In December 2017, The New York Times reported on the existence of a secret U.S. Department of Defense program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which sought to research unidentified aerial objects. It began in 2008 and ended in 2012, costing an estimated $22 million over its course.
One of the Times piece’s coauthors, Leslie Kean, has a documented history of championing UFO reports that turned out to be mistakes and hoaxes. In one case Kean vouched for a famous photo taken in 1990 by a man known only as “Patrick” in the Belgian town of Petit-Rechain. “Patrick” later confessed that the image, twice deemed authentic by a panel of distinguished scientists and experts, was really of a small piece of triangular Styrofoam spray-painted black with lights attached.
Much of the AATIP and its conclusions have not been released, and it’s not clear what if any useful information came from the effort. Several short videos of military jets encountering something they couldn’t identify have been released by the program. Already some researchers, including Robert Sheaffer and Mick West, have suggested that distant jets might be the culprit, and in the past, crowdsourced research has yielded answers to seemingly inexplicable phenomena in our skies; a “mystery missile” seen off the coast of California in November 2010, for example, stumped military experts at first but was later determined to be an ordinary commercial jet plane contrail seen from an odd angle.
The fact that the U.S. government had a program dedicated to researching unidentified crafts and objects has caused many UFO buffs to triumphantly announce that they were right all along, that this finally proves that the wall of silence is breaking and the government cover-up is cracking.
There is, however, significantly less here than meets the eye. Given that UFOs are literally unidentified flying objects, the Pentagon’s interest in the topic is both understandable and appropriate. After all, unknown objects over American skies could be a threat—whether their origin is Russia, North Korea, or the Andromeda galaxy. The Air Force investigated thousands of unexplained aerial reports between 1947 and 1969, eventually concluding that most of the “UFO” sightings involved clouds, stars, optical illusions, conventional aircraft, or spy planes. A small percentage remained unexplained because of a lack of information.
The government routinely spends money to research (and sometimes promote) topics that turn out to have little or no evidence or scientific validity. There are hundreds of federal projects that have been funded despite never having been proven valid or effective, including the Star Wars missile defense program, abstinence-only sex education, and the DARE anti-drug program. The idea that there must be some validity to the project otherwise it would not have been funded or renewed is laughable. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the U.S. government had a secret project called Stargate, designed to explore the possibility of psychic powers and whether “remote viewers” could successfully spy on Russia during the Cold War. The research went on for about two decades with little apparent success. Eventually scientists asked to review the results concluded that psychic information was neither validated nor useful. Like AATIP, Project Stargate was soon shut down.
One possible clue as to why the program might have continued despite yielding no clear evidence of extraterrestrials is the financial incentive to keep it going. The New York Times noted that “The shadowy program … was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time. … Most of the money went to a Las Vegas–based aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.”
Political pork project or cutting-edge UFO research finally providing evidence of extraterrestrial contact? Pentagon spokesman Thomas Crosson stated that the project ended in 2012 when “It was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding.” Bigelow is welcome to continue the research but will have to spend his own money instead of taxpayer dollars.