A story about UFOs and a secretive government agency sounds like something from a script for "The X Files," a science fiction television series. But it’s part of an investigative piece by The New York Times that devotes considerable ink to the Pentagon’s “mysterious UFO program.”
What is this program?
UFO investigations are apparently done through the government's Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. The Times was able to uncover information about it through a series of interviews and government document requests. At one point, former military intelligence official Luis Elizondo ran the program "on the fifth floor of the Pentagon’s C Ring, deep within the building’s maze," The Times reported.
Some parts of the program remain classified.
One of the UFO investigations by the program involved the study of videos of U.S. military aircraft and unknown objects. A Department of Defense video released in August shows a "whitish oval object about the size of a commercial plane" being chased by two Navy F/A-18F fighter jets from the aircraft carrier Nimitz near the coast of San Diego in 2004," according to the report.
For two weeks, military tracked the mysterious objects. They "appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up," according to The Times.
How was former senator Harry Reid involved?
Nevada Democrat and former U.S. senator Harry Reid pushed for funding for the program in 2007, according to the report. Reid is described in the story as someone “who has long had an interest in space phenomena.”
“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” Reid, who retired this year from Congress, told The Times. “I think it’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service. I’ve done something that no one has done before."
As it turns out, Reid’s interest is shared by one of his reported Vegas friends, billionaire real estate tycoon Robert Bigelow. A chunk of funding for UFO investigations went to Bigelow's aerospace firm. The Times obtained contracts that show Congress appropriated just below $22 million to the program starting in late 2008 and extending through 2011. Money given to Bigelow's firm was used for program management, research, and "assessments of the threat posed by the objects," according to The Times.
“60 Minutes” described Bigelow as someone “obsessed with UFOs and aliens.” The CBS news program also said Bigelow is “absolutely convinced” that aliens are real and spaceships from other planets have landed on Earth.
Bigelow is “currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space,” according to the NY Times.
What are skeptics saying?
Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at MIT, told The Times that just because the origin of a flying object is unknown, it does not mean it's a spaceship "from another planet or galaxy." Although unusual phenomena is "worth investigating seriously," there are phenomena found in science that cannot be explained, she added.
The Times also consulted James E. Oberg, a former NASA space shuttle engineer and author of 10 books on spaceflight.
“There are plenty of prosaic events and human perceptual traits that can account for these stories,” said Oberg, a UFO-debunker.
But is the answer still out there?
More research might tell us, said Oberg.
“There could well be a pearl there,” he said.
The government has investigated UFO phenomenon on and off for decades, The Times noted.
A recently-released military video of Navy aircraft and unidentified objects was posted by The Times. It also appears on YouTube.