Jimmy Carter waited four years before he at last went public with the news that he’d seen a UFO. It was in 1969, when Carter was a private citizen—between his service as a Georgia state senator and the governor of the state—that he saw a mysteriously luminous object hanging in the sky one night after attending a Lion’s Club meeting. Carter kept the sighting to himself, deciding only in 1973 to file his report with the International UFO Bureau in Oklahoma.
The verdict? Nothing to see here. A little basic astronomical forensics revealed that what Carter saw on that date and at that spot in the sky was Venus—whose extreme luminosity has fooled no shortage of UFO believers before.
Carter is not the only prominent public official who has shown an interest in what are now more decorously referred to as “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP). In 2016, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, when asked in an interview about UAP, responded: “I don’t know. I want to see what the information shows. There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up.”
In 2021, former President Barack Obama responded to a similar question, saying, “There’s footage and records of objects in the skies…We can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory. And so, I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is.”
Yesterday, the House Oversight subcommittee on National Security, the Border and Foreign Affairs, took the matter seriously indeed, holding a day-long meeting with multiple witnesses, most conspicuously former Air Force Major David Grusch—a man who had quite a story to tell. In 2019, Grusch was asked to lead a government task force on UAP sightings. It was not a frivolous assignment. U.S. Navy pilots and other American military forces have reported more than 650 instances of flying objects moving in all manner of ways that defy conventional aeronautical physics—loop-the-looping, changing directions with a nimbleness no existing technology could manage. None produced detectable exhaust. Some turned with a suddenness that would have produced deadly g-forces to any human who might be aboard. In 2020, the Pentagon released videos of three of the Navy sightings, confirming that whatever the UAP are, they’re very real.
But Grusch’s testimony contained a lot more than claims of unexplained sightings. According to the witness, the U.S. military has for decades been in possession of the remains of crashed UAPs and has long been at work trying to reverse-engineer them. Not only that, the government recovered “nonhuman biologics” and has been aware of “non-human” activity since the 1930s.
Astonishing claims—so where to begin? Rep. Glenn Grothman, (R, Wis.), chairman of the panel, tried humor. “Welcome to the most exciting subcommittee in Congress this week,” he said.
But there wasn’t a lot of laughter after that, especially as Grusch’s testimony unfolded and holes—often gaping ones—appeared in his sourcing. He was told of the crash-retrieval and reverse-engineering project in the course of his work leading the task force on UAP sightings, but he was “denied access” to the actual program. He faced retaliation even before the hearings when he spoke publicly about his discoveries, but provided no details on what that retaliation involved. He claimed to know of “multiple colleagues” who were injured by UAP activities but again offered no specifics. To provide more information than he already had, he claimed, would reveal classified information.
As my colleague Nik Popli reported, the military was quick to jump on Grusch’s allegations. To date, said Pentagon spokeswoman Sue Gough in a statement to TIME, the Department of Defense (DoD) “has not discovered any verifiable information to substantiate claims that any programs regarding the possession or reverse-engineering of extraterrestrial materials have existed in the past or exist currently. The Department is fully committed to openness and accountability to the American people…DoD is also committed to timely and thorough reporting to Congress."
That doesn’t mean the 650 sightings of UAPs don’t bear looking into—especially, many lawmakers and military personnel argue, if they represent advanced military technology deployed by adversarial nations like Russia or China. “If UAP are foreign drones, it is an urgent national security problem,” testified U.S. Navy fighter pilot Ryan Graves at yesterday’s hearing. Graves said he once encountered a UAP off the coast of Virginia Beach during a training exercise. “If it is something else, it is an issue for science.”
And science is where things get awfully tricky—especially when it comes to how and why E.T. would be coming to our particular spot in the universe. There are up to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way—virtually every one of which is circled by at least one planet, and many by multiple planets like our own solar system. Our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across; a single light year is just shy of 9 trillion km (6 trillion mi.). Unless Einstein is wrong—and he hasn’t been yet—nothing can exceed light speed, and merely approaching it would take an astonishing degree of technological achievement.
Now take all of those figures and multiply them by two trillion—or the number of galaxies that observations by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have estimated are in the universe. That makes for an awful lot of planets and an awful lot of cosmic real estate for a visiting spacecraft to cover just to come to our little world.
Perhaps our planet is of particular interest to an exceedingly intelligent civilization because we ourselves are a form of intelligent life. But the only signs of that intelligence would be the radio, TV, and other electromagnetic transmissions we’ve been beaming into space since the first radio signal was sent in 1895. Those signals travel at light speed, meaning that even in 2023, no civilization outside of a cosmic envelope of 128 light years—awfully close to home—would know we’re here.
Maybe such smart cosmic neighbors do exist. Maybe they’ve actually managed to cook up near-light speed technology. Maybe they’ve indeed been visiting us since the 1930s. Maybe the government does know all about it, and—never mind the inveterate leakiness of Washington intelligence—has managed to keep a near-perfect secret for close to a century. Line up all of those maybes—improbable as each one is—and maybe Grusch has a compelling story to tell. But science tends to prefer simple answers, because they’re the ones that are usually correct. We may not yet have an explanation for what UAPs are—and we should indeed be investigating the question. But we ought to have a pretty good hunch about what they’re not.
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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at email@example.com