Former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is no stranger to the skies.
Kelly, a four-time spaceflyer, one-time space shuttle pilot and three-time International Space Station commander, was a participant in the first public meeting of the NASA study group formed to examine data related to unidentified anomalous phenomena (UAP), a new term for sightings of objects or occurrences in the sky, underwater or in space that can't be immediately explained or identified.
The meeting, held on Wednesday (May 31), saw experts from a wide variety of fields present both analyses of UAP sightings and proposals on how NASA and other government agencies might go about collecting better data to help shine a light on the UAP topic.
At one point in the meeting, after remaining largely silent, Kelly, a former U.S. Navy captain, stood up to share a UAP experience he had while flying an F-14 Tomcat. "I remember one time I was flying in the warning areas off of the Virginia Beach military operating area there," Kelly said. "And my RIO [radar intercept officer] thought — the guy that sits in the back of the Tomcat — was convinced we flew by a UFO. So I didn't see it. We turned around and went to go look at it.
"It turns out it was Bart Simpson, a balloon."
Space.com spoke with Kelly following the meeting to ask more about what the former NASA astronaut and Navy fighter pilot thinks about the current buzz surrounding UFOs/UAP and what sightings might imply about the safety of our skies and the search for intelligent life.
We asked Kelly what he thought about the numerous former pilots, intelligence officers and government advisors who have appeared on cable news programs and series in recent years claiming that the U.S. government is aware of objects or craft that defy conventional wisdom about aerodynamics, propulsion and physics.
"What was it Carl Sagan said, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'? You know, they have every right to make extraordinary claims, but without the extraordinary evidence, they're just claims," Kelly said. "In a court of law, eyewitness testimony — I'm not positive on this — but that's considered evidence. In science, it's part of a hypothesis. It's like, 'Oh, we see this!' Let's go investigate it."
Kelly said that the kinds of extraordinary claims associated with some of the reported UAP sightings popularized in the media in recent years, or mentioned at Wednesday's meeting, is largely due to the fact that when flying over water or in space, it can be difficult to gauge objects' speed and size due to the lack of reference points.
"If you see something that you know is an airplane, and you know generally how big airplanes are, you can tell relative distance," Kelly said. "But when you have no reference points, whether it's in space, or flying over the water, it just is really an environment that's really prone to optical illusions." Kelly added that it's not just human eyeballs that are subject to misperceptions, but that many of the sensors aboard fighter jets and other aircraft have the same issues.
Kelly gave an example from when he was flying space shuttles for NASA. During the first few days in orbit, chunks of ice would detach from the shuttle and float nearby. "And oftentimes, like you couldn't even tell what these — because they're all different shapes — you couldn't tell what that ice was and how far away it was. It could be two feet in front of you or, you know, or 50 miles. You don't know because you have no reference. Unless, of course, you knew specifically what something was."
Another example Kelly brought up was a video published in a 2017 New York Times report, titled "GIMBAL," which reportedly showed an encounter between a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet and an unknown object in U.S. military airspace that appeared to rotate while hovering stationary in the air.
Kelly, however, isn't convinced the video shows anything anomalous at all.
"'GIMBAL,' it looks to me like the FLIR [(forward-looking infrared)] camera is just reaching its gimbal limit," Kelly said. (A gimbal is any kind of mount or support that allows an object, such as a camera, to rotate along an axis or multiple axes.) "And it's because it has gimbal limits. You know, it turns 360 degrees in one direction, or whatever the limits are, and it gets to that stop. It's got to turn back around the other way. Kind of what it looks like to me."
Another video released by the Washington Post in 2018 just months after the New York Times report, known as "GOFAST," reportedly shows a recording taken by an F/A-18's sensors of an object appearing to soar over the ocean at an incredible speed.
However, Joshua Semeter, director of Boston University's Center for Space Physics, presented an analysis of the video during Wednesday's meeting in which he argued that by applying "basic trigonometry" using the information in the video's overlay recorded by the jet, the "GOFAST" object is moving only 40 mph (64 kph). "This example also serves to illustrate the kinds of cognitive bias we have to contend with for UAPs recorded from unfamiliar perspectives," Semeter added.
Despite the prosaic explanations for these videos offered by both Kelly and Semeter, time and time again, the three videos released between 2017 and 2018 are cited as evidence of advanced unidentified objects or craft operating in U.S. military airspace.
This is despite the fact that a form filed in 2017 to request the public release of the videos notes that the videos' subject area is "UAV, Balloons, and other UAS" (uncrewed aerial vehicles/uncrewed aerial systems).
What has followed in the years since the videos' release has been nothing short of a media feeding frenzy that has pushed the topic of UFOs (or, lately, UAP) to the forefront of popular culture and even influenced U.S. government policy.
As a result of this, and of the government's increased attention paid to UAP reports, sightings of unexplained objects or craft appear to be rapidly increasing, as documented by the "2022 Annual Report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena" published by the Pentagon's Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). The document notes that the Pentagon's All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) received 366 UAP reports in 2022 alone, many of them from U.S. military personnel.
Kelly thinks one reason that UAP sightings seem to be on the rise is that the topic has become destigmatized, particularly in the military. The former astronaut said when he was flying fighter jets in the Navy, if a pilot returned to their carrier and said they thought they saw a UFO, then "Alien" would be their new callsign for the rest of their career.
Today, it's much different, and pilots in the U.S. armed services now have formalized processes for reporting unexplained or unidentified phenomena or objects they might see in the air or water. "And I think people should report what they see because there are issues," Kelly said. "I'm not calling into question their integrity at all."
Ultimately, though, Kelly believes that any explanation for unexplained things in the air should be grounded first and foremost in concrete evidence. "I am a person that lives in a world of science and facts and data," Kelly said. "And the most compelling, unclassified cases that we have really don't have any data. They're interesting — interesting stories. I would like to believe they're true. But I can't until someone shows me the real evidence."
Kelly added that "we're told the classified stuff really isn't any more compelling than the unclassified stuff," either, but that images of reported UAP captured by certain sensors cannot be divulged to the public in the name of national security, as the exact capabilities of those sensors remain undisclosed.
The former astronaut said that in the absence of real data, he believes what many pilots are seeing likely have more prosaic explanations, such as balloons or drones. "You know, there are 800,000 registered drones in the United States. How many unregistered drones are there? I don't know how many, but probably a lot more than there are registered drones. So who knows if people, you know, are using these in ways that they're not supposed to?"
Kelly added that he even has an unregistered drone, but only flies it on his own property to inspect solar panels on his home after hailstorms.
This insistence to rely on evidence and data does not necessarily make one an opponent of the UFO community or UAP disclosure movement, Kelly said. This largely online community of enthusiasts believes the U.S. government is in possession of withheld knowledge of UAP and their origins, whether technological, extraterrestrial or otherwise otherworldly.
"The community of UFO enthusiasts think I'm somehow against them," Kelly said. "But I actually would think it would be one of the most incredible things if humans ever learned that we are not alone in this universe and that there is intelligent life that has the technology to surmount what we currently believe are the limitations of long-distance space travel because of the physics involved."
The former space shuttle pilot directly addressed some of the common claims of the disclosure movement during Wednesday's meeting, namely that NASA routinely cuts camera feeds from the ISS whenever UAP appear or that the agency is hiding images of extraterrestrial technology. "In my 20 years at NASA, no one either officially or unofficially, in my recollection, ha[s] ever discussed or briefed us or had any kind of discussions about anything that would be considered a UAP or UFO or anything like that," Kelly said.
Kelly acknowledged that those opinions might make him unpopular with the UFO community, and indeed, the division between UFO believers and skeptics was a common topic at Wednesday's meeting of NASA's UAP independent study group.
Three different speakers at the meeting brought up the fact that group members have been subject to online harassment due to their involvement in the group and what some in the UFO/UAP community perceived as overly skeptical attitudes towards the topic.
However, one thing the UAP/UFO community and the former astronaut have in common is the belief that whatever the explanation(s) for the phenomenon might be, the topic deserves serious scrutiny. "Because there is an issue," Kelly said. "I mean, we have stuff that's flying in our airspace that's supposed to be for mostly commercial air travel. And it shouldn't be there, or at least we should know what it is. So I do think it's worth the investigation."