This could have been the day that finally answered the burning question: Are there aliens out there? Sadly, we'll still have to wait.
A U.S. government report on UFOs says it found no evidence of aliens but acknowledged 143 reports of "unidentified aerial phenomena" since 2004 that could not be explained.
The report was released Friday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence with substantial input from the military. The study is part of the most significant public effort so far to deal with decades of speculation, rumor and unhinged conspiracy theories about UFOs.
Some of the most intriguing cases come from Navy pilots who reported seeing UFOs — and filming some of them — off the East Coast of the U.S. over a period of months in 2014 and 2015.
The pilots, including some who have spoken publicly, say the mystery objects moved with exceptional speed, agility and acceleration that they had never seen before. And in some incidents, the pilots said the objects went underwater.
The report was mandated by Congress and points to an increased willingness of government officials to discuss UFOs without fear of open ridicule.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, pushed for the study and said in a statement, "This report is an important first step in cataloging these incidents, but it is just a first step. The Defense Department and intelligence community have a lot of work to do before we can actually understand whether these aerial threats present a serious national security concern."
A recent rise in sightings
Many of the unexplained sightings come from the past couple years as the Air Force and the Navy have put in place formal procedures for reporting such incidents.
For starters, the government is using the term "unusual aerial phenomena" to avoid referring to UFOs and the stigma that has often gone with talking about them.
Still, the report noted that, "The limited amount of high-quality reporting on unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions."
While the report could not provide many answers, it did offer a range of possibilities.
It said the UFOs, or UAPs, could be part of a secret U.S. government or military project, but did not cite any such cases.
In addition, they could be part of a clandestine program in another country with advanced aerial capabilities, like Russia or China, though the report offered no such proof this was the case.
In some incidents the UFOs showed "unusual flight characteristics. These observations could be the result of sensor errors, spoofing, or observer misperception and require additional rigorous analysis," the report added.
The main contents of the report were widely leaked to the media earlier this month, and few minds are likely to be changed.
For UFO skeptics, the report will probably reinforce their doubts that aliens are periodically whizzing past but not bothering to send a clear message.
For UFO enthusiasts, the report's acknowledgement of so many unexplained objects is likely to generate calls for more resources to study the issue.
U.S. intelligence agencies and military were required to produce this report after funding was included in a huge spending bill approved by Congress late last year that focused mostly on COVID-19 relief.
Former President Donald Trump signed the bill on Dec. 27, which then gave the Office of the Director of National Intelligence 180 days to produce the report and send it to Congress.
How it began
As NPR's Bill Chappell noted earlier this month, the real starting point for UFO speculation, and possible government involvement, dates to Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947. According to UFO true believers, that's when the U.S. Air Force allegedly found seized an alien spacecraft and its occupants.
In reality, an Air Force balloon intended for spying on the Soviet Union's nuclear program crashed near Roswell during a test flight. The Air Force quickly cleaned up its the crash site and was unwilling to talk about the clandestine program, known as Project Mogul.
The event launched UFO conspiracies still going strong to this day.
The Air Force did start its own program to investigate UFO sightings in 1947, called Project BLUE BOOK. Over the next two decades, 12,618 sightings were reported. When the project ended in 1969, around 700 sightings were still categorized as "unidentified," according to the National Archives.
To this day, the faithful, and the merely curious, make the trek to Roswell.
In recent years, current and former government officials have been more willing to broach the topic.
Former President Barack Obama was asked about UFOs in May on The Late Late Show with James Corden on CBS.
"What is true, and I'm actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are," Obama said.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
During a week full of news coming out of Washington, we didn't want you to miss this story. Today, the U.S. government released its most detailed report ever on what it does and does not know about UFOs. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre has been following this.
And, Greg, let's start with this. UFOs are somehow part of the infrastructure bill. What's the headline there?
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, no sign of little green men here, Audie. The U.S. military and the intelligence community said they found nothing to support evidence of alien life, but they did find more than 140 reports dating back to 2004 where investigators could not find an explanation for what they call - instead of UFOs, they call them unexplained aerial phenomena. Now, the report says the limited amount of high-quality reporting hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions, so it may leave people on both sides a little disappointed. This report had lots of input from the military, was released by the office of the director of national intelligence - part of a task force that's going to continue this work.
CORNISH: What kind of events are we talking about?
MYRE: Well, perhaps the most intriguing are reports coming from Navy pilots, particularly in 2014 and 2015 off the east coast of the U.S. And at least a few of these were filmed. The pilots said they saw objects that moved at exceptional speed and agility and acceleration. And in some incidents, witnesses even claimed these objects went underwater. So we're talking about multiple sightings over the course of months from experienced pilots, not some kind of one-off by an amateur.
CORNISH: In the meantime, what you're saying is it doesn't really explain what's happening, but does it offer any suggestions or guidance?
MYRE: A little bit - it says that these UFO sightings are not part of a secret U.S. government or military project. And another theory was, OK, perhaps it's some sort of secret program coming from a rival country like Russia or China, but there's no evidence to support this either. There's speculation that it's perhaps some kind of hypersonic technology - something that the U.S. and others are working on. But they don't seem to explain the account in this report. So given all these unresolved cases, it is likely to spur certainly more discussion and perhaps talk about even more resources being devoted to looking for some answers here.
CORNISH: Why is this report coming out now?
MYRE: So late last year, Congress passed this big COVID relief bill, and then it was signed by Donald Trump on December 27. And buried inside it was this call for this report. Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, was a big driving force behind it. And so that's what we're seeing today is this preliminary report, and Congress is also being briefed. Now, the main conclusions were leaked to the media several weeks ago. So as we have heard, there's nothing really conclusive that's likely to change people's minds. For UFO skeptics, it's probably going to reinforce the notion that there's no proof here. And for UFO enthusiasts, they're likely to say there are these unexplained cases and it requires further study.
CORNISH: There have been so many conspiracy theories, obviously. Why is this kind of - for the people who are hardcore UFO enthusiasts - I mean, they've claimed that the U.S. government has found aliens. I mean, can you explain how we got from there to here?
MYRE: Right. I mean, I think we all have heard about the Roswell, N.M., story. And it's a case where the fake story is better-known than the real one. The fake story claims that in 1947, the Air Force found a spacecraft and aliens in the desert and has covered it up ever since. But in reality, the Air Force had these high-altitude balloons for spying on the Soviet Union's nuclear program. One of those balloons crashed near Roswell. The Air Force cleaned it up, didn't talk about a top secret program. Wasn't until 1994 that the Air Force put out a detailed report. And by that point, many people just prefer to believe the flying saucer version of events, which contributes to the tourist industry that Roswell still has today.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Greg Myre.
Greg, thank you.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.