For almost as long as humans have been capable of defying gravity, flinging ourselves into the heavens with metal wings, we've seen things in the sky that we can't explain. It's an area of study that's been, for the most part, confined to the fringes of polite society. But now these unexplained flying objects have captured the attention of mainstream America — and Congress.
I never watched "The X-Files" when it was on the air — as a somewhat cowardly lad who self-censored his media consumption, I knew that it was probably too scary for my developing tastes. But I still knew that I regarded myself as more of a Dana Scully than a Fox Mulder, as dedicated to rational inquiry, logic and science as you can be at the age of 8. I still do, to be honest. That's why I'm deeply skeptical that the objects we see in the grainy videos that have been circulating online for years are from another planet.
But now that I'm older, I find myself understanding Mulder a little better, with his belief in things unknown. And like the poster in his FBI office read, "I want to believe." I just need the evidence.
I will say, though, the evidence that UFOs actually are zipping around out there has grown considerably since I was a kid. It's not hard to see why the public has been so fascinated since last year, when the Defense Department confirmed the provenance of some of the videos out there. Just in the last few days, a recently leaked video from the Navy showed ... something disappearing into the water off California.
That clip was released just ahead of CBS' "60 Minutes" interview with two former Navy pilots who recounted their experiences with unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs — the official term the U.S. government uses for these kinds of things. And they knew how wild their claims sound, which is a good first step to establishing a witness's credibility.
"Over beers we've said, 'Hey man, if I saw this solo, I don't know that I would have come back and said anything,'" Lt. Cmdr. Alex Dietrich said. "Because it sounds so crazy when I say it."
Even former President Barack Obama weighed in on these objects Monday. "What is true, and I'm actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are," Obama said on CBS' "The Late Late Show with James Corden." (Sidebar: What a bit of synergy there for the "60 Minutes" segment; well done, everyone on the CBS crew who made that happen.)
"We can't explain how they move, their trajectory," Obama continued. "They did not have an easily explainable pattern. And so I think that people still take seriously trying to investigate and figure out what that is."
Let me pause to say that yes, I do believe that alien life exists somewhere out there. But as I said in an essay last year, I think we're not exactly the first stop on the galactic traveler's itinerary — nor should we be. Humanity has a long way to go before we're ready for visitors from beyond.
It's the folks who do think we're Grand Central Station for various alien species who have kept the discussion about what pilots have seen confined to the realm of kooks and cranks for decades. But that could change soon — in the next few weeks, Congress will receive a "detailed analysis of unidentified aerial phenomena data and intelligence" from the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Pentagon's Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force and the FBI.
"Oh, but Congress has so many other things it could be doing!" I hear you say out there. First of all, shut up. This is amazing; let me have this. But also, there is an actual legitimate non-extraterrestrial reason that I'm glad that Congress is looking into these zippy little aircraft. Whatever they are, they're in U.S. airspace, and, if these videos are any indication, they move in a way that isn't like anything else the public has seen.
If — and this is a big if! — these things are aircraft that another country has developed, that seems like a pretty big deal. (And if you were to pitch me a theory that the U.S. actually knows what these things are but can't say because it doesn't want any other country to get the tech, well, that's more believable than aliens to me.) On this front, I find that I, wildly enough, agree with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., which in normal circumstances would be evidence that I had been replaced with an alien replica.
"Some of my colleagues are very interested in this topic, and some kind of, you know, giggle when you bring it up," Rubio, the vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, said on "60 Minutes." "But I don't think we can allow the stigma to keep us from having an answer to a very fundamental question."
He's right. It's a national security issue to have things flying around that we can't ID. That's probably part of why the fascination with UFOs was so high during the post-World War II era, as the fear of the Soviets' developing a secret airplane probably freaked a lot of people out. So, I, for one, am super excited to see what the unclassified report to Congress has to say about this.
And if some of the evidence happens to point to an origin higher than the troposphere for these weird little aircraft — well, I'll try to keep an open mind.