-year-old co-worker Travis Walton disappeared for five days after a glowing disc in the Arizona woods zapped him with a “bluish ray.” Intrigued, he’d reportedly wandered underneath the hovering object, and it abducted him. He claims he awoke on a table in a sterile-looking room surrounded by three “well-developed fetuses” wearing tan robes. He tried to flee, passed out, then regained consciousness only once the aliens had ditched him on the Arizona roadside.
The story received loads of publicity — authorities thought Walton had been murdered, and seven eyewitnesses corroborating a single close encounter was unheard of. The National Enquirer ultimately paid the group $5,000 for the story, after they passed polygraphs and Walton agreed to be interviewed by the tabloid’s “prestigious” hypnotist. In 1993, Paramount released Fire in the Sky, a movie it said was based on “the most famous case of UFO abduction ever recorded.” Skeptics have shot holes in what they assume was a hoax and note that James Earl Jones’s NBC movie The UFO Incident had aired two weeks before Walton’s own UFO incident. The encounter has a cult following to this day, though, enough that a first edition of Walton’s 1978 memoir The Walton Experience now fetches hundreds of dollars online.
The Battle of Los Angeles
On February 25, 1942, reports filtered in of a glowing object floating over Culver City. Air-raid sirens sounded; the Army proceeded to pepper it with 1,400 anti-aircraft shells. Eventually it disappeared from view, but not before a citywide blackout was ordered, shell fragments got lodged in surrounding buildings, and five civilians died. The Navy later explained it had been a weather balloon. But ufologists suspected an alien spacecraft, which would explain why an hour’s worth of heavy artillery had failed to eliminate a single weather balloon.
Steven Spielberg would mercilessly satirize the incident in 1941, a “comedy spectacular.” But ufologists immediately suspected an alien spacecraft, which would explain why an hours’ worth of heavy artillery had failed to eliminate a single weather balloon. Conspiracists site a famous L.A. Times photo as extra proof; it seemingly caught searchlights trained on a very un-balloon-like object getting barraged with shells. The next day’s Times ran an editorial on page A1 (“Information, Please”) demanding the Army and Navy release more info, “if only to clarify their own conflicting statements about it.”
11. And Continuing Right Up to the Present Day
New encounters happen all the time — even to famous people. When Guillermo del Toro spotted one in Guadalajara, he says, “It was so crappy. It was a flying saucer, so clichéd, with lights.” Above, a sampling from ufosightingsdaily.com over recent months.
12. We Even Have Some Pretty Developed Theories About Why We Haven’t Heard From ET Yet
Maybe we’re the pond scum.
The Aliens Are All Dead
Let’s start with the most depressing theory: Maybe we haven’t found extraterrestrials because they’re all dead — at least now. The universe is 13.78 billion years old, and in that amount of time, there might have been plenty of civilizations that evolved and went extinct.
The Aliens Are All Sleeping
But maybe they’re not dead — just hibernating. Another theory suggests that perhaps there’s an extraterrestrial species out there that’s so advanced it cannot efficiently make use of its technology right now, because the universe’s temperature is currently too high. Good news, though: The universe’s temperature is cooling down (even as Earth’s is heating up). So aliens may have decided to take a snooze for a few trillion years while they wait for colder weather that’s more suited.
The Aliens Are Hiding
If even a genius like Stephen Hawking thought that aliens might destroy us if they ever were to find us, then maybe we should be a little afraid. Perhaps the aliens think the same thing, so they’ve gone into hiding — from us. If another civilization were technologically savvy enough and had enough resources, it could build a massive orbital structure like a Dyson sphere to keep it cloaked from detection. Or it might use high-powered lasers to provide an optical façade that keeps its planet from being detected by telescopic instruments.
The Aliens Are Still Evolving
Maybe alien life is actually everywhere — it’s just not intelligent enough to speak with us. It took about 3.5 billion years of evolution to turn single-celled microbes into humans. Maybe we just happened to evolve faster and earlier than everyone else.
Humans Haven’t Spent Enough Time Looking
Realistically speaking, we’ve only had the proper equipment to search for aliens for a little over half a century. On the scale of the cosmos, that time frame is less than a fraction of the blink of an eye. The process could take centuries or even millennia — optimistically speaking.
The Aliens Are Already Here
This is where the conspiracy theorists get to go nuts. Yes, maybe the aliens are already here and we just haven’t figured it out yet. They might be taking some time to study us before unveiling themselves, or maybe they have already let themselves be known to certain groups. The truth isn’t out there — it’s here.
13. And in the Meantime, Aliens Can Be Whatever We Want Them to Be
Katie Heaney: Why, when we think of aliens, do they all look the same — three feet tall, gray or green, big black eyes?
Joseph O. Baker: It didn’t used to be that way. UFO narratives became much more popular in the 1950s and ’60s, and during that era, the descriptions of the aliens would be almost humanlike in form. If you see drawings that some of the so-called contactees made, the aliens almost look like Swedish people — very attractive blond types with shining eyes. The abductee narrative really took over pop culture in the 1970s and ’80s, and after that, there’s this homogenization of the public perception because of all the stories and TV and movies about abductions.
KH: Even those guys look pretty human — why do we have such a hard time imagining radically different forms of life?
JB: We’re the people doing the projecting here. Much the same way people do with God — really, what sense does it make for a supernatural entity to have a gender or be humanoid Anthropomorphized supernatural entities tend to be more compelling.
KH: Is there a reason why so many of the abduction stories feature “probing”?
JB: The probe part of the abduction narrative took over in some sense because it tends to be the most salacious aspect of these stories. It’s almost become shorthand for alien abduction. But the stories of abduction among believers are really diverse, and usually probing is only one small part of it. Men will report having sperm extraction, and women will report having eggs extracted. Positive encounters tend to be akin to religion in some ways, in which beings of higher enlightenment show people the errors of humanity, or help them reach a higher plane of consciousness.
KH: Who is likely to believe?
JB: Men, and people with lower levels of income, are more likely to believe. We don’t really find strong patterns by education, and if we do, there’s usually a slight positive effect. But one of the strongest predictors you can find for believers is their extreme distrust of the government. That’s part of the reason it got so big in the ’70s, when trust in institutions was low. Trump might actually increase belief in UFOs.
Another one of the strongest predictors is not participating as strongly in forms of organized religion. In some sense, there’s a bit of a clue there about what’s going on with belief — it’s providing an alternative belief system.
KH: Most alien-encounter stories give aliens one of two motives: Either they want something from us or they want to kill us. What does that say about us?
JB: It shows that we have a high level of perceived self-importance. The idea that, in this vast universe, these beings sought us out in this tiny corner of the spiral arm of the Milky Way to come learn omething
from us, or eliminate us, is a bit flattering.
KH: I’ve heard that sightings are way down in the smartphone era, when people presumably don’t take a story as proof enough.
JB: Well, it’s easier to hoax things now than it used to be. I would think that with an increased availability of videos, if it was going to do anything, it might lead to more belief, but from most of what I’ve seen, it looks more like stasis. Rates of reported sightings and rate of belief have been pretty stable. The 2005 Baylor Religion Survey found that 25 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds.”
*A version of this article appears in the March 19, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!