UFOs are back. Or perhaps better put, interest in UFOs is again on the rise.
For most of a generation—from 1987 to 2015—media coverage of unidentified flying objects measurably declined. In the past couple of years, though, television, newspapers, and social media have made mysterious aerial sightings and the possibility of visitors from outer space big news again. Why the sudden resurgence?
A handful of events helped drive the new interest. Although unrelated, these events have been mutually reinforcing; that is, stories written about any one of them typically mention the others, leaving the impression that they add up to a single, developing narrative.
The first event, and the spark that ignited today’s UFO revival, came in December 2017, when the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico all reported that from 2007 to 2012, the Pentagon funded a secret program to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects. The program certainly wasn’t the first of its kind—there have been numerous government fact-finding efforts dating back to the 1940s. But this latest one had never been disclosed to the public.
The Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP, as it was eventually designated, was charged with investigating sightings (mostly by U.S. military personnel) and determining whether any of the reported objects posed a threat to national security.
The program came about at the request of former Nevada senator Harry Reid, who had a long-standing interest in UFOs and who at the time was Senate majority leader. With support from two other influential senators, Ted Stevens of Alaska (who had had his own UFO experience as an Army Air Forces pilot during World War II) and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Reid arranged for funding to be inserted in the defense appropriations bill for investigating unexplained aerial phenomena.
There was nothing new or unusual about a prominent politician ordering up a UFO investigation. The question of “what’s really going on up there” has drawn bipartisan attention for decades, from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter (who as Georgia governor once filed a UFO report) to Hillary Clinton.
All told, it was estimated that AATIP spent around $22 million during its five years of Pentagon funding. As part of the investigation, the defense department contracted with Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace—hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow is a friend of Reid with a shared interest in UFOs—to explore the possibility of reverse-engineering any craft that was imaged or captured.
Bigelow won the contract, Reid explained to New York magazine interviewer Eric Benson in 2018, because he’d already been researching the subject for years and “had spent his own money first.” Today, Bigelow’s company is best known for designing inflatable space habitats for future astronauts and space tourists. (See “The Future of Construction in Space,” September 2015.) But for the past quarter century or so, Bigelow has been deeply involved in researching UFOs and paranormal phenomena, first through his National Institute for Discovery Science and then at his 480-acre Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. As he explained in a “60 Minutes” interview in May 2017, he is “absolutely convinced” Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials.