It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment the mainstream decided that it might be time to take UFOs seriously. As unlikely as it might sound, it may well be the evening that President Barack Obama appeared on CBS’ The Late Late Show with James Corden in May of this year.
“Do you have a question for our guest this evening?” asked the presenter, in the direction of bandleader Reggie Watts.
“You betcha…” replies Watts, before proceeding to ask POTUS 44 if he believes in UFOs. No judgement. We’d do the same.
Obama, so often so composed and stately, looks uncomfortable. “Well,” he says gingerly, “when it comes to aliens, there are some things I just can’t tell you on air…”
The audience giggles. Corden asks if Obama will tell them off air. Obama purses his lips.
“Look,” he says, “the truth is that when I came to office, I asked. I was like, ‘is there a lab somewhere where we’re keeping the alien specimens and spaceships?’”
Corden cackles like a drunk monkey.
“And you know, they did a little bit of research, and the answer was no.”
“But what is true,” continues Obama, “and I’m actually being serious here, is that there are footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are. We can’t explain how they move. Their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern…”
The live studio audience is silent. The look of vacancy on Corden’s face suggests that he doesn’t know what to do with the seismic news that he’s been audience to. Obama chucks him a bone.
“Of course, Reggie might be an alien…”
Cue uproarious laughter.
Obama isn’t the only person of profile to tease us with insider knowledge of UFOs in recent times. Four years ago, The New York Times broke a story revealing that a secret Pentagon programme entitled the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, helmed by a decorated military intelligence officer named Luis Elizondo, had been investigating reports of UFOs for years, at great fiscal expense. Elizondo, a hero to a new breed of ufologists, broke rank. “My personal belief is that there is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone,” he says. His followers, like Elizondo, don’t just want to believe. They already do.
“It all started with Luis,” explains Andy McGrillen, creator and co-host of one of Britain’s most popular UFO podcasts, That UFO Podcast. “Since The New York Times article, there’s been a slow and steady release of footage and testimony from more and more pilots and the like coming forward. It meant that the U.S. government had to acknowledge it. No disrespect to any hicks coming from the local trailer park in Texas, but that stereotypical UFO nut isn’t the sort of person coming forward anymore. It’s not just people saying, ‘Oh, they’re here from the Zeta Reticuli’, things they would just never know. It’s credible people who want to have a serious discussion.”
Interest in UFOs has been building ever since. Last year, in July, the former acting chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Marco Rubio, told CBS news, “We don’t know [what they are],” he said, “and [they aren’t] ours.”
Later, in December, former C.I.A. director John Brennan told the economist Tyler Cowen in an interview that “some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.” That same month, located within a $2.3 trillion spending and coronavirus-relief package, was a directive requiring the Department of Defence and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to deliver an unclassified report on UFOs to Congress within six months of that date.
Boyed by the revelations potentially coming their way, with increasingly credible looking captured footage (two of the best being that of the “Tic Tac”, shot in 2004 onboard the USS Nimitz, and from 2015, on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the “Gimbal”) to satiate their thirst in the meantime, many of the planet’s most popular cultural commentators have become more and more vocal in their interest of UFOs. It’s in keeping with the public’s mood. A poll conducted by Pew Research in July claims that 65 per cent of the U.S. population think there is intelligent alien life on other planets. This month, the Daily Star announced they would be the first British newspaper to have a dedicated Extraterrestrial Affairs Correspondent, former THE FACE writer Michael Moran.
“Growing up, as I did, in the era of the Space Race, UFOs seemed perfectly plausible and worthy of being taken seriously,” he says. “I think we’re coming back to that point of view again. My publishers are smart people, they’ve identified that there’s a resurgent interest in the subject. Space is the biggest beat in journalism and if there’s anything to do with space, I’ll be giving it a look.”
The growth in interest isn’t hurt by the patronage of Joe Rogan, who regularly hosts conversations with UFO advocates like Area 51 whistle-blower Bob Lazar, journalist George Knapp, computer scientist Jacques Vallée and documentarian James Fox. “It’s a dangerous subject for someone, because you’re open to ridicule,” the podcast titan told his quarter of a million listeners in the spring. “Now we can say, ‘Listen, this is not something to be mocked anymore. There’s something to this…’”
Perhaps this elimination of shame is the biggest shift in where ufology finds itself. Mainstream entertainment stars such as Demi Lovato, whose docuseries Unidentified with Demi Lovato began last week (to couch Lovato’s credibility, they also believe in mermaids), Miley Cyrus, Post Malone, January Jones, Alicia Keys and Zayn Malik have all spoken about alleged personal encounters with UFOs in recent years. People listened. Few laughed.
In pop culture, an alien influence is also taking root. Doja Cat’s has previously described her thematic Planet Her album as “the centre of the universe”, where “all races of space exist and its where all species can kind of be in harmony there”. And anyone who might have caught Paco Rabanne’s latest ad might have thought the fragrance giant was advertising excursions to a far-off alien world, rather than a perfume. Not since David Bowie slunk into the skin of Ziggy Stardust has culture toyed so much with alien iconography.
Then there’s the strange case of former Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge.
“When I started talking about the UFO stuff people thought I’d lost my mind,” says DeLonge, who founded the Las Vegas based company To The Stars… Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2017. “I do feel vindicated to a degree.” To The Stars… currently comprises of aerospace, science and entertainment divisions, working with the likes of Elizondo and Christopher Mellon, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Intelligence in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. It exists not only as a hub for DeLonge’s creative pursuits, but to help promote interest in ufology and the unexplained.
“I want to inspire wonder,” he continues, “and to inspire us to look around. It’s about getting people curious, to help them have the latitude to absorb the information. Because I think what’s coming is going to be really, really interesting.”
Can the human race handle what’s coming?
“I think they can,” he says. “I think that there’s elements of it that probably would be very hard to handle. And maybe a lot of people can’t, but I don’t think that’s the stuff that needs to come first. The way I see it is it’s kind of like telling your kids that terrorists exist. You don’t need to necessarily tell them about people’s heads getting chopped off. There’s a lot of unknowns. But look at COVID, the way the vaccines came about after great cooperation between different parties. I think humans can achieve and handle a lot.”
It’s perhaps not surprising that with life on earth looking more and more desperate, so many are looking to the stars in the hope of being saved. “The UFO is both satisfaction and salvation,” wrote Sarah Jones for New York Magazine this year. “[It’s] the manifestation of a near-religious impulse to find mystery in everyday life. I want to believe in aliens the same way I want to believe in God. Reality remains reality. God is silent and so are the aliens. It’s tempting, though, to imagine otherwise. To think that something more advanced than we visits our small and stupid planet. Even if that power means us ill, it can spell deliverance of a sort.”
In June came the Pentagon report – and a rebrand. Unidentified Arial Phenomena (UAP) is now preferred over UFO, putting a wedge between serious interest in what’s being seen in our skies and the pseudoscience that’s always dogged ufology. Ufologists have long pointed to the alleged spaceship crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 or the subsequent U.S. investigation “Project Blue Book” that ran between 1952 and 1969 as evidence we aren’t alone. But here was a sober, credible document that, while not providing many answers, shut few questions down. The report honed in on 144 sightings made since 2004 by U.S. military personnel. Some were dismissed as plastic bags or lens flare. Some were flagged as potential threats from rival superpowers like China or Russia. Some were classified simply as “other”. The report didn’t rule out the involvement of extraterrestrial life. It concluded by saying that more investigation was needed.
“The American people now know a small portion of what I and my colleagues in the Pentagon have been privy to,” says Elizondo, who is writing about his experiences working at the Pentagon in a book due to be published by HarperCollins. “That these UAP are not secret U.S. technology, that they do not seem to belong to any known allies or adversaries and that our intelligence services have yet to identify a terrestrial explanation for these extraordinary vehicles.”
“This conversation,” he concludes, “is only just beginning.”