In 1977, more and more people started writing to the White House to say they’d seen “flying saucers” zipping through the sky. Movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had just come out and interest in life beyond Earth was at a fever pitch.
NASA was asked by the U.S. government to answer the letters and consider opening an official investigation given the number of questions, the New York Times reported that December.
The agency agreed to handle the letters, but not so much an investigation.
“We’re a physics agency here,” David Williamson, an assistant administrator for special projects at NASA, was quoted as saying. “We would have to have, in evidentiary form, something physical to work with.”
Nearly 50 years later, things have changed.
On Thursday, the agency said it had hired a director of research dedicated solely to the study of “unidentified anomalous phenomena,” or UAPs — a more modern term for UFOs. The new role was created after an independent report commission by NASA recommended the agency can, and should, do more to investigate what may or may not be flying overhead.
“This is the first time that NASA has taken concrete action to seriously look into UAP,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a highly anticipated news conference Thursday.
Many researchers and astrophysicists said they were glad to hear NASA is taking research of UAPs more seriously, hoping the endorsement from an official government agency might validate their field of study and bring it into the mainstream.
Avi Loeb, an astrophysics professor at Harvard University, has spent years researching the skies. He’s written more than 1,000 academic articles on black holes, the first stars, the search for extraterrestrial life, and the “future of the universe,” as his biography puts it.
He said he believes more official research is essential.
“It’s the civic duty of scientists to attend to this phenomenon, try and explain it, and if we end up finding that all the objects are either natural or human-made, so be it,” he said in an interview Thursday. “But … there is a small chance that we might find something from outside of this Earth, in which case it will change the future of humanity.”
Loeb leads the Galileo Project at Harvard, which is trying to bring data on UAPs from “accidental or anecdotal observations and legends to the mainstream of transparent, validated and systematic scientific research.”
He says judgment has been a barrier in his area of study.
“Definitely, within the military, [stigma] posed a big challenge because pilots and military personnel were afraid of reporting about it,” he said. “Now it seems like there is a procedure of reporting but still … it’s regarded as a fringe activity, and that should change because the public cares about it, the government cares about it.”
On Thursday, NASA declined to release the name of its new research director for more than seven hours. Dan Evans, a senior research official in NASA’s science unit, said that decision was made in part because other panel members had been harassed and threatened by the public while working on the report.
The new director was later identified as former defence liaison Mark McInerney, alongside an official plea to “treat him with respect.”
Elsewhere in its report, NASA said artificial intelligence could be an essential tool to help identify unusual objects by crunching immense amounts of data. The agency also said researchers could speed up the hunt by capitalizing on technology that already exists for pilots and air traffic controllers.
“This is actually quite a significant development,” said Chris Rutkowski, a science writer and researcher based in Winnipeg.
“They want to move from sensation to science, and I think that’s the real reason behind this. The scientific community has been generally jaded toward the subject of UAPs, or UFOs, and the problem is the scientific data simply isn’t there.”
The new UAP research director will handle “centralized communications, resources and data analytical capabilities to establish a robust database for the evaluation of future UAP,” NASA said.
The report said the agency is uniquely positioned for the research because it has technology, both existing and planned, to monitor Earth and space. It also has “an extensive archive of historic and current data, which should be directly leveraged to understand UAP.”
NASA did not say how much funding it had set aside for the work.
What’s clear, Loeb and Rutkowski agreed, is that NASA has at last come on board.
“That is the right approach,” Loeb said. “It should be taken seriously.”