What The Pentagon's UFO Report Reveals About Aliens — And Ourselves : Consider This from NPR Late last year the Senate passed a bill that required U.S. intelligence agencies to share what they know about "unidentified aerial phenomena," the technical term for UFOs. That report was released last week. Spoiler alert — it doesn't confirm the existence of alien spacecraft. But it doesn't rule them out either.

Retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Alex Dietrich recounts her first-hand encounter with a UFO off the coast of Southern California. It's one of 144 sightings mentioned in the new unclassified report.

Historian and University of Pennsylvania professor Kate Dorsch explains some of the possible reasons why Americans report more UFO sightings than any other county in the world.

What The Pentagon's UFO Report Reveals About Aliens — And Ourselves

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There's a trope in TV shows and movies about alien encounters.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Welcome to Area 51. Please follow me.

CORNISH: You typically have some kind of scientist, often a government official, who is very enthusiastic about their extraterrestrial research. And they're treated like an oddball.


ADAM BALDWIN: (As Major Mitchell) Mr. President, this is Dr. Okun. He's been heading up the...

CORNISH: For instance, this scene in the 1996 film "Independence Day," where the president is basically doing an extended eye roll as an Area 51 researcher shows him around the place.


BRENT SPINER: (As. Dr. Okun) Mr. President, wow, what a pleasure. As you can imagine, they don't let us out much.

BILL PULLMAN: (As President Thomas J. Whitmore) I can understand that.

CORNISH: Well, these days we have an actual former president talking openly about unidentified flying objects on national TV.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What is true, and I'm actually being serious here is, is that there are - there's footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are.

CORNISH: Here's former President Barack Obama on "The Late Late Show With James Corden" last month.


OBAMA: We can't explain how they moved, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern.


HARRY REID: You don't have to be some kind of oddball to be interested in what's going on.

CORNISH: OK, and that's Harry Reid, former Democratic senator from Nevada. Back in 2007, Reid got funding for a project called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program to study unidentified aerial phenomena, the official term for UFOs.


REID: Now, the reason we didn't hear more about them is because the military kept them all secret until very recently.

CORNISH: Maybe Reid was seen as the oddball back then because the program got shut down five years in. But last year, the Department of Defense released previously leaked footage of Navy pilot interactions with UFOs.


UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #1: My gosh, they're all going against the wind. The wind’s 120 knots to the west.


REID: They don't know what they are, but they don't know what they aren't either. They just don't know. And that's the way I look at it. We know now without any hesitation that they exist.

CORNISH: Well, Reid isn't alone in his interest. Late last year, the Senate passed a bill that required U.S. intelligence agencies to share what they know about unidentified aerial phenomena. And that report, it was released last week. Spoiler alert, it does not confirm the existence of alien spacecraft, but it doesn't rule them out either.


REID: It's something that the American people need to know more about and the federal government better help.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - UFOs are not such a fringe idea anymore. The next question is, why do Americans report seeing them more than anyone else?


CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Tuesday, June 29.


CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. On November 14, 2004, Navy fighter pilot Alex Dietrich was flying a routine training mission with her commanding officer off the coast of Southern California.


ALEX DIETRICH: We didn't see anything immediately, but someone in the flight did notice that there was some sort of disturbance in the water.

CORNISH: A disturbance.


DIETRICH: Sort of roiling water below us.

CORNISH: And then Dietrich saw something.


DIETRICH: It was this sort of roundish, oblong shape, and it didn't have any apparent flight control surfaces.

CORNISH: Another pilot described it as looking like a Tic-Tac. It didn't have wings, no rudders, no smoke trail either, meaning no apparent form of propulsion and also moved differently.


DIETRICH: It seemed to be bouncing around and changing course very quickly and in a way that we would not have been able to maneuver our own aircraft or certainly to keep up.

CORNISH: They stayed with it for a few minutes. Later, another pilot even caught it on radar. It's one of those videos that have since been released by the Pentagon.


UNIDENTIFIED PILOT #2: Oh, got it (ph). Woo-hoo (laughter).


DIETRICH: We were all jumping on the radios and shouting at each other. And people who were in the same airspace or listening to those frequencies, they were saying what's going on? You know, are you guys OK?

CORNISH: In the years since then, Dietrich says that whenever this sighting comes up in conversation, it prompts two kinds of reactions.


DIETRICH: One has been the absurdity of it (laughter), you know, friends and family who joke over beers, you know, about the time I saw a UFO. And then there's the very serious track of, what are the implications for national security?

CORNISH: Dietrich's encounter was one of 144 sightings since 2004 that were referenced in last week's unclassified report on UFOs, 143 of which the U.S. government cannot explain. That other one turned out to be a deflating balloon. In 18 of the incidents, observers reported unusual movement patterns like the Tic-Tac in California. But one of the key takeaways from the nine-page document, according to historian Kate Dorsch, was a little less climactic.


KATE DORSCH: It is asking for more money to establish a better data collection and analysis process, and it very much mirrors similar reports that have come before throughout the 20th century.


The report was largely focused on national security and concluded that more inquiry, more research is what's needed. But Dorsch, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, is thinking beyond security. She's thinking about what these sightings say about the U.S. as a culture.


DORSCH: UFO sightings are not bounded by any one demographic marker. People of all ages, gender orientations, religions, ethnic backgrounds, there is no single thing that says these people see UFOs more than others.

CORISH: With one exception - where UFO spotters live. Because, according to Dorsch, Americans see or at least report a lot more sightings than anywhere else in the world. And that's where we started our conversation.


DORSCH: Of course, we will never have complete sighting data because not everyone reports. But it is fair to say that Americans seem more willing to talk about their experiences than people in other places in the world.

CORISH: Can you talk more about that? Why do you think that is?

DORSCH: I think that it is in part because we have created a culture around civilian defense, right? If you see something, say something. Americans also are much more focused on individual expertise and individual experience. We're very individualist country, and so we're more willing to share the things that we've seen and heard and done.

We've also asked people to report when they see strange things overhead. There's a historical piece about rockets and satellites, surveillance, drones, et cetera. And also, America sort of doesn't really like being told what to do, right? We don't like having to bow to authority all the time. And so UFOs become a place where we can say common knowledge says that UFOs don't exist, but I saw one, so now I know better.

CORISH: Is there any intersection with our embrace of conspiracy theories?

DORSCH: I think so, yes. Scholars have written at length about how America is particularly drawn to conspiracy theories. And I think that our culture embraces conspiracy theories in such a impassioned and robust way that creates a really great space for UFOs to continue having a sort of cultural relevance to us as a way to stand in for all kinds of concerns, be they political, religious, sort of existential sometimes in some ways.

CORISH: What do we know about other countries, maybe Europe and elsewhere, where there have been similar kinds of sightings? How do they talk about them?

DORSCH: So it - UFOs have a very sort of local cultural context. And the way that they are interpreted in other places in the world is not always align with how we interpret them here in the states. For example, UFO sightings in the '50s and '60s in Germany very rarely had the sort of alien extraterrestrial bend to the interpretation. Instead, Germans saw things they couldn't explain, saw quote-unquote, "UFOs" and assumed that they were American or Russian technology, that the global superpowers were testing new kinds of war technology over their skies.

In the '40s and '50s, there were a series of sightings in Sweden, the ghost rockets. Again, quickly interpreted to be a new Russian technology. This is true throughout the world. These sightings take on a kind of relevance to the particular place in which they're seen, I think, which we should expect based on both local and global pressures at the time.

CORISH: That's interesting, though, because if you believe you're in a country that has superior technology, then you don't necessarily think to point to another country when you see something unusual.

DORSCH: That's what I think is interesting about the way that the current stories - right? - the sort of the Navy videos, the pilot reports. What I think is interesting about them is that many politicians and other kinds of military experts, technological experts are now pointing to China and saying, well, these might represent some kind of new Chinese surveillance technology, right? Or they might be Russian.

We're kind of getting back to these geopolitical surveillance warfare explanations that were very typical of the Cold War. But when you're America, it's hard to think of another nation that is as technologically advanced as you are. And so for a long time, because we were the dominant, you know, techno-scientific nation on the planet, we had to look to the stars for an explanation for a technology that seemed so far past us.

CORISH: Do you have any ideas about why the U.S. government is choosing this moment to open up about this topic?

DORSCH: For sure. So part of it is that they had to, right? There was a rider in the COVID relief bill requiring a report from the Pentagon about the current state of the unidentified aerial phenomenon investigations taking place inside the Pentagon. Why the government is taking interest now, like, why are - senators and Congress people put this in the bill, why the story has persisted, I think, has a lot to do with the political moment that there is this new story that is circulating - right? - given the deep state charges that were so popular among a certain group of people throughout the Trump administration.

And the fact that I think a lot of Americans feel like we don't have as much visibility into our government as we would like or as we might have had in the past, it causes these stories about cover-up and obfuscation to really gain traction. And so I think it is impressive that these Navy stories, these Navy sightings, have stayed in the news for 3 1/2 years now. But I think it speaks to our current political moment that we do feel distrustful of our government and our military, for better or worse.

CORISH: But do you think that this is enthusiasm, that will last - right? - like, now, that this report is out?

DORSCH: It would not surprise me if enthusiasm does sort of ebb away. Now that the report has been released, it's very succinct. It's very typical of a UFO report coming out of the United States military. And this is what UFO interest does. It goes through these sorts of peaks and valleys where there are periods of a ton of interest often focused around a single or a series of sightings and then a quiet period until the next sort of ramp up happens. There will always be an enthusiastic community, regardless of how visible they are in the media. But I would not be surprised if, in the coming months, the story dissipates, and like a UFO does, disappears sort of back into the stars for the time being.


CORISH: Kate Dorsch, historian and professor of science and technology at the University of Pennsylvania.


CORISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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