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Congress is finally paying attention to UFOs. But it’s still missing the point.

The hearing reinforced one of the most limiting aspects of the government's exploration of UAP: Only investigating them as a security threat.
An unidentified aerial phenomenon in a U.S. military video.
An unidentified aerial phenomenon in a U.S. military video.DoD via To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science

For the first time in over 50 years, Congress on Tuesday held a public hearing on UFOs (which have been rebranded as UAP, or unidentified aerial phenomena). The hearing followed on an unclassified report issued by a Department of Defense task force last June and the establishment of a permanent UAP office at the Pentagon. 

While it’s good that Congress is finally taking this subject seriously, the hearing itself didn’t do enough to challenge one of the most limiting aspects when it comes to understanding UFOs: seeing them almost entirely as a matter of military concern.

Viewing UAPs only through a security lens means that the military is likely to classify any findings that are truly extraordinary.

Though Rep. André Carson, D-N.Y., who led the hearing, said ahead of time that its aim was to explore the issue as “both a national security threat and an interest of great importance to the American public,” the hearing focused on security and intelligence. 

That wasn’t surprising given it was held before the House subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence and Counterproliferation and the key witnesses included Ronald Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, and Scott Bray, deputy director of Naval Intelligence. Tellingly, a classified hearing was arranged to follow the public one. 

Since at least World War II, pilots have been reporting strange sightings of aircraft, but last year’s report focused on incidents witnessed in the past two decades. This included Navy pilots’ descriptions of unidentified aerial craft that behaved in ways “not from this world.” In other words, in ways well beyond any known technology in the arsenal of the United States or its top military rivals, Russia and China, each of which has its own programs to study UFOs.

Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tasked the director of naval intelligence with producing both a classified and an unclassified report on the UAP observed by members of the military. The results were disappointing, doing little to rule in or out whether the craft could be of otherworldly (i.e. alien) origin, even as the vast majority of the sightings were confirmed to be objects whose nature could not be verified.

Tuesday’s public hearing proved as inconclusive as last year’s report, partly because many answers could only be given during the classified portion of the hearing. It was revealed that one incident (out of the now roughly 400 the task force is investigating) had been identified as a drone, and, in one of the few eyebrow-raising moments, that there have been 11 near-misses with unidentified objects

To truly get to the bottom of what House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., calls “one of the greatest mysteries of our time,” Congress and the rest of the government need to view the UAP issue as fundamentally a scientific one and not just a matter for military intelligence. They need to invest adequate funding and other resources to explore something that could meaningfully affect our understanding of the universe.

Viewing UAPs only through a security lens means that the military is likely to classify any findings that are truly extraordinary. Luis Elizondo, ex-head of the Pentagon’s UFO investigation unit, has said that what the public has seen thus far is just the “tip of the spear,” and the late Harry Reid, former senate majority leader, once remarked it “only scratches the surface” of what’s been gathered. Yet the witnesses Tuesday indicated many details would only be disclosed in the classified portion of the hearing. 

Furthermore, the military may simply conclude that these unexplained phenomena are not a threat, which is one of the findings that led the Air Force to shut down its exploration of UFOs in 1969. If so, it will become much harder to unravel this mystery.

That would be doubly problematic because, as I have written before, the topic is stigmatized in scientific circles. Even last year’s UAP report acknowledged that the sociocultural stigma needs to be lessened for accurate reporting, something Carson also noted. Well-known astronomers, for example, have said they have zero interest in getting to the bottom of this subject. 

One scientist who has paid attention to it is Garry Nolan of Stanford University. Nolan told me the lack of interest from his colleagues is holding back progress on understanding the phenomena. He has moved forward mostly on his own, telling me that he has been funding 90 percent of his research through personal funds with no financial support from the government or Stanford.

Scott Bray
Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence Scott Bray speaks in front of a video display of unidentified aerial phenomena during the House UFO hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.Alex Brandon / AP

But the government has an important role to play, and it has to go beyond the Department of Defense. The National Science Foundation, whose mission is to advance basic research, has an annual budget of $8.8 billion. When I recently searched the NSF funding database on artificial intelligence, I found over 50 open projects that qualify for funding. When I searched for UAPs, there were exactly zero results. 

Private sources are not filling the gap, unfortunately. Harvard astronomy professor Avi Loeb recently raised nearly $2 million from private sources for the Galileo Project to create a network of telescopes optimized for viewing objects in our skies and obtain unclassified scientific data to analyze. (Disclosure: I am an adviser to the Galileo Project and other UFO-related endeavors, though I receive no financial returns from them.) Loeb told me that to deploy enough telescopes to cover enough of the sky, they would need closer to $100 million, a number that is not unusual for publicly funded projects involving new telescopes. 

The real problem with hiding the best data about UFOs in some secret corner of the Pentagon is that we won’t be able to lay the basic scientific foundation needed. Science relies on the publishing of data, and theories based on that data that can be analyzed, debated and verified by multiple groups of scientists building on each other’s work. 

This process has barely started with UFOs. We’re still at the level of understanding we were about the atom in 1900, when the concept of the atom bomb and atomic energy were cosidered science fiction more appropriate to an H. G. Wells story than serious academic attention. 

Many scientists today are still of the opinion that most if not all UFO sightings are misidentifications of ordinary objects like weather balloons by unreliable witnesses. Yet in last year’s report, out of 144 sightings surfaced by military personnel — 80 of them caught by multiple sensors — 143 remained unexplained. Only one sighting was confidently explained (which did end up being a balloon).

Other scientists think the possibility of UFOs being alien craft is essentially zero (a significant difference from what the Department of Defense seems to be saying), and thus not worth studying. These scientists are like Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford, who as late as 1933 dismissed the idea of harnessing the atom to make an atomic bomb, calling it “moonshine.”

To truly get to the bottom of this mystery, we need the collective power of private and public academic and independent organizations all working on the problem. Congress needs to open the floodgates to both funding and unclassified data for research by civilian groups that can share their own data and build on each other’s insights. Only by doing this can we move beyond the “moonshine” putdown and find out what has really been going on in our skies.