When I asked Ohio State University political science professor Alex Wendt what his students thought about his enthusiasm for UFOs, he told me reactions are mixed. His PhD students fear Wendt’s interest in gathering data on UFO sightings will undermine the credibility of their research. Other graduate students, he said, “hide their heads…they’re tolerant, but try to ignore it.” But his undergrads are more open. “Some are skeptical,” he told me. “But some are quite excited.”
This gives him hope that his new project, UFODATA, has a chance of drawing in the talent—or at least the cash—of young, curious, UFO agnostics. It’s going to need those things to survive.
UFODATA debuted online Oct. 14 of this year. One member of the team, journalist Leslie Kean, announced the still bare-bones effort in a Huffington Post blog post. She wrote:
The organization has one goal and one goal only: to design, build and deploy a global network of automated surveillance stations that will monitor the skies full time looking for UFOs. UFODATA has no interest in alleged government conspiracies or adding more witness reports or FOIA documents to the thousands already on file. The idea here is that only a complete change of methodology toward a purely scientific approach to the UFO issue will enable us to move forward.
When Kean talks about changing methodology, she means moving away from witness accounts of UFO sightings that are often dismissed out of hand. By using cameras and other instruments to snap photos, Wendt, Kean, and the rest of the UFODATA team (which includes, among others, scientists and engineers) hope to collect unsullied evidence of the unidentified objects. And, if they see something truly remarkable, present it as evidence of extraterrestrial life to mainstream scientists and to the public. The second goal is an old one, but the first marks a departure from traditional UFO data collecting organizations like the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC).
The government-sanction search for alien life
From 1947 to 1969, the Air Force compiled reports on UFO sightings as part of Project Blue Book. In January of this year, more than 130,000 pages worth of declassified Blue Book files were made available for browsing online. It took years of FOIA requests and lawsuits to bring these reports to the public. Several other declassified documents can be found on the NSA's website. For a time, at least, UFO reports were apparently taken quite seriously by government officials.
And, it should be noted, NASA is always looking for communication from alien life forms through its Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. SETI, which was established in the 1960s, scans radio and TV waves for anomalies that could be messages from extraterrestrials. You can even install a SETI program on your home computer if you want to be a part of the search.
But there are certain outspoken, charming, and dedicated individuals who also take the recording of UFO sightings very seriously. If you ever think you see something, say something to them.
A UFO reporting home office
NUFORC, according to its website, was founded in 1974 by Ufologist Robert J. Gribble. Today, it is run by director Peter Davenport out of his home in Harrington, Wash. It’s a small operation: Davenport is the only current member of NUFORC, save for webmaster Christian Stepien.
When I called Peter Davenport, he was relieved it was me and not a prank caller. Still, he was wary. Davenport asked if I was recording our phone call (I was not) and then told me, politely, that recording phone calls without permission is illegal. He also told me, repeatedly, that the media has done a very bad job of reporting on UFOs. He said things like, “the average person walking on the city street knows more than the average journalist [about UFOs],” and “most journalists are totally oblivious to what’s going on vis a vis UFOs,” often. But he was also very patient, extremely open, and endearingly earnest. Whenever he was joking he would tell me, “I’m being facetious.” It's hard not to like Peter Davenport.
Davenport said he first became intrigued by UFOs when he was six. “The reason you are talking to me today goes back to July of 1954. I witnessed a UFO together with my family and hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people.”
He described the incident in a report posted to the NUFORC website. He wrote that he, along with his parents and older brother, were at a drive-in theater near St. Louis when they noticed a commotion:
I looked out the right passenger's window, and immediately witnessed a generally oval shape, EXTREMELY brightly luminous, red object hovering virtually motionless in the sky. I vaguely recall that the object may have been casting a faint red light over the theater and surrounding area. The object's apparent size (from my vantage point) was approximately from 50% to 100% the diameter of the moon, and its long axis appeared to be horizontally oriented.
The object, Davenport wrote, hovered for a few moments before it flew away.
The experience stayed with him. “I have been intrigued by the UFO phenomenon ever since.” Davneport took over the independent operation from Gribble in July of 1990. He heard that Gribble, then head of NUFORC, was considering shutting down the hotline, and called him up to offer to help. Instead, Gribble offered him control of the center. “Before that telephone call was over he said, ‘Peter it’s, yours.’" Now Davenport mans the phone. According to the NUFORC site, calls are preferred between 8 a.m. and midnight, but it remains a 24-hour hotline.
When people call to report a UFO, Davenport mostly calms them down. Usually, he said, the report is “all jumbled up.” The caller “presents facts as they come to mind, it’s not a very well-ordered presentation of information…What we typically urge people to do is to immediately, as soon as they can, sit down at the computer and compose what is hopefully a literate, grammatically correct” report.
NUFORC has two goals, Davenport explained: The first, is to collect information. The second is to make it available to the public. He added that there are groups like NUFORC collecting data throughout the world, and that many of them share NUFORC’s goals. But not all of them collect what Davenport calls primary data, like NUFORC and MUFON.
The international juggernaut
MUFON, or the Mutual UFO Network, is what NUFORC would be if there were 3,000 Davenports. The group is headed by executive director Jan C. Harzan. This is a retirement gig for him; before MUFON, Harzan spent 37 years at IBM.
MUFON predates NUFORC by five years, and has now become a large organization with a rigid, bureaucratic infrastructure: There’s Harzan, an executive board, state directors, and national directors in about 40 countries. Altogether, there are about 3,000 members of MUFON around the world. Harzan told me his is the only UFO organization with a corporate office.
Fundamentally, MUFON operates in a manner very similar to NUFORC. Witnesses submit their account of what they saw through MUFON’s website. A member of the team evaluates the report and then selects it for one of three categories: Category one, a light in the sky; category two, a physical evidence of contact (for example, a broken tree limb or a magnetized object); and category three, an alien sighting. MUFON officers reach out to the witness for follow-up information, and sometimes send out a field investigator to check things out.
That, Harzan said, is one of the things that sets MUFON apart. “We are very detailed… [we] follow up on every report, that’s half the battle,” he said. Indeed, MUFON offers an exhaustive, multi-chapter guide to its field investigators, including a brief primer to natural phenomena that is often misconstrued as UFO activity. Think ghostbusters, but for aliens.
This, for what it’s worth, is similar to how the government used to keep tabs on UFO reports.
And like NUFORC, MUFON has clearly defined goals: to collect data and educate the public about UFOs, and to “to discover the true nature of the phenomenon, with an eye towards scientific breakthroughs, and improving life on our planet.”
Still, MUFON’s method leaves room for mistakes. The goal of UFODATA is to reduce the margin of error, by relying on 21st century methods to indulge an age-old curiosity.
The future of UFO data collection
“It was in 2010 or 2011 when I had the idea that what we really need [is a way] to systematically look for UFOs,” Wendt, the Ohio State professor, told me. "Most of the UFO literature is about personal encounters, anecdotes, stories, people [say] that they see UFOs in the sky and then write it down or report it… they’re not scientific evidence, they’re just stories,“ he said. "The skeptics can easily dismiss them.”
UFODATA does away with anecdote completely. “What we’re proposing," he says, “is taking advantage of the much better technology we have today, and the internet, to build a network of surveillance.”
Each hypothetical station would include a camera surrounded by a number of sensitive instruments that would help detect unexpected phenomena—a magnetometer to search for changes in the magnetic field, a spectograph to look for trails of light, and so on. The station is still just an idea; the team is looking to raise at least $30,000 for a prototype. Per the UFODATA website:
All money raised in this stage will be used to buy the various station components (which we have already identified), construct the station, and begin to write the software to make it operational.
Once the prototype is set, the group plans to launch a formal crowdfunding campaign. But, Wendt said, a lack of funds isn’t UFODATA’s biggest problem, at least at this stage. “The key thing is trying to recruit volunteers with technical skills…especially what we need is programmers.”
Once the team is fully fleshed out, Wendt hopes to capture the attention of the general public. “Ideally an angel investor would come forward and give us the money,” he said, “but the real target is the mass public. Half of the American public thinks that UFOs are worth investigating. So that’s millions of people out there.” Just a small donation from a small portion of those interested in UFOs would be enough to make UFODATA real.
A community of believers
Davenport and Harzan had no qualms about identifying as believers in intelligent extraterrestrial (ET) life. Davenport told me that since he became the head of NUFORC, he is convinced not only that aliens are visiting Earth, but that they’re doing so on a regular basis. Harzan told me he saw a humming spacecraft as a child, one “that opened my eyes.” He added, “our belief is that these are advanced technology crafts that are visiting here.”
Wendt didn’t describe a witness experience, but said he was brought into a state of agnosticism after he saw a video of Harvard’s John Mack —a Pulitzer-winner who researched those who claimed to have been abducted by aliens, and spoke widely about his findings—discussing alien visitations (perhaps similar to this one):
“I thought, this is crazy… [but] the more I thought about it the more I thought, I don’t know this is crazy,” Wendt says of watching Mack discuss his research into alien abductions. After that, Wendt started to think more about alien life as a possible truth. “That kind of got me hooked, not to believe in alien abductions, but it got me realizing that I was ignorant.” And though there might be other value in capturing images of UFOs, the search for aliens is UFODATA’s primary driver. “If we were convinced that UFOs were not ETs, we wouldn’t bother with the search.”
What Davenport and Harzan believe is not in line with the research of NASA scientists, who don’t necessarily not believe in aliens. Prominent NASA scientists predicted this year that we will find alien life within a decade or two. “I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years," said chief NASA scientist Ellen Stofan in April. She added, “We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology.” Her colleague Jeffery Newmark backed her up, saying, “It's definitely not an if, it's a when."
The differences between believers like Davenport and Harzan and mainstream scientists, then, are not worlds apart, but a few degrees. NASA scientists think we’ll be able to find life, but not intelligent life. In Stofan’s words, "we are talking about little microbes.”
And then there’s the question of where, and when, intelligent alien life would exist. If we assume that the laws of physics hold true throughout the universe, how can we explain a visitation from a galaxy tens of thousands of light years away?
I posed the question to Wendt. “That’s the strongest argument against the idea that UFOs are extraterrestrials. It’s a plausible argument I take very seriously.”
His answer, and that of most UFO believers, is that we can’t know what kind of technology an advanced alien civilization has, especially if it's been around for 1,000—or one million—years. After all, even our Earthly technological advances would likely have seemed impossible to early humans. “500 years ago the idea that people can fly through the sky would have been absurd… All of these technologies we’ve invented would seem like miracles.”
Kickstarting the search for aliens
It’s not hard to imagine UFODATA tapping into peoples' curiosity, and their crowdfunding tendencies. If someone asking for $10 toward potato salad can accidentally raise $55,000, a team asking for $200,000 to look for aliens should be able to reach the goal. If they don’t, and if a UFO-curious angel investor doesn’t come through (Wendt told me the group is talking to a couple) the project will probably be over.
The government, Wendt said, would never consider offering funding to an organization like UFODATA. “It wasn’t even worth filling out grant applications,” he said. “The taboo on UFOs, even talking about UFOs at the level of officialdom and authorities is so deep that we would have been laughed at.”
The question, then, is if this generation would be willing to bring to life a project like UFODATA. “I think younger people in general are more open to this,” says Wendt. “When the older generation, 30-somethings and up, when those people were growing up, Ufology was in a bad place. [It was] all about conspiracies, Roswell hiding bodies —[it] gave the whole field a bad rep.”
In other words, anything is possible.
This post has been updated to clarify Alex Wendt's opinions.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.