The Source of UFO Fascination
A DISCUSSION OFUFOs Won’t Go Away
In “UFOs Won’t Go Away” (Issues, Spring 2019), Keith Kloor asks a broad question about the pesky tenacity of belief in unidentified flying objects: “Who benefits from these tales of close encounters?” It’s a good question: besides Bigfoot and other cryptids, it’s hard to think of another meme as persistent in conspiracy culture as UFOs.
There are places in the United States where the practical benefit of UFO tales is plain to see: back when I was a graduate student in astronomy, I took a side trip on my way to a telescope to visit Roswell, New Mexico. On Roswell’s main strip, silver-and-green-painted gift shops sell alien-themed everything. Many items are emblazoned with Roswell-specific things, but others draw from the deeper well of conspiracy theories: I left with a shot glass warning “Keep Out! Area 51 Restricted,” despite the fact that Area 51, the worst-kept secret of secret military installations, is hundreds of miles away in Nevada.
Gift shops aside, it’s not always clear who benefits from belief in UFOs. Kloor deftly summarizes the tangled threads of UFO history, from its roots in the Cold War to how true military concerns later intermixed with pop culture, creating the virtual Roswell strip that now lives in our media. It makes sense that the military would be interested in investigating anything airborne and unidentified—after all, much Cold War anxiety came from a literal UFO: the Russian satellite Sputnik, whose persistent beep launched much of the US space program. As Kloor discusses, a sustaining element in UFO subculture is this involvement of the military itself—in particular, an ongoing cast of characters fresh out of service from the Department of Defense, ready to lend the heft of their credentials to media commentary.
Beyond press attention, one wonders not only who benefits from UFO stories but also what that benefit is. Though Kloor mentions the “thriving UFO marketplace,” the benefit doesn’t necessarily seem to be money—after all, Luis Elizondo, the ex-military official formerly in charge of the Pentagon program that investigated UFOs, told Kloor that he refused a speaking fee for a recent talk. Tom Delonge, formerly of the band Blink-182 and now founder of the UFO-centric organization To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science, is essentially personally bankrolling his own organization, which is operating at an accumulated deficit of $37 million. Certainly, aliens are a perennial favorite at the box office, but by and large alien films and similar cultural commodities are capitalizing on existing interest in aliens, rather than being creations by true UFO believers.
My own research delves into questions of how we might discover life in the universe, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Although I don’t believe that aliens are visiting Earth, I do chafe at how taboos can inhibit discussions about finding life. Even among astronomers—who are arguably intelligent life forms, who build technology such as telescopes and spacecraft to search for life—SETI and similar efforts are sometimes relegated to the fringe. In this way, I understand the quest for legitimacy that lies at the heart of people’s fervent belief in UFOs—a hunger fueled by a heady combination of credentialed commentators and just enough opacity to keep anybody guessing.