just asking questions

‘This Is Probably Going to Be a Good Clarifying Moment in UFO History’

Watching the Chinese spy balloon over the South Carolina coast. Photo: RANDALL HILL/REUTERS

The week after the U.S. downed a Chinese spy balloon, three more unusual objects appeared over North America, causing the head of NORAD to admit on Sunday that the military couldn’t figure out the propulsion systems allowing them to “stay aloft” before they too were shot out of the sky. With a top general refusing to rule anything out, the public speculation began: Could the UFOs be from another planet? On Monday, the White House cut down those hopes when Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed there was “no indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.”

The whole exchange feels emblematic of the past 75 years of UFO talk. Because of a long policy of government secrecy, many Americans believe that the unidentified objects the military has recently acknowledged could be aliens, while others point out the many earthly explanations for what’s up there. To help understand how the glut of new sightings fits into the larger conversation, I spoke with science writer and noted extraterrestrial skeptic Mick West to discuss how the past ten days have changed how we think about the extraterrestrial.

Do you feel like these sightings take the air out of some of the alien speculation of the past six years or so?
I think it confirms a number of things, like that a lot of UFO sightings are balloons. But we already knew that from the recent UAP report stating that a lot of the unidentified aerial phenomena observed by the military were balloons or balloonlike entities, which basically means something that moves in the same way as a balloon does. It also shows how difficult it is to judge what something is from pilot reports. The early reports we got of these objects were quite conflicting, different accounts of how they moved, whether they interfered with instruments or not. I think that illustrates the difficulty in interpreting what someone is seeing visually as a UFO. The fact that there are balloons that do get identified as UAPs and intercepted by planes makes it likely that a lot of the early reports were actually balloons.

It’s kind of funny that this all started with a balloon: The UFO at Roswell was actually a high-altitude weather balloon that crashed in the New Mexico desert. And according to Department of Defense records made public last year, the UFOs that have been identified have all been balloons, surveillance devices, or junk — though many more government sightings remain unexplained. Maybe with this high-profile incident, some people are coming around to the terrestrial answer on the UFO question.
This is probably going to be a good clarifying moment in UFO history, realizing that balloons are responsible for a lot of UFO sightings. Certainly there are a lot of videos I see that end up being things like balloons, so people don’t think about the variety of ways a balloon can manifest itself. They can be any kind of shape. When they fly past a plane that is going very fast, it also looks like the object is moving very fast. So they’re going to report the misinterpretation.

How could this impact the Department of Defense’s reporting process if people start coming to think of these sightings as balloon-first?
I don’t think it’s going to change because they already know most of these sightings are balloons. I don’t think the public realizing this is going to have much impact. And not everything is a balloon. There are going to be other things. Fifteen percent of the resolved cases were drones, which move very differently. And there are other objects that appear to move in ways that aren’t balloonlike.

So why are we seeing these things all at once? Are more of them in the sky all of a sudden?
There’s certainly more than there were 100 years ago, but there aren’t more than there were ten years ago. There are a lot more drones than there used to be. The reason we shot down these last three balloons is that one big Chinese balloon came across the radar and it was easily visible. This became a very big political issue, and there was lots of criticism from the right about whether Biden made the right decision about when to shoot it down. The administration wants to be seen as doing the right thing; they want to be seen as proactive with this potential threat. The military is perhaps realizing that they were letting things slip by that could possibly be intelligence-gathering platforms like balloons. What they appear to have done is revise the filters on their radar and are now getting a lot more hits.

Do you get the sense that the Pentagon likes to keep attention on the UFO-as-alien aspect of the story?
No, I don’t. I think that creates more problems than it solves. If they’re trying to cover up some kind of secret spy plane they’re running, theoretically that’s a good thing. But that can backfire — whenever they say anything is about aliens, there’s a huge amount of media attention. They’re happy to let it simmer away, but they’re not going to stoke the flames of UFOs because it creates so much additional work for them. If someone thinks a U.S. spy plane is a UFO, they’re probably not going to correct them because they’d have to reveal what it actually is.

Obviously there will be people who still push the extraterrestrial aspect, but in a rational world, what would you like to see happen from here?
I think UFOs need to be taken very seriously. They’re a national security risk that needs to be treated as such with proper investigation. Previously the association with aliens has caused some problems because the office investigating UAPs became the silly department. It’s like the alien department when something gets classified as a UAP. And they weren’t actually investigating things as seriously as they should simply because of this association with aliens. You can’t rule out aliens, obviously, but you need to recognize that they’re the least likely of the possible explanations and UAP investigations in the military should focus on foreign adversary threats and not to find alien intelligence.

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