NASA, UAPs, UFOs and a Bart Simpson Balloon

NRAO (National Radio Astronomy Observatory)'s photo: the Very Large Array, a radio observatory with 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration on the Plains of San Agustin, 50 miles west of Socorro, New Mexico. (ca. 2008)
NRAO’s Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico.

It’s been two and a half weeks since NASA’s “Public Meeting on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena” aired on YouTube. Or is that streamed on YouTube? Never mind.

The NASA panelists did not announce contact with an extraterrestrial diplomat, or admit that they’ve been holding space aliens captive. So some of the folks who were contributing to the video’s live chat were profoundly disappointed.

The panelists did, however, discuss what Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) means, how they’ll be collecting and analyzing data, and answered some questions.

Ideally, I’d have listened to all four hours of the meeting, pondered its content, and would now be sharing the highlights. That didn’t happen.

But I did catch bits and pieces of the video: mostly during the last hour.

So I’ll be talking about that today, focusing on a former pilot and astronaut’s experience: along with flying saucers, ball lightning and (very briefly) space aliens.

Maybe I’ll listen to the whole video later this month. Or, more likely, next month.

Either way, I’ll almost certainly have more to say about Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena studies and the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

A UFO that Wasn’t — or — Flying Saucer Down

USAF 388th Range Sqd., Genesis Mission, NASA's photo: Genesis sample return capsule, after crash landing in Utah. (2004)
Somewhere in the Utah desert, a crashed spacecraft: one of ours. (2004)

September 8, 2004, 16:55 UTC.: A saucer-shaped spacecraft entered Earth’s atmosphere over northern Oregon and streaked across the sky toward Utah. Chased by helicopters, it crashed in the Dugway Proving Ground.

One team of specialists rushed the wreckage to a government laboratory, while others removed evidence from the crash site.

Sci-fi movie poster collage; including 'Plan 9 from Outer Space,' 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,' 'The Thing.'So far, this could be part of a movie: something along the lines of “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers”, “Fearful Attack of the Flying Saucers”, “Hangar 18” or “The Andromeda Strain”.

But it’s not.

The Genesis mission’s sample return capsule was literally a flying — or, more accurately, falling — saucer.

But the sample return capsule was not a UFO, an Unidentified Flying Object.

Its return was planned, so when it streaked across the skies of Oregon and Utah it was an identified flying — or, again, falling — object.1

I gather that “UFO” or “UFOB” started as a term the United States Air Force used as a label for an object that’s airborne and doesn’t look or act like a known aircraft. Or bird.

(Air Force Regulation 200-2, Unidentified Flying Objects Reporting (August 12, 1954 version) via Wikisource)

“…2. Definitions
“a. Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOB) relates to any airborne object which by performance, aerodynamic characteristics, or unusual features, does not conform to any presently known aircraft or missile type, or which cannot be positively identified as a familiar object.
“b. Familiar Objects – Include balloons, astronomical bodies, birds, and so forth….”

That was then, this is now. “UFO” still means something in the air that doesn’t look or act like a familiar object.

But I suspect that for a great many folks, “UFO” means “flying saucer”: and reminds them of tabloid headlines they’ve seen in supermarket checkout lines.

Although, now that I think of it, it’s been some time since I saw an “ALIEN ABDUCTION!” headline. Or one about an Elvis sighting, and that’s another topic.

“Flying Saucers” and Explanations: 1947

Wilmington Star News clipping: 'MORE FLYING SAUCERS SEEN AS MEN OF SCIENCE PONDER SERIOUS ANGLES'. (July 6, 1947)Or maybe not so much.

Whether news media promoted the 1947 flying disc craze, or passively reported it, the fact is that “flying discs” were in the news that summer.

At some point, I don’t know exactly when, “flying discs” became “flying saucers”. “FLYING SAUCERS” were headline material at least as early as July 6, 1947.

What was behind the flurry of flying saucer sightings during the summer of 1947 depends on who’s talking.

Experts said it was mass hysteria, or some other psychosocial malady.

Some folks said they were from outer space. Others, who worked with aircraft, said the UFOs might be jets or other experimental aircraft. Or maybe meteors.

An anonymous “noted scientist” allegedly said the flying disks were from atomic research. The inevitable powerful preachers and wannabe prophets went into doomsday mode. Folks with more sophisticated styles spoke of matters esoteric and etheric.2

Human Nature, Congress and “Mass Hysteria”

Diorama of a Grey space alien at the Roswell UFO Museum; Roswell, New Mexico, USA; G. W. Dodson. (2011)I’m inclined more toward defaulting to ‘natural phenomena’ explanations, and accepting that some observed phenomena don’t have obvious explanations.

Assuming that folks who saw something I didn’t were experiencing “mass hysteria”?

That’s not an appealing notion: partly because I’ve noticed that “mass hysteria” is something that allegedly happens to folks who aren’t high on the socioeconomic scale.

Like the workers in a dressmaking factory who said they’d been bitten by bugs in an infested fabric shipment.

That was in 1962.

An etymologist didn’t find bugs, and most of the workers were women.3 Mass hysteria? Social contagion? Too-tiny bugs? I don’t know.

Quite a bit’s changed in the 76 years since 1947. But from what I see, human nature and the news haven’t.

NASA’s UAP Meeting: Reactions and a Bart Simpson Balloon

NASA photo and text from UAP landing page: 'Members of the Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study Team gather for a public meeting in May 2023. Back row, left to right: Walter Scott, Warren Randolph, Reggie Brothers, Shelley Wright, Scott Kelly, Anamaria Berea, Mike Gold. Front row, left to right: Nadia Drake, Paula Bontempi, Federica Bianco, David Grinspoon, Karlin Toner, Josh Semeter, Jennifer Bus, David Spergel, Dan Evans.' (May 31, 2023, screenshot taken June 13, 2023

My hat’s off to NASA, for devoting four hours of their NASA Video channel to the UAP (Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena) Q&A public panel meeting. (May 31, 2023)

Not everyone feels that way. Someone using YouTube’s live chat feature said the meeting was a massive waste of time and money.

I can see the ‘waste of time and money’ viewpoint, since the 16 panelists could have been doing other parts of their jobs for that half-day. And so could the technical crew.

The quality of public participation, reflected in YouTube’s live chat, would be another reason for seeing this sort of meeting as unproductive, at best. Take these cherry-picked comments, for example:

Public Meeting on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (Official NASA Broadcast)
NASA Video, YouTube (May 31, 2023)
Top Chat Replay (excerpts copied June 15, 2023, usernames redacted)

“…fake nasa data
“…What a waste of Americans’ tax money, glad am not an American
“…​aliens are real but we still have not got the data and we cannot say because we are being told to keep quiet
“yep. listen to zach folks. there is a few black operations……FACT…
“…​Then why was the transiting plane not moving like that ?…
“…​they are not Ours . they are trying to Pass the UAP buck and we will not have it
“…​Please watch Mars Attacks! – it is based on real events…
“…​​I just want to know how these things fly, and who is making them and how
“…​​aliens came to free Kurdistan…
“…​​NASA is full of schizos, they should all get fired ASAP…
“…​why do people want it to be an alien ship?
“…​​It looked like the three dots were on the lens of the camera that was moving….
“…​​Can a World Government and a New World Order protect us from the Aliens?…”
[emphasis mine}

I’m pretty sure that some folks participating in the video’s chat weren’t serious, and that some were raising what they saw as valid questions.

I think one of the valid questions was “…why do people want it to be an alien ship?”

I know why I’d like solid evidence that we’ve got neighbors.

But my reasons may not line up with those of folks who insist that nefarious schemes are afoot, preventing us from learning that “​aliens are real”.

“May not line up”?

Make that don’t line up, since I don’t “believe in” space aliens who are just simply itching to fix our problems. And I’m not at all convinced that shape-shifting space-alien lizard-men are even now plotting against us. Although it’d make a good story.4

Virginia Beach UFO, Identified: a Bart Simpson Balloon

(Four-hour video, playback with Scott Kelly’s remarks starts at about 2:52:00)

Maybe “seeing is believing”, but I think verifying what’s seen is a very good idea.

Mainly because seeing something a second time may yield different results.

Pilot and astronaut Scott Kelly’s “UFO encounter” is a case in point.

Public Meeting on Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (Official NASA Broadcast)
NASA Video, YouTube (May 31, 2023) (excerpt from remarks by Scott Kelly, astronaut; my transcription)

“…the environment that we fly in … [is] very, very conducive to optical illusions. So I get it, why these pilots would … think it was going very fast. I remember one time I was flying in the warning areas off of Virginia Beach … my RIO thought, the guy in the back of the Tomcat, was convinced we flew by a UFO. So, I didn’t see it, We turned around, we went to go look at it, it turns out it was Bart Simpson, a balloon….”

Our brains are very good at spotting patterns: so good that sometimes we see patterns that aren’t there.

Sometimes, as in Scott Kelly’s experience, observers can get a second look. But sometimes, as with observations of Martian canals, we must wait until we get better data.5

Aliens and Alchemy, Attitudes and Assumptions

NASA UAP panel meeting agenda: 'NASA Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena Independent Study Team Public Meeting'. (May 31, 2023, screenshot taken June 13, 2023

Again, I think verifying data is a good idea. And I think that eyewitness accounts, are, by their nature, not completely reliable.

That’s not even close to believing either that no eyewitness accounts contain any useful observations, or that any data supporting a particular conclusion must be false.

The UAP public meeting’s Top Chat comments often rang the changes on “aliens are real”. “Aliens are real” is a whacking great assumption, with little to no supporting data. So far.

On the other hand, I gather that some — not all — scientists assume that extraterrestrial spacecraft must not be near Earth. And, therefore, that anyone who presents data which might be evidence of an extraterrestrial spacecraft must be a fool, a fraud, or both.

Given how loud “aliens are real” folks can be, and their newsworthiness, I can see how a scientist might adopt a “my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts” attitude.

But I think that lumping serious research in with crackpot enthusiasm isn’t a good idea.

That would make as much sense as dismissing chemistry as “alchemy”. Particularly since alchemy was serious research until non-grifter alchemists rebranded their studies as “chemistry”.6 And that’s yet another topic.

I don’t “believe in” or “not believe in” space aliens. I also think that we don’t know everything there is to know about natural phenomena on and near Earth.

So I agree with Nicola Fox. Harassing or stigmatizing folks who study currently-unknown phenomena is a bad idea.

“…Before I begin, I want to echo Dan’s words that it is disheartening to hear of the harassment our panelists have faced online all because they are studying this topic. NASA stands behind our panelists and we do not tolerate abuse. Harassment only leads to further stigmatization of the UAP field, significantly hindering the scientific progress and discouraging others to study this important subject matter. Your harassment also obstructs the public’s right to knowledge. Our panelists are leading experts in the scientific, aeronautics, and data analytics communities. We are very lucky to have them onboard to share their invaluable insights to inform NASA on what possible data could be collected in the future, and how it can be collected, to help us better explain the nature of UAP….”
(Nicola Fox Remarks UAP Independent Study Meeting May 31, (May 31, 2023) from NASA transcript)

“The Language of Scientists is Data”

Apollo 11's photo: Earth. (1969) via NASA Johnson Space Center, used w/o permission.One more excerpt from NASA’s UAP pages, and I’ll start wrapping this up.

A major takeaway here is that understanding the unknown requires data: what this NASA resource calls “high-quality observations”.

Science Mission Directorate, NASA

1 Will NASA be referring to UAP as Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena?
To be consistent with the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), NASA will be calling UAP ‘Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena’ instead of ‘Unidentified Aerial Phenomena’. NASA’s UAP independent study will be largely focused on aerial phenomena.

2 Why is NASA involved with studying UAP?
Exploring the unknown in space and the atmosphere is at the heart of who we are. The nature of science is to better understand the unknown – but the language of scientists is data. The limited number of high-quality observations of unidentified anomalous phenomena, or UAP, currently makes it impossible to draw scientific conclusions about the nature of such events. Without access to an extensive set of data, it is nearly impossible to verify or explain any observation, thus the focus of the study is to inform NASA what possible data could be collected in the future to shed light on UAP. NASA is commissioning the UAP Independent Study Team to examine unidentified anomalous phenomena from a scientific perspective – with a focus on how NASA can use data and the tools of science to move our understanding forward….”

A is for Anomalous

Ball lightning entering through a chimney, from Hartwig's 'The Aerial World'. (1886)
“Globe of fire descending into a room.” From Dr. Georg Hartwig’s “The Aerial World”. (1886)

Something I like about the focus of UAP studies is — well, their lack of focus.

Analyzing data from anomalous phenomena won’t be easy. Particularly since I suspect that scientists won’t know what to make of what they’re studying. Not at first, anyway.

But I think it will be worthwhile. Maybe not in terms of developing new consumer products, and I’m wandering off-topic again.

Although predicting what UAP studies will uncover is an exercise in futility, that won’t stop me from speculating.

I remember when ball lightning was (allegedly) something reported by superstitions yokels. Which, in some cases, it probably was. It’s still a phenomena that lacks a thorough scientific explanation, but at least now it is recognized as something that’s real.

And maybe now we’ll collect enough data — “high-quality data” — to work out what makes those luminous ‘it isn’t either lightning or St. Elmo’s fire’ spheres.

I’ve already seen something like that happen.

There was a time when reporting lights shooting up from thunderheads was a good way to get classed as unstable and/or a drug user. Then a scientist with the University of Minnesota recorded sprites with a videocam.

To their credit, the scientific community did not close ranks and declare that videocams were hallucinating; or maybe doing drugs.

I don’t think that would have been likely, actually. Although individual scientists can be as daft as anyone else, as a group they’re quite interested in facts.

So now we’ve got a pretty good notion as to what thunderstorm sprites are: a sort of cold plasma phenomena, a bit like fluorescent lamps. Only naturally occurring.

Seriously Seeking Something Odd

XKCD: 'The world's first ant colony to achieve sentience calls off its search for us.Studying data that doesn’t quite fit into “we already know about this” categories might end the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Then again, it might not.

An argument against our having neighbors in this universe is that we’ve been scanning radio frequencies for artificial signals for decades: and come up with nothing.

Maybe the frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum we call radio waves is the only way anyone could send messages between stars.

But if it’s not, looking for “anomalous phenomena” — something odd — that we weren’t expecting might start a conversation with folks who aren’t human.

Or, like I said, maybe not.

“…A Mighty Soberin’ Thought”

Walt Kelly's Pogo (June 20, 1959) via WIST, used w/o permission.
Pork Pine, pondering implications of extraterrestrial intelligence. (June 1959)

Those three panels from Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip make a good point.

Right now, we’ve got reasons for thinking that people who aren’t human might be living on some other planet.

But we don’t have solid evidence that any sort of life exists on other worlds, let alone the sort of living creatures we are.

Whether we are alone in this universe, or share it with others: as Porky Pine said, “ether [sic] way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought”.

Now, the usual links:

1 History and movies:

2 More history and “mass hysteria”:

3 More of the same:

4 The silly and the serious:

5 Eyewitnesses, observations and collecting data:

6 Science and a scientist:

7 A very quick look at:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to NASA, UAPs, UFOs and a Bart Simpson Balloon

  1. This makes me glad that I learned as a Creative Writing student in university that science fiction, especially hard science fiction, is expected to safely bungee from established scientific knowledge. I mean, it’s easy to think of the concept of non-realist fiction and even fiction in general as an excuse to write whatever we want, right? But fiction has basis in reality, and that’s because it’s one of our ways we try to make sense of reality. And that reminds me of the amazingness that is how the education I got in my country’s secular top university acknowledged parables as an important part in the foundation of modern fiction. So yeah, maybe God created aliens, maybe He didn’t, but whatever it is He really made and did and all, I’m seeing faithful enthusiasm coming from those UAP researchers.

    • That’s a reason I like hard science fiction. And, as you said, “fiction has basis in reality…” – otherwise it wouldn’t be much fun to read. And agreed, storytelling is one of humanity’s ways – and an effective one – of making sense of reality.
      Wrapping up – yes, there’s good news happening.

Thanks for taking time to comment!