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NASA's talking the talk
But can its UAP team members walk the walk?
America’s space agency promises to enter the UFO fray with “an open mind” — and when NASA talks, people do listen.
Last October, CNN reporter Scott McLean cornered former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly between events at Expo 2020 in Dubai. McLean asked a couple of questions about international cooperation in space before getting to the point:
“Do you believe in UFOs?”
Kelly: “You mean like aliens?”
Kelly: “Like flying saucers?”
Kelly: “That visit this planet?”
Kelly: “Because I don’t believe in ‘em.”
OK, wait. Do you believe in UFOs – seriously? That’s how you want to begin a conversation about The Great Taboo with a veteran astronaut? What does that even mean, do you believe? Why not start off with something simpler, like Do you believe in the Virgin Birth? I mean, shit, at least UFOs leave radar tracks.
I thought about that CNN clip the other day when NASA revealed the list of 16 very accomplished citizens it named to evaluate America’s UFO problem. For the next nine months, the UAP Independent Study Team will, according to the press release, review the evidence, presumably reach a consensus, and then “recommend a roadmap for potential UAP data analysis by the agency going forward.” In other words, by next summer, we’ll see how seriously the space agency is taking an issue it should’ve rigorously engaged more than half a century ago.
Scott Kelly – space shuttle pilot, ISS commander, twin brother of Arizona Senator Mark Kelly – is clearly the most recognizable name on the marquee. And that makes sense, NASA wanting a trusted member of the fraternity on board. Hey, it’s their idea. But the second part of his response to CNN put the ex-spaceman at stark odds with the consensus at the Director of National Intelligence office.
Kelly rebutted the ET theory with the they-can’t-get-here-from-there argument. This was four months after the DNI issued its landmark 2021 report stating that “most UAP probably do represent physical objects” that “clearly pose a safety of flight issue and may pose a challenge to U.S. national security.” But Kelly, a former naval aviator himself, shrugged off the testimony and footage captured by elite Navy pilots.
‘A little outrageous, to be honest’
CNN: “So you haven’t seen any piece of video that convinces you otherwise, everything is explainable?”
Kelly: “When you’re flying in space, when you’re flying in an airplane in certain weather conditions, there are a lot of optical illusions. So I think, I’m not saying the people, especially the military people, that claim to see something that doesn’t make sense, as far as their understanding of technology – I’m not doubting that that’s what they think they saw. But I’m very skeptical that that is some kind of alien spacecraft. I think it’s a little outrageous, to be honest with you.”
It's a familiar dodge, conflating the DNI’s findings of true unknowns with “alien spacecraft” because we can’t see the VIN numbers on those speeding anomalies. Though Kelly was enabled by a reporter’s clumsy framing of the question, the impulse to trash reports of exotic technology enjoying unimpeded access to restricted airspace by invoking “alien spacecraft” is a cop-out that’s served complacent institutions quite well. Exhibit A: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which for generations has ignored reams of UFO data and touted radiowaves as the only acceptable way to discover ET civilizations.
Frank Drake, the radio astronomer who launched the first SETI sky scan in 1960, died last month without acquiring a shred of evidence to support his theory. Not surprisingly, his daughter, science writer and National Geographic contributor Nadia Drake, remains a fierce defender of dad’s legacy. When NASA announced its intentions to form the UAP Independent Study Team on June 10, she went full SETI and vented on Twitter.
Like studying ghosts (?)
“… is it weird that NASA is investing resources in studying UAP? Yes, in the sense that UAP are as much a cultural phenomenon as they are aerial,” she wrote. “It’s a bit like convening a task force to study ghosts or <pick your favorite paranormal thing>. Which yes, that’s odd. (And I think one of the biggest questions is: Why do this now??)”
It was a fascinating tweet sequence. In the very next post, as if suddenly realizing that a lot of scrupulous eyes were paying attention, she softened her tone, somewhat. “On the other hand,” Drake immediately clarified, “it makes perfect sense for a space agency to focus on these reports. As others have noted, the first ‘A’ in NASA is ‘aeronautics.’ So why not take a look at what might be buzzing around Earth by harnessing the power of science and the scientific method?”
Jeez, why didn’t Dad think of that 62 years ago? Nadia Drake’s on-the-other-hand equivocation extended a shout-out to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, who had just announced the search for expert panelists. “I believe (Zurbuchen) when he said that it makes sense to apply the scientific method as we would with any natural phenomenon.” Furthermore, as if crafting the first draft of an audition, she added, “I don’t see this study as throwing a bone to the folks who truly believe we’ve been visited by extraterrestrials (sorry). It’s just a good way of figuring out how to address and understand a puzzling set of data.”
Nevertheless, Drake couldn’t help reasserting dad’s lifelong Skepticism (“he has done his fair share of investigating sightings over the decades and has never been even remotely convinced”), and she restated her annoyance with NASA for going so low brow. “I’ll be disappointed if the big takeaway is that the study lends validity to the belief” – that word again – “that UAP are evidence of extraterrestrial technology.”
A most curious omission
NASA’s subsequent selection of Nadia Drake to its panel would’ve been a bit more reassuring if it had also made room for folks who actually have been “harnessing the power of science and the scientific method” to study UFOs. For the past few years, independent, credentialed and dedicated researchers with the nonprofit Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies have been publishing cutting-edge research and staging annual conferences for updates on active investigations. In fact, SCU’s reputation was good enough to be cited in Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) amendment to the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act for inclusion in a proposed congressional “Aerial and Transmedium Phenomena Advisory Committee.” But for reasons never fully explained, SCU got cut out of those prospects, too.
Probably just a coincidence.
Anyhow, just for the hell of it, I forwarded email inquiries to the rest of the UAP panelists, trying to get a sense of where they were coming from on the issue:
(Enter name): I’m a reporter who’s been writing about the UFO controversy for more than 40 years, initially at a daily on Florida’s Space Coast, and most recently at the Herald-Tribune in Sarasota. I left the newspaper business last year but I continue to follow the threads.
Naturally, I’m intrigued by NASA’s new UAP committee and your role in it, so I’d like to acquaint readers with your interest in and knowledge of this issue. Although our cultural awareness goes back 75 years, I think it’s safe to say the subject didn’t get real until the NY Times expose in December 2017. Does your interest predate the Times piece? If so, what influenced you – books, films, particular cases, etc.?
How were you selected for this assignment? Why did you agree to join? What aspect of this phenomenon do you find most compelling, and what evidentiary trail do you regard as most promising? Which organizations, institutions and/or researchers do you consider most reliable on this issue? What theories or hypotheses will you bring to the table?
Reviewing classified data is not part of the NASA directive. But if in fact your research intersects with related national security issues, what level of transparency would you feel obligated to share with the public? Regards, (exit)
The promise of transparency
Is it unfair to ask designated experts to weigh in on a hypothetical scenario? Maybe. But try to imagine NASA’s unclassified sensor platforms detecting and recording UAP emerging from the waters near sub bases in New London or Kings Bay. Then imagine the U.S. Navy saying, yeah man, definitely, spread the news, Americans have a right to know. We need to be seriously clear-eyed about the limits of the space agency’s commitment to this eval. Especially when top officials like David Evans put out statements like this:
“Consistent with NASA’s principles of openness, transparency, and scientific integrity, this report will be shared publicly,” stated Evans, who will be “responsible for orchestrating the study,” according to the June press release. “All of NASA’s data is available to the public – we take that obligation seriously – and we make it easily accessible for anyone to see or study.”
Minimal feedback from the Independent Study Team. Astrophysicist David Spergel, president of the innovative Simons Foundation and appointed chair of the UAP committee, wrote “As we are in early stages of this study, we are not talking with the media. We want to wait until we are further along before we start to engage in these discussions.” Fair ‘nuff. A spokesperson for team member Karlin Toner, director of the FAA’s Office of Aviation Policy and Plans, wrote “The FAA is not doing interviews right now,” but she referred all queries to NASA’s FAQ page.
You should check it out, it’s reassuring and worth repeating: “A full report will be released to the public in conjunction with NASA’s principles of openness, transparency, and scientific integrity.” And hey, don’t believe everything you hear from Independent Study Team members. “NASA,” it promises, “is going in with an open mind.”
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