Matt Katz: Back with you on The Takeaway. I'm Matt Katz, in for Tanzina Vega. UFOs and the possible existence of extraterrestrial life have long been staples of our popular imagination, flying saucers and little green men, tinfoil hats, and crop circles, that sort of thing. People around the world have also long claimed sightings of UFOs. Like they say on the X-Files, many of us want to believe, including some of our listeners.
Listener 1: My uncle was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force in the 1960s. He said that there were plenty of things that were flying around that were unexplainable. He went on to tell me that the Air Force and various governmental agencies kept information from the public in an effort to avoid public panic.
Listener 2: I did think that I had once seen a UFO. I was working at X Games III in San Diego. Something was just flying around the sky. Everybody's looking up at it and it had an idea of, "Wow, is this how we find out?" It turned out to be a missile test gone awry.
Listener 3: I will say that I'm pretty confident that I and my father and my brother all saw the Loch Ness Monster so there are things we don't understand, but that doesn't mean that it's aliens.
Matt Katz: It's not just people like you and me intrigued by these mysterious objects in the sky, the US Government is too. Next month, intelligence agencies are expected to give a report to Congress about, quote, "Unidentified, aerial phenomena". This follows years of leaked photos and videos taken by Navy pilots, showing their interactions with said "unidentified aerial phenomena" in the US airspace.
Pilot: There’s a whole fleet of them. [unintelligible 00:01:45] My gosh, they’re all going against the wind, the wind is 120 knots to the west. Look at that thing dude.
Matt Katz: Jump aboard the mothership. We're ending the show with UFOs and here with us is Gideon Lewis-Kraus, staff writer at the New Yorker. He recently wrote about how the Pentagon started taking UFO seriously. Gideon, thanks so much for joining us.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: Thanks so much for having me, Matt.
Matt Katz: How long have UFOs been documented? You trace this history way back in your terrific article?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: There are plenty of people who trace it really far back. People have written books about how the Prophet Ezekiel's vision of heavenly wheels within wheels was actually an alien spaceship. Then there are cases of purported sightings from feudal era, Japan, and people who look through Renaissance imagery to see things that look like flying saucers in the background. As far as the modern era is concerned, it can be traced to the summer of 1947 when the word flying saucer came into circulation.
Matt Katz: Then what has happened since? Has our interest in UFOs just expanded exponentially, has it changed?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: What I found, and I had really no familiarity with any of this history before, I found it fascinating, that basically there've been three phases to- more or less three phases to America's response to UFOs. That from basically 1947 to 1970 what some people call the golden age of UFOs, they were something that were commonly talked about as perhaps not mainstream conversation but certainly not totally disreputable conversation.
They were on the covers of magazines and there were TV specials about them and the government was constantly saying contradictory things in public about them. Certainly, there were people in the government taking them very seriously. Then in the end of 1969, a report was issued that said that there's nothing here. This is just funk and nothing to see and everybody could be licensed to make fun of it.
From 1970 or so until 2017, it was just a fringe topic of the kinds of nutcases you were describing, and then in December of 2017, the New York Times publishes a big report about a secret Pentagon program that had been running from 2007 to 2012 that was officially looking into UFOs and since then, it's been back on the public agenda.
Matt Katz: You had reported that the Department of Defense had set up something called the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. What's their main purpose?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: That's a good question. As far as anybody knows, it's really just a couple of people in the Pentagon. This was announced last August and the idea is that they should be able to pull together different sets of disparate agency data. Geospatial data from one agency and acoustic data, maybe, from another agency to try to see what the government might be able to put together about what it does and doesn't know about uninvited incursions into our airspace.
Matt Katz: The big thing that's coming up, as I mentioned in the intro to the segment, US intelligence agencies are expected to give a report about UFOs to Congress next month. What kind of answers are they likely to get? Are we going to be able to read this report that is released?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: The first thing to mention here is that in a lot of the reporting has gotten lost that this really was just a recommendation made that there was no requirement that a report be produced. The expectation is still that there's going to be some report put together in conjunction with the Director of National Intelligence in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense's office to come out with something for the public and for Congress toward the middle or end of June.
Nobody I talk to really expects a whole lot from this report. Nobody thinks it's gonna reveal that we've been in secret touch with various intergalactic civilizations for the last 70 years. There's a possibility that there may be more videos or more data released. It certainly seems like anything interesting would probably be in a classified annex because they want to protect their sources and methods.
A lot of the stuff has to do with various kinds of secret surveillance systems that they don't necessarily want to reveal in public. Nobody has very high expectations, a lot of the UFO people are cautiously optimistic that this is a wedge that once this comes out, it will continue to snowball and there'll be increasing federal attention to the map.
Matt Katz: The UFO sightings that we often see there are similarities in terms of what people say they're looking at, but it seems to me that they're always relatively small. I'm curious if you came across any reported sightings that were maybe big, like I've never seen anybody talk about saying they saw something as big as like Darth Vader Sith, for example. Are they always relatively small? What people are saying they're seeing?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: No, not at all. There are plenty of reports of very big-- I wrote about one supposed encounter over the English Channel into the spring of 2007, when a pilot claims that he saw two disk-like objects glowing with a yellow light that were, in his estimation, up to a mile across.
In a sense, this is one of the problems for the real hardcore UFO people, is that these are seen in such different varieties that if one takes seriously the extraterrestrial hypothesis, which, of course, not everybody does and not everyone should. Then you're forced with the fact that like what then does this mean? Like that we've seen so many different varieties, so many different shapes, so many different colors, so many different sizes. That's just an additional problem to be solved here.
Matt Katz: For sure. You mentioned, and I should say that the fact that they're called UFOs does not mean that the people who are describing them as UFOs believe that there are aliens aboard, they are just literally unexplained flying objects. Unidentified flying objects.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus: Exactly. On one level, the question "are UFOs real" is completely trivial, right? Because, of course, there are things that are unidentified in the sky that we don't recognize. The question is, do they represent some kind of meaningful category of things?
Matt Katz: Exactly. Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a staff writer at the New Yorker. Gideon, we'll continue looking up at the sky. Thanks so much for joining us.
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