I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You’re receiving this email because you’re a paying subscriber who gets Friday editions. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 16 minutes.
Up until the 1960s, the idea that there was life in outer space was not especially controversial.
Scientists, astronomers, philosophers, writers, and thinkers of all kinds generally accepted this idea as fact. And they accepted it because the calculation, to them, was simple. Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch mathematician who is widely considered one of the greatest scientists of all time, completed the book Cosmotheoros in 1695 shortly before his death. “So many Suns, so many Earths, and every one of them stock’d with so many Herbs, Trees and Animals… even the little Gentlemen round Jupiter and Saturn,” he wrote.
Astronomers from the 1700s and 1800s all believed our solar system was brimming with life. Thomas Dick, the famous amateur astronomer, believed Saturn’s rings had 8 trillion individuals living in them. William Herschel proposed that trees were living on the moon. Carl Sagan published a paper shortly before the first fly-by of Mars, stating that “The present body of scientific evidence suggests, but does not unambiguously demonstrate, the existence of life on Mars. In particular, the photometrically observed waves of darkening which proceed from the vaporizing polar caps through the dark areas of the Martian surface have been interpreted in terms of seasonal biological activity.”
As Caleb Scharf put it in Scientific American, across human history, “the question of life beyond the Earth seems to have been less of ‘if’ and more of ‘what.’”
So what happened? Why, in modern times, has belief in alien life or “UFOs” or life outside Earth become more taboo? There are two principal causes. One is Mariner 4, the spacecraft that flew past Mars in 1964 and took pictures of the Martian surface, sending back photos of a cratered, dry, dead planet. The other was the phenomena of UFOs, or unidentified flying objects, which largely began in 1947 when businessman Kenneth Arnold claimed to witness nine high-speed objects near Mount Rainier, Washington, while flying his small plane.
Mariner 4’s fly-by was a bucket of ice water on hundreds of years of speculation about life on Mars. The UFOs, conversely, were so controversial and caused so much public interest, that everyone had an opinion. They also attracted thousands of quacks and hoaxes, which made it a lot easier for the government (and skeptics) to chalk it all up to misinterpretations of weather balloons, phenomena of light refractions, optical illusions, pranks and so forth.
But if pre-1960s was an era of widespread belief in extraterrestrial life, and the decades since have been a period where UFO sightings and belief in alien life were considered “out there,” this moment is one where the pendulum appears to be swinging back. The high-minded dismissal of anything that smells of little green men, and the immediate impulse to wave it off as conspiracy, is beginning to fade away.
Today, some 66 percent of Americans believe there is intelligent life on other planets, up 10 percent from just four years ago and nearly 20 percent from 20 years ago. 32 percent of Americans believe we’ll contact extraterrestrial life in our lifetimes, or already have. And 51 percent of Americans believe UFOs might sometimes be the result of alien spacecraft visiting earth.
Ironically, though, it’s the same institution that once rejected the original UFO believers, the same institution that dismissed them as whackos or unintelligent or confused, that’s now pouring gasoline on the fire of belief: the U.S. government.
UFOs are real.
Let’s get something out of the way, first: UFOs are real. This is an incontrovertible fact. The government — and scientists, skeptics and believers most generally — have recently taken to calling them Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). This is a more palatable and a less controversial framework for folks like military generals and Air Force pilots to operate in. It’s also a pretty reasonable recasting: “flying object” presupposed what people were seeing, while aerial phenomena describe the unknown. Still, the implication is the same: we have had repeated, well-documented, inexplicable aerial phenomena in the United States (and, importantly, across the globe).
For the purposes of this newsletter, and to play by the rules recently set on the topic, I’ll be mostly referring to UFOs as UAP for the remainder of this newsletter.
A few months ago, when I offhandedly mentioned my longstanding interest in UAP in Tangle, a reader wrote in and offered a worldview I very much appreciated: “Everyone gets one conspiracy theory,” they said. You can believe in a JFK assassination plot theory, or an original fake moon landing theory, or lizard people, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the government is covering up UAP. Everyone is allowed one — but the moment you have two or more, questions can reasonably be asked of your gullibility.
In this case, though, the government is no longer covering up UAP. And I’d no longer accept “belief” in something as clear-cut as UAP as “conspiracy theory.” But I want to be clear that I am a skeptic: my brother, who I cheerfully engage on this issue a lot, has all sorts of interesting and “out there” theories about alien contact with humans. Many of my friends are so desperate to believe that any UAP quickly morphs into an alien spaceship in their minds.
My views are different. I simply believe a few things at once: one, the odds of us being alone in the millions of galaxies we know about seem close to zero. Two, humans have been observing — with their five senses — an untold number of unexplainable phenomena we can only describe as “UAP” for eons. Three, in the modern era, the people with the most direct knowledge of these phenomena have been consistently cagey, inconsistent and — in some cases — have outright lied about the knowledge they have.
Does that mean UAP are aliens? No. It could be military technology we’re not privy to. It could be military technology that isn’t ours. It could be tricks of the mind, or natural phenomena so rare we don’t yet understand them or can’t observe consistently. But what’s absolutely true is that we are observing them, that well-qualified people are becoming less shy about sharing their thoughts, and that the credible evidence so many of us have been longing for is continuing to grow.
Anyone with an internet connection can go down the rabbit hole of UAP sightings. But, for the uninitiated, I’ll give a brief history of how we got to 2017, which was a watershed year for UAP.
The aforementioned Kenneth Arnold is the Original UFO Guy. Most people are probably familiar with his story: he saw nine objects flying in the sky near Mount Rainier, and he told the press the objects were moving at thousands of miles per hour. He also described their maneuvers as “saucers skipping on water,” which many people misinterpreted as the shape of the aircraft, and which launched the flying saucer craze.
In the years after Arnold’s sighting, thousands of people claimed to witness UAP across the United States. It wasn’t just aerial phenomena, it became a cultural phenomenon.
In 1947, a rancher named William “Mac” Brazel said he discovered 200 yards of wreckage about 30 miles outside of Roswell, New Mexico on the Foster ranch. The timing of when Brazel first noticed the wreckage is murky, but the outlines of what happened next are generally understood: he alerted neighbors who lived eight miles away. Phoneless, he then traveled to Roswell, to report the incident to a local sheriff. The sheriff alerted Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) officer Jesse Marcel. Marcel and a team visited the ranch, moved the wreckage back to Roswell, then released this statement:
The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff's office of Chaves County.
The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the sheriff's office, who in turn notified Maj. Jesse A. Marcel of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence Office.
Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher's home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters
Not long after, the statement was retracted, the Army held a press conference with the wreckage, and a group of officials presented the debris to the press and explained the confusion over what — at the time — they said was a weather balloon. Today, we are fairly confident, if not 100 percent certain, that the Roswell incident was a cover-up — but not of alien technology. Instead, the U.S. military was testing a nuclear monitoring balloon, which they didn’t want the public to know. The “disc” was actually a hexagonal kite hanging from the balloon. The Roswell theory, though one of the most probed incidents of UAP in American history, is also probably the most debunked (and could fill a newsletter of its own).
Nevertheless, the incident sparked curiosity and skepticism about the government’s story — which has been tremendously valuable in pursuing the truth about UAP.
Shortly after, the UAP claims poured in. To manage the surge of interest, the U.S. government commissioned Project Blue Book, a project to investigate UAP that was run by low-level officers and UFO skeptics who were essentially called in to debunk and tamp down the mania. Indeed, some 95 percent of all UAP were easily explainable: weather balloons, bizarre cloud formations, atmospheric events, far-off planets, or classified military technology.
In 1948, for instance, Air Force pilot Thomas Mantell died while pursuing a “metallic object of tremendous size,” as he reported over the radio. He attempted a climb to 20,000 feet to pursue the object, which he could not close in on, even at a speed of 360 miles per hour. His last radio transmission was a notice that the “object (is) going up and forward as fast as I am.” His plane crashed shortly after over Franklin, Kentucky. Project Blue Book concluded that he was pursuing a classified Skyhook balloon (after it initially said he was pursuing Venus or a comet).
That same year, two pilots on an Eastern Airlines DC-3 plane described a cigar-shaped light speeding through the sky at a velocity they couldn’t comprehend, before making an abrupt turn and vanishing into the air. A pilot in a second plane and witnesses on the ground gave “compatible accounts.” The pilots described seeing windows on the object as it passed them.
In 1950, a baseball manager named Nicholas Mariana filmed UAP on his 16mm color camera. Project Blue Book was called in, and Mariana has long maintained that — after he turned over the footage — it was returned to him with critical pieces that showed disc-shaped objects either removed or damaged.
In 1952, a series of UAP violated restricted airspace above the White House. A headline in The Times documented the event: “Flying Objects Near Washington Spotted By Both Pilots And Radar: Air Force Reveals Reports Of Something, Perhaps ‘Saucers,’ Traveling Slowly But Jumping Up And Down.” The Air Force downplayed the incident at the time, but the historical record shows they actually scrambled fighter jets to intercept the trespassers. Major General John Samford, head of the U.S. Air Force’s intelligence apparatus, consequently held a major press conference in which he told reporters “a certain percentage of this volume of reports that have been made by credible observers of relatively incredible things.”
It was in the midst of this that Project Blue Book and the “Robertson panel,” an investigative team led by the CIA’s Howard P. Robertson, came into being. Then, as it is now, the interest in UAP was driven primarily by national security concerns. Robertson did not believe in aliens passing through our skies — he believed the deluge of flying saucer and UAP reports were a threat to national security because they obscured actual potential threats from the Soviet Union and their spy planes.
These sightings, and the subsequent explanations, have persisted since the very first few years after Kenneth Arnold’s story became a topic of national interest. Between 1947 and 1969, Project Blue Book kept an official record of over 12,000 UAP. Some 700 of those incidents, or about five percent, remain unexplained, according to the official government story.
“(1) no UFO reported, investigated, and evaluated by the Air Force has ever given any indication of threat to our national security,” the Air Force wrote about Project Blue Book in 1985. “(2) there has been no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as ‘unidentified’ represent technological developments or principles beyond the range of present-day scientific knowledge; and (3) there has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as ‘unidentified’ are extraterrestrial vehicles.”
One of those 700 unexplained incidents includes the photos taken by Paul and Evelyn Trent in McMinnville, Oregon, on May 11 of 1950. The husband and wife were farmers in Oregon. Evelyn was feeding her rabbits when she spotted something in the sky and called on her husband to get his camera (remember, at the time, reports of flying saucers were spreading like wildfire). Paul ran into the house, got his camera, and snapped two photos. The photos weren’t developed until May 14, when the roll of film was finished on Mother’s Day. The Trents gave an account of the incident to an Oregon radio station and were quoted in The Oregonian. These are the two photos, with the second magnified:
The Trents never made any money off of the photos, nor did they sell any books or promote themselves. They turned the negatives of the photographs over to a local reporter, Bill Powell, who examined them and said they did not appear to be altered or manufactured in any way. In June of 1950, Powell published a story declaring “At Long Last—Authentic Photographs Of Flying Saucer[?]”
The negatives were then sent to the International News Service and eventually Life Magazine. They were published widely, and the Trents were promised they’d be returned, but they never were (Life magazine editors claimed the negatives were misplaced).
But in 1967, the negatives were discovered at the United Press International news service, which had merged with INS years before. Without notifying the Trents, the negatives were then turned over to Dr. William K. Hartmann, who was working for a government-funded UAP research project and he investigated whether the Trents’ photos were authentic.
“This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical, appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses,” Hartmann wrote. He also wrote that the photos could have been manufactured. “The object appears beneath a pair of wires, as is seen in Plates 23 and 24. We may question, therefore, whether it could have been a model suspended from one of the wires. This possibility is strengthened by the observation that the object appears beneath roughly the same point in the two photos, in spite of their having been taken from two positions… These tests do not rule out the possibility that the object was a small model suspended from the nearby wire by an unresolved thread.”
Between the end of Project Blue Book and 2017, sightings of UAP continued. They mostly followed a similar pattern and resolved in one of two ways: someone sees something odd, takes photos and videos of it, and it is either immediately debunked, or persists with great controversy.
But 2017 was a watershed year for UAP, primarily due to the work of Leslie Kean, a dogged independent journalist whose writing on the subject was recently featured in a New Yorker article. Kean has been applying journalistic principles of integrity to the exploration of UAP for decades, including her 2010 best-selling book “UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record.” In 2017, though, her work was legitimized in a way it never had been before when she published a front page story in The New York Times, alongside two Times journalists, revealing that the Pentagon had been secretly running a UAP tracking program for 10 years (while saying publicly that Project Blue Book and others like it had been shut down).
Her front page story included two videos recorded by Navy pilots featuring “unidentified aerial phenomena,” which is why we are now all calling them UAP.
Since the release of that story, the floodgates have opened. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who served on the Select Committee on Intelligence, has said definitively that “we don’t know what it is” and “it isn’t ours.” Harry Reid, the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader, has long acknowledged his interest in and curiosity about UFOs or UAP. In the wake of the Times story, Reid was quoted as saying he believed downed UFOs were essentially being hoarded somewhere. He later clarified that he did not believe crash debris was being collected by military personnel somewhere, but that if any UFOs had crashed, we should be studying them.
“I was told for decades that Lockheed had some of these retrieved materials,” he told The New Yorker. “And I tried to get, as I recall, a classified approval by the Pentagon to have me go look at the stuff. They would not approve that. I don’t know what all the numbers were, what kind of classification it was, but they would not give that to me.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan has fueled even more speculation with his own unconvincing explanations and pseudo denials. “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,” he said in a recent interview.
Skeptics have responded to the latest spate of government disclosures with familiar scorn. Many have said we are, in essence, witnessing the regurgitation of old claims and old evidence of events that occurred years ago. In some respects that’s true: the Navy videos being declassified are old; some had even been leaked previously and are only now being confirmed as authentic. But the idea that we’re only witnessing new examples of old phenomena is nonsense.
This May, literally three weeks ago, the “conspiracy” websites Mystery Wire and Extraordinary Beliefs published sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena. They described them as variously spherical, acorn, pyramid, or metallic blimp shaped. The photos and videos were compelling, but immediately dismissed. Until the Department of Defense spokesperson Sue Gough confirmed their authenticity to CBS News.
That the U.S. military so quickly confirmed the contents of something published on a niche website like Mystery Wire is no small thing — and speaks to the stunning cultural shift on UAP we are living through right now.
Last week, 60 Minutes did a special on UAP, where they interviewed former military officials and Navy pilots, including one who claimed to see UAP almost every single day. One of the videos featured by CBS, of a “green pyramid,” had gone viral thanks to previous leaks. Here is a screenshot:
The sum total of what’s happened in this space in the last four years is hard to quantify. But the upshot is that the government is, for the first time, destigmatizing pilots, witnesses, officials, leakers and other “believers” who have questions about what they have seen in our skies (or, in the case of a recent disclosure, an aircraft that we pursued until it plunged into the ocean).
Cabot Phillips, a reporter at The Daily Wire, recently summed up the absurdity of what we’ve learned in a recent Twitter thread. I’m going to quote it, in part, below:
So, I know everyone's afraid of looking like a crazy person, but I can’t believe the new UFO report from the Pentagon isn't a bigger deal. Our government says there are crafts that ‘outstrip our arsenal by at least 100 years to 1,000 years at the moment’ and we're like ‘meh...’ The former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence literally said the crafts we’re seeing are ‘far beyond anything that we’re capable of…There’s nothing we could build that would be strong enough to endure that amount of force and acceleration.’
There were so many sightings the Pentagon confirmed that they created a top secret program to investigate UFO’s. The USS Princeton and USS Nimitz tracked an aircraft that traveled 60 miles in 3-4 seconds, after being confronted by an F-18 fighter squadron in the Pacific.
‘Imagine a technology that can do 700 g-forces, fly 13,000 mph, evade radar… And has no obvious signs of propulsion... and yet still can defy the effects of Earth’s gravity. That’s precisely what we’re seeing.” — Director of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program
We’re just now finding out there have been so many sightings by our military that the Senate Intel committee is holding a public hearing next month because it’s a ‘national security threat.’ People seem to be taking three different stances here: 1) It's advanced U.S. technology being tested. 2) It's China or some other foreign military 3) It's other-worldly.
If it is the United States: 1. Why would we spend hundreds of millions of dollars investigating sightings of our own crafts? 2. Why would our govt release footage of the incidents? I guess it could be a ‘look at us’ to other militaries, but wouldn’t it tip our hand?
If it is China: 1. Confirmed sightings date to 2004, long before China had their new tech boom. How'd they keep this tech secret for 17 years? 2. Why hasn’t that level of tech been seen elsewhere in China? (Their submarines and carriers are archaic compared to the U.S.)
If it’s something other-worldly: 1. Setting aside that it’s totally irrational, if they/it are this far ahead of us, wouldn’t they be able to avoid detection? 2. If they’ve been here on/off for 20 years, why haven’t they done anything yet?
I know we've all spent years laughing at anyone who brings up UFOs, but if the U.S. military and intelligence community is to the point where they’re calling it a national security threat, it’s probably time to take them seriously. This quote from Naval Commander David Fravor should underscore the seriousness of the topic: ‘I don't know who's building it, who's got the technology, who's got the brains. But there's something out there that was better than our airplanes.’
You can laugh, but these are serious, highly trained people talking about why we should care… The Pentagon said they released the videos because they ‘didn’t reveal any sensitive information or capabilities.’ Which makes me wonder about the videos that DO reveal sensitive information or capabilities that haven't been released.. Also, Obama came out last night and (after years of silence on the matter) says: ‘We can't explain how they move, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern...we don't know exactly what they are.’
There are reasonable criticisms of all of this.
The green pyramids CBS featured on its 60 Minutes special are perhaps the most easily explainable. They could just be the effect of a night vision camera with a triangular iris picking up a 747 jet overhead. In the famous photos from the Oregon farm, featured above, skeptics have long declared a hoax due to visible wires around what they claim is a model UFO. Their claims are bolstered by an examination of the way the light is hitting the model compared to the rest of the photo.
"There could be a possible discrepancy in view of the fact that the UFO, the telephone pole, possibly the garage at the left, and especially the distant house gables (left of the distant barn) are illuminated from the right, or east,” Hartmann wrote in his examination. “The house, in particular, appears to have a shadow under its roof that would suggest a daylit photo, and combined with the eastward incidence, one could argue that the photos were taken on a dull, sunlit day at, say, 10 a.m.”
One of Leslie Kean’s most prominent UAP reports is about an event at Chicago O’Hare airport. In it, scores of witnesses claimed to see a disc-like feature in the sky that disappeared in seconds, though no photos were taken and nothing appeared on the radar — despite it occurring at one of the busiest airports in America. Robert Sheaffer, a prominent UFO skeptic, explained the event as a hole-punch cloud, and deconstructed Kean’s denial of that explanation in convincing fashion on his blog.
In another claim from a 2012 article titled “UFO Caught on Tape Over Santiago Air Base,” Kean described a “dome-shaped, flat bottomed object with no visible means of propulsion.” Debunkers quickly — and convincingly — argued that the video actually showed an insect of some kind passing closely across a camera lens.
Nearly every tale of unexplained aerial phenomena has a competing tale of explainable phenomena. One common refrain from believers is how so many of the latest revelations are coming from highly trained pilots serving in the Navy or Air Force. As convincing as that is on the surface, though, the truth is a bit more malleable. Pilots make mistakes and see things that aren’t there all the time, and explaining how you’re spotting something you don’t recognize gets even more convoluted when you’re traveling at the speed of sound.
Michael Hampshire, a UFO skeptic and former Air Force pilot, reacted to a trio of compelling videos released by the Navy in 2019.
“It was interesting. They obviously saw something — but it’s a matter of what it is,” he said. “You see unusual things all the time as a pilot. But one thing that was lacking that I didn’t see in any of their tapes was range info. They had info about direction, where things were going, but not how far away they were. Without that, you can’t be sure how large or how fast they are… Things get reported all the time. For instance, a lot of pilots mistake Venus for another airplane. Venus is usually low on the horizon, so the refraction off the atmosphere causes it to flash red and green like an airplane. When I was in the Air Force, I was flying one night in Florida when the moon looked really strange. It came up really low so it looked a lot bigger because of the atmosphere. That night, somebody reported the moon as a UFO.”
In 1950, Frank Scully published a book called Behind the Flying Saucers, and suggested the U.S. government was holding onto a flying saucer and its dead occupants in New Mexico. Scully was the victim of a prank.
Most, indeed nearly all, UAP sightings can be easily explained by people who are trained to understand them. Some believe the current U.S. military embrace of UAP is a play for more funding, or an opportunity to distract the public, or a chance to confuse rivals about our emerging technology. Others believe it’s not our military, but China’s or Russia’s, and we are simply witnessing them test our air space. Each, in its own way, is just as plausible as the otherworldly theories held by those seeing unexplainable aerial phenomena.
In 2021, language inserted into the Intelligence Authorization Act gave the government five months to gather, analyze and release data on its findings around UAP. This disclosure, which is expected in the coming weeks, could be one of the biggest pullbacks on UAP in global history — if the U.S. military goes through with it.
“When we talk about sightings,” John Ratcliffe, the former director of national intelligence, said on 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 traveling at speeds that exceed the sound barrier without a sonic boom… Usually, we have multiple sensors that are picking up these things.”
The 2017 Times cover story exposed $22 million being spent on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. And now, the country is bracing for The Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force report, which will be delivered to Congress next month. The report will be compiled by the director of national intelligence and secretary of defense. In the government’s telling, it will attempt to update the public on “what the Pentagon knows about unidentified flying objects and data analyzed from such encounters.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued. Intrigued enough that I’m planning to follow along closely. I’ve been teasing many of you about the potential for another newsletter or podcast, one with a focus on the latest UFO/UAP news, and that interest has morphed into an actual plan — one that starts with gauging your actual interest.
So, if you’re intrigued too — skeptic or believer — and you’d like to follow along, consider signing up by clicking the button below. If there’s enough interest, we’re going to pursue this weekly endeavor for some fun, but also in an effort to get to the truth: