| Magazine Feature |

Alone in the World?

Has the Pentagon been hiding information on extraterrestrial life from the public for decades?

Photos: Avi Loeb archives, YouTube screenshots, Mishpacha archives

The recordings captured from US Air Force planes last a mere 1.17 minutes — just long enough to spark mass international reaction. In the first video, against a backdrop of cloud contours, a bright white oval figure streaks across the sky.

“Oh, my gosh!” exclaims one of the pilots.

“They are going against the wind!” chimes in the second, “and the wind is 120 knots to the west!”

“Look at that thing, dude!” insists the first one.

Suddenly, the object starts to rotate. The pilot can’t contain his amazement.

“Look at that thing! It’s rotating!” Cut.

In the second video, the camera is pointed downward, with the sea as the backdrop. The radar pinpoints an object moving at such astonishing speed that it eludes tracking. The first two attempts are unsuccessful. On the third try, the radar locks onto it.

“Whoa! We got it!” exclaims the pilot.

The military personnel are all excitement: “Woo-hoo!” one cheers.

“Oh, my gosh, dude!” exclaims the first.

“Wow! Look at it fly!” Cut.

In the third video, a small object picked up by the radar remains static for a few moments before vanishing abruptly. Cut.

These images were never meant to go public. In fact, they gathered dust in the Pentagon’s archives for several years until Christopher Mellon, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and later for Security and Information Operations, leaked them to the press. Since 2017, Mellon has been working to discover the truth about unidentified aerial phenomena, or what are commonly known as UFOs, or what the US government now calls UAPs — unidentified anomalous phenomenon.

After decades on the margins, in which interest in UFOs was dismissed as crankery, the field has edged into the mainstream.

Suddenly, all those crazies claiming to have seen “close encounters of the third kind” were no longer farmers who had seen a dawn light in the field, campers who had spotted a strange figure among the trees, or conspiracy theorists adamant that the government was hiding alien bodies from the Roswell Incident (the July 1947 recovery of metallic and rubber debris from a military balloon by Roswell Army Air Field personnel, who issued a press release announcing possession of a “flying disc”). They were decorated military personnel, esteemed scientists, and career politicians.

Public demand for more information and the confusion generated by the viral spread of these recordings forced the Pentagon to release a declassified version of the videos. These nearly two minutes of film represented an unforeseen victory for all those who had been silenced, labeled as conspiracy theorists, branded as crazy, or ridiculed for believing in something that until very recently was the exclusive material of science fiction products.

Few of them could have imagined what would happen next: The United States Congress, in an unlikely display of bipartisanship in these divided times, exhibited a unified interest in uncovering what was hovering in American skies. This past summer’s congressional hearing was boosted by another whistleblower, former intelligence officer David Grusch, who testified that he worked on classified military programs and that the government has had a longstanding program to retrieve UFOs, and that “nonhuman biologics have been found at crash sites.”

Just days ago, congressmen were taken aback by the testimonies of three former Air Force personnel who detailed their encounters with UAPs and who’ve called for the government to allocate more significant funding to determine if we are truly not alone in this universe.

How did the discussion of the existence of extraterrestrials, once swept under the rug or the purview of the eccentric, manage to become a mainstream topic?

Into the Unknown

According to the latest census, Beit Hanan, a moshav in central Israel, has just under 600 inhabitants. While the majority of such communities in Israel have shifted away from agriculture, this particular locale still finds itself committed to the cultivation of select fruits and flowers. It’s also the home of the world’s most distinguished advocate of extraterrestrial existence.

“Fundamentally, I’m just a curious farm boy,” Professor Avraham Loeb assures Mishpacha.

Professor Loeb, who prefers to be addressed simply as “Avi,” may describe himself as a farmer, but his many awards and honors tell a different story. He is a theoretical physicist, holding the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University. He has also served as the longest-standing chair of Harvard’s department of astronomy, cofounded Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative, and directed the Institute for Theory and Computation within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Furthermore, he is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the International Academy of Astronautics. Loeb was appointed as the chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies and, in June 2020, he was sworn in as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the White House. It’s fair to say that Avi is, in essence, a nemesis to skeptics — a man adorned with titles and accolades that lend an uncommon academic weight to the taboo topic of aliens.

“It would actually be arrogant to believe that we are alone in the universe,” Professor Loeb says. “There are billions of stars like the sun in the Milky Way galaxy alone. And we know that a significant percentage of them have planets the size of Earth. Then you have a trillion galaxies like it in the observable volume of the universe.”

Loeb, author of two recent popular science books, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, and Interstellar: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Our Future in the Stars, is willing to contemplate the existence of nonhuman technology and how it may explain certain perplexing astronomical observations that mainstream science struggles with.

The statistical argument is often trotted out to assert that, in theory, aliens should exist. Loeb takes it a step further, considering it highly likely that they may have already visited Earth.

“It’s quite possible that we are having extraterrestrial visits,” he muses, but he finds the methods for detecting them inefficient.

“Just to give you an example: Take an object the size of one meter, like the meteorite I went after in 2014, based on the statistics of one impact every decade on Earth, and there should be millions of them within the orbit of the earth around the sun at any given time. But we can’t see them with telescopes because they’re too small to reflect enough sunlight — with telescopes, we can only see objects bigger than the size of a football field. So even though people say, ‘Oh, we should have seen them,’ our equipment can’t see objects of that size.”

The meteor he was referring to was a fast-moving body — about 37 miles per second — that the US government confirmed three years later was interstellar. Because it exploded in the lower atmosphere, Loeb posited that it must have been tougher than the other meteors, which made him think that perhaps it was made of some artificial alloy and moved so fast because it was fueled.

And then there was the discovery of an elongated interstellar object named Oumuamua in October 2017. It passed close to Earth, but was actually moving faster than the escape speed of the solar system, so it had come from outside the solar system. There were other properties that indicated it might have been produced by technological means, and a few years later, there was another object discovered that shared the same properties. It ended up being a rocket booster that Nasa produced and launched back in 1966. But who produced Oumuamua?

If Professor Loeb is right, the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial existence may be due to a mere incompetence in the pursuit of finding them. However, more and more voices have risen to explain the absence of alien evidence not as the result of investigative failures, but rather as a deliberate decision by political echelons to conceal findings that they prefer, for various reasons, to keep under wraps.

Former military intelligence officer-turned-whistleblower David Grusch told a congressional oversight committee that he had interviewed government officials who had direct knowledge of aircraft with “nonhuman” origins, and that so-called “biologics” were recovered from some craft

Down to Earth

The modern era of UFOs — the “flying saucer era” — started in the late 1940s, with people claiming they’d spotted extraterrestrial bodies on the horizon. The media at the time gave extensive coverage of the testimony of Kenneth Arnold, a civilian pilot who claimed to have witnessed “disc-shaped objects” flying through the sky.

In 1947, Air Force Lieutenant General Nathan Farragut Twining sent a memo to Pentagon authorities, alarmed by the appearance of these “flying discs.” He would then head what was known as “Project Sign,” the first government project tasked with investigating UFO-related incidents.

While it is true that the government acknowledged citizens’ reports, within the Department of Defense, suspicions lingered that these flying objects were, in reality, spy weapons, particularly Russian weapons attempting to infiltrate American airspace.

However, over time, members of Project Sign, later rebranded as Project Grudge and eventually known as Project Blue Book, dismissed the notion of Russian spy equipment. A 1952 communication between Major General John Samford, director of Air Force Intelligence, and the FBI, asserted that “it is not entirely impossible that the objects sighted might possibly be ships from another planet….”

At the time, the Pentagon even established a dedicated department for investigation. So how did UFOs retreat into the margins, and become a topic associated with cranks and conspiracy theorists? According to some accounts, it was the government itself, through the CIA, that decided to launch a campaign to debunk claims of extraterrestrial life.

A 1952 CIA memo acknowledges the need to take extreme measures to “minimize the risk of panic.” The chosen method was to diminish public interest, and the most effective way to do so was to discredit such investigations. In fact, one of the scientists hired for Project Blue Book, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, admitted that the CIA sought to portray UFOs as nonsense and were rendered “scientifically unrespectable.”

Until the 1970s, the US government still had its own active UFO search program, although after it was shut down, the Pentagon disavowed any knowledge of it. One likely reason for the Pentagon’s reticence was that some of those unidentified flying objects were actually advanced aerial technologies being tested by US adversaries such as Russia, or America’s own advanced technologies being tested.


Coverage or Coverup?

A sign that ufology, the study of UFOs, was edging back into respectable discourse came from that most mainstream of institutions — the mainstream media. In 2017, the New York Times broke the story that from 2005 until 2012, the Pentagon had funded research into UAPs using black money designated for classified programs. Even after funding was cut, research continued by service members as a sideline to their main duties. The program produced reports that describe sightings of aircraft that seemed to move at very high speeds with no visible signs of propulsion, or that hovered with no apparent means of lift.

One such encounter was documented in footage from a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter plane showing an aircraft surrounded by some kind of glowing aura traveling at high speed and rotating as it moves. The Navy pilots can be heard trying to understand what they are seeing.

“There’s a whole fleet of them,” one exclaims.

That report stirred a range of stories in outlets from the Washington Post to Politico, with a common frame being the mainstreaming of interest in the phenomenon itself.

In response to the increasing demand for information about the possible existence of extraterrestrial beings, last year NASA formed a group of 16 experts to study unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAPs. On September 15, NASA presented the findings of their research. Before revealing the results of the report, NASA head Bill Nelson made it clear that he himself believes in the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Statistically, he said, it’s nearly impossible to believe otherwise. “There are billions of galaxies with billions of planets,” he explained, asserting the probability that there is at least one where life exists.

However, those who expected NASA to determine that alien life definitively exists were disappointed. “The NASA independent study team did not find any evidence that UAPs have an extraterrestrial origin. But,” Nelson announced somewhat ambiguously, “we don’t know what these UAPs are.”

David Grusch’s testimony earlier this summer before the House Oversight Committee’s National Security Subcommittee, however, is keeping the issue on the table. Confronted by several congressmen in late July, Grusch, a former intelligence agent with 14 years of service in the Air Force and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, hinted that the US government possesses information about extraterrestrial encounters and a wealth of information about interplanetary life that has not yet been made available to lawmakers. He’d even hinted in an interview to a media outlet that the government had stored extraterrestrial spacecraft, and claimed to know of agents who were attacked by peers to prevent them from revealing the existence of this extraterrestrial technology. The Pentagon limited its response to denying Grusch’s claims.


Mexican Mix

A few days before NASA’s announcement, the Mexican Congress held a hearing in which two small “bodies” that were claimed to be mummified extraterrestrials were presented. The event was organized by journalist and ufologist Jaime Maussan, who claimed that the specimens had been found in Peru in 2017. But instead of these mini bodies with three fingers and toes and a head reminiscent of E.T. proving the notion of aliens having fallen to Earth, they became the subject of cynicism and derision.

Former US Navy pilot Ryan Graves, who had also testified before the US Congress alongside Grusch and Commander David Fravor, was invited to the presentation and did not hide his anger: “Yesterday’s demonstration was a huge step backward for this issue. I am deeply disappointed by this unsubstantiated stunt,” he posted on social media.

The scientific community in general has viewed these “mummies” as a debunked hoax. Nick Pope, a former investigator at Britain’s Ministry of Defence, who headed the ministry’s so-called “UFO desk,” shared the sentiment. “I think it’s more likely that it’s a model or a fake of some sort.”

In an interview with Mishpacha, he dismissed the Mexican claims without losing his British diplomacy. “It may be that it was a genuine mistake, as opposed to a fraud. And they just found something interesting. But clearly, they would have needed to have this properly forensically examined for DNA, peer reviewed and so forth, before making this public. I think they made the announcement too soon.”

A recent social media frenzy was triggered by a video that showed a knife cutting into this “alien corpse,” which turned out to be filled with… chocolate layer cake — leading some to believe that the Mexican government had staged the entire event. Other website investigations, however, determined that the “mummy cake” was actually created a day after the Mexican Congress display by a baker in England.

While the cake was an obvious, although entertaining, fake, it’s worth noting that Maussan made similar claims about these mummified aliens from Peru in 2017. But a report from Peru’s prosecutor’s office later claimed that these were fabricated figures, made from a mixture of paper and synthetic glue.

Hoax or not, it seems the idea of extraterrestrial life is being taken seriously by mainstream agencies. Pope says that “there has been a realization that this is a defense and national security issue,” which is why the government began taking the matter seriously.

When asked about the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the issue, Pope said, “One possibility is that revealing it would reveal technology. If we’re being visited, the technology is clearly more advanced than anything we have. And so we probably don’t want to give any clues about it to an adversary like China or Russia, or Iran, or North Korea. Another possibility is that people are worried about the geopolitical situation, and who wants to throw that into the mix when things are tense and difficult as it is. So I can think there would be reasons why governments might say to themselves, you know what, I’m not sure people are ready for this.”


Air Pressure

The demise of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program — the Pentagon’s UFO research program that ended in 2012, as revealed by the New York Times — came soon after the shuttering of the department dedicated to UFO research at Britain’s Ministry of Defence, where Nick Pope had served. Pope attributes this to a certain sector of the ministry that did not consider the matter serious enough.

“I had taken early retirement from the Ministry by that time, so I didn’t have any influence in trying to fight back against that decision, but I think it was a mistake. It was a triumph of a very closed-minded attitude.”

Nevertheless, Pope hopes that the Ministry of Defence will reconsider the decision. “I think there is now a lot of pressure for the United Kingdom to reopen UFO investigations because of what’s happening here in the United States,” he estimates.

In fact, the renewed enthusiasm of the US government for investigating extraterrestrial aliens led to the creation of a special department: In 2022, the US Department of Defense opened the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO). The Defense Department claims that “our team of experts is… leading the US government’s efforts to address Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) using a rigorous scientific framework and a data-driven approach.”

Beyond these renewed government expressions of interest, one cannot help but question whether it is possible to place trust in a body that has made efforts to conceal evidence of the very subject it seeks to investigate. But one thing that has shifted in recent times is the interest and fascination of private investors in unraveling the mysteries beyond our galaxy.

One person who’s benefited from this is Professor Loeb, who continues to emphasize the need for investment to enhance scientific investigations. Thanks to private funding, in 2021 he founded the Galileo Project, a research program at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, an ambitious attempt to monitor what happens in the skies on a much larger scale and find aliens.

The interest of the super-rich in space is no secret: Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Blue Origin), and Richard Branson (Virgin) have all entered the space race, and Loeb has made sure to meet with all of them.

“Finding extraordinary evidence requires extraordinary funding,” Professor Loeb says. “For a price, we could send a probe to every star in the Milky Way galaxy within this century. It’s just a matter of priorities.”

In a data-driven world, the lack of empirical evidence makes it exceedingly difficult to prove the existence of aliens. Nevertheless, if they were merely a fantastic invention, why have there been such concerted efforts to conceal the findings of Air Force pilots?

“There is a UFO taboo. Not in popular culture, of course, where interest in UFOs abounds, but in elite culture — the structure of authoritative belief and practice that determines what ‘officially’ is,” wrote Dr. Alexander Wendt, a professor of political science at Ohio State University.

It was precisely this lack of interest from authorities that led Christopher Mellon to leak the videos.

“It’s unfortunate that someone like myself has to pull such a stunt in order to get a national security issue like this on the agenda,” he stated. “But we understood that you have to get to the public, get the public interested to get Congress interested, to then circle back to the Defense Department and get them to start taking a look at it.”

Since his time in public service, Mellon has been highly active in various organizations dedicated to UAP research, including Professor Loeb’s Galileo Project and a group of researchers known as the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies.

“I think the public realizes that there are so many stars with so many planets now that it makes sense to search. It makes sense to consider that possibility,” Professor Loeb asserted. “Two-thirds of Americans believe in interstellar extraterrestrial intelligence. And that’s because it makes sense.”

Loeb noted that even though “it’s possible that many of these civilizations are dead by now and they’re no longer around,” objects they sent into outer space continue to accumulate over time, and we can search for them.

Ironically, the greatest resistance to the possibility of extraterrestrial existence has come precisely from those who have the tools to investigate it. The scientific community, for the most part, has stood almost unanimously in rejection of these theories. Aside from isolated projects like Professor Loeb’s at Harvard, universities don’t include it in their curricula or research.

“Within the mainstream of theoretical physics,” says Professor Loeb, “there are lots of speculative ideas. We were entertained for many decades with ideas like string theory or the multiverse. These are ideas that have been popular for four to five decades now, yet we don’t have empirical evidence for them. They are within the mainstream because they allow mathematical physicists to do intellectual gymnastics.”

Professor Loeb would like to turn things around and place science at the service of society’s interests. “In academia, you’ll find a lot of people who are divorced from the public. For me, it’s the opposite: The interest of the public in this question implies that we should engage in it because we have the scientific tools to do that. And the fact that the government cares about and talks about objects that cannot be identified should make this a subject of inquiry within the mainstream of science. It’s our civic duty as scientists to bring clarity, using scientific instrumentation and methodology. Instead of ridiculing it or being jealous of the attention I’m getting, scientists should join me in pursuing it. If we insist that everything must fit with preconceived past knowledge, we’ll never learn anything new.”


Science or Fiction?

Professor Loeb’s campaign has made him into a sort of pariah in certain academic circles. The milder critics accuse him of wanting to believe too much. The more extreme ones claim that his ideas are nonsense. One might expect that someone with such prestige would fear being discredited by his peers.

The professor, for his part, doesn’t really seem to care much about what his colleagues think of him. “I’m doing science because I’m driven by my own curiosity, just the way I was as a kid on the farm. And I really want to understand nature. The most traumatic experience I had as a child was sitting at the dinner table and asking a difficult question, and the adults in the room would dismiss the question because they didn’t know the answer. And now I see, again, my colleagues in academia trying to behave like the adults in the room without actually having information.”

Professor Loeb says that by investigating outer space, he’s one of the few who is engaged in “real science.”

“I try to think outside the box in addressing a subject that is of great interest to humanity. And if we discover something through my work, if we discover that we have a neighbor, that will be the most important discovery that humanity ever made.”

He jogs every morning at sunrise, and when he went on an exploratory mission to the Pacific Ocean in search of fallen celestial objects, he kept up his morning run. “There was a film crew that accompanied me, and the director asked me, ‘Avi, are you running away from something or toward something?’ And I said, ‘I’m running away from some of my colleagues who have strong opinions without seeking evidence, and I’m running toward a higher intelligence in interstellar space.’ “

Avi Loeb, Nick Pope, the director of NASA — increasingly, voices with gravitas in both scientific and political realms aren’t embarrassed to declare their belief in extraterrestrial life. What was once the domain of conspiracy theorists or eccentrics now claims significant real estate in the public psyche.

However, despite the burgeoning opinions and the advancing investigations, the matter remains ensconced in the realm of “belief” for now. While research steadily marches forward, concrete evidence of extraterrestrial life remains elusive.

But beyond the dearth of empirical proof, there’s been a shift — from outright denial to embracing the question, “Why not?”


A Torah Source for Aliens?
By Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger

Hafoch bah v’hafoch bah d’kula bah. Look long and hard enough into the Torah, and you can find whatever you are seeking. It therefore should not be surprising that there are sources in Chazal that pertain to the question as to whether extra-terrestrial life exists.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ztz”l, to whom all obscure sources were open, has an essay on this topic in his sefer, Moreh Ohr. [The sefer is out of print but available on hebrewbooks.org.] The sources cited below are from that essay.

In Ohr Hashem (maamar 4, d’rush 2), Rav Chasdai Crescas (a talmid of the Ran) writes that since Hashem is all-powerful, we should not find it surprising if there in fact exist other worlds. Sefer Habris, by Rav Pinchas Eliyahu of Vilna (1765-1821) however, brings fascinating proof that there may be alien life in the universe.

In Shiras Devorah, the prophetess sings, “Oru Meiroz… oru arur kol yoshvehah. May Meiroz be cursed; may its inhabitants be cursed (Shoftim 5:23).” The Gemara (Moed Kattan 16a) records a debate as to the identity of Meiroz. According to one view, it refers to a general who refused to join Barak in the war effort, and “its inhabitants” refers to his companions. According to another view, however, Meiros is a constellation, or a star. But who then are “its inhabitants?” Sefer Habris suggests these are aliens [or Martians, assuming that Meiroz is Mars!]. He continues, however, that although these aliens may be intelligent, they certainly do not possess free choice, which is in the exclusive domain of humans. [Rabbi Kaplan then discusses why they should have been cursed.]

Rabbi Kaplan also cites Sefer HaPardes (Shaar 2, Chapter 7) which asserts that regardless of whether there are other worlds or beings, there is only one “tachlis habriah” – one objective of the Universe — and that is mankind who is created in Hashem’s Image and Form and granted the gift of free choice, and thus eligible for reward and punishment.

In fact, the Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 7) says that when Hashem created Adam HaRishon, he showed him all the beauty of Gan Eden, and said. “See how beautiful this world is. All that I have created was for your sake. Take care not to corrupt and ruin My world.”

So whether there is extraterrestrial life out there is a fun question, but it doesn’t change anything for us, the true purpose of creation.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)

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