Photo: Hugo Yu; Source: The New Yorker; Drew Angerer/Getty Images; National Air and Space Museum; U.S. Department of Defense; The New York Times; Tonje Thilesen; Robert Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock; Anibal Martel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images; Harold M. Lambert/ Getty Images

No, Aliens Haven’t Visited the Earth

Why are so many smart people insisting otherwise?

Photo: Hugo Yu; Source: The New Yorker; Drew Angerer/Getty Images; National Air and Space Museum; U.S. Department of Defense; The New York Times; Tonje Thilesen; Robert Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock; Anibal Martel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images; Harold M. Lambert/ Getty Images

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There has never been a worse time to be a UFO skeptic. Last month, Sean Kirkpatrick, the head of the Pentagon office responsible for investigating unexplained aerial events, stepped down. He said he was tired of being harassed and accused of hiding evidence, and he lamented an erosion in “our capacity for rational, evidence-based critical thinking.”

He may have been pushed over the edge by a pair of events from the past summer. In June of last year, Avi Loeb, an astronomer at Harvard, announced that he had found some tiny blobs of metal by dragging a magnetic sled over the bottom of the Pacific near Papua New Guinea. He claimed that these blobs were metallic droplets that had melted off an interstellar object that might have been “a technological gadget with artificial intelligence” — the product of beings from another star system.

In July, David Grusch, a former intelligence officer, stepped out of the shadows to announce that the U.S. military Establishment currently possesses a small fleet of nonhuman pre-owned flying saucers. He didn’t call them saucers; he called them UAPs, or “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” which used to be called UFOs. But basically, we’re talking saucers.

Grusch’s story first reached the public via a journalist named Leslie Kean (pronounced Kane), who had co-written a hugely influential article about UFOs that appeared on the front page of the New York Times in 2017. She and Helene Cooper, a Pentagon correspondent for the paper, along with a writer named Ralph Blumenthal, revealed that Senator Harry Reid had gotten the Pentagon to create a secret, “mysterious” $22 million program to study UFOs. A few years later, Kean was the subject of a long profile in The New Yorker by staff writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus with the web title “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously.”

Thoughtful, sensible-seeming, non-crankish people at Harvard, at The New Yorker, at the New York Times, and at the Pentagon seemed to be drifting ever closer to the conclusion that alien spaceships had visited Earth. Everyone was being appallingly open-minded. Yet even after more than 70 years of claimed sightings, there was simply no good evidence. In an age of ubiquitous cameras and fancy scopes, there was no footage that wasn’t blurry and jumpy and taken from far away. There was just this guy Grusch telling the world that the government had a “crash-retrieval and reverse-engineering program” for flying saucers that was totally supersecret and that only people in the program knew about the program. Grusch said he had learned about it while serving on a UAP task force at the Pentagon. He interviewed more than 40 people, and they told him wild things. He said he couldn’t reveal the names of the people he interviewed. He shared no firsthand information and showed no photos. He said the program went back decades, back to the saucer crash that happened in Roswell, New Mexico.

Grusch seems sincere and polite and cheerful. In interviews, he has said he’s on the autism spectrum, which helps him focus. He uses military buzzwords sometimes, like near-peer adversaries and asymmetric national-defense advantages, but not in an off-putting way. He says when he came to learn about the existence of the secret saucers, he was troubled and felt it was highly unethical for their existence to be kept from the public. He also says he has at times wondered whether he was being deceived: “Was this some kind of ruse against me? Am I being used in any kind of way?” No, he decided.

In March 2023, Grusch was introduced to Kean. “It was always sort of established that I was going to — me and my colleague Ralph were going to — break his story because of the track record that we had,” Kean told me. “I wanted it that way, but David wanted it that way, too, because he thought we had a lot of credibility.” Grusch showed Kean his security clearances and performance evaluations, and they talked for many hours online and in person. What he told her resembled what other sources had already described, though they couldn’t go on the record because the information was classified. “People I had known for a long time,” she said, “I could call them and up say, ‘Is it credible that he’s saying that these crash objects exist, or whatever?’ And they would say, ‘Yes, we support what he says.’ ”

Kean and Blumenthal’s piece about Grusch ended up at a UFO-friendly website called The Debrief, which reports on “knowledge on the periphery of human understanding.” They quoted Grusch as saying that the government keepers of the spaceships know the machines are from nonhuman intelligent beings because of “vehicle morphologies and material science testing and the possession of unique atomic arrangements and radiological signatures.”

Next came a packed hearing in Congress, which happened at the end of July before the Subcommittee on National Security, the Border, and Foreign Affairs. The topic was unidentified anomalous phenomena and “what threats they may pose.” Representative Andy Ogles asked Grusch whether these UAPs represented “an existential threat to the national security of the United States.”

“Potentially,” Grusch answered.

Representative Nancy Mace asked Grusch whether there were bodies in the crashed craft.

“Biologics came with some of these recoveries, yeah,” he said, nodding.

Mace then asked, with possibly the tiniest hint of a smile, “Were they, I guess, human or nonhuman biologics?” “Nonhuman,” Grusch replied, his forehead furrowing as if he’d taken a bite of a huge sandwich. “And that was the assessment of people with direct knowledge on the program I talked to that are currently still on the program.”

Representative Tim Burchett thanked Grusch and the other witnesses for their bravery: “They took an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and daggum it, they are doing it and we owe them a debt of gratitude.” Sustained applause followed.

After the hearing, Kean gave an interview on a news show called Rising. She reported that she had heard no disparaging or ridiculing remarks from the audience. The mood was “sort of joyful.” People were “very excited.” When members of Congress are seriously engaging with the idea of UFOs, “the stigma starts to fade away,” she said.

“What do you make of that claim there by Grusch of the nonhuman biologics?” the Rising announcer asked.

“That is probably the most explosive statement that was made in the whole hearing in terms of trying to wrap your mind around something that hard to imagine,” said Kean. “That there’s actually biological material, if not bodies, of nonhuman beings in possession of the U.S. government.” She said she had no way of knowing whether it was true but added, “I have talked to others who have told me that it is true.”

Who is Leslie Kean, and why is she making such an effort to put a respectable face on what are, let’s just say it, quite wiggy-sounding assertions? In 2010, Kean published a book about UFO sightings that talked about the “terrible stigma” of being UFO-curious and about how when she first got interested in the subject, she felt shame, as if she were taking an illegal drug, and didn’t tell anyone. But then, after a while, she was okay with it and gained confidence. The book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, was a best seller. She then began work on a book about the afterlife, called Surviving Death, in which she recounted how she went to a psychic who described her to herself with amazing accuracy, though maybe it was because she had given the psychic her phone number and the psychic used a reverse phone search and found some things out, but she, Kean, thought that was unlikely. The psychic told her she could feel the energy and presence of Kean’s departed partner, whose name began with a B — and yes, it was a B, it was her departed partner, Budd, the famous Budd Hopkins, who had died a few years earlier and who before that was a very successful UFO writer and speaker, though he never got his byline on the front page of the New York Times, unlike Kean.

Hopkins used to put people into hypnotic states and interview them in order to tease out from their tranced minds all the unpleasant things space aliens had done when they’d drawn them into the saucers. He toured the country giving talks on alien abduction at UFO conferences, and he appeared on a very good Nova episode on PBS in 1997, “Kidnapped by UFOs?,” in which one of his informants said space aliens had harvested his sperm and a woman said she had been probed in her ears and her nose and another place, too — and then something came out of her and she looked down and it was an alien baby.

Over the years, Hopkins showed his dubious methods of hypnotic suggestion to others, including David M. Jacobs, a history professor who wrote The Threat: Revealing the Secret Alien Agenda, and John E. Mack, who wrote Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens, and they thanked him in their books — “To Budd Hopkins, who led the way,” said Mack; “Budd Hopkins, my friend and ‘partner in crime,’ ” said Jacobs — and they produced a shelf full of fat books about creepy, naughty things that aliens had done, and that’s why the New York Times called Hopkins “the father of the alien-abduction movement.” Hopkins coached children into believing they had met aliens; Jacobs suggested to “Emma Woods,” one of his alleged alien abductees, that she buy and wear a chastity belt to block space creatures intent on breeding hybrid babies. “They can’t take it off,” Jacobs told Woods. “It’s got a little lock and a key, and right where the vaginal opening is, it’s got a couple of nails sticking across. It’s a dead stopper, no doubt about it.”

And then one day, somewhere around 2004, Hopkins was giving a talk about aliens at a UFO conference when — as he tells it in his autobiography — a “trim, attractive, petite woman with a mass of short, curly, dark-blonde hair and beautiful, steady blue eyes” came up to him and said she was interested in one of his abduction stories, the one in which a woman named Linda floated out a window in New York City and was pulled into a bright-red UFO. The attractive, petite woman was Leslie Kean. They struck up a friendship, became partners, and there you go. Meanwhile, Hopkins divorced his third wife, who had by then begun to doubt his methods (she wrote a devastating article about him in a UFO magazine called Paratopia), and he dedicated his memoir “to Leslie Kean, a sun whose rays have warmed my life and renewed my hopes.” Kean, in her UFO book, said, “A special thanks goes to my close friend Budd Hopkins for providing daily, steady support as I dealt with the myriad personal and professional challenges inherent in producing this book.”

After Surviving Death, Kean continued her UFO advocacy work with the assistance of Christopher Mellon, a wealthy defense and intelligence insider. Mellon set up a meeting for Kean with Hal Puthoff, a mage of remote viewing and other outré telepathic experimentation, and a goateed counterintelligence officer, Luis Elizondo, who’d just quit his Pentagon job and was now part of an entertainment company Puthoff had set up with pop-punk singer-songwriter Tom DeLonge. (DeLonge is famous for the catchy, guitar-heavy songs he recorded with Blink-182, like “Aliens Exist,” in which he sings, “I got an injection / Of fear from the abduction.”) Sitting in the lobby bar of a hotel near the Pentagon, Puthoff opened a laptop and played Kean some Navy UFO videos in which blips of light cavort on a cockpit screen. “I was completely floored,” she told me. Seeing actual military videos of UFOs “changed everything.”

Kean’s 2017 Times article included two of the clips she watched at the meeting, and everyone who read it clicked on them and went, “Holy crackers!” Especially over the video called “Gimbal,” in which a black shape that resembles a flying saucer turns this way and that. Suddenly, everyone was saying to themselves, “That thing is very eerie and otherworldly, look at that glowing aura, maybe we are being visited by flying saucers — the Navy pilots sure think so.” 60 Minutes did a piece on the videos and interviewed the pilots.

Some viewers were not convinced. Mick West, who runs a website called Metabunk, explained on YouTube that the “Gimbal” video shows the heat image of a jet from behind and the aura is an artifact of image sharpening. The antics of the saucer-shaped craft, he demonstrated, which seemed effortless, porpoiselike, are the result of the laggy way the external camera mount adjusted itself when tracking an object. It was clear that this really wasn’t a film of a flying saucer at all — and that Mick West should get some kind of Edward R. Murrow award for even-toned analysis.

“If Mick were really interested in this stuff,” Kean told The New Yorker, “he wouldn’t debunk every single video.” She and Blumenthal wrote more UFO pieces for the Times, republishing the “Gimbal” video as if it still meant something when it almost certainly means nothing at all.

This has all happened before: It’s the latest instance of what Marina Koren, a science writer for The Atlantic, calls the “UFO-mania cycle.” Before Grusch, there were military men like Robert Salas, who published a book a decade ago in which he said that one night in the 1960s a space alien floated him out of his bedroom window and inserted a needle into his groin. And before Salas, there was Colonel Philip J. Corso, a retired Pentagon insider, who in 1997 published a memoir, The Day After Roswell, in which he claimed that in July 1947 he had opened a small shipping crate in a veterinary building in Fort Riley, Kansas, and found a dead space alien inside, submerged in a viscous blue liquid. “It was a four-foot human-shaped figure,” Corso wrote, “with arms, bizarre-looking four-fingered hands — I didn’t see a thumb — thin legs and feet, and an oversized incandescent lightbulb-shaped head that looked like it was floating over a balloon gondola for a chin.”

In the 1950s, Corso was an intelligence operative and counterpropagandist in Washington, and later he began working for President Eisenhower’s National Security Council. The United States was fighting a two-front war, Corso wrote — against Communists on the one hand and space creatures on the other. Earth, he said, was “under some form of probing attack by one or more alien cultures who were testing both our ability and resolve to defend ourselves.”

The flights of Eisenhower’s U-2 spy plane over Soviet Russia had an undisclosed secondary purpose, Corso believed. Not only did they identify missile sites and bombing targets; they also carried on the search for extraterrestrial crash sites behind enemy lines: “We also wanted to see whether the Soviets were harvesting any of the alien aircraft technology for themselves.”

In 1961, Corso was put in charge of the foreign-technology desk at the Pentagon, where (so he said) he was asked to “exploit” the secret Roswell files and alien remains, including autopsy reports and crash debris. Corso said his team farmed out various reverse-engineered extraterrestrial innovations to American industry, including tech for lasers, integrated circuits, fiber optics, stealth planes, and night-vision goggles — also Kevlar, which was, according to Corso, inspired by the “cross-stitched supertenacity fibers” on the surface of the downed saucer. “The seeds for the development of all of them were found in the crash of the alien craft at Roswell,” he wrote.

Corso’s book became a New York Times best seller. Reviews were mixed. The Baltimore Sun called it “disturbing.” The Financial Post’s review was titled “Book Reads Like Unidentified Lying Object.”

“We absolutely stand by the book,” said the director of publicity at Pocket Books. “It’s a memoir.”

I never got into UFOs. I loved science fiction as a kid, enjoyed buglike space monsters as much as the next person, and in 1967 I read Bill Adler’s book Letters to the Air Force on UFOs with fascination and delight, but the actual documentary evidence on offer has always seemed poor. And the abduction stories, which reached a peak in the late ’80s, were just nuts. Not until recently, though, when I worked on a book about secret Cold War weapons research, did I begin to understand how the saucer madness got started.

On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, a salesman of fire-control equipment, was startled by a flash of blue light while flying from Chehalis, Washington, to Yakima, Washington, in his single-engine airplane. He looked to his left and saw “a chain of very peculiar-looking objects that were rapidly approaching Mount Rainier at about 107 degrees.” The objects were shiny, and they dipped and rose and flashed as they flew, Arnold said, “like a fish flipping in the sun.” When the light reflected off them, they seemed “completely round.” “I assumed at the time that they were a new formation, or a new type of jet,” he said, “so I was baffled by the fact that they did not have any tails.”

Over the next several days, talking first with aviation pals and then with increasingly eager reporters, Arnold made a number of attempts to help people visualize what he had seen. He said the nine objects moved like geese flying in a line. They seemed to be “fastened together,” he said. “If one dipped, the others did, too.” He said, “Their flight was like speed boats on rough water or similar to the tail of a Chinese kite that I once saw blowing in the wind.” At one point, among these analogies, Arnold ventured to say that the objects moved in a “saucer-like” manner — as if you took a saucer and threw it across the water. The vocabulary solidified and took hold, and all over the country, but especially in the Pacific Northwest, people started reporting flying saucers and flying discs.

Arnold suspected he had seen some kind of brand-new military flying machine, but the government wouldn’t confirm that. On the radio, Arnold said, “Naturally, being a natural-born American, if it’s not made by our science or our Army Air Forces, I’m inclined to believe it’s of an extraterrestrial origin.” He was disappointed that the military offered no explanation, but he was reassured to learn that other observers said they had seen the same thing.

On the same day Arnold saw saucers, a prospector in the Cascades, Fred Johnson, looked up to see five or six discs about a thousand feet above him. He estimated they were 30 feet in diameter. They were silent, and they made his compass needle wiggle wildly, he said.

Another same-day report came in from Richland, Washington, 125 miles east of Mount Rainier and very close to the enormous Hanford plant, which was at that time going full blast turning uranium into plutonium to make atomic bombs. A Richland resident named Leo Bernier said he’d seen several discs or saucers heading west very fast, probably just before Arnold saw them. “I believe it may be a visitor from another planet, more developed than ours,” Bernier said. Then came the “July 4 deluge” reported by the Los Angeles Times: “Two hundred persons in one group and 60 in another saw them in Idaho; hundreds saw them in Oregon, Washington, and other states throughout the West.” A group of policemen in Portland, Oregon, noticed several discs that they said looked like “chromium hubcaps”; they “wobbled, disappeared, and reappeared.” A United Airlines pilot and co-pilot, on their way from Boise to Seattle, had a surprise. “Brother, you could have knocked me over with a feather when about eight minutes after takeoff, at exactly 7,100 feet over Emmett, Idaho, we saw not one but nine of them,” said pilot Emil Smith. They were “evenly spaced in a line.”

Smith had been a commercial pilot for years. The story he and his co-pilot told, said the Associated Press, “is the first confirmation by experienced, highly trained airmen of flying discs which have been reported over the northwest for the past two weeks.”

“Lots of people are worried to heck about the things,” said a military PR man in Sacramento. “But there’s nothing to get excited about. If there were anything to them, the Army would have notified us.”

Airmen at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado inflate a Skyhook balloon, 1955. Photo: Hugo Yu; Source photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Something unusual was going on, that’s clear. And the reports had elements in common: roundish wobbly objects, shiny, grouped together, connected, tethered.

What were these people looking at?

I’m going to have to say it, and I’m sorry because I know UFO people roll their eyes at the word balloons. But they need to get over it because balloons of various kinds — high-altitude weather balloons, cosmic-ray research balloons, sound-detecting balloons, thunderstorm-study balloons, aerial-reconnaissance balloons, “rockoons” that shoot missiles, propaganda balloons, toy balloons, and, most secret, crop-warfare balloons —
are at the heart of this high-altitude adventure we’ve been on as a culture. None of it is paranormal, but it’s still strange.

It began after the Second World War, when Soviet scientists dropped hints that they were on the verge of world-changing discoveries in the stratosphere that had to do with the untapped power of cosmic rays. A team led by Artem Alikhanian had been working at a new high-altitude research laboratory near Mount Aragats in Soviet Armenia, and they’d been sending up research balloons to fish for new cosmic particles, one of which, the “varitron,” was heavier than all others. In May 1946, Piotr Kapitsa, physicist and founder of the Institute for Physical Problems in Moscow, told startled reporters that bombs that harnessed the power of the new particles “could cause devastation several times greater than that of the atomic bomb that wiped out Hiroshima, Japan.” Gossip columnist Walter Winchell wrote about the threat in September 1946: “Reason Russians so cocky lately is they allegedly have Cosmic Ray Bomb.”

The U.S. government quickly stepped up funding for cosmic-ray research, hoping to learn more about whatever the Russians might have found. (The varitron was eventually determined not to exist.) At New York University, there was a physicist and balloon wrangler named Serge Korff who went all over the country helping scientists rig up enormous balloon trains — free-floating chains of weather balloons hundreds of feet long — in order to carry heavier payloads higher. These were composed of ten, 15, 20, even 30 large neoprene weather balloons.

The problem was that sometimes the balloon trains, longer than football fields when airborne, went missing, and they were disturbing looking. Out of scale, silent and spectral — especially after dark when they glowed, still sunlit, in the stratospheric sky — these apparitions distressed countless people. “New Jersey residents who saw 28 ‘flying saucers’ linked together in a block-long aerial snake dance today were reassured by Princeton scientists that it was merely a cosmic ray experiment,” said the Camden Courier-Post in July 1947. “The scientists said they hoped someone would see the balloon chain descend so they could recover their cosmic ray equipment.”

On top of the surge of cosmic-ray research, the Air Force, early in 1947, funded a related program at NYU, the Constant Altitude Balloon Project, code-named Mogul, which aimed to listen for a nuclear explosion in the USSR so that American strategizers would know right away when the Soviets had the atomic bomb. A young engineer, Charles B. Moore, launched a number of Mogul flights using a train of neoprene balloons to lift a low-frequency microphone high into the upper atmosphere. After some preliminary experiments on the East Coast, he and his team soon relocated to Holloman Air Force Base at Alamogordo, New Mexico.

To the northeast, not far from Roswell, something crashed on a sheep ranch in June 1947. W. W. “Mac” Brazel, who found the wreckage, didn’t know what it was. “He described his find as consisting of large numbers of pieces of paper covered with a foil-like substance and pieced together with small sticks,” reported the Associated Press. “Scattered with the materials over an area about 200 yards across were pieces of gray rubber.” For his part, Brazel recalled, “At first I thought it was a kite, but we couldn’t put it together like any kite I ever saw.”

What Brazel didn’t know, because it was a secret, was that he’d found one of Moore’s Project Mogul balloon trains. The pieces of gray rubber were fragments of neoprene balloons that had darkened and hardened in the sun. The item that looked like a kite was a foil-covered radar reflector of a somewhat unusual type; it was faceted so it would work in all directions, and it looked shiny and a bit starlike. It allowed the balloon launchers to track their experiment, to a degree. It was made of balsa wood.

After Brazel gathered up some of the sunbaked neoprene scraps and the balsa sticks and the foil-and-paper covering, he went into town to see the sheriff, who got in touch with someone at the Roswell air base. Three intelligence officers visited the crash site, and one of them, Jesse Marcel, told a reporter the debris was from a flying saucer. In the ’70s, Marcel became a UFO celebrity. The records of Project Mogul weren’t made public until the ’90s, so there was plenty of time for a lush Roswellian mythology to germinate and ripen.

Toward the end of 1947, Moore and a rival balloon engineer, Otto Winzen, left neoprene behind. They began making enormous research balloons out of newer materials — first Pliofilm, used to make shower curtains, then sheets of ultralight polyethylene plastic, used to bag carrots at the grocery store — sewn together on long tables at a factory run by General Mills, the cereal company, in Minneapolis. In October, a General Mills Pliofilm balloon, 70 feet wide and 100 feet high, caused a mass flying-saucer panic. “City residents flooded telephone switchboards at the Minneapolis Tribune, weather bureau, police department, and radio stations with inquiries about a strange light moving slowly across the sky,” said the newspaper. “Police reported the calls reached a frantic state when the sun went below the horizon.” As darkness grew, the orb turned red, then purple. The Air Force scrambled up a plane to investigate, but the glowing thing, whatever it was, was too high to reach. Eventually, Winzen explained that it was one of his General Mills balloons: “Its great visibility was due to the reflective powers of its Pliofilm shell, which expanded to many times its ground size as it reached its great height.”

Winzen soon left General Mills and formed his own balloon company, Winzen Research, which manufactured plastic balloons as tall as 20-story buildings. Sometime around 1950, Moore took Winzen’s place as head of aeronautical research and development at the cereal company. “I’m very proud we began pushing them for polyethylene balloons,” Moore said. As these “Skyhook” balloons got bigger, they floated everywhere, sometimes thousands of miles away, sometimes across oceans, and wherever they went, people saw flying saucers.

So successful were the new balloons that by the mid-1950s, General Mills, flooded with military- and CIA-funded contracts, built a balloon factory in St. Paul twice as big as the old one. Nearly 400 people worked there, making 6,000 gigantic balloons and half a million smaller ones per year. During his tenure at General Mills, Moore worked on Project Ultimate, which launched flocks of pillow balloons filled with anti-Communist propaganda flyers from West Germany into Czechoslovakia, treating the people below to “a siege of flying-saucer heebie-jeebies,” according to columnist Drew Pearson. Moore also worked on the CIA’s Project Gopher, a plan to loft heavy unmanned cameras over the Soviet Union; they were first tested over the U.S. using the cover story that they were part of something called Project Moby Dick, which ostensibly studied wind currents and weather patterns at high altitudes. And Moore consulted on an insane plan to destroy the Soviet wheat crop, called Operation Flying Cloud. The idea was to fill 80-pound gondolas with a mixture of turkey feathers and spores of wheat stem rust — a fast-spreading fungal disease — and then stealthily float this agent over enemy lands when the wind was right.

This biological weapon, known as the E-77 balloon bomb, had as its primary target the wheat fields of Ukraine. “The anti-crop program is aimed at the bread basket of the Soviet Union,” said an Air Force memo dated December 15, 1951. By March 1953, the CIA, using Project Moby Dick as cover, had set up three balloon-testing and training outposts on the West Coast — two in California and one in Oregon — plus a site in Missouri and one at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. According to another declassified Air Force memo (I found it in the National Archives), 2,400 test-balloon flights crisscrossed the U.S. in the early ’50s in preparation for the massive biological-warfare attacks planned by the Pentagon for World War III. “On the surface, it appears that the balloon delivery system is feasible,” the memo read.

The Associated Press issued a news bulletin in August 1953 that was published on the front pages of some newspapers: Project Moby Dick’s “whale like bags,” the article said, “have often been mistaken for flying saucers.” Because it was hard to judge the speed of shiny objects at high altitudes, “the balloons sometimes seem to be racing at tremendous rates, whereas they actually are moving at 60 miles per hour or less.”

The crop-disease balloon bomb was never used — or was it? “Hungary, once the granary of Central Europe, reports a wheat crop 40 percent below expectations,” the Associated Press reported in July 1953. Refugees reportedly claimed “thousands of families in Hungary recently were without substantial food for days.” In 1956, half of Ukraine’s wheat crop failed, according to the Associated Press, “a failure which the Russians have been concealing from the world.” Perhaps it was just bad weather.

The effect on the U.S. of all this Cold War balloonery is pretty obvious. The Air Force, the Navy, and the CIA seeded the sky with helium ghosts and made us crazy. The country was, and is, suffering from a paranormalization of the plastic bag.

And then, in 1955, just as some of the military balloon programs were being scaled back, another secret source of confusion appeared in the sky: the CIA’s Lockheed U-2 spy plane. Saucer sightings, especially from pilots, soared again. “High-altitude testing of the U-2 soon led to an unexpected side effect — a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects,” according to a paper written by two CIA historians.

As saucer mania matured, it became clear that what people really wanted was not just otherworldly luminosity and unusual speed but alien creatures, living or dead — the same craving to which Grusch and Kean succumbed when they talked about “biologics” among the crash materials. In 1950, Frank Scully, a writer for Variety, was one of the first to feed this appetite. He told the story of a group of disgruntled scientists and engineers at Wright Field in Ohio who had been helping the Air Force analyze a shipment of dismantled flying saucers packed in trucks marked AMMUNITION. The ships had come from Venus at the speed of light, piloted by short, hairy-faced men in blue uniforms made of impossibly strong plastic fibers. The little men were dead, Scully was told, victims perhaps of some kind of decompression sickness. His book Behind the Flying Saucers became a best seller.

The need for bodies produced sad hoaxes, too. On July 8, 1953, a young barber, Edward Watters, told reporters that he and two friends had been out “honky-tonking” near Atlanta when they saw some small figures running like men toward a spaceship parked at the top of a hill. Watters said he hit the brakes on his car but not soon enough. He had killed “a man from outer space,” he announced. He took the body home and put it in his refrigerator, planning to display it at his barbershop. A reporter from the Palm Beach Post wrote up the story, doubtfully, and experts were called in: “Dr. Herman Jones reported that an autopsy disclosed the creature to be a monkey from which the hair had been removed by a hair remover and the tail amputated after death.” Watters then admitted he had killed the monkey with a blow to the back of the head. It was a rhesus monkey.

Watters was fined $40 for “placing a carcass on the highway.”

By the ’60s, the UFO movement was multifarious and all but unstoppable. The lurid abduction stories so interesting to Budd Hopkins had begun: Betty and Barney Hill of New Hampshire claimed they’d had an unpleasant alien experience in 1961, and later, under guided hypnosis, Betty described her sojourn in the spaceship, where her dress was removed and a needle was inserted into her bellybutton. Barney said that the alien crew, who wore glossy leather uniforms and were about five feet tall, harvested his sperm and poked a “cylindrical object” into his bottom. In a web essay, “Aliens and Anal Probes,” UFO skeptic Jason Colavito persuasively argues that Barney was half-remembering imagery he had seen in several Outer Limits episodes broadcast shortly before the hypnosis sessions.

A whole fan-fiction universe of crash sites and bodies and medical procedures soon emerged. Garbled anecdotes and partially recovered “memories,” hypnotically retrieved, were limping around like B-movie monsters, mutating and merging in the night museums of confabulation.

The objection to the balloon explanation of Roswell soon became “What about the alien bodies?” If you can’t account for the bodies that kept coming up in eyewitness accounts of the crash sites at Roswell, said many UFO believers, you have nothing.

Recently, I got to thinking about that hoax in Georgia. Were experiments performed, I was curious to know, on monkeys or chimps at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico?

Turns out the answer is yes, there were. There was a whole colony of experimental chimps at Holloman. Monkeys went up in balloons and in V-2 rockets. Many of them died. Chimpanzees were strapped into a rocket sled and abruptly decelerated; they were spun, tumbled, ejected from their seats, subjected to wind blasts, and slingshotted in the “bopper.” They died, they were autopsied, or they lived but suffered injuries and were “sacrificed” and autopsied.

In August 1958, the Air Force announced that a chimpanzee had survived a wind-blast test at a speed of 1,400 miles an hour. It was the fourth chimp it had used in this extreme set of tests. “The other three died afterward because the suits they wore blew apart,” wrote the project’s lead researcher. This one, however, survived because it wore a “suit of Dacron sailcloth.” (The AP article said the chimp was anesthetized.) Is Dacron sailcloth the super-advanced tight-fitting mesh that some witnesses claimed the aliens wore?

Sitting behind Grusch at the congressional hearings in July, flanking him, were two striking men: Jeremy Corbell, a chesty, big-bearded paranormalist, and George Knapp, a journalist and movie producer from Las Vegas with a musing jaw and a fine swoop of gray hair. Both of them are in the flying-saucer-promotion business. They’ve made movies together about past UFO whistleblowers. Corbell says at the beginning of one, “I seek to weaponize your curiosity.”

Representative Burchett, who had pushed hard to have the UFO hearings held, offered a special greeting “to my buddy Jeremy Corbell” and another to Knapp: “They are not witnesses, but they have provided some statements on this subject, and I seek unanimous consent to enter those statements into the record, Mr. Chairman.”

Knapp and Corbell are not witnesses; they’re presences. They represent the cyclical, circular, profitable nature of American saucerism, which keeps returning to the same themes — crash recovery, alien bodies, cover-up, reverse engineering, and abductions. Is Grusch being used? Yes, I think so — used by seasoned showmen like Knapp and Corbell, who want to sell us dark stories of cattle-mutilating antagonists who “fly with impunity around our restricted airspace”; used by New Wave UFO destigmatizers like Kean, who want to normalize the notion that we have visitors from faraway stars; and used, finally, by professional weaponeers and war planners who want more money to counter a shadowy but ever-present non-human threat. Extraterrestrials are the perfect enemy. They just keep coming, probing, harassing, and causing concern, and when you go after them, they wink away into another dimension.

Late in November, I reached Loeb, Harvard’s avid alien spotter, and asked him what he thought about Grusch’s testimony. He wasn’t impressed. “My issue is that he did not witness the materials he was talking about,” Loeb said. “To me, that doesn’t count as evidence. It’s just hearing people tell him about something he didn’t see himself.” Loeb also doubts that there are any alien bodies in government custody or any alien “biologics,” whatever they are. “Biology cannot survive the journey across interstellar distances,” he said. “I would be very skeptical about biology.”

Loeb does, however, agree with Grusch and other military folk that some reports of UFOs are probably real, and he has volunteered to help the Pentagon identify possible threats. He and his students have begun scanning the skies of Massachusetts around the clock with a network of advanced “multispectral” imaging systems to try to get good footage of any anomalies that may appear, using artificial intelligence to weed out the drones and the birds and the satellites — and the balloons. And he continues to hold on to the possibility that he and his collaborators might already have discovered evidence of a nonhuman space-voyaging vehicle that came our way from outside the solar system only to burn up in our atmosphere. In a preprint released in August 2023, he writes that five of the 57 tiny oceanic spherules that he collected and analyzed, with their unique pattern of beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium, “may reflect an extraterrestrial technological origin.”

Other scientists, specialists in the geology of meteors and related matters, disagree. Christian Koeberl, an impact expert and cosmochemist at the University of Vienna, wrote me that Loeb’s spherule research is “very superficial.” There is no evidence, Koeberl said, that the spherules Loeb found came from the 2014 meteoric fireball: “It is pure speculation.” Patricio A. Gallardo, a cosmological physicist at the University of Chicago, has published a paper proposing that Loeb’s allegedly “weird” spherules are not weird at all — that they are, in fact, common products of coal-fired power plants. “Nickel, beryllium, lanthanum, and uranium concentrations are found to be consistent with expectations from coal ash from a coal chemical composition database,” he wrote. “The meteoritic origin is disfavored.” Steve Desch, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University who has written a point-by-point critique of Loeb’s paper, told me, “Loeb has a habit of asking interesting questions. He just already believes he has the answers to the questions he’s asking.”

Loeb strongly disputes the coal-ash explanation. The composition of these “beautiful metallic marbles,” he says, one of which holds nested spheres within it like a Matryoshka doll, shows a “pattern of elements from outside the solar system, never seen before.” He told me that some of his critics “behave like terrorists.” Loeb’s “Westward ho!” hope, expressed in his book Interstellar, is that in the future, having reverse-engineered nonhuman technology, humanity will build “spacearks” capable of “spreading terrestrial life throughout the universe.” Sometimes, in his eagerness to come up with new theories of intergalactic visitation, he seems to be willfully self-destructing. It’s as if he’s a meteoric fireball sprinkling spherules of misplaced credulity over the seafloor.

Still, I find myself touched by the intensity of Loeb’s yearning for evidence of extraterrestrial technological civilizations. It’s fun to think about intelligent life evolving over billions of years on some of the millions of far-flung planets. Are space aliens really an “existential threat” to the U.S.? Should the Pentagon and paranoid politicians be involved? Is there a hidden fleet of crashed spacecraft and jars of nonhuman remains? Probably not. But we’ve got the Crab Nebula, which is intimate and crowded and empty and gorgeous all at the same time. We don’t need flying saucers to feel awe.

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