Why NASA Needs An Office To Study "Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena"

UFO sensationalism disrupts science. Creating a dedicated NASA office may help.

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A man standing on a hill looking at glowing UFO lights in the sky. With a blurred, grunge edit.
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Despite an effort to rebrand UFOs, the stigma remains.

They are now called “unidentified anomalous phenomena” (UAP), and currently, U.S. officials are aware of more than 800 cases since 1996. On Wednesday the public got to hear from Pentagon personnel and members of a special Avengers-esque team of experts that NASA convened last year. They detailed what’s known so far about these puzzling sightings, and what the future holds.

“I think the very term ‘UAP’ was intended to get away from the assumptions and baggage that are part of the term ‘UFO,’” NASA UAP team member Mike Gold said to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, following the public presentation. Gold is the executive vice president of Civil Space and External Affairs at Redwire in Jacksonville, Florida. Prior to Redwire, Gold worked at NASA in several roles, including associate administrator for Space Policy and Partnerships.

“I believe words matter. Words have power. And I think what was trying to be achieved with that terminology [‘UAP’], what we’re trying to do with this group, is to be agnostic, to be objective, and to look at this issue purely from a scientific perspective, without bias,” he said.

One of several UAP reported by military personnel, sparking recent debates.

Why NASA Should Stay in the UAP Game

One idea that Gold floated was the creation of a NASA UAP office. The space agency is months away from publishing its official recommendations for the Pentagon’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), which runs the investigations and is charged with figuring them out. NASA is playing a different, yet special, role. Of the more than 800 UAP reports since 1996, AARO director Sean Kirkpatrick said Wednesday that several dozen of them — roughly two to five percent — remain unsolved.

They might stay that way, too. Members of the NASA team like Federica Bianco, joint professor at the University of Delaware in the Department of Physics and Astrophysics, the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration and a senior scientist at the Multi-city Urban Observatory, said Wednesday that the data on the unresolved UAP sightings was poor. The team argued that a proactive approach could be the way.

Gold was skeptical about the pace of the UAP work, and how it might dwindle without a dedicated office at NASA.

“As we mentioned previously during the panel, I’ve been part of far too many blue-ribbon studies and groups that produce reports that have just laid on the shelf. I think we have an inflection point, an opportunity here, with leadership that [NASA] Administrator Bill Nelson has showed, to institutionalize this and be able to tackle the issues that we’ve laid out in a comprehensive and serious fashion. I think that requires a permanent office at NASA to effectively deal with the issues that we’ve laid out,” Gold said.

“None of the topics or challenges here can be dealt with quickly. And it really requires a permanent solution. And I think that can be implemented for a modest financial cost,” he added. “So that’s certainly something that I can say personally we’ll be pushing and recommending to proceed with. If we don’t institutionalize something at NASA, the fear is it can go away far too quickly.”

After Gold’s remarks, Daniel Evans, the assistant deputy associate administrator for research at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, clarified that if and when NASA would seek funding for a UAP office is unknown. But it would be public, just as are all NASA budgetary requests.

To help AARO investigate UAP and their potential threat to airspace safety, a NASA UAP office could continue the team’s work. Their work may end later this summer, once they file their report to AARO, where they might recommend uses for existing technology to observe UAP phenomena as it happens, and provide what several team members called an analytic “roadmap.”

A NASA office would also continue perhaps its biggest contribution of all: a strong emphasis on the scientific method. This would deter UAP stigma, the team argued. With less stigma, there’d be less harassment of the team, and perhaps more witnesses would come forward and report their own UAP experiences.

There are roadblocks, according to David Spergel, team leader and president of the Simons Foundation.

“I feel, in addressing this issue, we steer between the rocks and the cyclone. We have a community of people who are completely convinced of the existence of UFOs. And we have a community of people who think addressing this question is ridiculous,” he said. “I think as scientists the way to approach questions is, start by saying, ‘we don’t know.’ And then you collect data, and you try to calibrate your data well.”

Spergel then offered a new take on a common analogy. “The first step if you want to find needles in haystacks when you don’t even know what to look for, is you want to learn and to characterize the haystack really well. If you understand hay well, and measure and observe hay well, you can find things… I think the biggest challenge is that you have a community out there that thinks the haystack is filled with gold. And another community saying you’re nuts to look in a haystack for anything interesting. There’s nothing there.”

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