UFOs have been all over the news recently.
In July, Congress held a hearing that included testimony from a former Air Force Major who claimed the U.S. military has for decades been in possession of the remains of crashed UAPs (“unidentified aerial phenomena”) and has recovered “nonhuman biologics.” In September, NASA appointed its first-ever UFO czar, tasked with studying purported sightings and advancing science and national security interests if they are indeed extraterrestrial. The same month, a picture of a purported mummified specimen of an alien presented to Mexico’s Congress made international headlines. (Experts say it’s unlikely to actually be the remnants of an alien.)
In the new book UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here―and Out There, out Nov. 14, journalist Garrett M. Graff traces the evolution of the U.S. government’s involvement in efforts to track UFOs (unidentified flying objects) and how Hollywood popularized them.
In a phone conversation with TIME on Oct. 20, Graff talked about the roots of public fascination with UFOs in the post World War II-era and the people and pop culture moments that did the most to shape popular conceptions of them and push research efforts forward.
Do you personally think UFOs are real?
Of course UFOs are real. All a UFO is, is an unidentified flying object. We know that there are things being spotted that we don’t know what they are.
What are people likely seeing when they think they see a UFO?
The vast majority of all sightings that anyone has ever reported or seen are easily identifiable mistakes, or confusion with known astronomical bodies or known spacecraft or aircraft. A huge percentage of UFO sightings actually turn out to be the planet Venus, sort of an unexpectedly bright object in the sky. A huge percentage of UFO sightings in the 1950s and early 1960s were the U2 spy plane, which was a secret project that was a literal UFO. It was a plane that didn’t look like known planes flying at an altitude that planes weren’t known to fly at, at speeds planes were not known to fly at. A large number of UFO sightings in years since have been other secret spy planes.
The more interesting question is, what are the things that people see that the government truly doesn’t know what they are? That’s a category that probably involves at least four different pie slices. One is meteorological, astronomical, and atmospheric phenomena where we don’t know enough about the underlying science to really understand what people are reporting. And then there’s a second category that is adversarial technology that is being tested against us—Russian drones, Chinese drones, Iranian drones. The third category is just weird stuff that we’re not really paying attention to—like a Chinese spy balloon. And then the fourth category is the most interesting and the weirdest: the category of physics that we don’t yet understand. Almost everything that we’ve learned about physics we’ve learned in the last 100 years, and that there’s a tremendous amount more to learn about the way that the universe fundamentally operates.
When did the American public’s fascination with UFOs begin?
The modern era of UFOs really began in the summer of 1947 when you saw a wave of sightings of this flying saucer phenomenon across the country. The summer of 1947 really helped launch this broader pop culture fascination with UFOs and flying saucers that gave rise to all sorts of movies from the 1950s onwards.
Where does the term UFO come from?
The first sightings focused on this idea of a flying saucer-like object flying through the sky. That, even in the first year or two of popular usage, became widely mocked and joked about. So when the government and the military began to study and think about the phenomenon more seriously in 1948/1949, they began to try to come up with a term that was a little less judgmental and a little more scientific, if you will, and so ended up with this term “unidentified flying objects.” What’s funny is that UFOs in the years and decades since has become just as stigmatized in popular conversation. So when the U.S. military relaunched a serious UFO effort in the 2000s, they renamed it UAP—”unidentified aerial phenomenon”—which was a term that was meant to both capture the idea that they might not be objects that people might be seeing things that are phenomenon, not objects.
How much did the Cold War factor into this?
The story of America’s early fascination with the UFOs is very much a story of early Cold War anxieties. Our initial concern as a government and as a military was actually less that these [UFOs] were aliens coming to earth. The U.S. was building its early rocket program on the backs of all of these captured Nazi rocket scientists, and our fear early on was very much that the Soviets had captured their own set of rocket scientists and were building their own rocket contraptions.
Have you noticed any similarities between what’s driving UFO conspiracy theories over the years and like what’s been driving political conspiracy theories?
I talk a bunch in the book about Bill Cooper, who is a major UFO conspiracist in the 1980s but then moves into rightwing news and conspiracy circles and becomes one of the defining mentors and inspirations for Alex Jones, the talk radio host. There is a pretty clear line that you can draw from UFO conspiracy theories right to January 6.
Was there a certain TV show or movie that did the most to shape popular conceptions of UFOs?
Certainly The X-Files of the 1990s is a real turning point. What really stands out is this idea that the government is hiding something, this idea that the government knows more about the origins of UFOs or contacts with other civilizations than we are being told. That is a theme that comes through early and strong in The X-Files and has done a lot to shape the public conception of a government conspiracy and cover-up ever since.
Who’s been the most UFO friendly politician?
The modern era of UFO research would not exist without Senator Harry Reid. A lot of different presidents played roles in the story. Gerald Ford, when he was Minority Leader in the House, actually pushed for the first congressional hearings on UFOs because he represented a district in Michigan that had a spate of sightings in the late 1960s. Bill Clinton pushed to make public some of the government’s knowledge of the events around Roswell and also was a champion for NASA’s efforts to study and uncover life beyond Earth. I don’t think we have seen a president who really embraced this subject or pushed it forward in all of the ways that a president can or could embrace this subject, but this story intersects the White House a lot more often than people think.
What about aliens?
The probabilities are, I believe, when you look into the math, incredibly high that there is life elsewhere in the universe. The probabilities are actually still pretty high that there’s probably intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The math gets really challenging about how far away intelligent life probably is from us. Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but it’s too far away for us to ever have either meaningful contact with or to ever have the opportunity to visit? How does that change our understanding of our own place in the universe? Those are much deeper and complex philosophical and spiritual questions. But the math is certainly on the side of the aliens.
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, I would argue, is criminally underfunded in terms of spending priorities in the U.S. government. And it’s hard to think of an area where the answers could be more interesting and more profound.