Are UFOs Really Out There?

Kelsey Atherton


Paris Marx is joined by Kelsey Atherton to discuss the renewed interest in UFOs, where the conspiracy theories of aliens in the sky came from, and whether flying saucers might really be watching us.


Kelsey Atherton is a military technology journalist. He contributes to Popular Science and has written for Slate. Follow Kelsey on Twitter at @AthertonKD.

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Paris Marx: Kelsey, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us!

Kelsey Atherton: Happy to be here.

PM: I’m really excited to chat with you. I think this episode is going to be a little bit different from some of the things that we usually cover on the show. But hey, there’s a tech angle to UFOs. So we could certainly take that on.

KA: There absolutely is. It feels cultural, and then it goes back to: How do you explain tech you don’t want to explain?

PM: Absolutely [laughs]. So I want to start with a basic question. I think people will be very familiar with the term, UFO. It’s something that’s been around for decades that we constantly hear about in public conversation. People have certainly played video games about it and watch TV shows about it. We have movies about UFOs — all that kind of stuff. But recently, there’s a newer term that we’re hearing a bit more often called the UAP, which is the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. Is there any real difference between these? Or is this just a rebranding of something that has been around for a long time?

KA: I think it’s 90% a rebranding. The military, which is the originator of UAP as a term, there’s a whole committee on it, and a push to identify it. We can get into some of the stuff of why there is a renewed interest and a new acronym slapped on this. But the big reason to rename it is that UFOs started as a military acronym, and took on a pop culture connotation. And by going back to the drawing board and saying: No, no, no, no, no! These are not the flying saucers or the sci-fi villains you are accustomed to. This is stuff in the sky that we don’t understand or can’t understand, or at least label. Maybe we would understand it if we could label it, but we don’t know that yet. It’s a big unsorted pile of stuff seen in the sky. But you can’t have a calm press conference saying we are studiously examining the unsorted pile of mysterious, unclear objects photograph that might just be blurry pictures of mylar balloons.

PM: And I guess if you have a press conference now and you say we’re examining these UFOs, immediately, people are going to say: Oh, my God! They’re looking at flying saucers in the sky. So you can’t reuse that term?

KA: UFO as a term is a victim of its own success. It moved squarely from the Pentagon into the halls of conspiracy theorists and the tropes of pop culture in tow. Instead, we have a different term that’s functionally identical.

PM: Absolutely. We’ll get into how much we both love “Ancient Aliens,” and it’s accurate depiction of all these things [both laugh]. Just my favorite television show. So you mentioned how there’s a big renewal of interest in UFOs, or UAPs, in the last number of years. I’m, of course, going to use those terms interchangeably through the conversation, just so people are aware of that. What do you attribute all of this kind of recent coverage and interest in UFOs to? As we see the Pentagon releasing more information, we seem to have these kinds of public groups that are pushing for more action or more information to be revealed on this. Why now? Is that all happening?

KA: There’s two, I think, big factors. And the first is it’s easier to get video public. There was a big news story, it was one of those things that felt like: Oh, it’s just one of the stories that got buried in the day-to-day minutia of the chaos of the Trump era. But in, I think, 2017, The New York Times released videos, and some of the videos included had already been on the internet. One of them had been on the internet for nine years. But the news really hit in 2017. This is sort of why the big shift is not just that these videos exist, but that the military has decided — with some nudging from Congress and some kind of cultural change in there — it’s better to talk about them now than not, rather than have videos exist to not acknowledge them, or have evidence to just acknowledge them, which had been a standard practice for a very long time.

One of the things we’ll touch upon — I wrote about this fairly recently in Popular Science — is Area 51, which has this big cultural place as: Oh, well, that’s where they keep the aliens. No, that’s where the Air Force tests spy planes. But the Air Force was happier having people believe other things, and didn’t formally acknowledge the flight test area at Groom Lake in Nevada, which may have been known as Area 51 at one point, or colloquially referred to as such. They made like a really terse, dismissive acknowledgement of it in the 90s. But that’s a big shift from the previous decades of not acknowledging it at all.

PM: Absolutely, as a site that was set up in the 50s, imagine it being around for 40 years and being like: Yeah, that doesn’t really exist out there [both laugh]. You can see how that whips up some conspiracy theories. What are they hiding from us?

KA: That’s sort of the fundamental thing, when it comes to UFOs, and when it comes to UAPs, is that it’s not just that there are things that can be spotted in the sky, that the military can spot in the sky. The military tends to have lots of aircraft and lots of sensors in there. But other people can sometimes observe or report. But you have this whole thing of like: Well, there’s stuff and then there’s what we can talk about from what we know. And so one of the things that came up with the Area 51, that’s where they tested the U-2 spy plane. The U-2 spy plane was very secret for a long time, and then the Soviets shot went down in the early 60s. So it had a secret window, and then they still tried to keep some of its stuff secret, but you don’t scream to the world: By the way, we have a high altitude spy plane that’s going to be taking photographs of your stuff, even if it’s a plane, right? It’s hard to hide things in the sky. But it is kind of easy to say: No, no, no, that’s that’s the glare off of an airliner coming at you weird.

PM: Totally. It’s something else. It’s definitely not our spy plane out there, you’re seeing something different. I want to go back for a second to this recent interest in UFOs. And lobviously, I will be completely honest that it was something that I was interested in as a kid and a teenager, the conspiracy theories of Area-51 and UFOs. And I was totally into that shit. More recently, I’ve come around to your kind of viewpoint and I find that you outline it really well, which is why I wanted to have you on the show. And I rewatched “Independence Day” recently, because it was recently Independence Day. I figured why not? But it’s so fascinating just to see like how all of these elements of these conspiracy theories have made it into popular culture in such a dominant way in such a way that so many people are aware of not just like in North America, but around the world. And how that also then influences the opinions and views of people in political positions of power, because they also don’t know. And then that kind of pushes them to want to find out more of themselves.

KA: So, one of the other big reasons that we have this is the late Senator and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, champion of Nevada, and its interest and its peculiarities. He was friends with a guy who had a company that was working on contracting out for development of spacecraft to sell to the military, and also happened to have an interest in this and he had a personal interest in it. So, you have this push from, especially, this certain older generation of senators — this sort of passing generation of senators — but you had enough pilots there or former military and then sometimes former pilots, where they’d seen some stuff. And they’re like: Well, if I saw weird things out of a plane, I would want that to be believed. This is part of the thing that came with the three videos that The New York Times had.

The stories are fascinating as news and also as an artifact about how to tell the story, where the guy at the center of it also happens to be this former military go-between, between contracting, studying it and also going: Well, we avee these things, and we need to be telling a fuller truth about it. When they’re asking about it, there’s a few places you could go and it’s the fuller truth that Earth is being visited by beings from another world and that’s the flashiest one. That’s what gets the clicks. That’s how you write it. As someone who has eked out a freelancer living writing about it, going: Well, it’s not going to be aliens, we should start with terrestrial causes. That some clicks — it’s not all the clicks.

But it’s one of the things where you have this interest among the Senate and among military types, especially among pilots where they say: No, no, we should believe what they see and what their sensors see. And so we should then acknowledge that what the mystery is not that they interpreted it wrong, but the mystery is what was accurately captured. And if you’re starting from a position of confidence in the human observers, and certainty that they are in the right to be observing things, then you have either a public conversation about what they’re observing, or you have to have a maintain silence internally. And obviously, the military is an institution of keeping secrets, but it’s also bad at it. There are degrees at which you can keep secrets, but you can’t keep all of them all of the time, or expect them to die in there. And you’d much rather, I think, in this era, the military, generally speaking, prefers to have people trust it to pilots and assume that there’s a process for reporting these things, rather than when pilots get out and start talking about stuff they see. And there’s this whole doubt, not just what the pilots saw, but on the whole military, for either covering it up or not believing them.

PM: Absolutely. I think we’ve been having these conversations in the past number of years about the over classification that occurs within the US government more broadly. And so we know that this is an issue, and so it’s no surprise that obviously, it’s going to happen with military secrets more than anything else.

KA: And UAP as a term comes about, because, one, it’s obviously a rebranding. But the other is that there’s a place in the military now to report things. And there were always reporting mechanisms, and chains of command have places for that. But there’s a term they like to use called stovepiping, that basically means things flow one way or through one channel. And so if you had a pilot in the 80s who saw something weird, they reported it, then it would go to their fleet commander, and then the fleet commander would have to decide if it gets shared with other parts of the military, even other fleets. And now there’s a central place where the pilots can file their reports and say: Oh, we saw this thing. And then that sort of lets that part of it take it on. And so it’s very funny that there’s a hubbub around this one is basically just like an accounting term. So that the military can go: Oh, we revisited your footage, and that was definitely a high altitude balloon. Or: Oh, you were flying weird, and you saw the stars in the place of the sky you didn’t expect to see. And to jump a little into history, we kind of had this before, where Project Blue Book which exists as one of those big objects in pop culture that was really a collection of reports from people. But it shows up in “Twin Peaks.” It’s sort of everywhere.

PM: And just define that for us, what Project Blue Book is?

KA: Sure, so Project Blue Book was an effort by the military — sort of a predecessor to See Something/Say Something —where they asked people to send in reports of things they had seen, and then they collected them and then there was a study done by the University of Colorado, Boulder, I believe, in the late 60s. The study looked at the reports, they were given access to the data and they were able to present an unclassified version of it. I’ll get to why the secrecy of it matters in a second, but they published a version that said: Okay, 90% of everything is explainable. And when we see things explainable, it’s people would see Venus in the morning in the light and go, that’s got to be a UFO. There’s this great academic Kate Dorsch — she does a really a lot of wonderful work. And one story I learned from her, was at a university in Texas, they kept getting weird lights that would show up. And it was a geographer who was noting this, like: Over, my yard there was a stretch where I always get these weird lights at night, and they just brought people over. And then when they had an ornithologist over who said: That’s geese; you’re seeing geese on the migratory path at a weird time for you. Sure, of course, they’re silent and in formation. That’s how that is.

There’s other stuff. There’s the moon there; there’s certainly lots of balloons. My favorite revelation in Project Blue Book is that so Project Blue Book, said 90% had could be dismissed as natural or observable phenomena. But it’s really 95%. Because of that remaining 10%, half of it was people accurately seeing things they weren’t supposed to see, so that you to spy plane again, you fly them over the US. And when you have a look at the skies, and if you see something, send it into the government to report it so that we can catalogue what’s in the skies, you eventually get a critical mass of people reporting our own spy plane flights. And so in compiling Blue Book and filing the report, they would check with the, with the National Security Agency or with the Air Force, and they go: Okay, we can’t tell you what it is. But we can tell you, we know it’s ours, and you don’t have to worry about it. And that’s one of the reasons really, that they stopped sort of doing this.

The the collection ends. It doesn’t happen in the 70s. It doesn’t happen to the 80s — there’s not really a public facing thing. The pivot goes from: Oh, we’re gonna tell people, we’re going to trust our fellow citizens to look at the sky and send it to the military, and we’ll come back with a clear scientific answer. And for a host of reasons, including the change to cultural moods and the perhaps history of military’s bad job with public trust, owing to literally everything regarding the Vietnam War, we just won’t talk about it, because if we talk about it, they’ll believe we’re kooky. And we’d rather just button down and pretend this isn’t happening. And we’ll stop asking people to report things, because they’re getting too good at finding our own stuff.

PM: Which is so telling of how this how this all goes. I think it’s fascinating, as well, because you’re talking about Project Blue Book, which, just to be clear, is through the 50s, and 60s is when this reporting is happening. And you say in 1992, there was a declassification, which showed that again, that final 10%, a bunch of that was the U-2 spy planes and stuff that people were just seeing up in the sky. But you wouldn’t know that in the 60s because it wasn’t declassified, but then 20-odd years later, or whatever it does, and then it’s like: Oh, okay, this was just things they didn’t want us to know, and that we were seeing up there.

KA: And it’s also one of the things to where, with that gap, it goes from things they don’t want us to know for a very mundane reason, which is: Oh, it’s a spy plane, and if you observe planes, there is certainly a big fear of what if foreign agents are in the US, and they’re taking good photographs of our planes, and then they can figure out how to solve our planes and defeat them and shoot them down and when these are extraordinarily mundane reasons to be secret about it, but it means you create the space where it seems they don’t want to talk about it, because it’s obviously aliens. Roswell is the other really, really standout example of this. 1947 is quite the year for this stuff, because there’s a big flying saucer panic with a pilot who, again, pointing to his military experience, and he’s a commercial pilot, and he’s flying alone. He’s like: I I saw three flying saucers in the Pacific Northwest. There’s been no conclusive thing there but like clouds do weird shapes. It’s one guy flying. There’s all sorts of explanations you could have that aren’t just obviously these are real and we need to be on the lookout.

But early Cold War — 1947 is the same year that the whole US military gets rearranged. We pull the Air Force out of the army; we set up the NSA. NSA is listening for all the signals all the communications on through the wires and out of the country. The Air Force is justifying its existence as we need to be looking for Soviet bombers because that’s how nuclear war will come at that point. Bombers were the only thing really that could do it. And there’s this whole effort to say: Oh, well, we know that we did something devastating with a plane. Anyone could be doing this. That’s where you get the Cold War paranoia in, and flying saucer panic hits in the middle of that, and there’s no clearer example, than the object that crashed outside of Roswell, New Mexico where a rancher saw it. Before there was reporting of the Flying Saucers in the Pacific Northwest and he goes back after seeing that reports, collects it goes: Well, obviously, this must be an alien thing. And then he brings it to the sheriff in Roswell, because that’s what you do. And they’re like: Alright, well, we’re going to call up the Army Air Force, and they’re going send someone over and — to the delight of conspiracy theorists forever — the first guy the army sent said it was absolutely a flying saucer. And the Army corrected and it’s like: No, no, no, it’s a balloon, a weather balloon.

And that’s where Roswell is! There’s a sign that t about it’s there’s a whole soapy teen show about it. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that has that takes that whole incident. And the military was more truthful with the second explanation that it was a weather balloon. But the declassified in the 90s explanation was it was a acoustic balloon, it was there to listen for the sound of Soviet nuclear tests. But they didn’t want that public and weather balloons were familiar. So they got most of the way there. And then they had to do a follow up explanation later on, which is fairly mundane. But because of the culture of secrecy and the military understanding of secrecy, you can’t say the honest thing first, and you create this room for the mostly true thing to be completely dismissed. And then the true thing to be kind of a fun trivia that you may be hearing for the first time today, rather than something you’ve known that’s sort of seeped into the whole myth of Roswell.

PM: Absolutely. And, I’m happy you told that story, because I found it so fascinating in reading your articles about it, how this military guy comes out, and he’s like: Oh, we can’t tell them that it’s like a balloon to pick up Soviet nucular planes or whatever. So, it’s a flying saucer, you found one good job. Then they’re like: What have you done? Why did you do this? But the other thing I found really interesting was that the declassified story comes out in the 90s. I was born in 91. And so my whole life, when I was a kid and a teenager hearing about this stuff, I was like: Oh, man, that Roswell story is so fascinating. They found the aliens there, blah, blah, blah. The truth of it never kind of worked its way into the actual story, you could just continue dismissing that, even though it was out there.

KA: Right, the truth becomes one of the stories that we know about this. I’ll tell one my favorite stories. It’s a little indulgent to tell it, but I tell it basically, every time I get to, every time I’m talking about this, because it predates the flying saucer panic getting kind of provides a similar example. So I’m going to talk about the Kettering bug, which is an aerial torpedo, which is sort of a predecessor to both drones and cruise missiles. And this was developed for World War One, it was about to be shipped off in November 1918, and the war was over. So it never saw action, but they had developed this four year and it’s a secret weapon, it’s a bomb that flies and crashes. It has a gyroscope to measure how far it’s fallen. And at a certain point, the wings fall off, and it dives into the ground. And it goes basically in a straight line, or that’s how it’s supposed to go. It’s stabilized. It’s very steampunky dieselpunky. It’s very rudimentary, but it’s a secret military project.

And they’re testing it in Pennsylvania. And on one of the test flights, it takes off, and rather than going it’s set distance in a linear path, it flies a wild path. And they have to go track it down, because it’s a live bomb. And it’s a secret project, and you don’t want the Germans or the Pennsylvania Dutch or whoever to stumble across it. So they go out and they look for it, and they talk to people and the people who were in the area of farmers or it’s rural, ad they’re talking. And they say: Oh, well, did you see a plane? They said: Yeah, the pilot must have been drunk. I saw him the way it was flying. It was crazy! It was wild! We saw him jump out, must have seen the parachute. But the people who observed it invented for themselves, a pilot that they saw parachute out. And when asked they said: Oh, that’s what happened. He’s at Army Hospital, he’s recovering.

Because the other alternative they have in that moment would be to be honest and say: You didn’t see a pilot, we just put a bomb in the sky without the pilot on board and we want to know where it crashed [both laugh].You get why the military doesn’t want to tell that story, though. It’s the honest story. But divorced from a UFO panic, I’ve written about the Kettering Bug for a decade. I cover drones primarily; it’s a big part of my beat. And I learned that story several years into the beat and I’m someone who likes to know a lot about this thing. And it’s a minor trivia fact of this that could have been a UFO panic if it had hit in the right environment.

PM: Absolutely. And I guess at the time that that came out, it was not really a thing that was associated with aliens or anything I would imagine right?

KA: I don’t think so. It predates even the War of the Worlds panics. So there’s this idea just out there. But the idea that you’d have a rural farmer who’d associate it with that same thing, when the likely explanation is you saw a plane in the distance and the pilot must have jumped out. Sure plausible. But eyewitness testimony is unreliable for reasons.

PM: You mentioned Kate Dorsch earlier. And there was an interesting quote in one of the articles that you wrote where I guess you spoke to her for it. And she said, “UFOs don’t exist without the postwar national security state and the totalizing consequences of nuclear weaponry.” You’ve been talking about that a bit. But can you talk about how kind of the establishment of the Air Force and the interest in what is going on in the sky also creates this reason to be paying attention to the sky and what’s up there and spins off this interest in what might be there?

KA: So, one of the most remarkable moment of that — World War II a massive accelerator of technology and also of understanding of the world for Americans. The old quip of this is how Americans learned geography, but it was really also how we figured out what was actually on hand to nations in the war. You can poke any any World War II data history buff, and they’ll tell you Oh, they started the war with biplanes and horsedrawn. Logistics was a bigger part than anyone remembers. But you end the war, at least in the telling of the war, and the pop culture Italian, the US telling of the war. It ends with bombers that could fly for 1000s of miles, and drop a single bomb that could destroy a city. There’s a separate piece about the degree to which the actual atomic bombing does that. There’s great writing by Alex Wellerstein, a journalist’s guide to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that I highly recommend everyone read the text to that.

But setting that aside, people in September 1945 are now aware that planes can travel between continents, and that there are bombs that can fit in those planes that can destroy cities. This has happened in the space of a very short time, from where things where — if we draw it out to where — there’s still rural electrification happening. This is the same world where this is all happening. So you have this sense that the world is small and changed. And you also have to go with that. The War Department and the Department of the Navy get merged into the Pentagon. There’s this whole idea of a permanent national security state, which is a huge change for the United States. The Navy had taken this on before the war. The Navy had permanently done the managing conflict overseas with the Marines and then the Army gets spun up and spun down as wars happen. And instead, we have this permanent thing. And we have this new Air Force, and the Air Force’s whole stated mission really is they’re the ones who can carry those big bombs, and we have strategic command. And there’s other stuff that go and they expand. And it’s the nature of bureaucracy to fill whatever niche it can and secure its own survival.

But you get this sense that the Air Force exists to protect the United States from a threat that could come at any time and from the sky. And that’s a huge change in the sense of American vulnerability. And it’s also a change particularly acute in the US because — to the extent that US was a battlefield — the places where the war was fought on US soil were Alaskan Islands, the territory of the Philippines, which becomes independent in ‘46. People forget or don’t know that it was part of the US and invaded the same day or the hours after the Pearl Harbor attack. And Pearl Harbor was still a territory — Hawaii was a territory that a US state. In FDR’s notes, he debated whether or not to also include Philippines in the statement where he says they hit us on their soil there. And he instead just leaves it as we’re identifying Hawaii with that. But that’s where this vulnerability comes. There’s all this new tech, and there’s a brand new bomb that can come from the sky. And that’s when people start getting real jumpy.

PM: Absolutely. Obviously, you’re talking about kind of the later part of the 40s there, as the Air Force is established in the Second World War starts to wind down and all this kind of stuff. But then very quickly, early in the 50s, we started to have the Space Race, with the Soviets and America going up into space and blah, blah, blah. And I’m imagining that also plays into this fear as to what’s out there.

KA: Absolutely! It’s one of the things where, as the Soviets took their German scientists, we took our German scientists and everyone did that. The entire V1 ad V2 programs were definitely not built on concentration camp and slave labor. And we just throw Wernher von Braun into Army Research and then quietly over to NASA and we have this wonderful public face of rocketry. Te early Cold War is wild, but you have the Space Race; you have this notion. The Sputnik moment is often cited as the foundation for why the US sets up DARPA where they say: Oh, well, we were surprised by someone else’s technology. Never again, we’re going to do things like invent the internet and robots that hunt caves and a bunch of other stuff that decades, but Sputnik is one where the sky changed because another nation did something with a rocket. Now, that’s a lot. And then the sky changes all the time we have satellite constellations now, but in that moment, that’s a first. That’s very different.

And it’s not just that it’s changing, but it’s being thought out, seen and described. There’s this media environment in which this is something that’s done as a threat. And the subtext of Sputnik and the Space Race is that these rockets can go very far, and put things in orbit and they can put things on the moon, and you can carry probes to other planets, that’s much later. But if a bomber flying to another continent, in a long hours, hours long flight is a surprise, then rockets that can close that gap in a few hours or an hour, the ICBM flight time is basically roughly we assume an hour from launch, you could have an ICBM impact anywhere on the world. And some of those rockets are the same. And that’s happening. It’s not so much in the 50s, but it’s certainly by the 60s. That’s what’s going on out there. And there’s just a big interest in what are we doing with space, if we, in our own level, if we could have had horses and biplanes in 1939, and we have rocket with nuclear weapons in the mid 60s, how quickly could we be a Starborn species? How quickly could other planets have developed life that could travel to us? And at the same time that the military is like trying to be hush hush about like, a dry lake bed where it’s flying spy planes in Nevada. It’s a harsh desert, but it’s not uninhabited, you can go there.

PM: And I think that’s a really good transition to talk a bit more about Area 51. We’ve talked about it a bit, this base that is set up in 1955, where a lot of kind of spy plane work is being done. But in the public imaginary, it’s where the aliens are being stored from Roswell. Can you talk to us a bit more about that base, why it’s established and why these kind of conspiracy theories developed around that place, in particular?

KA: So there’s a lot that goes into it. But basically, the origin of it is that there’s a spy plane contest, the Air Force wants a new spy plane, we get the U-2. It’s an early Lockheed, before Lockheed Martin, contract. They delivered under budget, they always like to say, and then they’ve been coasting on that for decades, ever since they did one.

PM: It’s still in use, right?

KA: It’s still in use! So the fun kicker we can put on all of this is that it was a U-2 that took pictures of China’s giant balloon that crossed the United States.

PM: No way!

KA: There’s a selfie of a U-2 pilot that is public domain because military photos that are released are public domain, which is a fun thing. But you can see the picture of an anonymous U-2 pilot taking a selfie with the Chinese balloon that flew across the US in February.

PM: I’m going to have to put a link to that in the show notes for listeners.

KA: No, it’s wild! I wrote about it for Pop Science. It’s just an incredible moment. So, this plane has been in use forever. It’s a really good design — turns out if you make a plane that can just stay aloft for hours and hours at a time, that’s an enduring feature. That’s aerodynamics more than any of the other kind of stuff you need that could be changed with technology. But they were looking for a place to test it. The military already has dry lake beds in California where it does testing. The Groom Lake area in Nevada had been artillery testing. They cleared it up, and made it a place to test other planes. It’s also where the United States tested a lot of stealth technology when it was working on that. And that’s another one where the feature — the big feature of the U-2 is that it’s a very, very long wing and a narrow body. But that’s how you can stay aloft for 10 hours, 12 hours at 70,000 feet above sea leve. They have to work pressures suits to be in there and get, you also test the SR-71 Blackbird or the A-12 Oxcart, which are supersonic spy planes that were designed to be faster than missiles after the U-2 was was shot down.

And then we test stuff there. And these are things where you cannot hide the geometry of the vehicle. But you can put it far away from people where you’re flying — and that’s what you do. And that’s what they did. They would test things out there, and then they would look for other places to actually do the work on them once you had enough out there. It’s a small base in the scheme of things, but has a large air perimeter around it. What makes it extra weird is that it was acquired by the Atomic Energy Commission, which sort of predates the agency responsible for monitoring and safeguarding nuclear stockpile stuff. And it’s adjacent to an Air Range and adjacent to the Nevada Proving Grounds where the United States did most of its nuclear testing when it was done devastating the Pacific and after it moved out of New Mexico. And so you have this thing, and there’s an air of mystery around it. It’s not super inhabited, it’s there. But also people had to be flown in there to do work, and then you’d have flying commutes in to do work and to do testing. And then it just ends up in the public consciousness. People would go and you get the conspiracy theories, you get the people who are watching for planes. And they start writing and talking about it.

Something I didn’t know — one of my favorite things about writing for Popular Science is I use it as an excuse to dive into the archives — and in the 90s, they had a feature on Area 51, where they purchased Russian commercial satellite photography, to acknowledge that was a base there, and e can see with the publicly released stuff from the 60s, and we can take a recent picture from the 90s, and show you here’s what’s actually been built up here. Then, we get somewhat more public acknowledgement of it as a base for testing things. One of the other things they would test there is they would, if the US got a hold of a — usually a Russian made the basically any aircraft made by another country that we might fight at some point — we would take it out there and test it where it could be observed and then train against US stuff. And we could Red Team and adversarial… there’s a whole thing about it. But so there’s a lot of secrecy going on, there’s people going to it. And there’s not a public acknowledgement. Again, it’s not formally acknowledged, really that it exists or has a role until the 90s. And when it is, it’s because there’s a fight over the military trying to secure more land around it to keep photographers and tourists away. Not tourists, but people would go in and scout it out.

PM: Absolutely, it brings to mind what was a few years ago, when there was that kind of meme about people who were all going to go to Area 51, at one time. I can’t remember exactly what it was!

KA: Oh, there was a big Naruto run at Area 51. I should look up the Wikipedia to it — that had very matter of fact things, describing it as a planned event, there were this many signups, and there were this many people who showed up. And there were a few arrests that no one made it in because you have every stage of it. Again, it’s a harsh desert. It’s far from things. If you are there, you can assume you are being surveilled by the military, because it’s a secret facility. And they just have been in the habit of watching people who watch that site under the assumption that there’s a plausible chance that they’re either a dedicated, weirdo hobbyist, or they’re a foreign spy posing as a dedicated weirdo hobbyist. And it’s not great, but it is what it is. And so it turns out that you couldn’t just do a Facebook group and assemble enough people to storm a military base, but you can still get a meme out of it.

PM: Absolutely. You talk about how, at the Groom Lake facility, at what we call Area 51, the U-2 was tested there, the SR-71 Blackbird, a bunch of other ones. These are the ones that are declassified — I’m sure that we can imagine that there are other things that are tested there that we don’t know about, and that are probably in use right now. But the military doesn’t want us to know that they’re using until sometime in the future.

KA: And it’s one of the things where even if we knew everything that had been tested there, if everything had been public and disclosed at this point, the nature of the facility and the nature of the secrecy around that makes it impossible to for that to be accepted. If they had said: No, no, no, we’ve tested all of our things. Now, you know where they are; there’s programs here. It’s the line in Independence Day, which is a fantastic thing is that we just siphon off parts of the other budgets, and that’s how we fund this. And that’s more clever than what the military actually does. There’s just formally black budget lines, which is like: Oh, yeah, here’s an amount in a classified budget for a thing. The B-21. Raider, the new stealth bomber that the United States is buying and is built by Northrop Grumman. I think that was Edward, it wasn’t there. It’s big. The Groom Lake facility is also on the smaller side of where we test these things. But it’s a similar one, where for a long time, this was the thing that could be reported. I’ve reported on it for a decade. But it was an acronym, and the black budget amount and we had a number that was given to the public statement in 2014, or something to go and it’s like: Well, in these year dollars, this is the amount of it. And they just kept that number for a decade saying yeah, that’s what it’s going to cost. It’s going to stay that price forever.

And that’s one that we know about! That’s one that’s big enough where there’s enough people working on it, when it’s a high enough profile thing that you have senators representatives asking about it and saying: Oh, well, we need this. It’s very, very important that we have stealth bombers for all the stealth bombing needs we will have in the future. And there’s other stuff that’s smaller that could be testing all sorts of drones and things They could be testing aircrafts we don’t see it when there is stuff. It when things where it will be an answer is like: Oh, it was tested there. It’s like: Yeah, that makes sense. And I mentioned this in my Pop Science Area 51 piece, but there’s sort of a white whale of plane watches, which is the Aurora, which is supposed to be a ramjet, or scramjet powered airplane, which is a very, very fast way to fly. But it’s really hard to get to the speed where you are pushing enough air through that you can eject it out that fast. We talked about hypersonics. You could do hypersonic testing there. But they’re also pretty overt that we’re doing hypersonic testing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we also do flight testing of it there.

One of the things that was was fun in trying to poke around this is there’s a public domain library of military photos that was created during the Iraq War to make sure that media could have things that the military curated for them to have. It’s weird that the military is obligated as the government to produce things in the public domain if they’re declassified. And so sometimes you can turn around and go: I would like to see everything that’s at an undisclosed location in Nevada, and you can! But you can’t actually get things out of Area 51, unless someone messed up in their labeling, and you find like a weird thing. And then it doesn’t work well, for a story, not that this is what happened in image selection. But there is stuff out there that just gets sort of, oh, it’s at Nellis Air Force Base, or it’s something else.

PM: And I believe the military says that this facility is not actually called Area 51. Is that right?

KA: Right! It’s the Groom Lake Testbed. Their very essence, the general cultural thing, the military is happy to not use pop cultural things unless they really liked them. One of the funnier parts, to me specifically, I have no idea if this is funny to anyone else about choosing UAP, as the new UFO acronym, is, it sounds like all the failed acronyms and military tried to get people to use for drone like UAV or UAS or RPV, or….whatever they’re going to do acronyms. They’re going to have this sort of internal ‘you must know the lingo’ to talk about this, for us to take you seriously.

PM: Totally. There’s one other piece of this that I want to touch on. We’ve talked about how there was all this examination of these things that were seen in the sky in the past, most of them were found to be explainable or classified military planes that they didn’t want you to know about. But you’ve also written about how one of the things that could be leading to the detection of these UFOs, or what people are assume are UFOs, when they show up on these videos and stuff is actually issues with sensors and sensors, not picking things up properly. Can you talk to us a little bit about that? And how that would work?

KA: Yes, absolutely. So one of the things is we see these videos released. There’s these videos that are black and white. That’s familiar, because we’ve seen military released videos of what an air strike looks like. So in an air strike, we know that it’s being shot in infrared — it has this thing to it. It’s changing very, very recently that sometimes they’ll have things that are in cameras that are designed to show capturing visual light and produce video in visual light. But by and large, what we’re seeing is functional cameras and functional sensors. And so if you have a camera, it may have a recording function — they often do. But what you will be doing is it’ll be trying to look for heat against cooler texture. That’s doing your infrared. And then if you have that, and you have it, say, linked to a missile camera, or to a missile launching system, then what you’re really having is an aiming system. The calibrations of how it’s designed, and how it’s worked is to help you fire a missile from a plane at another plane or fire it at something on the ground. What that doesn’t do is make it very good for filming in the air, necessarily. The parameters are different. You have it built to figure out how missile goes into a place and have all that in there. And it’s not just certain possibility of it. The three big videos released by the New York Times in 2017 have that feature to it, they’re black and white, they look like the camera might be reading something wrong. There is a theory for a long while that one of them was perhaps capturing either a drop of water or a bug on the inside of the lens, which could certainly have an outsized effect. We’re certainly familiar in 2023 with, you can do all sorts of things with computer generated stuff, but we forget that there’s a whole century plus of practical effects and weird tricks and weird ways the cameras get things wrong.

And that’s just the start of it. You could have like speed tracking on it. But if you’re trying to track the speed of an object with a camera designed for a missile against the ocean, and you don’t have a good grasp of the size of the object, then you could be wholly off. One of the things I think that came to light with the whole balloon panic of 2023 — there is obviously the very, very large balloon from China. It was massive. It had solar panels. It was a very big, observable thing. And then the US Air Force shutdown three other things. There’s really incredible reporting by Aviation Week which tracks one of those objects to — it is a beautiful, charming twee name straight out of a 50s cubs scout, ‘Go Science!,’ America Project thing — Bobcat Balloon Brigade, that’s what it is. It’s North Illinois Bobcat balloo Brigade. And they had been tracking a high altitude mylar balloon that they had put up, and they put sensors on it. These are relatively new. Think of it like a party balloon that you see in the grocery store. Who buys these? But apparently, there’s a company that makes them for scientists. And you put your sensors on them, the sensors can transmit, they get the signal out there. It’s light electronics — it’s lighter than air. And it’s big in the sense that it’s a few feet, which is enough to get to the Jetstream, 30,000 40,000 feet up. And then you can have a balloon that you can launch in your backyard, make it around the world. And that’s a fun science project for an after school — the Bobcat Balloon Brigade.

But they tracked one of theirs to Alaska, and then they stopped tracking after the US reportedly shot down a balloon over Alaska. What might have happened, and what probably happened, is that the United States saw a balloon and shot it down. And these balloons have been happening for a decade. But it didn’t seem clear in a lot of the reporting of the Pentagon was super familiar with this happening. Turns out the community of niche hobbyist scientists and war planners don’t necessarily have as much of an overlap as they’d like to think. And one of the things that factors into that too with — back to sensor error — is NORAD, which is famous for tracking Santa, but is a network of radars designed to look for Russian Nuclear Bombers and missiles coming to the US. NORAD was told after China’s balloon arrived in the US to expand the parameters of their sensors. And so these are radar. With radar, we think of it as it sends out the radio wave, it hits the blip, it comes back we know where it is. And as the plane moves, it tracks where it is and changes position and turns that into useful information. But it’s sending out that radio wave and it has to. It’s also processing it — how the tech works really matters for how we understand the world. And they filter stuff out you have to filter stuff out or else you get everything and you don’t have information you have to set your parameters of what are you looking for?

And if you’re looking for planes, they’re big. Russia’s nuclear bombers, specifically, are massive. They’ve been the same since the 50s, and they have giant prop engines. Those are noisy on radar. So you can discriminate pretty much anything smaller than just this very loud thing. But if you expand your parameter, suddenly you’re seeing more in the air. And there’s a fine example of this where NORAD is also responsible for the defense of the US Capitol. And in 2015, a disgruntled postal worker, upset about the state of democracy, chose April 15th to deliver a set of letters and petitions calling for changes to the Capitol lawn. He decided to make a spectacle of it by flying a gyrocopter, which he launched from Northern Virginia, and flew over the Potomac and onto the Capitol lawn. The radars didn’t see it. A gyrocopter — just to back up a little — is an ultralight plane-like thing. Instead, it looks like a helicopter and it flies like a plane. Instead of having fixed wings, it has a blade that spins. That’s where it provides a lift, but lets it fly pretty slow and pretty low. It’s small. It basically looks like a if a go-kart was a helicopter. And so he flies this little plane, there’s little flying machine there. And he gets arrested promptly. Guy flies a weird thing to the Capitol, sure.

But there were congressional hearings where they asked: why didn’t we see him? Why was our radar not there? There were three big reasons. One is he flew very low — that’s out of sensor range. The other is if the radars that they do have, they have to filter out things that small because otherwise, if someone brought several party balloons, or you had a flock of geese, or you had a particularly foggy morning, you would have an alert that there’s an aerial attack on the Capitol, when it was nothing. And so that’s part of where you get this big sensor error in the picture is you have to set the parameters and suddenly you’re going to have gaps. And if you don’t know about the gaps, you suddenly have this weird panic about what’s happening. And so I think a lot of what we see with UFO sightings is we have tools that are not designed to capture them. This is an old problem. In the 1950s, the Air Force went to Kodak and said: Can you help us develop a camera we can put on planes to take pictures of unidentified flying objects? They said: Great, what are the parameters of what we’re trying to take pictures of? And they spent some time on it. And it turns out the problem was impossible to solve, by definition, because you can’t figure out the parameters to capture something unidentified [both laugh]. You can figure out how to have to do something otherwise, but you can’t do it! Fundamentally, it’s unidentified! And if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you will create a sensor that can capture something but it might not capture what you want. And that’s a lot of work to put on a guess.

PM: Absolutely, I appreciate you outlining that because when I read your stories, that was not a potential explanation that I had ever really can considered. Then I read it, and I was like: Of course that makes perfect sense that the sensors will be picking up some janky things sometimes because they’re not tuned properly, or they’re seeing something they’re not used to seeing. And that doesn’t mean that it’s a flying saucer from another world that’s up in our atmosphere that’s coming to try to attack us and surveill us. As we close off our conversation, I want to ask you a few more things to wrap it up. As we’ve had all this context around the conspiracy theories, around UFOs, the relationship to the military and their classification and how a lot of that mixes up these stories and makes it possible for those stories to continue, why do you think there has been this kind of lasting interest in UFOs, over all of these decades, to the point where we have all these shows about them? I mentioned “Ancient Aliens” earlier. It’s very common in pop culture to be interested in the alien stories, and for the specific Roswell in Area 51, and all this stuff to continually show up. Why has that been so captivating for us? Why have we followed that for such a long period of time, to the point where we see this renewal and in the past few years, where it seems to once again be capturing the imagination?

KA: So, there’s a few reasons. I think one of the most obvious ones is the idea of technological surprise is a compelling American story — that what if someone showed up from a faraway land in a way that was devastating to us? And they also happened to be armed in ways we didn’t know how to deal with and they had other intentions? What if they were able to rain surprise devastation from the sky? There is — conscious or unconscious — a lot of: Oh, what if US history happened to Americans instead — what happened to the settler Americans instead of to Native Americans? Or what if US wars happened to people in the States rather than the people on the receiving end of the US military? There’s some of that in there. But it’s also a great, vast possibility space. It’s very easy to tell stories where the military is silent. And once the military has been silent on it, it’s a hard thing. I don’t think the military could come forth and say: Oh, you’re right! We admit this was sensor error. These were the things that we can conclusively prove were hobbyist projects. And these are the ones that we actually think are Chinese aircrafts that were somehow in our airspace that we don’t want to acknowledge as such, or didn’t want to, but now we are because we’re honest Pentagon, which is not the thing we’ll say. There’s space for that. They don’t know if we could believe there’d be a way for the public to accept that even if it were told straight.

But the military has to rely on the fact that it is able to collect privileged information and keep it such — that it has a picture of the world that is different from how civilians and citizens see the world. Accurate may not be the case, but certainly different from it that they’re acting on. And that is just a side effect of a sort of permanent national security state. It’s very much also downstream from the nuclear arsenals, because the grim reality that any given moment is, at most an hour away from nuclear launch should a handful of world leaders, including our President decide to do so, it’s not super comforting, and it’s surprising, and it carries the whole devastation and ruin of all that we know. But the fact that there’s a mystery out there that could come with rapidity and change the world in a smaller or a tangible way, where it’s an alien we talk to or its a machine we see, at least lets you think about what it means to have that surprise technological disparity without then immediately going into a fit of despair about the continued existence of nuclear weapons and sort of a permanent, low-grade nuclear alert state of modern life.

PM: Absolutely! And I feel like the piece that you outlined first about the concerns that what we have done through history will now happen to us in the future seems to be something that always returns in my mind when we look at these stories. Even watching “Independence Day” again, the other day, you saw that motive. And of course, with so many of these stories, it’s not like: Will the aliens come and will they be our friends? It’s more like they’re coming and they’re when they want to destroy our way of life and take our stuff and blah, blah, blah. There’s no chance that these are a peace-faring people that we’re going to interact with.

KA: It’s one of the things where even “Star Trek,” in its most optimistic, says: Well, you can get to a point, but you have to prove that you’re worthy explorers of space and wherever they’re doing with the timeline to keep playing with it, but you have to get through some real devastating struggles to get to the point where you say: Oh, we converted the missile into it a spaceship that can break the time barrier or what have you. There’s a whole lot out there. And there’s not a ton of space for optimism. But there’s a ton of space for intrigue and UFOs, though you can certainly write it that way and sometimes errors reflect it.

PM: Totally. Final question to close off this very fantastic and intriguing conversation: do you think there are UFOs out there? Are they up there? Or is this something that we just like to have some fun believing in every now and then?

KA: I think when we are examining the possibility of life, I think it’s fun to speculate. But I put my professional and personal energies into focusing on things with terrestrial origins. I will let the science fiction be the science fiction until first contact day and then I’ll be sorely disappointed.

PM: Absolutely. I feel like for me, I think aliens are definitely out there somewhere. The universe is way too big for there to not be some other intelligent species somewhere. But do I think that they’re in our atmosphere flying around in little flying saucers? I’m not really buying that one. That’s my view.

KA: I mean, it’s one of the things where we can observe terrestrial things. When we’ve ruled out all terrestrial explanations, maybe we can start going to other ones. But boy, have we not ruled out all terrestrial explanations.

PM: Totally. Well, Kelsey, this has been a fantastic conversation. It’s great to be able to chat about something that’s a little bit different for our show, but still very kind of technologically relevant, just with a bit of a different spin on it. Thanks so much for taking the time!

KA: A pleasure!