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SPACE.com Columnist Leonard David

What's next for UFO studies after landmark congressional hearing?

An unidentified aerial phenomenon, imaged by a U.S. Navy.
An unidentified aerial phenomenon, imaged by a U.S. Navy. (Image credit: U.S. Navy)

The congressional hearing Tuesday (May 17) that focused on unidentified flying objects (UFOs) has drawn mixed reviews. 

Eagerly awaited by many, it was the first open congressional hearing on UFOs — or UAP ("unidentified aerial phenomena"), as they've recently been rebranded — in more than a half-century. 

Congressman André Carson (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Intelligence Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Counterproliferation Subcommittee, kicked off Tuesday's hearing by noting that, more than 50 years ago, the U.S. government ended Project Blue Book, an effort to catalog and understand sightings of objects in the air that could not be immediately explained. 

"For more than 20 years, that project had treated unidentified anomalies in our airspace as a national security threat to be monitored and investigated," Carson said.

Related: 2022 could be a turning point in the study of UFOs

Out of the shadows

In 2017, it was revealed for the first time, Carson said, that the U.S. Department of Defense had quietly restarted a similar organization tracking what we now call UAP.

And last year, he added, Congress rewrote the charter for that organization, which is now called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group, or AOIMSG for short. 

"Today, we will bring that organization out of the shadows," Carson said on Tuesday. "This hearing and our oversight work has a simple idea at its core: unidentified aerial phenomena are a potential national security threat. And they need to be treated that way."

"UAP reports have been around for decades, and yet we haven't had an orderly way for them to be reported — without stigma — and to be investigated," said Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "That needs to change."

UAP reports need to be understood as a national security matter, Schiff said, and that message needs to go out across the whole of the U.S. government. "When we spot something we don't understand or can't identify in our air space, it's the job of those we entrust with our national security to investigate. And report back," he said.

The hearing featured two witnesses: Ronald Moultrie, the Pentagon's top intelligence official, and Scott Bray, deputy director of Naval Intelligence. (Following the open portion, the subcommittee also held a closed, classified briefing.) What did they tell us?

Short on specifics

"I didn't expect much from those hearings, and I was not disappointed," said Robert Sheaffer, a leading skeptical investigator of UFOs. "It was long on posturing and promises, but very short on specifics."

Sheaffer said that there was much talk about "sensors" and "databases" during the hearing, "but the evidence they trotted out was ridiculous in the extreme." Indeed, the object in what was tagged "Video 1 2021" was so insignificant and difficult to see that it had to be played over and over again before the object was even seen. When finally it was caught in a freeze frame, it was just a tiny round object with no details, he said.

"Very likely this was just a balloon that the aircraft flew past at a high rate of speed," Sheaffer said. "They show this as some of their best evidence, and we are supposed not to laugh?"

Related: UFO watch: 8 times the government looked for flying saucers

Wild goose chase?

Sheaffer also spotlighted another video from the hearing that showed "triangle-shaped objects" as seen through a night vision device. 

"It is reassuring that they seem to understand that the objects themselves were not necessarily triangle-shaped. This is an artifact of the camera system," he said. "But it was shown conclusively over a year ago that the 'unknown objects' match up perfectly with the planet Jupiter and the stars of Scorpius. So these 'experts' obviously know less about these military videos than civilian analysts do." 

The hearing provided a new pretext for spending taxpayer money on a wild goose chase, Sheaffer said. "We need more sensors! We need more databases! We need more staff! And since the goose will forever escape us, the investigative gravy train will have a long run," he concluded.

Resolve the enigma

Robert Powell, executive board member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, gave a mixed review of the hearing. 

"It was a step forward in that Moultrie and Bray committed to make public as much information as possible on the subject of UAP, and they seem committed to trying to resolve the enigma," Powell said.

At the same time, it was disappointing, Powell said, in that they had a lack of historical understanding of the phenomenon: "They were unaware of incursions over U.S. nuclear facilities which can be traced back to 1947."

Powell also suggested that the U.S. Navy outfit some of its vehicles with equipment such as spectral analyzers and wide band electromagnetic detection systems, to be prepared to properly measure emissions from any UAP they may come across. 

"There is so much that could be done if we take a proactive stance with UAP rather than depend on the happenstance of a pilot or carrier group coming across one of these objects," he said. "As you can tell, there is much that I would like to see accomplished."

Where do we go from here? 

Alejandro Rojas is a seasoned UFO investigator who serves as head of public relations for the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies.

Rojas said he hopes that the UAP issue will be taken more seriously as a result of Tuesday's hearing.

"Everyone, from the members asking questions to the witnesses, seem to be taking the issue very seriously," Rojas said. "Hopefully, this will help alleviate the stigma that has hampered serious investigation on this issue. Bray and Moultrie also implied AIMSOG will reach out to civilian research groups. Hopefully that happens so we can help close the large education gap that was demonstrated at the hearing."

Wanted: best possible data

"UAP are most likely a mixed bag. Many may have mundane explanations," said astronomer Avi Loeb, head of Harvard's Galileo Project, a systematic scientific search for evidence of extraterrestrial technological artifacts, and author of the recent book "Extraterrestrial" (Mariner Books, 2021).

"From a scientific perspective, it makes most sense to focus effort on developing new instrumentation and monitoring objects in a quest for the best possible data," Loeb told Space.com. "Instead of relying on pilots, the government could use ground-based instruments of higher quality than available in fighter jets or analyze the best satellite data at its possession. I hope they are doing that. We employ a much smaller budget to follow this goal within the Galileo Project."

Loeb said the question is whether there is even one object for which human-made or natural origins can be excluded. In particular, do we have materials from any of them? 

"If some data has no national security implications, it should be analyzed by top scientists. I would love to help interpret the highest-quality data if shared openly," he said.

And Tuesday's hearing could end up leading to more openness down the road.

"I'd say that any time there's an opportunity to make an issue of potential national security concern more transparent, and programs related to it more accountable, that's in the public interest," said Sarah Scoles, author of "They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers" (Pegasus Books, 2020).

"I would note that it's not the Subcommittee on Alien Visitation that's discussing the issue," Scoles concluded. 

Leonard David is author of the book "Moon Rush: The New Space Race," published by National Geographic in May 2019. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab)

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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.