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UFOs have finally gone mainstream. The UFO community isn't thrilled.

"It's a shame," said one UFO researcher of the recent shootdowns of UFOs over North America that turned out to not be extraterrestrial craft.
Photo Illustration: Archival images of UFOS, a film still from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and an image of the Chinese Spy Balloon
Justine Goode / NBC News / Getty Images

The president of the United States just addressed the American people on UFOs — but it wasn't the extraterrestrial revelation true believers have been waiting for.

After decades on the mockable fringes, unidentified aerial phenomena are finally major mainstream news. But the downing of a Chinese spy balloon and three other likely benign objects is an anti-climax for many interested in UFOs, who had hoped for something a little less terrestrial.

Many in the UFO community — which ranges from science-minded investigators to faith-based believers — had been hoping recent moves in Washington meant the government was finally getting ready to spill the beans on everything it has collected over decades on unexplained aerial phenomena, even if that didn't include evidence of extraterrestrial life. 

But the downing of the balloon complicates their narrative and may lead many Americans to wrongly believe that every weird thing seen in the skies has a quotidian explanation, like balloons.

John Greenewald, a paranormal investigator and Freedom of Information Act superuser who runs The Black Vault, said that while it is exciting to see the world talking about unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs, “The conversation gets derailed a bit."

"Now it’s all about balloons and spy craft. And I worry you’ll see waning interest not only from the American public but from Congress,” Greenewald said. “It’s a shame.”

"Now it’s all about balloons and spy craft. And I worry you’ll see waning interest not only from the American public but from Congress."

John Greenewald, a paranormal investigator

“When the congressmen and congresswomen were talking about the mystery of UAP, they weren’t talking about Chinese spy craft, they were talking about the mystery,” he said. “Yes, we should focus on protecting American airspace from spying. But we shouldn’t lose focus on the fact that there really is a part of this phenomenon that really is a mystery.”

The latest report on unexplained arial phenomena from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, released in January, includes 366 newly identified incidents. Of those, 163 were attributed to balloons, 26 to drones, and six to “clutter,” such as birds, weather events or airborne debris like plastic bags.

That leaves 171 “uncharacterized and unattributed” sightings, according to the report, which notes that some of those sightings “appear to have demonstrated unusual flight characteristics or performance capabilities.”

Christopher Mellon, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence under President Bill Clinton and a UAP activist, said there's still “a lot of stuff up there” that we can’t explain.

“We don’t need to worry about the balloon threat anymore. It’s very easy, now that we’ve identified the threat. I’m not losing any sleep over balloons,” he said. “What is being missed to some degree in the last few days, is these objects that do not match the profile of anything we know that have been seen by some of our military personnel.”

Some see a more sinister attempt to use the balloons to hide the truth about something else.

Sean Cahill, a former Navy officer who says he witnessed the so-called tic tac famously sighted off the U.S.S. Nimitz aircraft carrier in 2004, urged his followers on Twitter to not let “those [with] agendas and cognitive blocks ... use the current balloon flap to muddy the water.“ He added: “Don’t take the bait; demand identification and evidence of each incident’s origin."

'It's a distraction'

Some true believers in the UFO community think the government is lying about shooting down a balloon and claim it really shot down something alien, noting the government has released footage of the shoot downs and says it can't find the wreckage. They note the "cover story" for the Roswell incident, after all, was that it was just a weather balloon. 

Stephen Bassett, known as Washington’s only dedicated UFO lobbyist and the founder of Paradigm Research Group, is not one of them.

"You don’t want to piss off an interstellar civilization.”

Stephen Bassett, UFO lobbyist

Bassett believes the government made contact with extraterrestrial intelligence decades ago and has been inching closer to revealing it, but he said he didn’t think the U.S. would shoot at an alien craft, “first, because you can’t hit them and second, because you don’t want to piss off an interstellar civilization.”

“It’s a distraction,” he said of the Chinese spy balloon. “We were making progress in a really steady way toward disclosure and this is not that. This is nuts. I don’t want distractions like this.”

Still, he said the increased attention on UFOs and pressure from lawmakers and the mainstream media on the government to reveal more about what it shot down could force the officials' hands to disclose more on not only these incidents but on earlier ones too. 

“It’s fifty-fifty,” Bassett said. “You could make the case why it might help, why it might hurt.”

Diana Walsh Pasulka, a professor in the philosophy and religion department at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who has spent more than a decade studying UFO believers, said the UFO community is deeply divided, especially on whether the government can be trusted at all.

Pasulka said there’s evidence from various cultures that humans have believed in visitations from people from the stars for “as long as humans have been around." And she believes we’re on the precipice of meeting nonhuman intelligence, regardless of what the U.S. shot down this month, thanks to artificial intelligence that will allow us to communicate not only with computers but potentially with animals.

“There’s going to be a huge shift in our world view,” she said. “But it’s not going to be a dramatic moment like aliens landing on the White House lawn.”