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Stranger than fiction

UFOs have gone from entertaining sci-fi trope to closely watched congressional hearing. What does it all mean?


Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Stranger than fiction
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RACHEL (NOT HER REAL NAME) GREW UP way out in the country north of San Antonio, Texas. Late one summer evening in 1978 or 1979, when she was 11 or 12, through her bedroom window she saw a strange light near the highway about a mile from the house. Rachel got her older brother and went outside. Then the light started coming toward them.

It floated silently maybe a few hundred feet in the air. It was definitely not a star or an airplane, she says: “This was some kind of something that was hovering near us.” She guessed it was about the size of a car but couldn’t tell its shape. It was perhaps 75 yards away, and shining.

They stared at it for several seconds. Then it zipped away without a sound. “And we just kind of turned and looked at each other like, What did we just see?” she recalls. She says her brother is ­convinced they had a close encounter with an alien spaceship. Rachel, a committed Christian, still doesn’t know what to make of it.

For 45 years she never talked about it with ­anybody but family. “It was kind of weird,” she says. “I didn’t really want to run it by other people.” Ten years ago, Rachel says, she never would have described the event to a reporter.

Rachel is not alone—so to speak. The stigma attached to UFO encounters is eroding. The idea of alien life has gone from an amusing theme ubiquitous in science fiction and movies to the subtext of a closely watched congressional hearing last May. Increasing numbers of people seem willing to take UFOs seriously, to believe that something is going on out there. And the U.S. military is leading the way.

On Dec. 16, 2017, The New York Times published a front-page article detailing a tiny and secretive program housed in the Pentagon investigating UFO reports: the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Run by an intelligence official named Luis Elizondo, it was started in 2007 at the request of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and supposedly shut down in 2012.

The online Times article included two videos, taken by Navy Super Hornet jet fighters, tracking objects that glowed and rotated and appeared on radar and infrared scanners. The videos include the voices of the pilots trying to make sense of it. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” one says. The Pentagon confirmed in 2019 that these videos and one other are authentic.

Many in the UFO community regard that 2017 article as the moment when the stigma against public discussion of UFOs began to ease. After it came out, some military pilots spoke to reporters about astonishing experiences. Navy pilot Cmdr. David Fravor, for example, encountered the same objects as those in one of the Times article videos. He told 60 Minutes in 2021 about a five-minute incident off an aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, near San Diego in 2004. He circled above a 40-foot-long, white “Tic Tac”–shaped object with no wings or visible means of propulsion as it bounced around like a pingpong ball. Then it started to circle in the opposite direction up toward him. When it got close it suddenly “disappeared,” he said.

“I don’t know who’s building it, who’s got the technology, who’s got the brains,” Fravor said, “but there’s something out there that was better than our airplane.”

Other military pilots have since reported frequently seeing objects that defy the laws of physics. They accelerate from a hover to thousands of miles an hour instantaneously. They make right-angle turns at amazing speeds.

In a way, the recent sightings are nothing new. They resemble many of those from the 1940s onward. But now prominent and powerful people are saying publicly that something is out there.

“But what is true, and I’m actually being serious here,” former President Barack Obama said in 2021 on The Late Late Show, “is that 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.”

David Fravor at home in Windham, N.H.

David Fravor at home in Windham, N.H. M. Scott Brauer/The New York T​imes/Redux

THE HUMAN FASCINATION with extraterrestrial life goes back a long way. Ancient Greek philosophers might have been the first to suggest other beings lived elsewhere on other worlds. Some early Church Fathers agreed, ­calling it presumptuous to think that God couldn’t have created life elsewhere.

Over time a debate about this arose among Christians. Some saw man and Earth at the center of God’s purposes. Others thought God might have purposes beyond humanity. Going into the 20th century, both positions were well within Christian orthodoxy. Today many Christians see UFOs as part of a long-term demonic plot to deceive humanity, while some want to make theological room for the possibility of intelligent (and hopefully friendly) extraterrestrials.

When I was about 12 years old, during an apparent breakdown in parental oversight, I stumbled across a battered paperback copy of Chariots of the Gods. The 1968 bestseller argued that aliens had visited Earth in the ancient past. That would explain the Egyptian pyramids, for example, and Ezekiel’s vision of cherubim as clearly a spaceship. Mainstream historians quickly dismissed it as ­nonsense, but it sold millions of copies.

I have no idea how it got into the house, as my parents were not interested in such stuff. Mostly I just looked at the pictures, but I got the gist and thought aliens sounded plausible. Star Wars had rocked my world a few years earlier and I was just discovering science fiction. In effect, I was encountering lots of new ideas with no framework for how to judge them.

Our culture might be in a similarly vulnerable situation. Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist and founder of the creation apologetics ministry Reasons to Believe. He believes a very small percentage of UFO sightings are of something “provably real but not physical.” Although he thinks the Bible leaves room for the possibility of alien life in other galaxies, he’s convinced UFOs—on this planet—are demonic.

The debate among believers is taking place inside a much larger phenomenon: the modern UFO era. That began in 1947 when Kenneth Arnold claimed to see from his small plane a string of nine strange craft zipping between Mt. Rainier and Mt. Washington. They flew like “saucers” skipping across water, he told the reporter. One headline writer came up with “flying saucers,” the story ­rocketed around the country, and the flying saucer craze was born.

Reports of similar sightings began flowing into military and civilian authorities around the world. Few people took flying saucers seriously, dismissing sightings as illusions, weather, mistakes, or hoaxes. A comic in Life magazine published shortly after Arnold’s sighting shows a tentacled creature ­“gleefully bombarding the universe with stacks of crockery fired by atomic saucer-launchers,” reads the caption. “Neptunians thus far have aimed only ­saucers at the earth, but more favored planets have been shelled with tea pots and dinner plates.”

Initially the U.S. government’s response was to investigate UFO reports but presume they were natural phenomena. In the late 1940s the Air Force started the short-lived Projects Sign and Grudge. It founded Project Blue Book in April 1952, just before a series of sightings over Washington, D.C., drew national attention.

In July 1952 several blips showed up on radar near Andrews Air Force Base traveling over 100 miles per hour, then they dispersed. Some flew over the Capitol and the White House. Pilots in jets sent to track them down reported seeing bluish white lights that would disappear if they got too close, then reappear later. A New York Times headline read, “‘Objects’ Outstrip Jets Over Capitol.”

Despite no shortage of such intriguing incidents, Project Blue Book closed in 1969. Its final report concluded the vast majority of sightings were easily explainable, those remaining probably were no threat to national security, and there was no evidence they were of alien origin. UFO enthusiasts were generally unconvinced. Some believed that the government was reverse engineering alien technology from a crashed spaceship at a base near Roswell, N.M., or hiding the corpses of dead aliens.

It later turned out that the CIA and other Cold War warriors in government actually were hiding some things, such as surveillance technology. Some sightings were clearly of top-secret American reconnaissance planes like the U-2. Various officials, according to a study in one CIA-sponsored academic journal, were trying to quash public interest in UFOs because they “believed that the Soviets could use UFO reports to touch off mass hysteria and panic in the United States.” Attempts to downplay UFO sightings, of course, only fueled suspicion of a large-scale cover-up.

Lights over Phoenix captured on video by Lynne D. Kitei

Lights over Phoenix captured on video by Lynne D. Kitei Lynne D. Kitei

FROM THE 1960s through the 2010s, reports of sightings came in waves. Some were extremely difficult to explain or from ­credible witnesses. For example, on March 13, 1997, a string of lights in a boomerang formation appeared high over Phoenix for several hours. Thousands of people reportedly saw them and some took videos. The official explanation was flares dropped by the Air National Guard. But flares fall downward, and witnesses said these lights floated in formation above the region for hours.

Other highly publicized sightings include the Loring Air Force Base sighting (1975), the lights over the New Jersey Turnpike (2001), and the O’Hare International Airport saucer (2006). But there are many more, of varying degrees of credibility and from all over the world. These were exactly the kinds of events the American government was, officially, definitely not really investigating. But now, they definitely are.

In 2021, Sen. Marco Rubio, formerly acting chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, sponsored legislation to fund a program for investigating UAPs, or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. On May 17, 2022, the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation held a public hearing on the topic—the first in 50 years.

For such a sensational topic, the hearing seemed designed to put people to sleep. It was loaded with jargon about interagency cooperation, standardizing data collection, and calibrating assumptions. Even the three videos of “unexplained” incidents were underwhelming.

Still, the hearing illustrated a stunning reversal in the government’s attitude over the last five years. Committee Chairman Rep. Andre Carson called UAPs a potential national security threat, “and they need to be treated that way.” Because of the stigma, he said, military and civilian pilots have avoided reporting encounters or were dismissed as “kooks” when they did. “Today we know better,” he said. “UAPs are unexplained, it is true, but they are real.” One Pentagon official said the program was ­looking into 400 currently “unexplained” cases.

The admission “was historic,” says Tony Breeden, a Christian who has written extensively on UFOs. For decades the government denied or obfuscated reports of UFOs. “Now, they’ve turned full circle and admitted, we don’t know what they are,” he said. “They might be dangerous. We don’t know how to stop them.”

Last year, the Pentagon formed a new office to track and investigate UFO sightings. In July, officials changed its name to the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office. The new name reflects an expanded search: for unidentified objects submerged in water or that fly across multiple environments.

Dozens of alien-themed “documentary” shows have appeared in recent years, and anyone can pull up eye-popping videos of strange encounters on YouTube. All the media attention is shaping public opinion. A 2021 Gallup poll said 4 in 10 Americans believe aliens have visited the planet, up from a third two years earlier. A 2021 Pew poll found two-thirds of Americans think intelligent life probably exists on other planets.

Public interest in UFOs and the possibility of alien life has ebbed and flowed for decades. But it looks like we are going to hear more and more about them in the coming years, in a society with many people desperately trying to make sense of a chaotic and changing world.

One scene in Signs, Mel Gibson’s movie about a pastor living through an alien invasion, shows Merrill, the protagonist’s brother, wearing a tinfoil hat and staring at a TV in a darkened room. He’s hoping for news. Suddenly he gasps and covers his mouth in horror. The screen shows a flash of a tall, angular, alien figure.

I suspect many people who have abandoned, or perhaps just neglected, belief in a personal Creator are hoping for a similar moment of clarity when they look at those UFO videos. They would love a glimpse of something beyond our experience, of undeniable proof that somebody out there is more advanced than we are and can make sense of this seemingly random universe.

Fox Mulder from The X-Files famously has a poster over his desk of a flying saucer with the words, “ I Want to Believe.” It’s a familiar longing, a distant echo of Jesus’ encounter with the demon-possessed boy and his father. The father, too, had seen strange things, and when presented with hope, he too wants to believe. Mulder hopes somewhere out there he’ll find the answer, not just about what happened to his sister, but to the ­question of what it all means. He’s just looking in all the wrong places.


Les Sillars

Les is a WORLD Radio correspondent and commentator. He previously spent two decades as WORLD Magazine's Mailbag editor. Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.

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