In the good old days, the arrival of UFOs on the front page of America’s paper of record might have seemed like a loose-thread tear right through the fabric of reality — the closest that secular, space-race America could have gotten to a Second Coming. Two decades ago, or three, or six, we would’ve also felt we knew the script in advance, thanks to the endless variations pop culture had played for us already: civilizational conflicts to mirror the real-world ones Americans had been imagining in terror since the beginning of the Cold War.
But when, in December, the New York Times published an undisputed account of what might once have sounded like crackpot conspiracy theory — that the Pentagon had spent five years investigating“unexplained aerial phenomena” — the response among the paper’s mostly liberal readers, exhausted and beaten down by “recent events,” was markedly different from the one in those movies. The news thataliens might actually be visiting us, regularly and recently, didn’t provoke terror about a coming space-opera conflict but something much more like the Evangelical dream of the Rapture the same liberals might have mocked as kooky right-wing escapism in the George W. Bush years. “The truth is out there,” former senator Harry Reid tweeted, with a link to the story. Thank God, came the response through the Twitter vent. “Could extraterrestrials help us save the Earth?” went one typical reaction.
Suddenly, aliens were an escapist fantasy — but also more credible (legitimized by the government!) than mere fantasy. That Pentagon report, which featured two gripping videos of aerial encounters, was just one beat in a recent search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence (or SETI) drumroll: In October, an object passed through our solar system that looked an awful lot like a spaceship; astronomers spent much of 2016 arguing over whether the weird pulses of light coming from a distant star were actually evidence of an “alien megastructure.” An army of Silicon Valley billionaires are racing to make first contact, and our new superpowered telescopes are discovering more conceivably habitable planets every year.
Then, in March, a third video emerged, featuring a Navy encounter off the East Coast in 2015, with the group that released it hinting at an additional trove. “Why doesn’t the Pentagon care?” wondered a Washington Post op-ed — surely the first time the newspaper of Katharine Graham was raising a stink about aliens. The next week, President Trump seemed to announce he was creating an entirely new branch of the military: “We’ll call it the Space Force.” You could be forgiven for thinking you’d woken up in a science-fiction novel. At the very least, it is starting to seem non-crazy to believe. A recent study shows half the world already does.
Alien dreams have always been powered by the desire for human importance in a vast, forgetful cosmos: We want to be seen so we know we exist. What’s unusual about the alien fantasy is that, unlike religion, nationalism, or conspiracy theory, it doesn’t place humans at the center of a grand story. In fact, it displaces them: Humans become, briefly, major players in a drama of almost inconceivable scale, the lasting lesson of which is, unfortunately: We’re total nobodies. That’s the lesson, at least, of a visit from aliens, who gothere long before we were able to get there, wherever there is; if humans are the ones making first contact, we’re the advanced ones and the aliens are probably more like productive pond scum, which may be one reason we fantasize about those kinds of encounters a lot less than visits to Earth. Of course, when the aliens are the explorers, we’re the pond scum.
But a lot of people in the modern world will take that bargain, which should probably not surprise us given how dizzying, secular, and, um, alienating that world objectively is. Most conspiracy theory is fueled by a desire to see the universe as ultimately intelligible — the bargain being that things can make sense, but only if you believe in pervasive totalitarian malice. Alien conspiracy theory keeps the malice (cover-ups at Roswell, the Men in Black). But rather than benzo comforts like order and intelligibility, it offers the psychedelic drama of total unintelligibility — awe, wonder, a knee-wobblingly deep, mystical experience of existential ignorance.
Every extraterrestrial era has its own fantasy of consequentiality. Crop circles began as a phenomenon of the English countryside, then spread to the far corners of the onetime British Empire (Australia, Canada) after World War II, when the U.K. was falling unmistakably back in the ranks of nations and when its provincial subjects would have felt some understandable desire to demonstrate that, somehow, their lives really mattered. American encounters were invariably rural as well — typically farmers and ranchers, mostly in the country’s interior and the deserts and mountains of the West, in decades the country as a whole spent rapidly urbanizing and then industrializing its farmland so systematically it looked like Monsanto was trying to exterminate the American farmer along with the cotton bollworm.
These incidents, which never occurred in cities, where other witnesses could have verified them, were often reported as horror stories even as they may have expressed secret desires. But the pop culture of the same era introduced another mode: the suburban encounter, often still private and personal but more ooey-gooey New Age than abductions and anal probes. The two major authors were Steven Spielberg, who gave us broken-family theology in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., and Carl Sagan, who gave us Cosmos andContact, which, when it was turned into a movie, featured an eerie seascape that was basically a secular heaven, maintained by offscreen aliens explicitly playing the role of gods. Stephen Hawking, who died in March, was also a godfather of a sort, not just a physicist but a sage and guru for a generation of squishy-lefty seekers curious about life beyond Earth; among his last acts was partnering with Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire building a giant SETI laboratory at UC Berkeley. Americans used to regard the space race with not just national but something like collectivist pride — all those government engineers from the new middle class. Suddenly, it’s the rich kids with the cool toys and the keys to the rocket ship.
Which does mark a change. Beyond the mysticism, American stories of alien encounters have been (often anxious) meditations on the status of American power — meditations informed, surely, by both the memory of European settlers, for whom “first contact” was a story of triumphant genocide, and sympathy for those they trampled. Given the option, America will always prefer to play the cowboy, and through the post–Cold War 1990s, the dominant alien-encounter template was still the swaggering military strut of Independence Day. (The closest thing we got to a counterpoint was the cover-up paranoia of The X-Files, which just expressed a darker faith in the same American power.) By the time we got an alien epic for the War on Terror era, even Spielberg staged it as a story about armed conflict: The War of the Worlds. Of course, in that story, the winner was always going to be the humans — that is, the Americans. And then came the financial crisis, the recession, and Trump, and the new hope that E.T. may take pity on us.
Elsewhere in the world, where things are looking up, relatively speaking, you might expect a different perspective on aliens — and indeed, as The Atlantic’s Ross Andersen documented last fall, the Chinese have recently opened the world’s largest radar facility to listen for signs of aliens, wherever they are out there. But even our future Chinese overlords, projecting power for the first time into the ever-receding reaches of the universe, are a bit nervous about aliens; as Andersen points out, their popular science fiction bears the evidence. And why wouldn’t they be? They have their own memory of colonial contact — the Opium Wars, the end of that empire — to reckon with. And, besides, the unknown is just scary. Things have to get pretty bleak before you take a chance on the arrival of a total blank slate, just for the sake of change. —David Wallace-Wells
1. The Government Literally Just Admitted It’s Taking UFOs Seriously
In 1952, a CIA group called the Psychological Strategy Board concluded that, when it came to UFOs, the American public was dangerously gullible and prone to “hysterical mass behavior.” The group recommended “debunking” campaigns to tamper the public’s interest in unexplained phenomena. But the government seems to have been interested, too: In December, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Created in 2007 by senators Ted Stevens (who reported being chased by a mysterious object), Daniel Inouye, and then–Majority LeaderHarry Reid, and funded with $22 million of “black money” from the Department of Defense’s budget, the program investigated and evaluated reports of UFO sightings, many of which came from American service members.
So much of what the program uncovered remains classified, but what little we know is tantalizing. Based on data it collected, the program identified five observations that showed mysterious objects displaying some level of “advanced physics,” also known as “stuff humans can’t do yet”: The objects would accelerate with g-forces too strong for the human body to withstand, or reach hypersonic speed with no heat trail or sonic boom, or they seemed to resist the effects of Earth’s gravity without any aerodynamic structures to provide thrust or lift. “No one has been able to figure out what these are,” said Luis Elizondo, who ran the program until last October, in a recent interview.
Elizondo has also talked about “metamaterials” that may have been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena and stored in buildings owned by a private aerospace contractor in Las Vegas; they apparently have material compositions that aren’t found naturally on Earth and would be exceptionally expensive to replicate. According to a 2009 Pentagon briefing summarized in the New York Times, “the United States was incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered.” This was a briefing by people trying to get more funding — but still.
Some of the accounts Elizondo and his team analyzed supposedly occurred near nuclear facilities like power plants or battleships. In November 2004, the USS Princeton, a Navy cruiser escorting the aircraft carrier USSNimitz off the coast of San Diego, ordered two fighter jets to investigate mysterious aircraft the Navy had been tracking for weeks (meaning this was not just a trick of the eye or a momentary failure of perspective, the two things most often blamed for unexplained aerial phenomena). When the jets arrived at the location, one of the pilots, Commander David Fravor, saw a disturbance just below the ocean’s surface causing the water to roil around it. Then, suddenly, he saw a white, 40-foot Tic Tac–shaped craft moving like a Ping-Pong ball above the water. The vehicle began mirroring his plane’s movements, but when Fravor dove directly at the object, the Tic Tac zipped away.
The Pentagon has said funding for the program ran out in 2012 and wasn’t renewed. But Elizondo has claimed the project was alive and well when he resigned in October. —James D. Walsh
2. Harry Reid Says We’re Not Taking Them Seriously Enough
The former Senate majority leader is definitely a truther.
Eric Benson: I’m curious about just where your interest in this subject comes from.
Harry Reid: Bob Bigelow [the founder of Bigelow Aerospace and Budget Suites]. He’s a central figure in all this. When he was a young man, he heard a story from his grandparents about driving down from Mt. Charleston, near Las Vegas, where they saw a so-called flying saucer, for lack of a better description. Bob became a very wealthy man. He would pay for these conferences about UFOs, and he would bring in scientists, academics, and a few nutcases.
There were people trying to figure out what all this aerial phenomena was. Bob started sending me tons of stuff. Mainly what interested me is that so many people had seen these strange things in the air.
EB: So tell me how this program got started.
HR: I was in Washington in the Senate, and Bob called me and said, “I got the strangest letter here. Could I have a courier bring it to you?” I said sure. He didn’t want to send it to me over the lines, for obvious reasons.
The letter said, “I am a senior, longtime member of this security agency, and I have an interest in what you’ve been working on. I also want to go to your ranch in Utah.”
Bigelow had bought a great big ranch. All this crazy stuff goes on up there — you know, things in the air. Indians used to talk about it, part of their folklore.
So I called Bigelow back and said, “Hey, I’ll meet with the guy.” The program grew out of that, to study aerial phenomena.
We decided it would be [funded by] black money. I wanted to get something done. I didn’t want a debate where no one knew what the hell they were talking about on the Senate floor.
EB: I saw that you tweeted, “We don’t know the answers, but we have plenty of evidence to support asking the questions.” To you, what’s the most compelling evidence to support asking the questions?
HR: Read the reports. We have hundreds of — Eric, two, three weeks ago, maybe a month now, up in Montana, they had another strange deal at a missile base up there. It goes on all the time.
EB: Do you know things about this program that you can’t discuss publicly?
3. Scientists Are Suddenly Much More Bullish About the Possibility of Life Out There
The universe is really big, people.
Just 30 years ago, we had not discovered a single planet outside our solar system. Now we know of more than 3,000 of them, and we know nearly every star in the night sky has at least one planet in its orbit. “Even people who are not terribly interested in science know that we’ve found that planets are as common as fire hydrants — they’re everywhere,” says Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. “One in five or one in six might be a planet similar to the Earth.”
That doesn’t mean we’ll ever find an exact replica of Earth, but maybe we don’t have to. Our study of other planets and moons in the solar system shows us many worlds possess the ingredients necessary for life — an atmosphere, organic compounds, liquid water, and other necessities. (The moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, for example, feature whole subsurface oceans.)
And even though these places are extremely harsh environments, that doesn’t mean as much as we might once have thought it did; recent discoveries on Earth itself demonstrate that life is much tougher than we thought. We’ve found organisms in blisteringly hot geysers in Yellowstone National Park, in the darkest crevices under the most ungodly pressures in the deep ocean, in dry hellscapes like the Atacama Desert in Chile (an analogue for Mars). These “extremophiles” don’t need a warm and fuzzy paradise to call home — in fact, they have already evolved to live in environments as harsh as those on other planets. Some, like tardigrades, can even survive the bleak vacuum of space itself. If there’s life in most of those places, “it’s going to be pond scum,” says Shostak. “But it’s alien pond scum. It shows that biology is all over.”
And where there’s biology, there may well be intelligence, and our increasing understanding of evolution also tells us life can evolve faster than we ever anticipated. Millions of years is a long time for us, but it’s the blink of an eye on the cosmic scale. Blink too fast, and you’ll miss that pond scum turning into an intelligent civilization sending out messages every which way, looking for friends.
And we’re now at the point where we could one day find those messages and send a reply. New technology gives us a better chance to actually make contact with extraterrestrials. Our radio telescopes can scan more of the night sky for an intelligent message than ever before. Our optical telescopes and observatories can peer farther into space and look for new planets, moons, and perhaps even signs of something altogether artificial (see “Tabby’s Star”). Our ability to parse volumes of data in mere seconds means we could conceivably survey much of the galaxy in just a few decades. That’s why, in the past few years, Shostak has continually bet a cup of coffee with everyone he knows that humans will find aliens by around 2029. “We’d have to be dead above the neck if we weren’t interested in this,” says Penelope Boston, the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. —Neel Patel
4. They’re Especially Bullish About These Planets
Adventures in the “Goldilocks zone.”
Scientists now think every one in five or six planets might be habitable, based on two general criteria: They’re rocky, and they reside in a region of the star’s orbit called the “Goldilocks zone,” where it’s not too cold and not too hot, but just right to allow for liquid water to form on the surface. And where there’s water, there can be life. Extraterrestrial researchers and enthusiasts are most excited about these seven:
Proxima B: The closest exoplanet ever discovered is also a potentially habitable world in its own right, if the intense stellar winds don’t make it barren. It’s not totally inconceivable we might be able to actually send a probe and study it directly this century — even travel to it ourselves one day.
TRAPPIST-1 System: The red dwarf at the center of this possesses a whopping seven planets in its orbit — three of which reside in the Goldilocks zone, but all of which seem to possess some degree of potential habitability — and they’re so close to one another that life on one planet could quickly spread to another.
LHS 1140b: This wouldn’t be a planet we could colonize. It’s almost seven times the mass of the Earth and 40 percent larger, making it a “super-Earth.” But its mass means that it would retain a thicker atmosphere capable of keeping it warmer and more comfortable for life than most other places.
Ross 128 b: One of the best chances we have so far at finding life on another planet. It orbits an inactive red-dwarf star, meaning it’s likely not being bludgeoned by solar radiation. And we’ve detected strange signals emanating from the nearby host star — signals that perhaps have intelligent origins?
Mars: Mars has water, as we’ve known since 2015. Although the planet looks like a barren wasteland these days, there’s little reason to write off any chance we might find aliens residing in some cavern or crevice.
The Ocean Worlds (Europa, Enceladus, Titan): Many of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons show signs of possessing a liquid ocean underneath the surface.
GJ 1214b: Nicknamed “waterworld” by scientists; signs of potential clouds give us some hope the planet has an atmosphere.
You tell me………………………