For five years starting in 2007, a secretive organization inside the Pentagon investigated sightings of unidentified flying objects by U.S. military pilots.
That's right, UFOs. Aspects of the program continue to this day, according to The New York Times, which broke the story.
The Advanced Aerospace Identification Program, championed by then-senators Harry Reid, Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye, directed hundreds of millions of dollars to the firm of an eccentric space entrepreneur until the Pentagon shut off the main funding stream in 2012.
The initiative's former director, Luis Elizondo, told the Times he continued overseeing UFO investigations on the behalf of the Navy and CIA for another five years before tendering his resignation to Defense Secretary James Mattis in October. "Why aren't we spending more time and effort on this issue?" Elizondo wrote in his resignation letter, according to the Times.
"I was honored to serve at the [Department of Defense] and took my mission of exploring unexplained aerial phenomena quite seriously,” Elizondo said in a statement. "In the end, however, I couldn’t carry out that mission, because the department — which was understandably overstretched — couldn’t give it the resources that the mounting evidence deserved."
Elizondo said that, after his departure, the Pentagon’s UFO inquiries continued under new leadership. “I know that our U.S. military takes very seriously their job of defending our nation and I believe they will take the actions necessary to ensure our defense against all threats,” Elizondo told The Daily Beast.
Reid reportedly decided to back the Advanced Aerospace Identification Program following a meeting with Robert Bigelow, CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, which builds spacecraft for government and corporate customers and, recently, has begun work on inflatable space stations that Bigelow said could lead to large-scale colonization of Earth's orbit.
Bigelow, who has professed a belief in alien life, reportedly convinced Reid to sponsor an official investigation of UFO sightings. In one striking case from 2004, U.S. Navy fighter pilots training off the coast southern California videotaped an odd, oblong object flying nearby. "That is a fucking drone," one pilot said—right before the object appeared to abruptly rotate... and hover.
The military and U.S. intelligence agencies have investigated UFOs off and on for decades. The CIA has declassified hundreds of documents related to its own, officially inconclusive UFO inquiries dating to the late 1940s.
The U.S. Air Force's Project Blue Book looked into 12,618 UFO sightings between 1947 and 1969. "There has been no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as 'unidentified' are extraterrestrial vehicles," the flying branch stated.
Of course, UFOs aren't a strictly American phenomenon. The Soviet Union conducted its own investigations of possible extraterrestrial craft. Today Russian media, in particular the state-owned website Sputnik, regularly report what they claim are credible sightings of UFOs.
And then there's Iran, where military interactions with UFOs have turned deadly. Beginning 2004, Iranian fighter pilots frequently chased mysterious flying objects that many observers assumed were American drones sent to spy on Tehran's nuclear facilities. In 2012, an Iranian F-14 fighter exploded while taking off to investigate a UFO sighting. Both crewmen died.
Perhaps not coincidentally, in 2011 a U.S. Air Force RQ-170 stealth drone crashed on Iran's border with Afghanistan. The RQ-170, it's worth noting, lacks a vertical tail and resembles a disc from certain angles. Its engines also make a unique, otherworldly thrumming sound.
There's no shortage of secretive military aircraft that could account for UFO sightings in the United States and abroad. In addition to a wide range of stealthy, tailless drones, there are numerous ultra-high-speed "hypersonic" vehicles in development. Vertical-takeoff and -landing, or VTOL, aircraft can launch like helicopters then rapidly convert to fast forward flight, perhaps giving the impression of UFOs that seemingly defy the laws of physics.
Deeply-classified military and intelligence programs often decline to share plans and technology with other programs. That explains how, for example, Navy pilots might react with surprise to a mysterious experimental aircraft also belonging to the Navy or other government agency.
“It is important that we not assume the source of an unexplained sighting,” Elizondo told The Daily Beast. “Objectivity is an imperative when dealing with a subject as unknown as and contentious as UFOs.”
“However, there are still those observations that defy explanation,” he added. “Observations by highly trained individuals such as fighter or airline pilots who would recognize aircraft shapes and aircraft movements.”
Given the abundance of advanced aircraft and persistent government secrecy, UFO sightings are likely to continue, even in the absence of actual human contact with extraterrestrials.
Elizondo, for one, said he is determined to keep investigating. He announced he has joined To the Stars Academy of Arts & Science, a startup established by former Blink-182 guitarist and singer Tom DeLonge which is dedicated to educating the public about UFOs. "We look forward to working closely with the U.S. government to produce the best possible results for America and the world," Elizondo stated.