Bengaluru: In 2007, United States senator Harry Reid expressed his curiosity into multiple UFO reports coming from the armed forces. The Pentagon subsequently investigated these, and set up the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF).
The task force is now due to release its report in June 2021, and this has prompted a flurry of media coverage and public discourse about UFOs.
The discourse has been further accelerated since the publication of a comprehensive history of sightings, investigations, perceptions, and insider comments by The New Yorker, written by writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus.
While the interest in the upcoming report has prompted comments from even high ranking US government officials, experts have pointed out that unidentified flying objects (UFOs) don’t necessarily mean alien flying objects.
Psaki says potential release of upcoming U.S. intelligence report on UFOs will be up to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence
— CBS News (@CBSNews) May 25, 2021
Why a task force?
In The New Yorker report, titled ‘How the Pentagon started taking UFOs seriously’, Lewis-Kraus outlines the chronology behind UFO sightings by experts, how they were investigated, the concerns they prompted, and what drove public commentary in the direction that it did.
It describes how the overwhelming number of UFO sightings during the Cold War was leading to the impression that the US was not in complete control of its airspace. Additionally, there was also a fear that real incursions like Soviet spy planes over the US territory could be lost in the frenzied attribution of so many things to UFOs.
So, to cut down on UFO reports, the CIA infiltrated and monitored citizen UFO groups, removed the special investigative status UFOs had, and put out messaging to delegitimise the discussions around them.
Lewis-Kraus goes on to explain that a large majority of cases were subsequently explainable as stealth military technology or weather experiments or just astronomical phenomena, but there remained a number of sightings that couldn’t be explained. These were especially concerning, as the sightings were made by military or aviation experts or sincere citizens than UFO buffs.
Some researchers were able to narrow down several of those sightings further to Cold War anxiety and ambivalence about technology, but a number of genuinely inexplicable ones still remained — specifically those sighted by professional observers like commercial or air force pilots and a large number of eyewitnesses.
These cases have made news as and when they occurred, including ones involving high profile lawsuits and court orders. However, stories about UFOs fade away quickly from the media landscape.
The emerging interest in UFOs is at least partially attributed to pop culture cycles, where there is a cyclical generational fascination with similar topics that ultimately come to nothing and fizzle out of public discourse.
But the work of investigative journalists like Leslie Kean, as outlined in the report mentioned above, led to a steadily rising interest in unexplained aerial phenomena among mainstream news readers and the upper echelons of lawmakers in the US. Her book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record, was praised by physicist Michio Kaku as the “gold standard for UFO research.”
Examples of unexplained cases
Several prominent international instances of UFOs are available publicly. The case that stoked Kean’s interest seemingly was a report in 1999 by retired French generals, scientists, and space experts offering explanations for several UFOs. But some remained inconclusive, described by the report as “completely unknown flying machines with exceptional performances that are guided by a natural or artificial intelligence” and attributed to aliens.
There are other instances too, such as ‘Britain’s Roswell’ in 1980, where many Air Force officers observed a UFO at close range and also recorded audio commentary during observation. One witness claims to have got close enough to feel an electric charge from a silent triangular craft and notice designs on it.
In 1976, outside Tehran, “a glowing diamond” flashed in different colours and jammed radio communication. In 2006, a flying disc was spotted over Chicago’s O’Hare airport, then the busiest airport in the world, and was sighted by several onlookers. A recorded conversation between an airline supervisor and an air traffic controller revealed that a pilot had stated they saw a flying disc.
Many of these accounts are substantiated with data including detection by radar, audio recordings of conversations, satellite imagery, and photos.
The obvious lack of evidence is in the form of good visual data and close-up pictures, especially since many reports claim to have moved very close to the objects they encountered or observed. According to a former Pentagon official quoted by The New Yorker, official classified data contains images that are of much better quality.
What experts think
In a clip from the programme, ’60 Minutes’, one pilot is heard saying that he has seen UFOs on a daily basis for two years.
Experts have pointed out that such accounts undermine the hypothesis that UFOs are not mundane, and thus are not perfectly explicable. Such frequent sightings should have produced at least one clear piece of evidence, they say.
Several experts continue to stress that most UFO sightings can still be explained by logic and earthly or space phenomena, with weather balloons equipped with radar reflectors being the primary one.
In The Atlantic, writer Maria Koren argues that any evidence for alien life will come from the stars, not our atmosphere. She explains that SETI, the organisation that actively searches for intelligent life outside of the Earth, does so under the assumption that aliens comply with the laws of physics. But UFOs are UFOs precisely because they do not.
Indeed, the logic then does follow that there must be an alternate, physics-compliant explanation for such UFOs.
An inexplicable or unidentifiable phenomenon does not necessarily mean an alien or extra terrestrial phenomenon. Astronaut Chris Hadfield said he has seen several things in space that he could not explain too, but does not attribute them to extra terrestrial intelligence.
However, these phenomena require understanding and thus investigation, and most people believe the June report will likely move in that direction. As the former Pentagon official told Lewis-Kraus: “At some point, we needed to just admit that there are things in the sky we can’t identify.”