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Close Encounters

Steven Spielberg hired the late J. Allen Hynek as a scientific consultant — and movie extra — in 1977's 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.'

There was no mention of little green men in the Pentagon’s recently released UFO report, but the lack of explanation — 144 sightings by mostly Naval pilots from 2004-21, one confirmed as something other than an ‘unidentified aerial phenomena’ — didn’t quiet the extraterrestrial talk.

So, we asked this week’s panel: Any chance these spacecraft were flown by, um, aliens?

Ray Mabus

Ray Mabus with his former boss, President Barack Obama.

RAY MABUS

U.S. Secretary of the Navy, 2009-17

“As someone who believes the original ‘Men in Black’ was one the all-time great movies — why it didn’t get an Oscar, I’ll never know — I was very interested in the things Navy pilots reported seeing.

“However, considering that there are literally trillions of stars, and perhaps that many galaxies, and potentially exponentially more planets where life could have formed, I find it hard to believe that aliens would find or pick Earth to visit. I find it even harder to believe that, if they did visit, they would only do so around Navy ships.

“The thing that concerned me way, way more than aliens was that there was something unexplainable around our ships. I worried about new technology from one of our potential adversaries.

“I do think that the Navy pilots saw what they reported. The Navy usually doesn’t give the keys to a multi-million-dollar F-18 to people who make things up.”

Paul Hynek

Paul Hynek

PAUL HYNEK

UI grad, consultant on ‘Project Blue Book,’ a History Channel sci-fi series about his ufologist dad J. Allen Hynek’s role in the Air Force’s study of UFOs

"The report is all of six pages. This is not a report, it's a summary. Releasing only this suggests that the ODNI's objective was to comply with their legal disclosure requirement and nothing more.

"The report cites 144 cases reported through U.S. government channels since 2004. There were almost certainly many more than this reported — which leads one to wonder why these 144 were selected, and if that low number in and of itself is meant to somehow downplay the extent of the phenomenon.

"Of the 144 cases, they say that they were only able to identify one with high confidence. Only one. That's a far cry from Project Blue Book, which has been described as 'The Society for the Explanation of the Uninvestigated.'

"There's another way in which this report differs from previous governmental attitudes. It says in bold, underlined, all caps that "UAP THREATENED SAFETY AND, POSSIBLY, NATIONAL SECURITY." That's a far cry from the Air Force's decades long stance of 'nothing to see here.'

"It's hard to read too much into a summary report like this. It's tempting to think that the government is one large coordinated entity working in lock step, but anyone who has worked in government knows that's not the case. So we can't generalize an attitude of the overall U.S. government.

"Furthermore, the Atomic Energy Commission had the authority to track, and if present, collect crashed UFOs in the 1940s, especially in New Mexico near where the Trinity nuclear tests were conducted. Their successor agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is in possession of whatever juicy secrets the AEC collected, and their secrecy classification system is completely separate from the CIA and the White House. Congressional disclosure edicts have no authority over the NRC.

"A high-level U.S. government 'report' has now admitted that they are taking UFOs seriously, that they don't know what they are and that they're concerned. That's maybe not the kind of 'flying saucer landing on the White House lawn' type of revelation many have hoped for, but in my mind it constitutes 'disclosure' all the same. Fans of Area 51 may be disappointed, it's possible that the U.S. government hasn't been conducting alien autopsies and hasn't been reverse engineering alien propulsion systems lo these many years.

"They may simply not know that much more, and even if they do, I'm not sure they should divulge it.

"Now let's move past what the government knows to what exactly have the Navy aviators, radar operators and hundreds of other personnel been seeing with cameras, radar and binoculars? Secret American or foreign technology? Perhaps some of them, as with organic atmospheric phenomena, as the report suggests. But to my mind, there's too much 'there there' — even in a six-page report — to be all of terrestrial origin, whether man-made or natural.

"Buoyed by this new stance from part of the U.S. government, let's agree that the phenomenon is by definition real — 143 out of 144 is, I contend, statistically significant — and turn our focus where/when they come from, who they are and what they want.

"I agree with my father, Jacques Vallee and others that the default extra-terrestrial hypothesis of aliens coming in space ships from other planets seems implausible to explain all the compelling unexplained cases.

"Even though we've been broadcasting episodes of 'I Love Lucy' for decades, how did they even find us? We are the equivalent of a cosmic piece of dust. Why would ET's come all this way and not make their presence irrefutably known?

"If there is some meta-terrestrial provenance, part of the answer may well lie not with other planets, but other dimensions. To me that would explain how 'they' know about us and why they would care, because they'd be our cosmic cousins.

"I know, this may well come across as a bridge too far, but when the U.S. government opens their files and admits that they're afraid of close encounters, maybe we should open our minds to more things than we've dreamt so far."

Sean O'Keefe

Sean O'Keefe

SEAN O’KEEFE

Led NASA from 2001-05

“Not having seen the evidence of the observations that are prompting the current speculation, I couldn’t hazard a guess of what the pilots may have seen or what was.

"That said, I am often reminded of a comment offered by a space scientist when asked a question of what he considered the probability of life elsewhere in the universe. His argument was essentially as follows-

"In this vast universe of billions of constellations, stars and planets, we humans reside on a single planet in a solar system which is warmed by an aging star that is but one of billions of stars with multiple solar systems and we’re on the periphery of the Milky Way constellation we reside in. In other words, Earth is a mere fly speck in the universe.

"He concluded this esoteric thesis with the compelling view that we are motivated to explore the vastness of space because 'it is the quest of exploration to scrape the last crumb off the plate of human arrogance.'

"It’s a line of argument that bears some consideration. Regardless of what the pilots saw, some day we’ll find out what it was and we’ll be one more step further in that quest of exploration."

Tom Sullivan

Tom Sullivan

TOM SULLIVAN

UI grad, retired NASA scientist and author

“This new report regarding UFOs/UAPs is certainly getting a lot of buzz, but it hasn’t really given us anything to grab hold of. Yes, there are some interesting videos and testimonies, but that’s it. They are consistent with some pretty far-out speculation, but they don’t rule out more mundane answers.

"Well, OK, some of the accelerations and the flying/submersible nature of one are eye-popping, but I can’t help but think that there could be some more Earth-based explanations. 

"That said, I do believe that there are other intelligent species in the universe. I’m not so sure about them zipping around our ships and fighter aircraft, though. They might have their own reasons to do that, but it’s a bit odd behavior for someone who can travel light years to visit Earth, then largely stay hidden except to show off their toys. 

"In a nutshell, I’m intrigued, but not worried. I suspect there are alternate explanations even though I’d love to shake hands with an alien.”

Rhea Seddon

Rhea Seddon

DR. RHEA SEDDON

Part of first group of NASA astronauts to include women

“This is really out of my league, but no, I don’t think they are alien spacecraft. I sorta think they are things that someone — our military, another country’s military — knows about, like drones, or maybe weather illusions.

“While they may be something spying on us, they haven’t attacked us — yet.”

Dennis Kintigh

Dennis Kintigh

DENNIS KINTIGH

Mayor of Roswell, N.M., best known as the site of ‘flying saucer crash’ of 1947

“Have you ever seen the greatest John Wayne western, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’? The premise is that a young attorney, played by Jimmy Stewart, builds his entire life on a legend — that in the miracle of miracles, he shoots and kills Liberty Valance, a horrid outlaw who had been terrorizing this small town out West, in a gunfight.

“We come to learn that it was actually the rough-and-tumble cowboy Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, who sniped Liberty Valance from an alley across the street but Stewart didn’t know this until Wayne finally confronts him and tells him. It remains a secret as Stewart’s fame helps get him elected governor, then senator.

“Years later, Stewart, now a senior statesman, surprises everyone in town when he shows up for the funeral of the unknown Doniphon. A reporter asks why he’s there, and Stewart finally admits the truth.

“When the reporter tells his editor of his scoop, the editor tears up his notes. ‘You’re not going to print my story, Mr. Scott?’ the reporter asks.

“The editor says, ‘This is the West, sir. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.’

“And that is the position of the mayor of Roswell, New Mexico: When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Seth Shostak

Seth Shostak

SETH SHOSTAK

Senior astronomer, SETI Institute

"About 100 million Americans believe that some of the UFOs seen in our skies are alien craft, visiting Earth. To prove their case, they’ve been counting on the federal government to come clean about what it knows, and admit that our airspace contains intruders from another world.

"But the intelligence report on these matters has been delivered, and the publicly available version doesn’t even mention the possibility that the strange videos recorded by Navy pilots might be extraterrestrial spaceships. So the UFO crowd will undoubtedly cry 'cover up' again, and the science community will point to the continuing lack of compelling evidence for other-worldly visitors.

"While undoubtedly disappointing for those who think that beings from a star system light years away are here playing hide-and-seek with our top guns, this report will do nothing to lessen their enthusiasm. Nor will it decrease the skepticism of academic researchers who note that — despite more than seven decades of UFO sightings — there still isn’t any good evidence for the extraordinary claim that the Earth is being visited.

“Dana Scully wins this round.”

Sarah Scoles

Sarah Scoles

SARAH SCOLES

Science journalist and best-selling author of ‘They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers’

“UFOs, and now UAP, have never been just one thing. The category — which includes anything in the sky the observer can't identify when they see it — has usually held, lumped within it, a wide variety of objects. In investigations, only a small percentage has continued to remain unidentified after more research, and often that has to do with lack of data, especially hard data, and not the sighting's inherent unidentifability.

"The sightings of military service ,embers also likely include a variety of objects or phenomena, as the categories laid out in the report also suggest, and many also seem to be in what researcher Mick West calls the 'low information zone.' Or, as the report puts it: 'We currently lack sufficient information in our dataset to attribute incidents to specific explanations.'

"It looks like the governmental investigation going forward will focus on the few events that seemed to show advanced flight characteristics, while noting that 'these observations could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis.'

"So I guess my actual answer to your question is that my best guess is that the military-sighted UFOs likely have a variety of explanations, but I don't have enough data to say what those are, beyond the potential categories laid out in the report. I try to remain agnostic on UFOs' origins until the data is in — and, usually, historically and presently, the data isn't in.

"While I don't think it's scientific to categorically rule out extraterrestrial spacecraft as a potential explanation — because it's impossible for me to prove that negative conclusively — I don't think we have any positive evidence that points in the alien direction. The argument that these unidentifieds come from space is largely 'they seem to behave in a higher-tech way than known earthly technology,' but I think the verdict is still out — and the public data is not in — on whether they actually do behave that way, and 'therefore aliens' is a very big leap regardless.”

Fritz Benedict

Fritz Benedict

G. FRITZ BENEDICT

Research fellow, McDonald Observatory, University of Texas

"To have alien craft only show off in front of Navy pilots triggers a certain amount of skepticism — although I can understand why, at least last year, they would not want to be taken to our leader.

"I remember a news item of many years back, reporting that the CBS Evening News paid some people $50,000 for exclusive rights to a video of a flying UFO. Turned out to be Venus, videotaped from a LearJet. The camera lens was up against a window.

"Even though it was a LearJet, the plane vibrated, so the camera vibrated, and oh my, look at that thing move in a way that our flying ships cannot. The sainted Walter Cronkite got burned on that one.

"However, I set the probability of life elsewhere at 100 percent. In space, everything is so far away from everything else.

"Faster-than-light-warp drives are way beyond our technological level. If you could do that, again, why just tease Navy pilots?"

David Eicher

David Eicher

DAVID EICHER

Editor-in-chief, Astronomy Magazine

"To scientists, the recent uptick in UFO reports and stories of the government’s investigation are curious. Astrophysicists know that the universe is incredibly large, with at least 100 billion galaxies, and several hundred billion star systems like our sun’s family in each one.

"We also know through spectroscopy that chemistry in the universe is consistent everywhere. That suggests that life should be common in the universe, although we have only one place where we know life exists — right here on Earth.

"But the distance scale to even the nearest stars is incredibly vast. And the energy required to travel between star systems would be enormous, regardless of the technology. This is due to the known laws and limits of physics we understand very well thanks to Newton, Einstein and others.

"So it seems very likely that traveling between star systems would be an incredibly steep challenge for any civilization.

"It may well be that reports of UFOs tell us more about the nature of people here on our planet than any potential advanced life forms that may exist in deep space."

Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel

DAVA SOBEL

Award-winning science writer

"Having been tutored by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, I suspect that extraterrestrials — including intelligent ones — do exist elsewhere in our galaxy, but at distances so remote as to be non-negotiable.

"I interpret 'unexplained aerial phenomena' as just that: unexplained. I expect these phenomena will yield to explanation, and hope they prove to be anything but alien visitors.

"In the history of our own planet, the arrival of technologically advanced interlopers has never gone well for the original settlers. Meanwhile, I worry about the real threat posed by fleets of communications satellites cluttering the skies and disrupting astronomical observations."

David Halperin

David Halperin

DAVID HALPERIN

Professor emeritus, Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author, 'Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO'

"I don’t think there is the smallest chance that the UFOs, or UAPs or whatever you want to call them, are extraterrestrial spaceships. The distances they’d have to travel to get here are too vast, and their behavior while here — flitting around the skies, to no apparent purpose or effect — would make no sense.

"I believe they’re something just as important and in its own way far more mysterious: visitors, not from outer space, but from our own inner space. From the depths of our souls, which are home to enough alienness to fill a universe.

"I’m a teen ufologist from the 1960s who grew up to become a professor of religious studies. For me, UFOs are a religious phenomenon. A UFO encounter is a bona fide religious experience, UFO lore — like the Roswell story — a religious myth of immense profundity and power.

"Please note: I do not use 'myth' to mean bunk or nonsense, but in the Jungian sense of a collective dream of our culture, perhaps our entire species.

"Are UFOs real? Yes, though not in the literal, physical sense. Are they from other planets? No. Is their story a human story? Yes, from beginning to end — and no less fantastic and fascinating for that."

Douglas Vakoch

Douglas Vakoch

DOUGLAS VAKOCH

President, METI International

"People are incredibly curious about UFOs. That’s really encouraging. Curiosity is at the heart of science. But it needs to be balanced with skepticism. Together, curiosity and skepticism are a powerful combination.

"Over the past several decades, science has been giving us more and more evidence that life could be out there. When we look up at the night sky, we now know that almost all the stars we see are orbited by planets. There’s a lot of real estate out there that could be inhabited. It likely that there is life out there. I just don’t think it’s come to Earth. There’s no evidence from the videos the Pentagon has released that we’ve been visited by aliens.

"Some people will look at a video released by the Navy and see a dot of light moving and they’ll say, 'Wow, that’s so far away from us, skimming over the surface of the ocean, that it has to be moving faster than any aircraft we know about.' But how do they know it was so far away? Maybe it was actually quite close to the plane, and therefore moving much more slowly. From this video, there’s simply no way to know how fast the object was really moving.

"The hallmark of science is the ability to replicate your observations. We have a great example from astronomers engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), where scientists point radio telescopes into space, looking for distinctly artificial signals that provide the telltale signs of alien intelligence.

"In SETI, it’s not enough to find an interesting signal once. It needs to repeat. And when we don’t find that signal again, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that it might be aliens, but that just creates a myth with no evidence to back it up. Science is an inherently conservative enterprise, and scientists won’t be convinced that we’ve discovered extraterrestrials unless we can get independent confirmation.

"In SETI, we don’t give credence to any signal that hasn’t repeated. The Navy videos show a lot of unexplained objects, but there’s no indication that these are the same object reappearing over and over again — just a whole bunch of examples of mysterious objects in the sky.

"Whether we’re looking for alien life by examining reports of UFOs in Earth’s atmosphere or by studying radio signals from space, we need to be cautious not to interpret our own technology for evidence of extraterrestrials. SETI scientists might pick up a signal that looks precisely like the extraterrestrial transmissions we’re seeking, but the signal could instead be a manifestation of intelligence much closer to home: a human-made satellite flying over the observatory, or a radio station from a nearby town.

"We have a sobering reminder of how easy it can be to think we’re on the brink of discovering alien life from an incident when SETI scientists tracked a tantalizing radio signal for half a day back in 1997. The signal passing all the tests for being of extraterrestrial origin — until the research team eventually pin-pointed its source as the solar research satellite SOHO.

"The challenges we face in determining whether a possible SETI detection is really credible provide us with much-needed guidance about how we should create any of the intentional messages we send to other worlds, in our bid to make first contact by actively reaching out.

"By reversing the direction of SETI, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) sends powerful radio signals to nearby stars, to let any eavesdropping aliens know we want to engage in an interstellar dialogue. We craft our transmissions with the alien astronomer in mind. In the same way that SETI scientists demand follow-up observations to be convinced we’ve really discovered extraterrestrial intelligence, we assume that extraterrestrial scientists will require similar evidence.

"When METI sent a mathematical tutorial to nearby Luyten’s Star in conjunction with the Sónar Calling GJ273b project in 2017, we repeated the message three times in a row on the first day, and then repeated the whole message 24 hours later, and then finally once again 48 hours after the first transmission. This lets any aliens in orbit around Luyten’s Star have a couple of days to get their astronomical colleagues to point their telescopes at Earth.

"And if they did, they would find precisely the sort of evidence we’re lacking in the Pentagon videos."

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