A New Age of UFO Mania

Escalating from grainy videos of so-called aliens to fighter jets blowing things out of the sky will only fuel America’s obsession.

A black-and-white photograph of several men holding binoculars up to their faces to look at something far away
Simon Bruty / Allsport / Getty

In May 1957, an American fighter pilot stationed in the quiet English countryside was suddenly ordered to get into the air and shoot down an unidentified flying object. The pilot, Milton Torres, pursued the target, which appeared motionless at times before zooming at thousands of miles per hour. He locked on to the object and prepared to fire, but it vanished from radar screens. In secret documents that were declassified and released by the British government many decades later, Torres said of the experience, “To be quite candid, I almost shit my pants!”

The strange encounter was one of a handful that took place during the Cold War, when American military personnel were poised to scramble in the dreaded case of a surprise attack from the Soviets. Such scrambles remained rare until recently—this month, to be exact—when the United States marshaled fighter jets to shoot down not one, not two, but three unidentified flying objects over North America in less than a week.

These events followed the highly publicized takedown of a fourth flying object, that one identified: the giant Chinese spy balloon that traversed the country before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina. The public attention has been overwhelming. Headlines such as “‘I Haven’t Ruled Out Anything.’ U.S. General Doesn’t Eliminate Aliens as UFOs Mount” suggested that America is being invaded by mysterious airborne objects. On Monday, the White House press secretary made a statement that would not have seemed out of place at the beginning of an action-filled alien movie: “There is no indication of aliens or [extra]terrestrial activity with these recent takedowns. Wanted to make sure that the American people knew that.”

This hullabaloo marks a new chapter in our modern fascination with UFOs. Americans’ enthusiasm for a good mystery in the sky—one that could just maybe be explained by aliens—has been around since the late 1940s. (Tales of strange sightings are certainly older than that; consider, as one example, the reports of “mystery airships” spotted over the western United States in the 1890s.) But it was one thing when the stories centered mostly on perplexing video clips and pilot testimony. It is quite another when the government calls up fighter jets to blow things out of the sky, and public interest is increasing accordingly. We’re entering a new phase of UFO mania.

It doesn’t help that sightings of unusual objects are getting more and more frequent. After the spy balloon wafted in earlier this month, U.S. defense agencies recalibrated their airspace-monitoring systems, allowing them to detect smaller slow-moving objects that previously may have been filtered out as nonthreatening. Thus, there have been—and may continue to be—more reports of UFOs, and more takedowns. As Juliette Kayyem, the faculty chair of the homeland-security program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote in The Atlantic this week, “The Chinese balloon has made U.S. officials more willing to act, even knowing that many such cases could be false positives.”

Each new incident will spark a new wave of fascination, especially if the U.S. government remains secretive about the nature of these objects. Even after bringing the debris in for analysis, the military has left everyone else to speculate wildly about what, exactly, we blasted out of the sky. The first UFO in the series, shot down over the waters of Alaska, has so far been described in news reports only as “the size of a small car” and “most likely not a balloon.” The second, felled over Canada’s Yukon territory, was “cylindrical.” The third, brought down off the coast of Michigan, was “octagonal in structure, with strings hanging off.” Never has geometry sounded so sinister.

On top of that, NASA will soon rile everyone up further. This spring, a special team assembled to study existing unclassified data on what the government now calls “unidentified anomalous phenomena” is expected to unveil its results. Like defense officials, NASA leaders emphasized when they announced the project last year that there was no evidence that UFOs had alien origins. And they pointed out that this effort was unrelated to the agency’s programs to find alien life beyond Earth with spacecraft, such as rovers on Mars and an orbiter around Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. But, as I’ve written before, when an institution like NASA takes an interest in the mysterious nature of UFOs, it sends a certain signal, whether the agency means to or not. NASA has never waded into the UFO discussion like this. The report is bound to create just as much hype as the defense reports that have been released in the past few years since The New York Times first revealed the existence of a shadowy government UFO program, which kicked off its own burst of UFO mania.

People love a good mystery, and UFOs are certainly that. But intense interest has downsides. It bolsters the erroneous idea that UFOs must be alien spaceships, and it provides cover for government organizations reluctant to share details about national-security threats. This week, the UFO news has even enabled a new strain of conspiracy thinking: Far-right figures have suggested that the airborne intrusions are a deliberate distraction from a train derailment in Ohio that caused a chemical fire.

By writing about UFOs, I’m contributing to the obsessive attention. But I do so to offer context, something that news coverage of UFOs desperately needs. Whenever you hear about a strange anomaly in the sky, remember that perfectly terrestrial things can be mistaken for otherworldly technology, that some of the most widely shared footage of alleged alien aircraft has been found to be camera quirks and optical illusions, that some journalists don’t scrutinize sources and their claims as much as they should when UFOs are involved.

I understand the instinct to obsess over the possibility of aliens. But to me, the most exciting possibilities of extraterrestrial life have nothing to do with otherworldly objects that appear to move with speeds and patterns unlike any known aircraft. Instead, what excites me most in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life is the possibility of catching something that looks eerily similar to what we know. A radio transmission, perhaps, not so different from the kinds that human technologies produce every day, and which unintentionally waft into space, carrying evidence of our existence. A familiar signal of ordinary life elsewhere in the universe would be thrilling. But its source would not be in our skies, or within view of even the sharpest defense systems. It would lie way out there, far beyond, in the space between stars.