A passion for tedium
Postcard from the Very Large Array: A reminder that combing the void for ET is actually a journey through the past.
The jolting phenomenon of “thundersnow” visited Meriden, Connecticut, over Christmas break in 1958. And a young Jan Aldrich will never forget it.
A bolt of lightning struck his family’s chimney, and he remembers a bright flash zapping across the range in the kitchen, where cinnamon toast was heating up in the oven. What he saw as he opened the door and peered inside sent him on a lifelong quest that has no end.
“There was this small white ball about the size of a quarter just sitting there in the oven,” Aldrich recalls. “It wasn’t touching anything, but it rolled over towards the door and it fell off and exploded like a cherry bomb. I asked my father what it was, and he said that’s what the library’s for. That’s how I discovered ball lightning, and from that, I got interested in UFOs.”
Today, the same house where Aldrich grew up has five rooms dedicated to his UFO investigation – culled from the National Archives, FOIA responses, contemporaneous media coverage, etc. – and there’s plenty more stashed away in off-site storage. At age 76, the U.S. Army veteran and a small network of hardcore researchers are racing the clock to digitize and rescue a seemingly bottomless pit of primary-source data from neglect and obscurity. And, fearing past as prelude, Aldrich has a queasy feeling about the new Pentagon office ordered to take a public dive into the deep black waters of the UFO swamp.
“I think there’s a lot of hostility (from the Pentagon) to this bill, and if we’re not careful,” says the co-founder of the Project 1947 online history website, “I’m afraid this is going to be like Project Blue Book all over again.”
Properly viewed as a paradigm-smashing move by lawmakers to launch a full-court press for answers, the mandate – formalized under the National Defense Authorization Act by President Biden’s signature last week – poses a novel challenge to the Pentagon, unaccustomed to having its relationship with UAP/UFOs subjected to even a modicum of scrutiny. And the Defense Department has already demonstrated that it will not relinquish its grip without wrangling over details large and petty.
The original language in the bipartisan Gillibrand-Rubio Amendment called for an advisory board of 25 independent scientists to review whatever data the DoD decides to share with the public. But the brass vetoed that idea toot sweet, along with the Amendment’s modest proposal to conduct research under an acronym, ASTRO (Anomaly Surveillance and Resolution Office), which people could actually pronounce. Instead, it insisted the congressional imposition be called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. Say “AOIMSG.” Life in Jonestown predicts DoD will hire Mister Myxlplyx to run AOIMSG.
Ah well, at least the military is now legally bound to cough up something for Congress to look at. Also, hey, get a load of the boxes AOIMSG has to check in its annual unclassified updates — curiosities like “health-related effects” from UFO encounters, and “efforts … to capture or exploit” UAP hardware. Can’t wait to see how they bury that stuff in word salad. And despite the UAP office breakthrough, its limitations leave some stakeholders feeling half empty.
The invaluably productive and thorough Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies, for instance, was one of those recommended civilian groups the Pentagon didn’t want looking over its shoulder. SCU issued a press release last month commending Congress for moving the ball downfield, but not without caveats. SCU co-founder/board member Rich Hoffman urged rigorous oversight by the Director of National Intelligence, in hopes that the DNI’s Inspector General will exercise its “authority to formally investigate allegations of suppression against reporting/analyzing the UAP issue.” But fellow SCU board member Robert Powell, on the receiving end of myriad FOIA nothingburgers from the military, is forecasting foggy weather.
Dismissing as “hogwash” the DoD’s concerns that designated civilian consultants would pose a security breach, Powell maintained low expectations in a followup email: “My gut feeling is that they are going to continue to hide information and we will know no more in 10 years than we know today.”
Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb, on the other hand, took the Pentagon snub in stride. Last year, his fledgling nonprofit, the Galileo Project, began attracting well-heeled investors looking to acquire immediate new UFO data by financing multiple observational platforms. Its research team, Loeb says, intends to concentrate exclusively on open-source data, without having to argue history’s contentious baggage. “We will continue with our Galileo Project research,” he wrote in an email, “irrespective of what is done with classified information to which we have no access.”
And so will SCU. But at least one political scientist wonders what happens if AOIMSG brings us to that awkward moment where the dog actually catches the car.
In 2008, Ohio State poli sci professor Alexander Wendt co-authored a landmark essay, “Sovereignty and the UFO,” which proposed that humanity is incapable of confronting the issue head-on because UAP exist outside our hard-wired, anthropocentric notions of cosmic hierarchy. But lately, the legislative impulse for accountability has him rethinking that position.
“Hopefully,” Wendt wrote in an email, “it won’t be TOO transparent, because I’ve become increasingly alarmed about the potential social and political consequences of it becoming clearer that ETs are here and we are in a pre-Contact situation …
“Judging from the makeup of Avi Loeb’s team, and also from what I can tell about what’s going on in Congress, there are no social scientists involved in any of this, and so we’re all just stumbling forward into the dark, following the physical scientists who want to find out whether any UFOs are ETs (I’m all for that) but without thinking about what happens if they do figure that out – I’d say our whole civilization could collapse …”
Deteriorating socio-political developments indicate that could happen with or without pop-ups from the UAP wild card. For veteran investigators like Jan Aldrich, however, letting AOIMSG get away with in-house vetting presages a repeat of the Air Force fubar that cost America nearly three-quarters of a century of honest and open inquiry. The stigma the USAF perpetuated during the Cold War coopted both the University of Colorado and the National Academy of Sciences into sanctioning its termination of the official stroke job in 1969.
“What happened in June sounds like Project Blue Book 2,” Aldrich says. “They said they had 144 sighting reports and they aren’t going to release any of them? And they say they’re being transparent by giving classified briefings to Congress? How do we know what they’re keeping from Congress?”
Aldrich is referring to the (barely) nine-page UFO summary produced last summer by the underfunded UAP Task Force through the ODNI. The UAPTF claimed it couldn’t resolve 143 out of 144 cases dating back to 2004, and conceded “we may require additional scientific knowledge” to analyze the data. (Ya think?) Aldrich says newcomers to this long-running drama will likely be astonished by the sheer volume of material still requiring Additional Scientific Knowledge.
In late 2020, for instance, the Center for UFO Studies – founded in 1973 by legendary investigator J. Allen Hynek – transferred its inventory from Chicago to the care of voracious researcher David Marler, author of Triangular UFOs: An Estimate of the Situation, in New Mexico. Some 100,000 files jammed into 15 cabinets arrived at his home outside Albuquerque, with the goal of converting them into digital records. But even if and when that happens, accessible archives might count for little unless lawmakers themselves become familiar with the recurring patterns of bureaucratic insouciance and obstructionism that have led to this moment. Aldrich has been working that angle, too.
“I sent the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Office of the DNI and the Defense Department IG – since they’re keeping an eye on UFOs – I sent them all a thumb drive with just a sample of the thousands of cases I’ve scanned,” he says. “It’s got all kinds of things, some are newspaper clippings, some are actual reports and government documents.” He also forwarded material to Connecticut Rep. Joe Courtney, the only recipient who bothered to respond, with polite acknowledgement.
For Jan Aldrich, the long road from ball lightning in the oven to the establishment of a bona fide UFO office more than 60 years later is rutted with callouses and scar tissue from endless scrapes with officialdom over the arbitrary nature of privileged information. And how many undiscovered gems are already out there, awaiting anyone with the time and passion for tedium? “A lot of things are on microfilm at the National Archives in Washington, but nobody looks at microfilm. It’s too daunting for most researchers.”
Still, he suspects the declassified data in the public domain is just the tip of the iceberg; consequently, moving forward without a fuller accounting could put the USA at a strategic disadvantage with global rivals, who might have taken their own histories a bit more seriously.
“We’ve been fighting the military establishment and the scientific establishment for years and years,” Aldrich says of colleagues like Barry Greenwood, Brad Sparks, Tom Tulien and others, past and present, too numerous to mention. “We’re not getting any younger. We’re just trying to complete the record and to preserve as much history as we can.”