“This Is Not an Invasion of the Aliens”: How UFO Mania Went Mainstream
In August 1835, Benjamin Day’s New York Sun published a six-part series heralding an otherworldly discovery. These articles, which the pioneering penny paper presented as an adaptation from the Edinburgh Journal of Science, under the headline “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made,” described something that the renowned British astronomer Sir John Herschel had supposedly observed through the lens of a “stupendous” new telescope, aimed toward the moon from a perch at the Cape of Good Hope. When Herschel peered into his all-powerful lens, according to the Sun, he saw glimpses of life—not merely lakes and streams and verdant flora but also bison-like beasts, unicorn goats, miniature zebras, man-bats, and all manner of wondrous creatures worthy of Greek mythology. “When a work, already preparing for the press, in which his discoveries are embodied in detail, shall be laid before the public,” the first installment of the Sun’s blockbuster boasted, “they will be found of incomparable importance to some of the grandest operations of civilized life.”
The Herschel series, as would be immediately apparent to any modern reader, was not a monumental breakthrough from a scientific genius of the age but rather a clever hoax devised by a mischievous newspaper editor. And yet, the credulous masses of mid-19th century America fell for it hook, line, and sinker, devouring the purported revelations with awe. The sensation ricocheted around the globe as newspapers throughout the United States and Europe reprinted the articles, until the Sun, several weeks after debuting the ruse, finally admitted it had made the whole thing up, arguing in a lukewarm apologia that at least the stories had “a useful effect in diverting the public mind, for a while, from the bitter apple of discord.”
In the decades following the Great Moon Hoax, talk of aliens wasn’t typically something you’d expect to see at the fore of the mainstream news media. Perhaps with the exception of America’s Cold War-era UFO hysteria, rumblings of little green men have generally been relegated to the fringes of the media ecosystem, from obscure hobbyist magazines and late-night TV documentaries to deep, dark Internet forums and the front pages of America’s bawdiest supermarket tabloids. But here we are in the bizarro universe of 2023—still reeling from the aftershocks of a reality-television presidency, emerging from a once-in-a-century pandemic, engaging in sophisticated conversations with AI chatbots—and talk of aliens is, apparently, just the type of thing you might expect to see at the fore of the mainstream news media.
It happened again this past weekend, as smartphones lit up with alerts about mysterious objects being shot out of the sky, one after the other, from Lake Huron to the Alaskan coastline to the Canadian Yukon. This was different from the spy-thriller-like saga of the Chinese surveillance balloon, taken down by an F-22 fighter jet in the waters off South Carolina just days earlier. At least we knew what that thing was. These other things—literal unidentified flying objects—were a total mystery. One was described as “an octagonal structure with strings hanging off but no discernable payload.” Another looked similar to the Chinese balloon but “smaller in size and cylindrical.” The third was ”about the size of a small car“ and ”not similar in size or shape” to a balloon, whatever that means. “What the fuck is it?” a friend texted me. “I’m obsessed.”
Intrigue-laden news reports quickly filled the information vacuum. “When the US first detected this object,” said national security correspondent Natasha Bertrand on CNN, referring to the craft over Alaska, “they sent up F-35 jets to kind of look at it and see what was going on, and these pilots reported back very conflicting accounts. Some of them said that this object was actually interfering with the sensors of their aircraft and they couldn’t figure out why, because there was no identifiable kind of surveillance equipment on the object. There was nothing that appeared readily able to interfere with that communication systems. And then other pilots were saying that they did not see anything on the object that appeared able to propel it, that it seemed like there was no way that this was actually able to stay in the air.” At which point CNN may as well have cued up the X Files theme song.
A Reuters headline, meanwhile, declared: “Ruling out aliens? Senior US general says not ruling out anything yet.” In remarks picked up by Reuters and other major news outlets, the US Air Force general overseeing North American airspace had demurred when asked during a news conference whether he would dismiss origins of an extraterrestrial nature, telling reporters, “I haven’t ruled out anything at this point.”
Cold water flowed forth in a subsequent New York Times report, which stated that “national security officials discounted any thoughts that what the Air Force shot out of the sky represented any sort of alien visitors. No one, one senior official said, thinks these things are anything other than devices fashioned here on Earth.” (Consider the fact that government officials actually had to spell it out.) Nevertheless, by Monday, alien fever was hot enough that the following sentence rolled off the tongue of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during her daily briefing: “There is no—again, no—indication of aliens or extraterrestrial activity with these recent takedowns.“ (Or so she’d have us believe.)
Recapping the uncanny imbroglio on Tuesday’s episode of The Daily, Michael Barbaro spoke for us all when he bluntly observed, “This was a very strange few days. It just was surreal.“
“It really had a sci-fi, espionage, thriller feel to it,“ agreed Julian Barnes, an intelligence reporter whose byline appeared on the aforementioned Times report.
“Yeah,” continued Barbaro. “It just felt, almost supernatural.”
Barnes’s and Barbaro’s comments harkened back to the Roswell era, when the US Army, in July 1947, announced it had recovered a “flying disc” from a ranch in remote New Mexico, only to backtrack and clarify that the wreckage it had found was a boring old weather balloon. (So many balloons!) That fateful event gave rise to a full-blown cultural obsession with flying saucers and martian visitors and alien abductions, fueled not only by a seemingly endless stream of alleged civilian sightings but also the glut of kitschy sci-fi films that became a 1950s Hollywood hallmark. Congress convened hearings on UFOs into the 1960s, coinciding with the clandestine investigations of the US Air Force’s Project Blue Book. When that program came to an end on December 17, 1969, UFOs were officially consigned to the realm of kookery and conspiracy-mongering.
Decades later, they crashed into the modern mainstream in December 2017—almost exactly 48 years to the day of Project Blue Book’s sunset—with a front-page exposé in America’s paper of record, which blew the lid off a $22 million Defense Department program that had for years been secretly probing reports of unidentified aerial phenomena. As I suggested at the time, seeing a story about UFOs on A1 of the Sunday New York Times once seemed about as likely as seeing a UFO touch down on top of the Times building in midtown Manhattan. But there we were, reading about Navy pilots off the coast of Southern California encountering a strange object that “accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen.” (Also, remember the alloys? What ever happened to the alloys?) The Times investigation got traction on major television networks and in other national and world media. When I dropped a line to then-executive editor Dean Baquet, he told me, “It was a story about government, and fights over funding and priorities. And it was damn interesting. That feels to me like the makings of a story worth putting on the front page.”
Ever since then, UFOs have remained a standard ingredient of the news diet, a beat unto themselves, or at least a particular slice of the national security beat, reported on and talked about like any other facet of the murky and often confounding intelligence world. Media interest tends to flare and recede, but it never disappears, and one gets a sense there’s always something UFO-related lurking in the darkest shadows of our government.
The next breakthrough came in the spring of 2021, with a flurry of reports that poured fuel on the fire set by the Times three-and-a-half years earlier. The New Yorker published a feature headlined “How the Pentagon Started Taking U.F.O.s Seriously.” (“Not in a million years did I ever think I would have thought about, much less published, a long piece about UFOs and taken them seriously,” editor David Remnick told me after the story ran.) 60 Minutes did a big segment about the government’s “grudging acknowledgment” that “there’s something out there,” which was followed by Barack Obama telling James Corden during a taping of The Late Late Show, “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there are—there’s footage and records of objects in the skies, that we don’t know exactly what they are, we can’t explain how they moved, their trajectory. They did not have an easily explainable pattern.” Previewing a government report due out that June, the Times informed us—again on its front page—that “American intelligence officials have found no evidence that aerial phenomena witnessed by Navy pilots in recent years are alien spacecraft, but they still cannot explain the unusual movements that have mystified scientists and the military.”