Within his first month on the job, NASA’s new chief is launching an effort to learn more about unidentified flying objects.
During a wide-ranging interview with CNN Business’ Rachel Crane on Thursday, Bill Nelson, a former Florida senator and spaceflight veteran, said that no one knows what the high-speed objects seen by Navy pilots are, even in the upper echelons of the US space agency.
Nelson went on to say that he doesn’t think the UFOs are proof of extraterrestrials visiting Earth. If that were the case, Nelson said, “I think I would know.” But, he admitted, it would be premature to rule out the possibility.
Nelson’s remarks reaffirm the findings of a new Pentagon report due out later this month. US intelligence officials found no evidence that the UFOs are alien spacecraft, according to five sources familiar with the study’s findings, but investigators haven’t come to a definitive conclusion about what these mysterious objects might be.
“We don’t know if it’s extraterrestrial. We don’t know if it’s an enemy. We don’t know if it’s an optical phenomenon,” Nelson said. “We don’t think [it’s an optical phenomenon] because of the characteristics that those Navy jet pilots described … And so the bottom line is, we want to know.”
Nelson did not establish a formal task force to begin investigating UFOs, according to NASA press secretary Jackie McGuinness. He did, however, instruct researchers to pursue any lines of inquiry related to the topic that they deem appropriate.
“There’s not really a lot of data and…scientists should be free to follow these leads, and it shouldn’t be stigmatized,” McGuinness said, acknowledging that UFO research can be negatively associated with unfounded conspiracy theories. “This is a really interesting phenomenon and Americans are clearly interested in it [so if] the scientists want to investigate, they should.”
UFOs have long been a source of fascination in the United States and abroad, and a bombshell New York Times report in 2017 about numerous incidents in which US military pilots observed mysterious, oblong objects darting around at high speeds, as well as a secretive government investigation into the topic, fueled the obsession.
One of the most well-known sightings, captured in a 2004 video dubbed “Tic Tac” due to the UFOs’ resemblance to a certain cylindrical breath mint, shows a small, ghostly object zipping out of frame, seemingly defying “the normal laws of physics,” as the pilot who captured the footage told New York Magazine in 2019.
Another image, taken by a US Navy Super Hornet fighter jet in 2015 and published by the New York Times in 2019, shows a strange, rounded object flying straight into 120 mph winds. Before the object appears to halt, hover, and eerily tilt itself forward, the pilots can be heard shouting expletives and wondering aloud if they’re looking at a drone.
Nelson said NASA isn’t working directly with the Pentagon on the report, but “the Pentagon will know” if NASA’s scientists make progress in identifying the objects.
Thomas Zurbuchen, an astrophysicist and NASA’s associate administrator for science, said during a press conference on Wednesday that he does not believe the UFOs are evidence of a technologically advanced alien civilization.
“People tend to underestimate nature. Nature is an amazing place where a lot of miracles happen. And once we understand, it’s like, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?'” he said. “In the realm of science we’re all about unidentified issues and objects… So, using the tools of science, we will do whatever we can to move our understanding forward.”
NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Kathy Lueders, chimed in, jokingly, “If anyone knows how to do spacecraft design like that I would love to talk to you.”