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The case for

Believing in aliens

US Navy footage of mysterious drones, March 2021

Barack Obama said last week that UFOs exist. Is he right?

What did Obama actually say?
The former president told James Corden on The Late Late Show about “footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are, we can’t explain their trajectory… people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is”.

Which people?
Senior ones. The US defence secretary and the director of national intelligence – America’s top spy – are due to deliver an unclassified report on unidentified flying objects to Congress shortly. They don’t call them UFOs, but “unidentified aerial phenomena”, or UAPs. Politico’s Alex Wickham says sources in the UK government confirm the report will be full of surprises. It “could become one of the stories of the summer”, he says, “or, indeed, the century”.

Who commissioned the report?
Donald Trump. When Congress passed the $2 trillion Covid stimulus bill late last year, he sneaked in a clause requiring what some call “the deep state” to reveal what it knows about the possible existence of aliens.

What will the report say?
The Pentagon recently confirmed the authenticity of grainy videos leaked from the US navy that show weird UFO-like goings-on – aircraft travelling at phenomenal speeds without any obvious means of propulsion and performing stunning manoeuvres at g-forces that would turn a human pilot to soup. There are apparently many more of these, picked up from around the world over several decades, just waiting to be declassified. According to one former Pentagon investigator, UAP sightings happen “on a daily basis”.

Could there be a simple explanation?
You might think so. But when former director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe was given the chance to dampen expectations over the new report, he did the opposite. “When we talk about sightings,” he told Fox News, “we are talking about objects that have been seen by navy or air-force pilots, or have been picked up by satellite imagery, that frankly engage in actions that are difficult to explain, movements that are hard to replicate, that we don’t have the technology for, or travelling at speeds that exceed the sound barrier without a sonic boom.” These aren’t just eyewitness accounts made by fallible human observers. “Usually, we have multiple sensors that are picking up these things,” said Ratcliffe.

It all sounds a bit X-Files…
It’s true that UFOs and alien cover-ups are loved by conspiracy theorists. One popular theory has it that a UFO crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947; vaguely humanoid aliens were recovered from the wreckage and taken to the famous Area 51. The debris, the theory goes, was given to private military contractors to unlock the secrets of alien technology before the Russians could. So far, so sci-fi. But the reality is just as strange. Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader from Nevada (home of Area 51), says he was told “for decades” that the retrieved materials were held by defence contractor Lockheed Martin. When he asked the Pentagon for security clearance to have a look, he was turned down.

What about the aliens?
Nobody knows. Obama says he asked about it when he got into office. “I was, like, all right, is there the lab somewhere where we’re keeping the alien specimens?” He says his team “did a little bit of research” and came back with a “no”. So it may be that these apparently physics-defying aircraft are using top-secret Chinese military technology the rest of us can’t even imagine. But former CIA director John Brennan, another highly respected analyst, told economist Tyler Cowen that “some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand, and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life”. Which is a roundabout way of saying he thinks it’s aliens.

Who else shares Brennan’s view?
Professor Haim Eshed, a retired general who once ran the Israeli defence ministry’s space directorate, goes one step further. He says extraterrestrial diplomats from a “galactic federation” have already been in touch with our earthly leaders, but asked them “not to publish that they are here” because humanity is “not ready yet”. Eshed told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that co-operation agreements have been signed in an “underground base in the depths of Mars” by US astronauts and alien representatives, allowing them to do “experiments” here. The aliens are apparently highly curious about human life and keen to improve their understanding of the “fabric of the universe”. Trump was well aware of all this, says Eshed, and was at one point “on the verge of revealing” it, but was talked out of it to prevent “mass hysteria”.

Sounds mad.
Indeed. But serious scientists have long believed in aliens, or at least in the overwhelming likelihood that they exist. After all, in our little corner of the universe, the Milky Way galaxy, there are between 100 billion and 400 billion stars. Billions of these will have planets in orbit with the rough conditions for life, and they’ve had billions of years to evolve. If anything, it’s weird that we haven’t seen more evidence of life elsewhere in the universe. As the American astronomer Carl Sagan put it: “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

👽 Oliver Cromwell’s brother-in-law Dr John Wilkins was convinced that the moon and the planets in the solar system were populated. He thought space travel would be beneficial for the English economy because we could trade goods with extraterrestrial societies, and tried to build a spaceship in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford, in the 1650s. It never got off the ground.

👽 While testing a top-secret experimental aircraft during the Second World War, American pilot Jack Woolams wore a gorilla suit and a bowler hat so that any witnesses who reported back would not be believed.