In the corner of the social-media universe that calls itself #ufotwitter, there’s always some new piece of visual evidence to discuss. Did a police body cam catch an otherworldly craft crash-landing in Vegas this week? And that kid nearby who called 911 to report an eight-foot-tall alien in his back yard—is he for real? What about this video of a saucer losing its tractor-beam grip on a cow and sending it winging over the treetops? Is this connected to the recent spate of cattle mutilations? What do you make of this blurry splotch? Does this light look weird?
Of course, it’s hard to believe anything we see nowadays, and forecasts of an A.I.-fuelled disinformation apocalypse suggest that’s only going to get worse. But, in the world of U.F.O. hunters, the lack of high-quality photographic proof has always been a vexing problem. “Considering the notorious camera-mindedness of Americans,” Carl Jung wrote presciently in his 1958 book “Flying Saucers,” “it is surprising how few ‘authentic’ photographs of UFOs seem to exist, especially as many of them are said to have been observed for several hours at relatively close quarters.” Now with high-definition photographic tools held perpetually in the palms of billions of people across the globe, this problem should give us even more pause. Does this relative shortage of visuals amount to evidence that the U.F.O. phenomenon is pure bunkum, as many skeptics would have us believe? Or is it, as Jung himself famously supposed, because “UFOs are somehow not photogenic”? Or perhaps the truth is already out there, squirrelled away in some Pentagon vault or floating around the Internet, camouflaged amid the dross?
In any case, laughing off U.F.O.s with cracks about tinfoil hats or “little green men” is not as easy as it used to be. In recent years, there has been a welter of developments in the U.F.O. world that has brought the subject out of the realm of science fiction and supermarket tabloids, and into the halls of Congress and the pages of newspapers of record. In 2017, a watershed piece in the New York Times by Helene Cooper, Ralph Blumenthal, and Leslie Kean exposed a secret Pentagon program created to investigate U.F.O.s, and included a pair of flight recordings taken by naval F/A-18F Super Hornets, showing spectral craft performing seemingly impossible maneuvers. (These videos have been the subject of muscular debunking efforts, most prominently by the professional skeptic and ufology bête noire Mick West. Recently, a pair of researchers put forward a detailed thirty-page analysis that attempts to debunk his debunkings.) The piece piqued the interest of both lawmakers and defense officials, who began to take the U.F.O. issue more seriously, creating an investigative body tasked with looking into “unidentified space, airborne, submerged and transmedium objects.”
The most remarkable—or, depending on your perspective, the most unbelievable—recent development came in June, when Kean and Blumenthal released a report in the Debrief, an online news site. It centered on the claims of David Grusch, a former high-level intelligence official who purports to have both knowledge and evidence of U.S.-government U.F.O.-crash-retrieval programs. Last week, in testimony before the House Oversight Committee’s national-security subcommittee, Grusch alleged that the government, in cahoots with unnamed private contractors, has acquired craft of “nonhuman origin” that it has been attempting to reverse engineer for “decades,” and nonhuman “biologics,” a.k.a. the remains of dead aliens. But Grusch has publicly provided no evidence, visual or otherwise, to back up his claims, and he has admitted that all his knowledge of secret U.F.O. programs has come to him secondhand. The problem, as always, is the gap between what we’re told exists and what we can actually see.
So what kind of visual record does the U.F.O. community point to? I made some calls recently, and I got an earful. I was told that the U.S. has a secret space program. I was told about the C.E.O. of an unnamed corporation who saw a gigantic, shape-shifting, probably interdimensional craft fly over Washington, D.C., and then wink miraculously out of existence. I was told about deep underground bases, where U.F.O. reverse-engineering projects have long been operating. I was told that aliens are already walking among us. I was notably not told much about what I was looking for, namely, photographs of the phenomenon that had a stamp of legitimacy. I was assured that such photos exist—in 4K resolution, no less—but that they remain hidden behind a scrim of secrecy. No one seemed to know when the photos might be released. I got the sinking feeling that the answer will always be “soon.”