Future Tense

The Year UFOs Became a Little More Legit

We didn’t find ETs in 2019, but the U.S. government did become a little more chatty about flying saucers.

Tom DeLonge, a green alien, and Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for KROQ, goktugg/E+ via Getty Images Plus, and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Not long ago, the world received what seemed like an otherworldly revelation: The Pentagon had been secretly running a UFO research project, despite the fact it had long claimed a lack of interest in flying saucers. Three creepy UFO videos were paraded onto the internet, showing mystery objects caught on military cameras. Out of the shadows emerged the program’s soul-patched former director. He had recently retired from the Defense Department and joined up with a new corporation called To the Stars Academy. Helmed by former Blink-182 member Tom DeLonge, To the Stars is both a UFO research organization and a media company. It had attracted other high-profile figures, too—like the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence and a retired executive from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, the division that designs planes that seem like they’re from other planets.

Since those initial disclosures, UFOs have kept themselves in the headlines, like celebrities who haven’t made a movie in a decade but show up quarterly on magazine covers. And in the two years since the initial saucer story, the truth has grown complicated. The Pentagon claims the bearded director wasn’t actually the director and, in fact, “had no responsibilities with regard to” the program; it has released documentation showing that the three UFO videos were never authorized for public release; and, most recently, it has claimed that this supposed UFO program didn’t actually deal with UFOs at all.

Despite this turbulence, 2019 was the year that UFOs managed to propel themselves into an uneasy political legitimacy: Washington initiated ufological policy changes, held official UFO briefings, and even signed a research agreement with To the Stars. Some segments of the population have taken the governmental nods as acknowledgment that UFOs are both real and extraterrestrial, but the truth—while out there—is considerably fuzzier.

The first big news came in April, when the Navy said it was drafting new guidelines for reporting run-ins with UFOs. Headlines blared things like “Aliens, Ahoy!” but the military was likely talking about much more mundane encounters, according to explanations that followed about the exigence of the guidelines. “The wide proliferation and availability of inexpensive unmanned aerial systems (UAS), such as commercially available quadcopters, has increasingly made airspace de-confliction an issue,” an official told a reporter, according to redacted emails released via a Freedom of Information Act request. “Consistent with the wide proliferation and availability of inexpensive unmanned aerial systems (UAS), sightings of this nature have increased in frequency from 2014 until now.” In other words, they may have been talking about your cousin’s drone collection. As ever, while “UFO” means aliens in common conversation, in actuality it just means anything a person (or instrument) sees in the sky that that person (or instrument) can’t identify. Other explanations on the table: foreign military aircraft, classified American aircraft, ghost machines resulting from electronic warfare. Personally, I find it difficult to take the extraterrestrial explanation seriously until I have evidence of extraterrestrials, not just a lack of proof it’s not extraterrestrials.

Nevertheless, a few months later, in June, UFOs climbed higher up the executive chain. George Stephanopoulos asked Donald Trump about the Navy’s reported UFO incidents. Trump said he’d been briefed, yeah, sure. “People are saying they’re seeing UFOs,” he said. “Do I believe it? Not particularly.”

The president, though, wasn’t the only one to get a briefing. That same month, senators gathered in a “that’s classified” way to learn about military UFO encounters. Spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Daniel Day said the meeting centered “on efforts to understand and identify these threats to the safety and security of our aviators.” Later, Sen. Mark Walker accused the Navy of withholding UFO info, saying, “There is frustration with the lack of answers to specific questions about the threat that superior aircraft flying in United States airspace may pose.”

These responses—about “de-confliction,” pilot safety, and threats—all share the subtext that UFOs represent a national security menace. As the year went on, the military showed the thread of threat held not just for spaceships but also for the earthlings who are into them. In June, a goateed college student created a satirical Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.”

History suggests that Area 51 is a testing ground for experimental air things, but conspiratorial types believe the country stashes saucers and alien specimens in that two-Delaware-sized region of the desert. The joke-raid was about joke-finding all those secrets. More than 2 million people RSVP’d yes.

The Air Force—apparently having never hosted a party and so not knowing that most RSVPs are aspirational—got serious about protection. “Any attempt to illegally access the area is highly discouraged,” the military said, in patronizing understatement. Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan added later that the base had gotten “additional security personnel, as well as additional barricades.”

Indeed: The week of the event, the remote area swarmed with cops, and extra wire cordoned off the base. But at the appointed late-night hour, just a few dozen people gathered at the gate, taking made-for-YouTube video of themselves getting mock-ready to mock-storm, to “The Final Countdown.”

Just before the Area 51 “raid,” the Navy had dropped a bomb (metaphorically), almost as if it wanted to punk the Air Force, or steal from its share of UFO news: Those objects in the three famous videos? They were UFOs. Or, at least that’s what the headlines about the Navy’s statement said. A Lit 101 close-reading of the statement, though, tells a different story.

“The U.S. Navy designates the objects contained in the 3 range-incursion videos that are currently being referred to in various media as unidentified aerial phenomena,” said spokesman Joseph Gradisher of the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare in a statement. “[UAP] provides the basic descriptor for the sightings/observations of unauthorized/unidentified aircraft/objects that have been observed entering/operating in the airspace of various military-controlled training ranges. It’s any aerial phenomenon that cannot immediately be identified.”

Gradisher’s definition leaves space for objects that would be identified later, or were simply unauthorized and not necessarily unidentified. That would include falcons that a pilot doesn’t immediately recognize as birds, or your cousin’s drone (again). Those mundane objects would get the same acronymical treatment as a spacecraft from a Steven Spielberg fever dream.

Most people—60 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll—believe all UFO sightings are of objects in the former category. But if you ask the folks at To the Stars, they might point you toward their recently acquired metamaterials, “reported to have come from an advanced aerospace vehicle of unknown origin” (implication: beyond Earth). In October, To the Stars announced a research agreement with the Army to test and characterize the materials.

That seemed like validation. But then came a curveball: On Dec. 6, the Pentagon told researcher John Greenewald—who runs one of Earth’s largest private archives of FOIA’d documents, many only declassified or released at his request—that its “UFO” program didn’t study UFOs. Or UAP. Or anomalies of any sort. It simply studied what the Defense Department usually cares about: weapons. The truth, here, is on the move, the official reversal a reminder that the path of ufology is one of fast turns, steep ascents, and stomach-flipping drops. (If you want a little perspective on those spins, consider a trip to the National Archives Museum in Washington, where until Jan. 16 you can see an exhibit about the Defense Department’s previous UFO research program, Project Blue Book.)

Just as government interest has come and gone and (maybe) come back, the ebbs and flows of the public’s UFO interest are also cyclical: They ran hot in the 1990s, cooled during the 2000s, then reignited this decade. Religious scholar Joseph Laycock offers a few potential reasons why, but perhaps the most compelling is that “disenchantment leads to re-enchantment.” A seminal 1954 paper called “Four Functions of Folklore” suggests something similar: When dissatisfaction or skepticism about a belief arises, it may Phoenix back up with “a myth or legend to validate it.” Maybe the Pentagon’s UFO program is our decade’s myth, here to reenchant us, at least for a while.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.