UFOs are in the news again.
Though they never recede entirely from the headlines—you can always find stories somewhere speculating about spacecraft or sensationalizing optical illusions that look like saucers in the sky—public interest seems to come in waves, cresting every twenty years or so.
This time around, the burst of public interest can be traced to some 120 sightings and videos made by Navy aviators and Air Force pilots over the last two decades. The claims and the footage have been investigated by small programs in the Pentagon; videos collected from various military sources were leaked the press in 2017; by last year congressional curiosity was sufficient to demand the Pentagon produce a report, the classified version of which apparently says that there is no good explanation for these phenomena. An unclassified version of the report is expected to come out later this month.
The whole story has slipped into the realm of infotainment. In April, NBC produced a story on these sightings; then 60 Minutes did its own segment in mid-May, which in turn led to former President Barack Obama being asked about UFOs on The Late Late Show with James Corden. “There’s footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are,” Obama said. Cue the media firestorm among broadcast and cable TV, radio, newspapers, and podcasts. “Yes! You guys!” an excited Fox News personality remarked, “Former President Obama is all but confirming the existence of UFOs!” Her co-panelist Juan Williams joked that the arrival of aliens would only be further evidence that a border wall was required—adding that “Americans love this story. This is a story that could bring us together.”
There’s no way of knowing how long this particular wave of interest will last—or whether it will rival the last time UFOism was a major part of the American zeitgeist, back in the 1990s.
The ’90s saw a huge wave of pop-culture interest in UFOs and visits from extraterrestrials. One of the leading factors in this alien craze—both a symptom and a cause—was The X-Files, a TV sensation unlike anything before it. At its peak, the show had 20 million viewers tuning in each week to see FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) deal with unexplained phenomena, possible alien abductions, and shadowy government conspiracies. Meanwhile, aliens-come-to-earth movies were a major draw, featuring such titles as Species (1995), Independence Day (1996), Contact (1997), Men in Black (1997), and The Faculty (1998). Belief in alien involvement in human affairs reached strange new heights, although one of the most infamous statistics of that era—the widely discussed claim, extrapolated from a 1991 Roper survey, that as many as 3.7 million Americans might have been abducted by aliens—tells us less about what the public actually believed than about the strangeness of that intellectual and journalistic moment.