Did we ever tell you about the unidentified flying object discovered outside Baltimore? In 1949, a farm in Glen Burnie was briefly swarming with state troopers and military investigators checking out reports of a flying saucer. And, indeed, they found what were later described as “prototypes” of aircraft in a rundown barn — experiments in manned flight pieced together by an eccentric designer.
What might generously be described as an historical footnote to the nation’s fascination with UFOs later turned up in documents eventually released by the U.S. Air Force and widely reported in 2015 as part of the service branch’s “Project Blue Book,” which investigated unexplained sightings from 1947 to 1969 and found no alien invaders, nor space age technology. Just oddities often made all the more unusual by an odd reflection of sunlight or improbable weather conditions or malfunctioning radar.
The episode seems pertinent now because of this month’s expected release by the Pentagon of yet another report on UFOs — or what others call “UAP,” which stands for unidentified aerial phenomena. In brief, the report is thought to suggest that first, UFOs exist; second, that they defy easy explanation; and third, that they ought to be taken seriously and studied further. What it is not expected to claim is that this is all clearly the work of extraterrestrials.
But in a nation suffering from a credibility gap, where real news is considered by millions fake, and fake news is often judged real, with QAnon conspiracy theories thriving against all odds, one can predict what’s going to happen next as sure as Donald Trump refusing to concede the last election: We are headed for a summer of X-Files and Twilight Zone with maybe a little Star Trek and Star Wars thrown in for good measure. As The Sun’s own H.L. Mencken once injudiciously observed, no one in the world “has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” And that was pre-social media.
That’s not to suggest that Congress and the American people should not be open to whatever evidence the military cares to declassify or share. Just as today’s unmanned drones would be baffling to people just a decade or two ago, it’s hard to know what technology — in the hands of a foreign government or perhaps just a private inventor — has wrought. There are also glitches in technology that might do who-knows-what to satellite or radar images. And yes, even the old weather balloon explanation may have to be trotted out a time or two. Think Mother Nature can’t offer a few surprises? Check out the various YouTube videos that look like there’s a lake or a mountain floating in the sky. Your own eyes can be deceived by something as common as light bouncing off a cloud.
But what we would counsel our readers to be highly skeptical about is any suggestion that these unusual events are the work of an alien visitor. Why? Not because we doubt the existence of aliens. Scientists have estimated that are at least 300 million planets with conditions similar to our own in the Milky Way galaxy alone. What are the chances that life would emerge with the right combination of a not-too-hot, not-too-cold sun with a not-too-big, not-too-small planet with hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and all those other building blocks of life? Undoubtedly high. Astronomer Carl Sagan once estimated the galaxy probably contained 10,000 advanced civilizations, which seems a bit generous given how efforts to at least detect radio signals from one of them has proven fruitless. But this is the real problem: Space is vast. The distances between Earth and the nearest such place is almost incomprehensively great.
At the current speed of human spacecraft travel, it would take an estimated 75,000 years to travel a mere four light years, which is about how far Proxima Centauri b, the closest planet considered to be potentially habitable is to our own. So the working theory is that some alien culture might travel for thousands of years to get here (or at least years if they somehow discovered travel approaching light speed), and then merely spend their time buzzing commercial airlines and military aircraft or flitting about in view for a few seconds before disappearing into the sky? We’re going to call that improbable. We might as well be talking about time travel or magic.
So while it’s all very well to sit around the campfire and watch the assorted clips of stunned pilots or read eyewitness accounts or imagine objects traveling ultra-fast and turning on a dime, let’s also keep it in context. Unexplained doesn’t mean the Vulcans finally showed up to welcome us into the United Federation of Planets. What we have is a mystery, not a 1960s science fiction TV show.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.