Up in the air! US government's UFO report stirs range of reactions

A UFO spotted by a U.S. Navy jet.
A UFO spotted by a U.S. Navy jet. (Image credit: DOD/U.S. Navy)

The release on Friday (June 25) of the U.S. government's report about unidentified flying objects has whipped up a blend of reactions, from UFO groups to individuals in military, academic and scientific circles. 

Labeled as "preliminary," the unclassified nine-page UFO report was prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in consultation with the Pentagon, particularly the military's recently established Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) Task Force, in response to a request by Congress to assess the threat posed by UFOs. (UFOs have been rebranded as UAP in military parlance.)

There were those breathing hard awaiting compelling proof that aliens are here, buzzing through Earth's airspace while chalking up extraterrestrial mileage points. While the report falls short on that score, what UAPs truly represent remains a mind-bending head-scratcher.

Space.com reached out to a number of individuals for their take-away messages about the highly anticipated report.

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Limited data

The report has been greatly mischaracterized in the media and by UFO enthusiasts, said Mick West, a writer and a distinguished debunker. 

"UAPs are unidentified because of limited data; that's what makes the cases difficult to explain," West said. "The report suggests the majority of cases, if solved, would turn out to be a variety of things like airborne clutter or natural atmospheric phenomenon. A lack of data does not mean aliens are the likely answer."

Noting that we can't rule out aliens is idiotic, said West. 

"Of course, we can't rule out aliens in cases with limited data; that's literally impossible," he said. "The point is that there's zero evidence or indication of aliens. None of the cases showed conclusive evidence of anything interesting. Only a limited number of cases, mostly observer accounts, hinted at unusual flight characteristics, and the report stated that some or all of those could be explained by 'sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception' and that 'some UAP may be attributable to sensor anomalies.'"

'Stunning reversal'

"The much-anticipated report from the UAP Task Force only disappoints those not familiar with the history of U.S. military engagement with the UFO phenomenon," said Mark Rodeghier, the scientific director of the Center for UFO Studies. He said that the report, as a whole, is a "stunning reversal of military attitudes about the subject."

Rodeghier said his center wholeheartedly agrees with the recommendation for continued study with improvements in data collection and analysis. "I very much hope, though, that there is funding for the civilian scientific community to study UFOs. UFOs also constitute a scientific problem, and science, from a variety of disciplines, should be used to make sense of the data, and to insure that whatever is learned about the phenomenon is not hidden in classified reports."

Holding a similar view is Ravi Kumar Kopparapu, a research scientist in planetary studies at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Kopparapu said the UAP report signals the need for more systematic collection of data. 

"We need more resources. It should be scientifically studied. Stigma should be removed. Some of these are real objects, some could be clutter and some could be unexplained," he told Space.com. 

"I am glad to see that the focus is on data collection, and I really like that there was no speculation about their nature," Kopparapu said. "I am hoping that several independent groups could begin, or continue, such data collection efforts to understand UAPs without any prior speculation and with the help of some resources."

Meanwhile, in a June 25 posting of "frequently asked questions," NASA noted that the space agency does not actively search for UAPs. "However, through our Earth-observing satellites, NASA collects extensive data about Earth's atmosphere, often in collaboration with the other space agencies of the world. While these data are not specifically collected to identify UAPs or alien technosignatures, they are publicly available and anyone may use them to search the atmosphere," the FAQ states.

"While NASA doesn't actively search for UAPs, if we learn of UAPs, it would open up the door to new science questions to explore. Atmospheric scientists, aerospace experts and other scientists could all contribute to understanding the nature of the phenomenon.  Exploring the unknown in space is at the heart of who we are," the posting concludes.

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A big deal

George Knapp is an American television investigative journalist, news anchor and talk radio host with a long-time involvement in assessing the UFO story.

"Months before the UAP report was made public, my feeling was that it was an important development by itself, no matter what it might contain," Knapp said. "The fact that Congress issued a directive to the Pentagon to formally create the UAP Task Force was a huge step forward on the topic. And then for the Pentagon to follow through, pull together as much information as possible, without being dismissive as in years past, is also a big deal," he said.

Knapp never expected any sort of capital "D" disclosure, not now and maybe not ever. "But it seems possible that Congress might authorize some sort of ongoing program to act as a central belly button for the investigation of military encounters with UAPs."

Judging by the comments Knapp has viewed on social media, many in the "UFO world" are angry because the report was a mere nine pages long, provided few specifics about recent military encounters with UAP, and completely avoided any mention of extraterrestrials, abductions, UFO crashes, Roswell or Area 51. 

"But the fact is, the report was never going to get into any of that stuff," Knapp said. "It has a very specific focus — to give Congress a sense of how often these encounters occur, why they are a legitimate concern and what if any roadblocks exist that might hinder investigations of UAP encounters and the sharing of information. The report accomplished that."

In Knapp's view, the report leaves open the possibility that some UAP could be foreign technology or secret American technology, but it also notes there is little or no evidence to support either of those options. "By keeping alternative explanations on the table, members of Congress might find it easier to vote for a permanent program to investigate UAP that might be Russian or Chinese, rather than spend tax dollars on what could be categorized as a hunt for space aliens."

The sky is not classified

Harvard University astrophysicist Avi Loeb said that the Pentagon delivered a report to Congress stating that some UAP are potentially real objects, but their nature is unknown. 

"UAP could be human-made, natural atmospheric phenomena or extraterrestrial in origin. All possibilities imply something new and interesting that we did not know before," Loeb told Space.com. "The study of UAP should now shift from the talking points of national security administrators and politicians to the arena of science, where it will be studied by scientists rather than government or military personnel."

The report avoids any scientific discussion of the possibility that the unexplained phenomena are extraterrestrial in origin, Loeb added, since this goes beyond the charter assigned to the government's task force.

UAP are likely a mixed bag, Loeb said.

"Many unidentified objects from eyewitness testimonies may have mundane explanations, but we need better evidence to be sure," he said. "An extraterrestrial piece of equipment could potentially be guided by advanced artificial intelligence — namely, an autonomous system which adapts to its environment through machine learning but follows the blueprint crafted by an intelligent species beyond Earth."

Clear up the mystery

At this time, the possibility that any UAP are extraterrestrial is highly speculative, Loeb said.

"Rather than wonder about possible scenarios, we should collect better scientific data and clarify the nature of UAP. This can be done by deploying state-of-the-art cameras on wide-field telescopes that monitor the sky. The sky is not classified; only government-owned sensors are," Loeb said. 

By searching for unusual phenomena in similar geographical locations as those from which the UAP reports came, scientists could clear up the mystery in a transparent analysis of open data, Loeb said. "The huge data set could be analyzed by an advanced computer system which will keep record only of its interesting transient features."

Loeb added that he would be delighted to lead a scientific project aimed at clearing up the nature of UAP. "I do not enjoy science fiction stories because the storylines often violate the laws of physics. But we should be open-minded to the possibility that science will one day reveal a reality that was previously considered as fiction."

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What now?

One upshot from the report's release has already materialized: The Department of Defense announced a go-ahead to better grapple with UAPs. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks issued a memo shortly after the UAP report went public. 

"A recent report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) highlights the current challenges associated with assessing Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) occurring on or near DoD training ranges and installations. It is critical that the United States maintain operations security and safety at DoD ranges. To this end, it is equally critical that all U.S. military aircrews or government personnel report whenever aircraft or other devices interfere with military training. This includes the observation and reporting of UAPs," the memo explained.

Furthermore, the Hicks memo said that all members of the DoD will utilize a set of established processes to ensure that the UAP Task Force or its follow-on entity "have reports of UAP observations within two weeks of an occurrence."

'An important first step'

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who pressed for the UAP study to be done, is also vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. 

Following the UAP report release, Rubio said in a statement: "For years, the men and women we trust to defend our country reported encounters with unidentified aircraft that had superior capabilities, and for years their concerns were often ignored and ridiculed."  

Rubio said that the report "is an important first step in cataloging these incidents, but it is just a first step. The Defense Department and intelligence community have a lot of work to do before we can actually understand whether these aerial threats present a serious national security concern."

You can read the government's UFO report in its entirety here.

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 @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. This version of the story published on Space.com.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

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 has 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.