Hold on to your tinfoil hats.
The New York Times reported this weekend that the Pentagon houses a program devoted to the study of unidentified flying objects. The Defense Department claims the 10-year-old initiative has been shut down, but others say the funding ended and the work went on — between officials’ other duties, in the shadows, as mysterious as its extraterrestrial subjects.
The government, apparently, thinks those subjects are real enough to have spent $22 million per year on probing their whereabouts. (Skeptics point out that then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) requested much of the initial funding and that most of it went to an aerospace research company run by a longtime billionaire friend of his.)
The program gathered recordings of reported UFO sightings, including military footage of a glowing ship shooting through the sky. It also collected metal alloys of, well, alien composition. Its director declared in a 2009 briefing summary that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact.”
And we don’t care.
Well, some of us do. The extraterrestrial exposé has prompted some commentators to raise a digital eyebrow. But mostly, the possibility of alien invasion has not managed to break through the Trump bubble. It’s not prompting columnists to columnize, or even that many tweeters to tweet. We’re too busy placing bets on whether special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation will meet an early end, or crying out against misbegotten votes by moderates for a bad tax bill. We have no time to contemplate the cosmos.
This makes some sense. The aliens might be coming, but they’re probably not coming anytime soon. Rate hikes and health-care collapses and an unopen Internet, on the other hand, may all be here to ring in the new year. It’s hard to worry about a threat that might not even exist when there are so many threats that do, right here, right now. And it’s even harder to think about extraterrestrial life not as a threat but just as a thing, or as an idea. It’s too distant. What’s the point?
I don’t know much about what lives beyond our solar system, or even what lives beyond Earth. Scientists, as far as I can tell, think statistics say that aliens are out there somewhere, but whether we can reach them or they us is far less certain. I definitely don’t know the proper price tag to put on finding out more. But I do remember the eclipse.
It says something that it took the sun disappearing for us to tear our eyes away from Trump and look somewhere else for a second. But however disheartening the all-consuming chaos of today’s politics may be, this summer’s astronomical rarity was a reprieve, and a comfort.
A total solar eclipse, those who have seen one all seem to say, reminds you that the universe is very big and you are very small. On one level, that’s terrifying. No one likes to hear they don’t matter. On another level, it’s reassuring to think that each of us is connected to some transcendental community. Even if we don’t matter alone, we matter together — as a collective piece of something much, much larger.
Extraterrestrial life tells us the same story. It’s less tangible than the eclipse, and it will take more than dark glasses to get a good look. But it also situates us in a vast universe that makes us feel both tiny and tremendous at the same time. It tells us there’s a lot we don’t understand, and a lot we never will, but that we’re all striving, seeking and sometimes finding together.
So we should talk about aliens this holiday season. Not only because it’s important, and our ho-hum response so far belies the striking reality that the Defense Department believes they’re closer than we knew, but also because the continued hunt for nonhuman intelligent life, amid all the uncertainty, is part of what makes us human.