NASA's research into unidentified aerial phenomena (the marginally more scientifically palatable term for UFOs) will take a few more months to get off the ground, says Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, and Daniel Evans, Assistant Deputy Associate Administrator for Research, during a town hall meeting on August 17.
Just assembling the committee that will carry out the nine-month research project could take until October, says Evans. That makes next July the absolute earliest the project could wrap up — although that's likely an underestimate.
Eventually, the committee will include 15 or 16 experts in aeronautics, data analysis, and various scientific fields, according to NASA. Evans and his colleagues at the Science Mission Directorate and the Aeronautics Research Directorate were set to “run some names by” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Wednesday afternoon.
“Some people are, from the outside, thinking once we make a decision, [you can] just snap your fingers,” says Zurbuchen. “And of course, what we're really trying to do is to do this the right way kind of as a public activity.”
Meanwhile, NASA officials are talking with representatives from the Department of Defense and Congress to build support for the project. Nelson met with the Undersecretary of Defense for intelligence and security Ron Moultrie on August 3. The military has historically led the way on UAP research, but Evans says that NASA is well-equipped for the mission.
“NASA really is uniquely positioned to address UAP because we know how to use the tools of science and of data to discern what might be happening out there in the skies,” says Evans. “And, to be frank, no other agency is trusted as much by the public as us,” he added, although when it comes to UAP, about 28 percent of the American public may not have much trust in any federal agency.
NASA announced its overall plans for the project, headed by astrophysicist David Spergel, who is also president of the Simons Foundation, on June 9. The nine-month project plans to comb through archived data from NASA and National Science Foundation observatories — like the Hubble Space Telescope and the ground-based Gemini Observatory — to look for potential UAP, then figure out which ones are worth investigating further and how best to do the job.
Its end product will be a proposal for a bigger, longer-term UAP research program. Essentially, this nine-month project with a budget of “no more than $100,000” exists to write a proposal for future, in-depth research on UAPs.
“The study will focus on identifying available data, how best to collect future data, and how NASA can use that data to move the scientific understanding of UAPs forward,” according to a slide in Wednesday's presentation.
What the program won't do, Zurbuchen emphasizes, is investigate specific UAPs — although people keeping asking him, personally, to do exactly that.
In response to an attendee-submitted question about a “cylindrical objected” allegedly reported near the International Space Station, Zurbuchen replies that he passes all reports, including ones from social media, to Evans to evaluate whether they’re worth including in the upcoming study.
“We hear you. If you point it out on social media, we hear you,” he says. “I just really want to thank you for your excitement and your interest, and, you know, be a little bit patient with us as we get to a solution that is more scalable than any one of us answering specific questions.”
Several other questions on the submission page for the town hall meeting asked about particular phenomena, as well as what kinds of instruments and datasets NASA would use in its UAP investigations, but Zurbuchen and Evans reiterate that those investigations haven’t actually started yet. And Evans says it’s “too early to say” whether NASA already has UAP photos or reports in its possession.
“Remember that the first step of any scientific investigation is to identify the data, and that's why we're bringing in these experts, is to do just that.”
NASA’s June 9 announcement of its UAP research project was the latest in a surprising flurry of U.S. government interest in a topic that’s been considered fringe (at best) since the mid-20th century.
In June 2021, the Department of Defense released its first report on UAPs in 50 years. The Pentagon report documented military sightings of UAP from 2004 to 2021, and getting it written took a direct order from Congress, written into an appropriations bill in 2020. And that happened because the New York Times — one of the last outlets you’d expect to delve into UFO research by any name — reported in 2017 that the Department of Defense maintained a program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program tasked with investigating UAP reports by military personnel.
The 2017 New York Times story prompted Congress to direct the Pentagon to officially investigate UAP and file a report — and the report, released in July 2021, prompted a series of Congressional hearings earlier this year. NASA’s June 9 announcement came in the wake of those hearings.
Thus a once-scorned research area gained a fresh veneer of respectability, and it turns out that there’s a good chance UAP investigations could genuinely reveal something interesting — even if it’s not aliens (and it’s probably not aliens).
“Frankly, I think there’s new science to be discovered,” Zurbuchen said during the June 9 press conference. “There’ve been many times when something that looked almost magical turned out to be a new scientific effect.”
By swallowing our collective pride and taking UAP seriously, we could open the door to fascinating new discoveries in meteorology, optics, or the physics of electricity.
But first, NASA needs a committee.