Let's say you're interested in UFOs. It's a fun hobby, but you'd like to monetize your efforts. What do you do?
Historically, your avenues were limited. There was entertainment—science fiction movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or E.T. (1982), purportedly nonfiction books like Chariots of the Gods? (1968) or The Mothman Prophecies (1975). There was journalism, sometimes serious but mostly sensationalist. There were conferences and festivals where you could make money with attendance fees and UFO-themed merchandise.
The final and far less common route was to get someone, preferably someone with a lot of money, to pay you to study the subject.
In 1995 that someone was the Nevada businessman Robert Bigelow. He had already been funding various individual UFO researchers, but that year he decided to set up his own research organization, the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS). He invited several luminaries of UFO research to participate, including Hal Puthoff, Jacques Vallée, and John Mack. Not simply a UFO organization, NIDS also probed the question of whether there is life after death. Its hotline (and later website) would take your reports of mysterious black flying triangles, but it also solicited reports of cattle mutilations and visits from "entities"—essentially ghosts.
In a rather odd government decision, the Federal Aviation Administration told pilots who wanted to report a UFO sighting that they should direct it to NIDS.
In 1996, NIDS started focusing on a place called Skinwalker Ranch. A nondescript cattle operation in northeastern Utah, the property was owned by the Sherman family, who for a year had been telling amazing tales of UFO sightings, cattle mutilations, and visits from mysterious entities. It was the trifecta, and so Bigelow bought the ranch and installed a full-time team of NIDS researchers.
For a year, they observed nothing. Accounts vary as to what transpired after that, but it apparently was enough to interest a U.S. senator.
Sen. Harry Reid (D–Nev.), then in his second term, had been interested in UFOs for years when the Las Vegas journalist George Knapp told him about NIDS. Reid already knew Bigelow, having represented him as an attorney, and the two started communicating about Bigelow's project. By the end of the year, Reid had attended his first NIDS board meeting, which included a presentation by Vallée and discussions from other UFO researchers. Reid was hooked.
Reid's interest grew over the years, and he continued to attend UFO events, though his staff tried to steer him away from something they suspected the public would deem frivolous. Then, in 2007, Bigelow contacted the senator about James Lacatski, a Defense Intelligence Agency rocket scientist with an interest in UFOs. And so a new avenue for monetizing such an interest began to open: the spigot of government spending.
Lacatski had just read Hunt for the Skinwalker, a 2005 book about the phenomena allegedly transpiring on the ranch. He read about UFOs, dead cows, mysterious spirit-like orbs, strange health effects, and bizarre creatures emerging from portals. Fascinated, he gave the book to colleagues in the intelligence community. By his account, it was avidly read—especially in Baghdad's Green Zone, where there was a lot of downtime.
Lacatski started visiting Skinwalker Ranch. On one trip, he reported seeing a sort of technological apparition floating in midair in the ranch kitchen. It resembled, he said, the object on the cover of Mike Oldfield's album Tubular Bells.
After this otherworldly vision, Lacatski became convinced that there was a phenomenon worth investigating. He knew that his Pentagon bosses were unlikely to authorize such a thing. Nor could they publicly request funding to investigate a haunted ranch. So he and some allies invented a new program, the Advanced Aerospace Weapons Systems Application Program (AAWSAP).
Bigelow—whose aerospace company also successfully launched two prototype inflatable space habitats during this period—connected Lacatski with Harry Reid. Reid looped in Sens. Ted Stevens (R–Alaska), who said he saw a UFO as a pilot in World War II, and Daniel Inouye (D–Hawaii). The three legislators lobbied the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee for funds, they got $22 million over five years, and a public solicitation was issued.
AAWSAP was to be a front. Nominally it was set up to study potential novel developments in aerospace weaponry. The public solicitation makes no mention of UFOs or ghosts. It simply discusses aerospace technology and lists a variety of fields that needed investigating, such as "propulsion," "lift," "power generation," and the only real oddity, the ambiguously phrased "human effects."
Just one proposal was received for the program concocted by Lacatski, Bigelow, and Reid. The proposal came from a new organization, BAASS—the Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies. NIDS shut down, and BAASS took its place. BAASS's proposal made no bones about the fact that its researchers would be studying UFOs and that they'd do it both at BAASS headquarters in Las Vegas and at Skinwalker Ranch.
Part of the $22 million went via BAASS to the Mutual UFO Network, a volunteer-based UFO reporting organization, where it paid for updating the group's database and providing access to its investigations. BAASS eventually set up its own UFO database, carrying over work from NIDS. Its researchers did extensive investigations at Skinwalker Ranch, attempting to observe both supernatural activity and the UFOs they felt were related. They also investigated other UFO cases outside the ranch, such as the now-famous 2004 Nimitz "Tic Tac" incident, in which a Navy fighter jet recorded a mysterious aerial phenomenon off the California coast.
Their output was a mix of speculative scientific papers about warp drives and increasingly wild stories of flying orbs and poltergeist activity. This must have given pause to the higher-ups at the Defense Intelligence Agency: When the money ran out for AAWSAP, it was not renewed.
All this was unknown to the general public and probably to most of the Pentagon. Then, in 2017, The New York Times published a piece headlined "Glowing Auras and 'Black Money,'" telling some of the more mundane parts of the AAWSAP story. (The UFOs were included. The interdimensional portals weren't.) This article introduced the world to Luis Elizondo, who at one point had been head of AAWSAP.
Elizondo had just resigned from the Pentagon, citing his frustration at the slow pace of its UFO investigations. He had also hooked up with an unlikely ally: Tom DeLonge, formerly of the rock band Blink-182.
DeLonge had started To The Stars… Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTSA), an organization that seemed designed to cover as many paths to UFO monetization as it could. In DeLonge's ambitious plans, TTSA would have a science division, which would study UFOs and figure out how they work. It would have an aerospace division, which would take that science and use it to build warp-drive spaceships. And it would have an entertainment division, which would make films and TV shows about all this. The group's goals seemed ludicrously implausible, and the only real things they ended up generating were entertainment products, most notably a History Channel series on UFOs. The science never materialized, and TTSA now describes itself only as an entertainment company.
Along the way, the group pioneered a new way to make money from UFOs: The company's first conference was, among other things, a call for public investors. Many in the UFO community were excited by this new venture. TTSA is not publicly traded (it's a "public benefit corporation"), and the future of the investors' money is uncertain.
DeLonge's academy also dallied with getting funds from the government. It did not exactly manage to get money (as far as we know), but it did sign an agreement with the U.S. Army that allowed the group free use of Army labs to examine supposed pieces of crashed saucers in exchange for some vaguely defined technology sharing. Again, this all seems to have come to nothing. TTSA's most recent call for investors features DeLonge waxing lyrically about making a feature film based on a ghostly version of Bigfoot that peers into people's windows.
But something had been set in motion. That New York Times story gave journalists everywhere permission to write about UFOs, and TTSA's efforts gave other people ideas. Documentary filmmakers geared up to examine the subject. Edutainment companies started throwing ideas around. And more people started lobbying the government.
There's a concept in the UFO subculture called "disclosure." The idea here isn't simply a call for more government transparency; it's an assumption about what that transparency will reveal. There is so much evidence for extraterrestrial contact, the argument goes, that the government surely must know much more about it than it lets on.
The belief is predicated on two things. First there's the publicly available data and testimony regarding UFOs. This includes three U.S. Navy videos that were made public by Elizondo and Christopher Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence. These videos were supposed to show amazing things, but—as is the case for many other videos promoted by UFO lobbyists—closer analysis suggests a variety of mundane explanations. For example, the "GoFast" video seemed to show something moving very fast, with no visible means of propulsion, but turned out to be moving quite slowly, and was probably a balloon. The "Gimbal" video, much vaunted for showing what looked like a rotating flying saucer, turned out to also resemble a camera artifact that rotated because of the gimbal mounted camera.
Secondly, there is privileged information. The U.S. military defaults to secrecy in a vast array of circumstances, but especially when it comes to battlefield technology, such as sensors. So UFO buffs often claim that significant evidence of advanced nonhuman technology exists, if only we could actually see it.
In 2020, Mellon convinced Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) to insert language into a bill establishing a UAP Task Force, triggering yet more media interest and more lobbying. ("UAP"—it stands for "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena"—has become the preferred term for UFO in official circles.) In June 2021, the task force produced a report. No alien technology was discussed, and the UFO reports were largely thought to have pretty mundane explanations. But people read between the lines and got very excited. So the cycle of nonrevelation, speculation, and legislation continued.
The UFO Gold Rush
When the government starts making appropriations and passing legislation, money descends. The "UAP startup" is now a thing. One such startup, UAPx, initially offered to test UAP detection equipment, then morphed into a kind of UAP tourism. The pandemic made that impractical, so it pivoted to shooting a docuseries with William Shatner.
More recently, Enigma Labs tossed its hat into the ring, aiming to set up a sophisticated database to track UFO sightings and then use A.I. to sort signal from noise. Possibly a preemptive move to establish a presence in the field before potentially lucrative government contracts are available, the group's source of funds is unclear. One rumor suggests that it's getting money from the controversial venture capitalist and political financier Peter Thiel, whose name has also been bandied about as a possible secret financier for UFO research at Stanford and Harvard universities. (Thiel did not respond to a request for comment.)
Other companies seem to be betting UAPs are a route to future technologies the military will want. Quantum Generative Materials, whose CEO was a regular on UFO Twitter, hired a former fighter pilot who had briefed Congress on his UFO encounters. He is now the company's director of business development. The operation hopes its UFO studies will unlock new developments in quantum computers and artificial intelligence.
The UAP Task Force itself took a cycle through the revolving door. In 2022, government contractor Radiance Technologies hired both the task force's director, John F. Stratton Jr., and its informal chief scientist, Travis S. Taylor, presumably for something at least speculatively government- and UAP-related. Taylor is already very well known in the UFO entertainment industry, playing an excitable scientist on shows like Ancient Aliens and, of course, The Secret of Skinwalker Ranch.
Recent government action on UFOs seems mainly driven by three sets of incentives. First there are issues that virtually everyone recognizes as legitimate, such as new aerial technologies (especially drones) that could pose a national security threat when used by a (human) adversary. Another real issue arises when systems, equipment, or personnel fail to identify flying objects. These are genuine problems that need to be investigated and addressed.
The second set of concerns is more esoteric. Government contracts were given to investigate a supposedly supernatural ranch. Government scientists have investigated poltergeists. People who think "nonhuman intelligence" is playing games with us have been briefing politicians. These quirky pursuits are no longer limited to little pork programs like AAWSAP: A creeping weirdness is growing at the Pentagon. Those pushing in this direction may well believe in their mission, but surely we're better off when government action is based on real scientific evidence.
Then there's money. All this unsubstantiated strangeness is creating new financial opportunities in the military-UFO complex. And when financial opportunities appear, all sorts of characters will rush to both fill and expand them.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Military-UFO Complex".