It’s a question of time and distance. The fact that the closest habitable planet (Proxima Centauri b) is four light-years from Earth, that the fastest ship—the Apollo 10 spacecraft—reached only 24,816 miles per hour, and that the average human life is 73 years long means getting to the nearest place worth getting to, with our current technology and physics, would take 812 lifetimes, or about 59,000 years.

That’s what makes the recent U.F.O. news so mind-blowing. If it’s true that the government is in possession of alien craft that arrived from light-years away, then just about every theory we’ve devised to explain the universe is wrong. Or, as my friend Todd told the cop who was arresting him for peeing on a sidewalk in New Orleans in 1988, “Those are your rules, not mine.”

This is a halcyon moment for the strange, the phosphorescent, and the interstellar. Yes, I know. You’ve heard it all before. You’ve seen the movies and documentaries and talked over the wildest claims late into the summer night. Your heart has said yes, but your brain has always stepped in and said, “No fucking way!”

By the light of Orion, I swear this time is different.


Because this time we’ve got David Grusch, the whistleblower who stepped out of the shadows to make the outlandish claims and is about as legit as a U.F.O. claimant can be. (It’s a Catch-22: You want a statement made by someone other than a nut, but, by making such a statement, that person becomes a nut.) Grusch, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, has spent the last decade working for secretive government agencies, including the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (A.A.T.I.P.), specifically tasked with investigating U.F.O. sightings.

Because this time the claimant (Grusch) has been corroborated by several high-ranking officials, including U.S. Army colonel Karl Nell, who, as reported by Leslie Kean and Ralph Blumenthal in the Debrief, characterized the whistleblower’s claims as “fundamentally correct” and seconded “the indisputable realization that at least some of these technologies of unknown origin derive from non-human intelligence.” (Grusch has never actually seen the craft himself but was told of their existence as well as the reverse-engineering project by mysterious higher-ups.)

Because the U.S. Congress has held hearings and plans to hold more. Because these stories, which would have once been cordoned off in the Mail Online or the National Enquirer, have been covered by The Washington Post and The New York Times.

You want a statement made by someone other than a nut, but, by making such a statement, that person becomes a nut.

Because the most recent revelations follow earlier claims by navy pilots, the best of the best, who say they’ve seen U.F.O.’s —U.A.P.’s (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) in the current nomenclature—in restricted airspace off both coasts, East and West, moving in ways that defy known physical law: dropping from 80,000 to 10 feet in a moment, moving in and out of the water as if there were no water, changing direction less like a running back than like a Ping-Pong ball.

One of the pilots, David Fravor, reacted just the way you’d expect from a modern-day Chuck Yeager. “I don’t know what it was,” Fravor said of the strange Tic Tac bouncing around the sky, “but it was pretty frickin’ impressive, and I’d like to fly it.”

Close Encounters

Here are some seemingly impossible feats regularly performed by possible U.A.P.’s: wingless flight; flight without visible means of propulsion, neither engine nor exhaust; crafts that silently breach the sound barrier—no sonic boom, which results whenever one of our planes exceeds around 750 m.p.h.; trans-medium travel, crafts that move seamlessly in and out of the drink; radically sharp turns without any loss of speed, the sort that would spaghettify a human pilot.

When I told Jeremy Corbell, a documentary filmmaker and U.F.O. savant, my primary beef with alien visitation—space is too big and our lives are too short—he said, “No, man. You’ve got it all wrong. They don’t travel across time. They jump through it.”

According to Corbell, U.A.P.’s are powered by anti-gravity technology, devices that do not propel them across space—that would result in sonic booms, liquefied pilots, and take forever—but manipulate it, warping the continuum, allowing the craft to skip from here to way the hell over there in no time. Like Pac-Man, they vanish screen right and reappear screen left. Which might explain the near impossibility of getting a decent picture of a U.F.O. The image is not clear because the saucer is often in the process of distorting space-time.

“No, man. You’ve got it all wrong. They don’t travel across time. They jump through it.”

The most notorious sightings—some because they were outlandish, others because they are especially hard to explain—are too numerous to catalogue, but here are some recent highlights.

The “Go Fast,” a U.A.P. seen by navy fliers including F/A-18F Super Hornet pilot Lieutenant Ryan Graves in 2014 and 2015. “The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit,” The New York Times reported in 2017. “It looked to the pilot … like a sphere encasing a cube.”

The flying saucer that appeared above Gate C-17 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport at around 4:15 p.m., November 7, 2006. Seen and reported by dozens, including air-traffic controllers who put a hold on all flights.

The “Tic Tac,” which spent several days in the sky near San Diego in 2004. When David Fravor was sent to recon, he found himself chasing a gizmo that violated every known rule. “40 feet long with no wings, just hanging close to the water,” he reported. “As I get closer, as my nose is starting to pull back up, it accelerates and it’s gone. Faster than I’d ever seen anything in my life.” And in another interview: “I can tell you, I think it was not from this world.”


The sighting that marked the beginning of the U.F.O. boom occurred on June 24, 1947, when pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine dish-shaped objects—it was while reporting this story that the term “flying saucer” was coined—zoom past Mount Rainier at approximately 1,200 m.p.h.

This is when the U.F.O. entered popular culture and became part of the collective dream, which has been haunted by saucers in flawless skies, above Kmart parking lots and country barns, or wrecked in New Mexican pastures and surrounded by scorched, luminous alien bodies ever since.

The modern era began with Bob Lazar, who appeared with a blurred face and disguised voice on the evening news in Las Vegas in 1989. He described his experience as an engineer at a secret government facility known as “Area 51,” which he said was 80 miles out in the desert, astride a dry lake and across a ridge from a salt plain riddled with craters where the United States had detonated more than 30 nuclear bombs.

Lazar said there were nine intact alien ships in hangars out there amid the creosote bushes and Joshua trees. He said he’d been hired to reverse-engineer the propulsion system on one of the crafts, which he believed was driven by an anti-gravity device powered by an atomic compound—Lazar called it “Element 115”—that did not exist on Earth. He said he’d been inside the ship, which he described as small, as if made for a diminutive humanoid species. He said he’d seen a briefing book, according to which the ship had come from a place called ZR-3. He later identified this as the third planet in Zeta Reticuli, a binary star system around 39 light-years from Earth.

Bob Lazar looks like you’d expect a geeky jet-age gearhead to look. He has short brown hair and thick glasses with steel frames. He is in fact so perfectly cast in the role of rogue scientist that you want to believe everything he says, even though every one of his claims has been questioned. Like that he went to M.I.T., or that he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, or that at the laboratory he got the attention of Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist who served as one of the inspirations for Dr. Strangelove. That it was Teller, who helped build the first atom bomb and built the first hydrogen bomb, who sent Lazar to Area 51.

Which makes sense. According to lore, it was the development of the A-bomb that drew the interest of the aliens, who worried that we’d torch the universe. Several sightings have been reported over nuclear-missile facilities, where, some claim, the appearance of U.F.O.’s coincided with the breakdown of the warheads in their silos.

Though Lazar was dismissed as a fabulist and crank, several of the things he said in 1989 turned out to be true. The government really does operate a highly classified facility called Area 51. There really is an atomic compound that fits the description of Lazar’s Element 115. Having been synthesized in a Russian lab, it now appears on the periodic table as Moscovium. What’s more, descriptions of the Go Fast and Tic Tac perfectly mirror descriptions Lazar gave of his ships a generation ago. Lazar’s most outlandish claim—that the government is in possession of intact alien spacecraft—has now been echoed by Dave Grusch.

A Space Odyssey

I want to believe it, though every fiber of my being resists. In my experience, the world is just not that interesting, nor the government that tight-lipped. But one part of the equation keeps throwing me. Barack Obama, Harry Reid, John Brennan, John Woolsey—in one way or another, they’ve all come out, if not as full-on believers, then as willing to entertain the notion. It’s this credulity that flummoxes me. Why would such people risk their reputation to spread a Philip K. Dickian fantasy?

To some, it seems like a classic disinformation campaign, with U.A.P.’s serving as a convenient cover for a top-secret jump in human tech. Many of those who believed they were looking at U.F.O.’s in the 1960s and 1970s were in fact seeing test runs of the U-2 spy plane, the F-15 fighter jet, and the B-2 stealth bomber, all of which were developed at Area 51.

To others, it’s more like a modern solution to an ancient need. In the age of religion, people sought transcendence in heaven. Maybe the recent newspaper stories play the same role, only, instead of angels and demons, it’s saucers and aliens. Wormholes, warp jumps, U.A.P.’s—it’s all a way to re-enchant the universe. Who was Spielberg’s E.T. if not Jesus remade for the interstellar era? He came from above, a godly figure who chose to live among us, gathered around him a group of child disciples, performed miracles, died for our sins, was resurrected, then ascended.

Or maybe it’s all true.

Rich Cohen is an Editor at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator