• Science
  • Space

How NASA Got a ‘UFO Czar’—And Why it Matters

7 minute read

The real czars may be long gone, but for decades, the White House has been doing a good job of keeping the role—or at least the honorific—alive, appointing a director to oversee a particular task or issue, and bestowing the title along with it. We’ve had the Ebola Czar, the Drug Czar, the Budget Czar, the Climate Czar, and more. Yesterday, at a press conference at NASA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, the space agency gave the old role a new look, appointing the country’s, and indeed the world’s, first-ever UFO Czar. Only NASA didn’t use either one of those terms.

For starters, fewer and fewer people—or at least those who want to be taken seriously—talk about UFOs, or unidentified flying objects, anymore; there’s too much of a Big Foot, Loch Ness Monster, moon-landings-were-faked feel to the label. The preferred term now is UAP, for unidentified anomalous (or, variously, aerial) phenomenon. And NASA didn’t use the label czar either—another too-loose term for work that the space agency wants to keep solemn and serious. Instead, the full name for the new job is director of UAP research, and the man tapped to do the work is Mark McInernay, a former Pentagon liaison for NASA, who, for the better part of 25 years, has been on the government science beat, serving in multiple positions at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; the National Hurricane Center; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

It will be McInernay’s job to study the sightings, advancing science if the vehicles are confirmed to be extraterrestrial, and protecting national security if they’re of international military origin. He’ll have a lot to work with. Over the past 20 years, there have been more than 120 sightings of objects that often appear to be flying with no identified means of propulsion, and maneuvering in quick, head-snapping, often stop-and-start ways that no conventional machines can manage. It helps that the sightings have been called in by witnesses most people think of as unimpeachably reliable: U.S. military pilots.

“Look at that thing, dude!” one pilot shouted, in a cockpit video recorded in 2015 and released by the Department of Defense in 2020. “Oh my gosh. There’s a whole fleet of them. They’re going against the wind! The wind’s 120 knots [135 mph] west!”

The official interest in UAPs goes back a long way. In 2007, Congress established the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program Task Force to look into the phenomena. The group reached few conclusions, however, and was disbanded in 2012 due to lack of funding. But the sightings kept coming in, and in June 2020, as part of a sprawling COVID-19 relief bill, then-President Donald Trump called on the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense to have their staff collaborate on a study of their own. Their report landed just under a year later, and again the findings were unsatisfying—at least for people looking for intelligent life off the planet. There was no evidence that the objects were extraterrestrial in origin but no proof that they weren’t either. The idea that they were friendlies—classified U.S. military vehicles out for a beta-test spin—was ruled out, though if they were indeed classified, it’s unlikely that the chiefs of intelligence and defense would spill the beans. It was possible, the analysis concluded, that the vehicles were either Russian or Chinese, as both countries are known to be experimenting with hypersonic technology, but that was little more than a guess. The unidentified objects thus remained just that—unidentified.

So it fell to NASA. In October 2022, the space agency independently announced it was establishing its own UAP study team, charging the group not with figuring out what the flying objects are, but rather, with establishing some kind of research and reporting program going forward. Three months later, the names of the panel’s 16 members were announced—including retired astronaut Scott Kelly, who in 2015 and 2016 spent nearly a year aboard the International Space Station; Anamaria Berea, a research affiliate with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif.; and David Grinspoon a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz.

Yesterday, before the press conference, the team released its 33-page report. Among other things, the report called on NASA to work together with other branches of government, using its expertise in space technology to help determine what both previously seen and future UAPs are. The panelists also recommended leaning on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and satellite observations to better look for—and explain—the objects. The report did call for the selection of a single person at NASA to oversee all this work, and NASA agreed, announcing that a director of UAP research had indeed been tapped, but conspicuously declining to release his name—at least at first—out of concern for his safety.

“One of the bigger things that happened during our study [was that people] harassed some of our panel members and that is very inappropriate behavior,” said David Spergel, the chairman of the study and the head of the Simons Foundation, a New York-based group that funds work in mathematics and the basic sciences. “Sadly, I think it's part of a deeper problem…on the web on social media.” But the secret couldn’t stay a secret. Repeatedly pressed by reporters during the media event, NASA decided within 24 hours to release McInernay’s name. 

The fact that we are here at all—with the world’s most accomplished space agency undertaking investigations that could eventually, at least in theory, point toward the discovery of intelligent alien life—is not as improbable as it seems. For years, brand names in the world of politics have been stepping forward to admit that there is something head-scratching about all that mysterious atmospheric traffic. In 2021, Harry Reid, who was Majority Leader of the Senate in 2007 when the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program Task Force was established, told The Guardian: “I believe it’s just as if we were starting airplanes. Airplanes were not understood very quickly. UFOs fascinate people who are pilots, physicists, because they can’t understand how these UFOS have no vapor trail, no lights on them, yet they can go so fast, so quickly.”

During her 2016 presidential campaign, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to a question from a reporter about what she would do to investigate UAPs if she were elected. “I want to open the files as much as we can,” she answered. “There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up.” For this bit of candor, she was dubbed “the first E.T. candidate” on social media. In 2021, former President Barack Obama was asked about UAPs by talk show host James Corden and responded, “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are.”

Given cover by those big names, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson yesterday stepped up to offer his view of the possibility of life in space without even having to be asked by the press. “There’s a global fascination with UAP,” he said. “Now, NASA has a statutory authority to look for life in the universe. Do I believe there's life in a universe that is so vast that it's hard for me to comprehend how big it is? My personal answer is yes.”

Whether his answer is the right answer is unknown for now—but NASA is on the case. The same agency that, in 1961, was given nine years to put boots on the moon and stuck the landing in 1969, has an open door and no deadline this go-round. An abundance of time—and an abundance of possible E.T. evidence—could lead to extraordinary findings. 

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com