If NASA has to keep investigating UFO claims, it should get more budget for that

I would also like several million dollars to study UFOs, if we’re just flinging cash around. | Photo by Win McNamee / Getty Images

First of all, let’s be clear: NASA’s new report on so-called unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP) says there’s “no conclusive evidence suggesting an extraterrestrial origin.” They’re going to create a director of UAP research anyway, just to get to the bottom of things.

UAPs, by the way, are the polite government name for what we normal people call UFOs, or unidentified flying objects. I don’t really have a problem with further investigations into UFOs — it seems like a nice jobs program for scientists. But let’s be clear about what’s happening here: this is a government agency that’s noticed UFO boosters are in Congress, and it wants some damn funding.

Why do I say that? Well, I read the report, and I noticed this tactful bit:

The scientific processes used by NASA encourage critical thinking; NASA can model for the public how to best approach the study of UAP, by utilizing transparent reporting, rigorous analysis, and public engagement.

Uh-huh. So what NASA is proposing is, essentially, MythBusters for aliens. I hope they do a fun public access show.

Look, I don’t think we’re alone in the universe. I suspect that, at minimum, there’s probably plenty of bacteria on habitable planets. The question of whether there’s intelligent life is a trickier one, but I am a little skeptical because I’m not even sure we’ve got intelligent life on earth. I am very doubtful that UFOs or UAPs, or whatever we want to call them, are aliens — I think it’s likelier there’s some weird shit going on we haven’t yet explained because, folks, (a) the planet itself is weird and (b) so are human brains.

But one thing that’s sustained “it’s aliens!” conspiracy theories is stonewalling. This tends to be used as evidence by the true believers that they just don’t want you to know. And so when I see stuff like the Pentagon forming a task force to look into UFOs, I tend to think that’s a corrective measure: “Hey, you want us to see if there are aliens? Okay, we’ll look.” That’s part of what you see in NASA’s news release, too: “NASA will do this work transparently for the benefit of humanity,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a press release.

Most UFO (or UAP, or whatever you want to call them) sightings don’t have real data behind them. I don’t mean that as a knock — that’s what Nelson said in a press conference. That’s one of the challenges here! A lot of military pilots claim to have seen weird stuff while flying. I believe they did! I just don’t know what they saw. It could be anything — secret spy planes from some other country, weather balloons, bizarre atmospheric phenomena, or something else we haven’t yet figured out.

And you know, getting data takes funding, and NASA’s budget is decided by Congress. If Congress is into UFOs, then why shouldn’t NASA get some budget for that? Makes sense, great administrative decision, hats off to management. Nelson wants to shift the conversation about UFOs “from sensationalism to science,” he said in the press conference. And you know what science always needs more of? Money.

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