US Congressional hearing on UFOs: Are they fact, fiction, or fantasy?
On July 26, 2023, the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, the Border and Foreign Affairs of the United States House of Representatives convened to hear testimony from three retired military veterans regarding their sightings of Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP), a new term that encompasses not just Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) but also any craft or phenomena observed in space or underwater that cannot be identified. The hearing was held after the whistleblower David Grusch, a former intelligence officer of the US Air Force, claimed that the US government was hiding evidence of "non-human intelligence" in its possession.
Before discussing the outcome of the hearing, a brief history of UFOs is in order. Following the publication of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds in 1898, there was a wave of reports of strange objects seen sailing through the skies in the US as well as other parts of the world. Later, in his book Chariots of the Gods? written in 1968, Erich von Däniken presented the theory that ancient Earth had been visited by aliens. Interest in UFOs increased greatly during World War II when US fighter pilots used the term "foo fighters" to refer to unexplained sightings in the sky.
The modern fascination with UFOs began with a widely reported sighting on June 24, 1947. While flying a small plane near Mount Rainier in Washington, Kenneth Arnold, a businessman from Idaho, reported seeing nine dazzling, disk-shaped objects drifting in a tight formation. Two weeks later, a rancher reported finding unidentifiable debris near Roswell, New Mexico. Since then, there have been numerous reports of encounters with UFOs.
Now, back to the hearing where former US Navy aviator Ryan Graves, former US Navy commander David Fravor, and whistleblower David Grusch testified about UAPs. Ryan Graves told the panel that commercial airline pilots had spotted UAPs operating in military airspace. He believes that it is an "urgent and critical national security issue" that deserves better scientific scrutiny. But the stigma associated with sightings "silences" possible witnesses from reporting the episodes. He wants the government to establish a "safe and transparent reporting process." David Fravor asserted that in 2004, he and three fellow military pilots saw something "unsettling" above the Pacific Ocean, hovering below their jets. As he descended to inspect the object, a UAP with no visible rotors, wings or exhaust began to ascend and approach his fighter jet. According to him, it suddenly vanished, only to reappear a few seconds later. But this time he saw it 60 miles away, accelerating to "supersonic speeds."
The most dramatic moment of the hearing came when David Grusch claimed that he is absolutely certain the US government is in possession of "intact and partially intact" UAPs. He said that over a four-year period, he interviewed dozens of individuals who recovered "non-human biologics" from UAP crash sites. Grusch talked about many friendly ears in the committee who were already convinced that the government is involved in secret programmes involving aliens and UAPs.
Does Grusch's allegation of the government possessing UAPs hold water? During the hearing, Grusch did not present any material evidence in support of his claim. Besides, in June, the Pentagon said it could not find "any verifiable information to substantiate" the claims about crashed alien spacecraft. While the government might be successful in concealing evidence for a short time, it seems implausible to them that such evidence could remain secret for decades. It is thus inconceivable that the government is trying to put a lid on evidence of alien visits.
On the other hand, conspiracy theorists, who also believe in the abduction of earthlings by aliens, allege that the government is taking advantage of UFOs to design new military hardware via "reverse engineering." However, reverse engineering UFOs is as unlikely as expecting Neanderthals to develop desktop computers just because a laptop somehow landed in their cave.
The scepticism about UFO sightings is aptly described by Republican Representative Eric Burlison, of Missouri, when he said, "the concept that an alien species is technologically advanced enough to travel billions of light years and gets here, and is somehow incompetent enough to not survive Earth and crashes, is something I find a little far-fetched."
Representative Burlison is right on the money. There were many gaping holes and inconsistencies in the testimony of the officers. Hence, their testimony does not have any scientific merit whatsoever. Also, if the US government is indeed running a secret UFO research programme, it is simply wasting taxpayers' money.
However, hyperbole about UFO sightings begs the question: are UFOs real? Are they fact, fiction or fantasy? We cannot answer these questions until the aliens get in touch with us or we find evidence of their existence. Anyhow, if they are real, then the high-speed, sharp-angle turns of their spaceships darting at supersonic speed through Earth's atmosphere without a sonic boom violates some of the fundamental laws of physics.
So, what are these mysterious objects that were sighted by so many? What can science say about UFOs? Although a staple for science fiction movies and novels, the fuzzy blobs and spinning lights are definitely not UFOs.
Furthermore, calculations based on known propulsion systems indicate that it would take thousands of years for an alien spaceship to travel the distance from even the nearest star, Alpha Centauri A, which is 41.6 trillion kilometres away. The travel time could be cut down to a few decades if the spaceship could travel at speeds comparable to the speed of light. Any alien society that could do so routinely would be far more technologically advanced than ours.
Largely out of concern that UFO sightings by Arnold and others might represent new types of aircraft developed by the Soviet Union, the US Air Force hired teams of scientists to investigate the incidents. After nearly two decades of sifting through evidence, the overall conclusion was that there was no reason to believe that UFOs are either highly advanced Soviet aircraft or spacecraft piloted by aliens from other worlds.
So, what are these mysterious objects that were sighted by so many? What can science say about UFOs? Although a staple for science fiction movies and novels, the fuzzy blobs and spinning lights are definitely not UFOs. We can attribute the sighting of UFOs to many known astronomical phenomena, such as bright stars, meteors, or asteroids with orbits close to Earth. Because of its high luminosity, Venus is often mistaken for a UFO when it appears low on the horizon.
The UFOs could also be aircraft, gliders or balloons, or a weather-related spectacle known as St Elmo's fire, caused by reflections of light from ice crystals in the atmosphere, or "sprites" that are flashes of electrical discharges triggered by thunderstorms high in the atmosphere, or "lens clouds" – a UFO-shaped object that is formed when wind blows moist air over tall structures like hills and mountains, seen in the skies over Turkey in May 2023.
As for Arnold's UFO, it could be a fireball – a meteor breaking up upon entry into Earth's atmosphere. The debris in Roswell, according to the US military, are the remnants of high-altitude balloons carrying acoustical equipment to monitor Soviet nuclear tests, and foo fighters were probably St Elmo's fire.
Finally, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence because there is no way for us to verify someone's eyewitness account of a UFO. Nevertheless, for all its faults and limitations, science is the best means by which rational beings can distinguish between what is real and what is not real. We can therefore conclude that UFOs are not real. Instead, they are fantasies of a stressed-out society.
Dr Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University in New York, US.