All of a sudden, serious people are starting to take UFOs — unidentified flying objects — seriously.
“There’s footage and records of objects in the skies that — we don’t know exactly what they are, we can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory,” former President Barack Obama told CBS’s James Corden.
Many in Congress are curious, too, and this month the body is set to receive a report originating from a Pentagon task force detailing its investigations into unidentified aerial phenomena (UAPs), the preferred term for UFOs among specialists. The Pentagon Office of the Inspector General is also evaluating the government’s approach to UAPs with an eye to strengthening its monitoring and response. The highest levels of the American government are very, very interested in what’s up there in the sky.
When I was growing up, UFOs were the province of late-night talk radio and The X-Files. They had a roughly similar level of respectability to theories that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job, or that the CIA killed John F. Kennedy.
That stigma appears to be fading somewhat. In 1996, Gallup found that only 47 percent of Americans thought people reporting UFO sightings were seeing something real, and not imagining it. In 2019, when Gallup polled again, a majority, 56 percent, thought UFO observers were seeing something real.
Interestingly, the share of Americans saying the government “knows more about UFOs than it’s telling us” fell very slightly from 1996 to 2019. That may reflect the fact that the government has confirmed the reality of some of the most prominent UFO videos.
In a somewhat surprising development that helped kick-start the current round of UFO fascination, the government confirmed the authenticity of two videos featured in a 2017 New York Times story and a third one leaked a few months later, each of which depicts US Navy fighter pilots observing a strange object whose nature appears baffling to them.
We still don’t fully know what these videos depict, and at the risk of disappointing some readers, there’s no evidence that they depict alien aircraft. But it’s hard to overstate just how much these videos have changed the way the public, the government, and the mainstream press (most notably the New York Times) think and talk about UFOs — to the point where people may have misconceptions about what exactly we know given the available evidence.
Here’s a closer look at what these videos actually depict (and what they do not), how they came to light, and whether the resurgence of interest in UFOs should make us reassess what we think we know about UFOs and life beyond Earth.
The three canonical UFO videos behind the current wave of interest
The resurgence in interest in UFOs — or UAPs, the preferred term in the Defense Department — can generally be credited to three specific videos captured by the US Navy. The first two were leaked to the New York Times and written about on the front page in the December 17, 2017, print edition of the paper, while the third was leaked a few months later.
The first of these incidents, and probably the most important, is what’s called the USS Nimitz encounter, named after the supercarrier from which the jet pilot who observed the UFO took off.
In November 2004, about 100 miles off the coast of San Diego, Cmdr. David Fravor and the pilot on his wing, Lt. Cmdr. Amy Dietrich, reported seeing what Fravor called a “white tic-tac looking object” the size of an F/A-18 with no wings, markings, or exhaust plumes, that, when approached, “turns abruptly and starts mimicking me.” Eventually, Fravor told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker, it simply “disappeared.”
The USS Princeton, a cruiser in the area that had asked Fravor and Dietrich to investigate anomalous aerial phenomena, reacquired the target “seconds later,” Whitaker reports, “60 miles away.” Another flight crew took a video of the object using their forward-looking infrared camera (FLIR), leading the video to be dubbed the “FLIR1 video”:
An important note here: While Fravor and Dietrich believe that the object they reported seeing and the one in the FLIR1 video are one and the same, it’s hard to be sure of that identification. And, lacking such certainty, we also cannot be sure the object flew some 60 miles in a matter of seconds, a feat that explains much of why the object seemed so strange and impressive.
The second video, labeled “GIMBAL,” was taken by a fighter jet from the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, flying by the coast of Florida in 2015. “This is a fucking drone, bro,” one pilot is recorded saying. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” another adds.
The third video, “GOFAST,” also recorded in 2015 and first publicly released a few months after the other videos, in March 2018, features audio of laughing, audibly excited pilots observing a small white object appearing to fly over water at an extremely rapid pace:
These three videos set off the current wave of interest in UFOs/UAPs, but they’ve been followed by at least a couple more. This year, Pentagon spokesperson Susan Gough confirmed that two recently leaked videos were taken by Navy pilots.
The first, taken above the USS Russell destroyer near San Diego in July 2019, depicts a “pyramid-like” object:
The other, taken that same month and in that same geographic area by the USS Omaha combat ship, shows what appears in the infrared camera to be a spherical object. Both videos were brought to light by filmmaker and reporter Jeremy Corbell, an enthusiastic believer in the extraterrestrial hypothesis (the theory that UFO sightings reflect contact with alien civilizations) and an advocate for greater UFO disclosure:
How a group of UFO enthusiasts helped mainstream UFOs
The story of how Navy videos depicting UFOs landed on the Times’s front page is its own fascinating saga. The best single account I’ve seen is Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s in the New Yorker, but here’s a summary.
The story begins in 2007, at the instigation of Robert Bigelow, a Nevada businessman with a fortune from extended-stay hotels, an aerospace firm, and a deep, abiding interest in UFOs. That year, Bigelow worked with Sen. Harry Reid — a campaign donation recipient — to secure $22 million in “black budget” money (that is, appropriated by Congress outside public committees) for the DOD to investigate UFO sightings.
The Bigelow-centric phase of the investigation, by all accounts, was fairly conspiratorial, producing documents like a report with a “photo of a supposed tracking device that supposed aliens had supposedly implanted in a supposed abductee,” as Lewis-Kraus, who saw the document, describes it.
Enter veteran DOD counterintelligence officer Luis Elizondo, who in 2010 took over the effort, rechristened as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). AATIP studied videos and encounters like the Nimitz incident, the GIMBAL video, and the GOFAST video, and convinced Elizondo that something bizarre and worthy of exploration was taking place. But Elizondo found himself frustrated by the lack of departmental buy-in.
This is where Blink-182 comes in. Tom DeLonge, the lead vocalist and guitarist behind such classics as “First Date,” “All the Small Things,” and, of course, “Aliens Exist,” has had a longstanding interest in the paranormal.
According to an extensive 2018 profile in the Fader by Kelsey McKinney, DeLonge has “consistently claimed to believe” that “UFOs are real, aliens are real and they visit us episodically, the U.S. government has known about alien life for decades … and the U.S. government has a real live alien species locked up somewhere” — among other things.
To that end, DeLonge began putting together To The Stars Academy, which in his vision would become a leading source of UFO-related expertise and of related media projects. In that role, he became an important convener of ex-government officials with an interest in UFOs — starting with Luis Elizondo, who left the DOD in 2017, and the man who would become his main partner in UFO evangelism, Christopher Mellon.
Mellon, a member of the prominent Mellon family of Pittsburgh who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, had a longstanding interest in UFOs, and began giving interviews arguing for increased disclosure around 2016.
“Tom [DeLonge] called me out of the blue one day,” Mellon recalls. “He saw an article I’d written. … He was starting this organization and was wondering if I would want to get involved.” DeLonge connected him with Elizondo, and both joined To The Stars as advisers.
Mellon had been outside of government for many years at this point, but still had sources in the Pentagon, which is how he and To The Stars got access to the three videos above.
“Somebody met me in the parking lot and passed [the videos] off. It had documentation stating it was approved for public release. It was unclassified,” Mellon told Lewis-Kraus. To the best of my knowledge, the person inside the Pentagon who leaked to Mellon is still unknown.
The To The Stars team then looped in a journalist with an interest in the subject, Leslie Kean.
The New York Times and the mainstreaming of UFO speculation
Kean, like Mellon a scion of a Northeast political dynasty (her uncle, Thomas Kean, served two terms as governor of New Jersey and chaired the 9/11 Commission), had been interested in aliens and UFOs for years.
In 2010, she had published a book compiling firsthand UFO sightings from what she considered credible sources; John Podesta, the former White House chief of staff under Clinton and a huge UFO fan, wrote the foreword.
“To approach UFOs rationally, we must maintain the agnostic position regarding their nature or origin, because we simply don’t know the answers yet,” Kean writes in the book’s introduction.
This is indicative of Kean’s broader approach: She is clearly sympathetic to arguments for extraterrestrial or paranormal explanations of mysterious phenomena, but focuses on cases she views as credible and supportable with empirical evidence, which could be more persuasive to people on the fence.
This is true not just about aliens. Kean’s follow-up to her UFO book was Surviving Death, a decidedly non-agnostic argument (later adapted into a Netflix miniseries) for the reality of an afterlife, reincarnation, and telepathy.
“Human beings have extraordinary mental abilities that science cannot explain,” Kean writes in the book’s introduction, abilities that “may be controversial” but “have been documented by legitimate scientists for many years,” known as “psi” or extrasensory perception (ESP).
Kean’s efforts to the contrary, parapsychological claims like this are not widely accepted in psychology. When a Cornell scientist purported to have conducted lab experiments showing psi is real, the main response in the field was that because psi is obviously fake, the finding meant that prevailing methods in psychology were totally broken.
In any case, Kean continued to maintain a steady interest in UFOs, serving with Mellon on the board of the nonprofit UFODATA, which supports scientific, agnostic investigations in UFOs. Per Lewis-Kraus, Mellon and To The Stars offered her the UFO videos and supporting documentation on the condition that Kean place the story in the New York Times. Kean told me she wasn’t sure the offer was so explicitly conditional, but that the goal was always to place a story in the Times.
Kean worked with Ralph Blumenthal, a 45-year veteran of the paper who had retired in 2009. Blumenthal was then working on a biography, now released, of John Mack, a Harvard Medical School professor who became convinced that the purported alien abductees he was interviewing were telling the truth, despite the lack of physical evidence for their claims and the possibility that the experiences they described were simply sleep paralysis.
“I believe … that Mack was onto something,” Blumenthal told one interviewer. He added to me, “I went very carefully over [Mack’s] research, and I must say that the so-called skeptics, who are very quick to debunk a lot of this field from the simplest UFO sightings to alien encounters, have not done the research that people in the field have done.”
Blumenthal was, naturally, intrigued by what Kean was offering, and they set off to pitch a science story to the editor of the New York Times. Blumenthal told me, and documented in a “Times Insider” column for the paper, that he took the story directly to Dean Baquet, the Times’s top editor.
“I want to make a clear distinction between the material in my book, which is about alien encounters reported by people, and UFOs,” Blumenthal clarified to me. “It is much easier to interest people at the Times in a story about UFOs than about alien encounters.”
On UFOs, he had Navy pilot testimony and videos to lend the story credibility. “Maybe [alien encounters] will become part of the dialogue at some point,” Kean told me, “but it’s not going to become part of the mainstream dialogue at this stage. We’re just not there yet.”
Blumenthal and Kean’s effort culminated in two pieces posted online on December 16, 2017, for the next day’s print edition: the front-page, A1 story revealing the existence of AATIP and the contents of the FLIR1 and GIMBAL videos, and a story deeper in the paper interviewing Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight, also in an F/A-18 during the Nimitz encounter, about what they saw.
The latter piece was preceded by the following disclaimer:
The following recounts an incident in 2004 that advocates of research into U.F.O.s have said is the kind of event worthy of more investigation, and that was studied by a Pentagon program that investigated U.F.O.s. Experts caution that earthly explanations often exist for such incidents, and that not knowing the explanation does not mean that the event has interstellar origins.
It took years, but eventually in September 2019 the Pentagon confirmed that the two videos in the Times, as well as GOFAST which was released a few months later by To The Stars, were authentic. On April 27, 2020, it formally released them itself.
Beyond the initial disclosure of the Navy videos, the Times’s coverage has ventured into somewhat more speculative territory.
In that December 2017 story, it repeated claims that a Bigelow facility was “modified” to house “metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena,” alloys that Blumenthal told MSNBC government researchers were struggling to identify. That claim earned immediate pushback from chemists who found the notion of the Pentagon recovering unclassifiable mystery alloys implausible.
In a July 2020 story, Kean and Blumenthal passed along a claim from astrophysicist and contractor Eric W. Davis that “he gave a classified briefing to a Defense Department agency as recently as March about retrievals from ‘off-world vehicles not made on this earth.’”
Davis is a bit of a perennial figure in stories about offbeat Pentagon investigations. In 2004, he received $7.5 million from the Air Force to study “psychic teleportation,” or the ability to transport yourself between locations with the power of your mind. The US military has long paid for long-shot investigations into alleged paranormal activity (see Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats for a longer history).
By passing along Davis’s claims without verifying them, the Times’s July 2020 story effectively suggested that alien civilizations have reached earth with “off-world vehicles” that the Pentagon has retrieved, a truly extraordinary claim in need of extraordinary evidence. The story did note, “No crash artifacts have been publicly produced for independent verification,” and acknowledged that astrophysicists contend that “Even lacking a plausible terrestrial explanation does not make an extraterrestrial one the most likely.”
I asked Blumenthal about the choice to pass along the news of Davis’s briefings without further verification of his claims — after all, the Times spent years on a story looking into whether Donald Trump cheated on his taxes, so it seems reasonable that a claim suggesting alien materials here on Earth would receive similar vetting.
Blumenthal defended the inclusion by noting the piece stopped “short of saying that we have verified information that material was recovered. We just said that congressional staff was shown a briefing slide that referenced these materials. It was very carefully worded, because we didn’t want to get ahead of the information we had. … But we thought it was quite an advance to get that into the paper.”
Kean told me she confirmed with numerous sources that such vehicles have been discussed in high-level briefings by Davis. She also went a bit further in vouching for the substance of Davis’s claim. “I absolutely think Eric Davis is a respectable, credible person,” she told me, adding later, “The fact that a government agency has been briefing congressmen on that topic, and briefing many other people at high levels, for many years, is highly suggestive that there’s something to it.”
The prevailing explanations of the videos
No one knows with a high level of confidence what the Navy videos are depicting, or if they are even depicting the same thing. But explanations generally fall into one of four categories:
- Natural or non-military phenomena (like a pelican or civilian aircraft or camera error)
- Secret US government aviation technology
- Secret aviation technology from the military of another country, most likely Russia or China
The main expositor of the first hypothesis is Mick West, a British video game programmer known for his work on the Tony Hawk skateboarding series, who now devotes his time to his website Metabunk and the broader project of debunking what he regards as conspiracy theories, including “chemtrails” and extraterrestrial explanations of UFOs.
West had laid out his theory of the three videos in many places, but the below video is to my mind the most helpful summary:
The FLIR1 video is “entirely consistent with being a plane that’s very far away,” West says. “Radar’s great if you know where to look, but if you’re looking in sector A and it’s in sector Q” you’re going to miss it — which is what he thinks happened in the Nimitz case.
West believes the GIMBAL video is most likely the glare of a jet’s engine; he says he has replicated this kind of image using his own infrared cameras. Its apparent rotation, he says, is due to a limitation in the camera’s ability to move and track the object. GOFAST, he thinks, is a lost weather balloon (or perhaps a pelican), which — because it’s midway between the jet observing it and the water — appears (misleadingly) to be going as fast as the plane itself when it’s really staying still.
So that’s number one, the naturalistic explanation. Elizondo, Mellon, Fravor, and other UFO disclosure advocates and ex-pilots do not just dispute this argument but are actively infuriated by it.
“I don’t know why people even take [Mick West] seriously,” Mellon told me. “He knows nothing about these sensor systems, he deliberately excludes 90 percent of the pertinent information and in the process maligns our military personnel. ‘Oh, Dave Fravor doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Oh, those guys don’t know how to operate those infrared systems.’ Who the hell does he think he is? These guys are the real deal. He’s a desk jockey sitting in front of a monitor.”
West, for his part, told me, “I don’t ignore the pilots. I try to engage with them to resolve issues like this. I respect their skills and experience but recognize (as they themselves have said) that they are human, not perfect.”
Elizondo is sometimes more charitable to the skeptics, even giving an hour-long interview to West on his YouTube channel. In general, his response was to argue that West was looking just at videos and not at the totality of information that’s available to researchers in the Pentagon. On Nimitz/FLIR1, he told West, “Based on my experience in the AATIP program, there is certainly additional information that is very, very compelling. People are going to say, ‘Well, what is it, Lue, why don’t you tell us? We want to know.’ Well, I can’t” — it’s still classified. But, Elizondo advised, this corroborating information might start to trickle out soon.
As a layperson, I’m sort of at a loss of what to make of these disputes. West’s explanations seem plausible, but I haven’t been in a physics class since 2007, I have never flown a fighter jet, and I have no expertise with infrared cameras.
It also seems perfectly plausible that Elizondo and Mellon are right and there is private government data proving the skeptical explanations wrong — but it’s impossible to evaluate that without access to such data.
In any case, “it’s a weather balloon” strikes me as more plausible than “it’s aliens,” at least until we see the disconfirming evidence to which Elizondo is alluding.
The other two non-extraterrestrial explanations — that it’s secret US military aircraft, or secret foreign military aircraft — are even tougher to nail down. The DOD is not in the habit of blabbing about secretive air tests, especially ones that (in this scenario) it would be hiding from Navy fighter pilots operating in the same airspace. The Russian and Chinese militaries are really not in the habit of disclosing trade secrets.
Mellon has said that he’s confident the vehicles aren’t ours, because he has a high enough security clearance that he would have heard about them in that case.
Maybe! But I imagine there were many people with high security clearances who, say, did not know that in the 1950s and ’60s the CIA was secretly dosing people with LSD to see if it could be used to coerce confessions. The US government is a vast, sprawling behemoth that’s doing any number of strange things at any given time, so Mellon’s point — while plausible — doesn’t strike me as dispositive. That said, the Times’s Cooper and Julian Barnes have reported that the UAP Task Force report will conclude that the UAPs in the videos were not US military aircraft, which would back up Mellon’s claim considerably.
What about the Russian and Chinese militaries? That’s a common theory among pilots. Pilot Lt. Ryan Graves told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker, that “The highest probability is that it’s a threat observation program,” perhaps from Russia or China.
The best argument for this possibility I’ve seen comes from Tyler Rogoway of the War Zone, a publication focused on defense issues. As Rogoway notes, there is a huge amount of precedent for this kind of aerial surveillance: The US engaged in this activity extensively vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and tests of surveillance aircraft in locations like Roswell, New Mexico, and Area 51, Nevada, have generated many past UFO reports.
The adversarial drone explanation would also help explain why pilots and ships, in particular, are seeing so many of these objects: Why wouldn’t the Russian or Chinese militaries want to learn more about the US military this way? At the same time, Rogoway concedes that there are some incidents that are difficult to explain in this framework.
But a crucial point he makes is that there’s very little in the video evidence, including the three blockbuster UFO videos detailed above, that suggests vehicles with abilities unknown to humankind, writing, “Beyond the so-called ‘Tic-Tac’ video that just looked like a blurry little Tic Tac, I have seen nothing in any government ‘UAP’ videos that supposedly show unexplainable capabilities or craft that actually portray that. In fact, quite the opposite.”
In other words, they’re probably not from an advanced alien civilization — which is probably the most common misconception I’ve found in talking to friends and families about the resurgence of UFO talk. Just so we’re clear: These videos do not amount to the Pentagon or the government admitting that the extraterrestrial hypothesis is true.
Kean, for her part, while open to the extraterrestrial hypothesis, also expressed openness to the foreign military aircraft hypothesis, telling me, “I think Tyler Rogoway does great work … it’s an open question.”
So what is true? I’m personally left agnostic by all the evidence. I’m certainly not persuaded these are alien aircraft, but the evidence for skeptical explanations like weather balloons or civilian airplanes or foreign drones is incomplete as well.
The only sure thing is something odd is happening — and that we’ve just started trying to understand what it is.
Clarification, 6 pm: This piece has been updated to clarify our summary of the reporting in a December 16, 2017, New York Times story. That story passed along claims from Luis Elizondo and others that materials from UAP had been recovered, and that a Bigelow facility was being modified to be able to store them, but the Times story did not claim that the Bigelow facility was actually storing these materials.