Let’s say you’re a talented engineer, a credentialed scientist, or a skilled pilot and you’ve just seen a disk in the sky, with little portholes for windows and some kind of intelligent-looking creature apparently operating equipment inside. What do you do?
First, you check to see if you’re both sober and sane. Second, you probably get upset with yourself that you didn’t think to take a video. Third, if you make it past the stigma and self-criticism that surrounds and invades you, then you — and those who believe you — want to understand what the heck is going on.
Over the past 50+ years, these motivations are exactly those that created and maintained a global network of scrappy-but-productive ecosystems of UAP Science (UAPS) organizations, which lately have been especially vibrant in the U.S. (I’ll call these the UAPS-US ecosystem). Despite very little funding and powerful waves of pushback from all sources, the UAPS-US ecosystem is experiencing a resurgence. That’s because government and public opinion about unidentified and unexplainable objects in the skies and seas — currently called unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) or unidentified aerospace-undersea phenomena (UAUP) and previously called UFOs — has shifted radically in the last five years. Several UAP videos were released to the New York Times in 2017, and in 2021 the military intelligence community was told to more openly and fully investigate UAP phenomena (here’s the U.S. military’s own statement and a review article).
This is a fantastic development for the UAPS-US ecosystem, and hopefully for the entire world, but everyone wants to know — who will do the studying? NASA launched a new UAP research program led by astrophysicist David Spergel of the Simons Foundation and orchestrated by Daniel Evans of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, but any studies either performed or funded by NASA would do well to draw on the existing knowledge in the UAPS-US ecosystem to both avoid replication and inform strategy.
Drawing from the embedded wisdom in the UAPS-US ecosystem sounds both easy and obvious, but of course instead it’s difficult and subtle. Each UAPS-US organization has a unique character, sense of purpose, and view of their future. Many already work together, but there are overlapping relationships and tensions that are completely understandable given their up-until-now necessarily underdog approaches. The larger UAPS ecosystem includes international UAP science organizations as well as organizations working on understanding UAP from the perspective of non-traditional science backgrounds, and neither type of organization is included in this article. Hopefully, with the opening up of scientific discussions around UAP, all organizations who include themselves in the broader UAPS ecosystem can learn from each other.
Now that they can be seen in the light of day for what they have already accomplished and what they plan to offer, each UAPS-US organization must find its piece in the emerging puzzle. What might each organization offer in collaboration with government, private industry, investors/donors, and the international communities that wish to support and encourage their work? How do they see themselves evolving in this newfound openness?
Map of the UAPS-US ecosystem
In my recorded conversations with leaders of ten UAPS-US organizations, a few consistent themes emerged:
1. UAPS-US organizations earnestly want to fully describe and understand the nature of UAP, using the tools of science.
2. Each UAPS-US organization uses their expertise and experience to address the problem in a different way, and each method can support important discoveries.
3. Several UAPS-US organizations receive reliable reports from around the world, confirming the fact that UAP are global in nature.
4. Most UAPS-US organizations want to work with each other, academia, government, private industry, and individual citizens to solve the mystery of UAP.
5. More expertise and experience than I had previously imagined exists within the UAPS-US ecosystem; my interviews barely scratched the surface.
With support from the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), I’ve provided a map of the ecosystem for interested academics, government agencies, investors, donors, and others who are hoping for an organized introduction to UAP science in the United States. After the tables, I’m happy to share my more subjective observations — and maybe have a little fun.
The subjective stuff: Interview gleanings, commentary, and inevitable superhero musings
1. Interview gleanings
Here are my notes providing what I think are the key takeaways from ten interview participants (note that SETI Institute is included among these although it is not strictly speaking in the UAPS-US ecosystem and does not appear in Tables 1–3). These notes are my own summaries of individual conversations. Almost all interview participants pointed out that they were voicing their own opinions and they did not necessarily speak for the entire organization. Watch the interviews themselves for emotional tone, precise wording, and most of all — engrossing stories.
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Study UFOs for the benefit of humanity. MUFON and CUFOS (see below) are part of an umbrella 501c3 organization called Fund for UFO Research. MUFON is the oldest UAPS-US organization mapped here.
Data types and analyses: Any data that comes their way. Eyewitness testimony, photos, samples of material, radar, electronic data. Even written accounts from 100 years ago. They take all the evidence, like in a criminal case. Focus on first-person accounts, from which their 500+ trained field investigators discern which are unidentified (currently about 15%). Allow private reports (anonymous to public, not anonymous to MUFON). In recent years they’ve examined around 5500 cases per year.
Ideal evidence for UAPs: Crash materials or something that looks like an alien body, or photos/video/radar from a known reputable source — they are very aware of faking and hoaxing methods.
Future path for MUFON: Knowledgeable leaders and investigators at MUFON are available to serve in an advisory role to support the efforts of other organizations, especially government.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Hope is for the UAP mystery to be solved, fear is that people will become disinterested in investigating cases before the mystery is solved.
J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS/UFODATA; founded 1973; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Compile a database of UAP reports, offer reliably accurate information on the subject, and perform selected research projects. They look at scientifically useful cases in depth (were heavily involved in investigating Roswell), and don’t do a lot of public outreach.
Data types and analyses: First-person reports and accompanying data; they have enough evidence to show it’s a scientific problem, but not enough evidence to show these are alien without getting new hard data. The UFODATA project is focused on gathering new data.
Ideal evidence for UAPs: Not “lights in the sky” but a craft seen by multiple witnesses, ideally with a satellite photo taken at the same time. Ideally a confluence of factors that demonstrates with no doubt that something real was seen that isn’t terrestrial or atmospheric in nature. Open to all sorts of explanations for UAPs; their job is to do the science and let the chips fall where they may.
Future path for CUFOS/UFODATA: Completion of an ongoing project in which all old case reports will become available online, fund research on new cases including in-depth examinations of geographic patterns of UAP sightings.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: We can’t predict where UAPs will show up, which makes them difficult to study them proactively. It’s an emerging science, and the fear is that new researchers to the field will give up when they realize how difficult it is. The hope is that in 5 or 10 years there will be enough data showing that there really is something unidentified created by a non-human intelligence — and that will justify pouring more resources into the field to uncover the mystery.
National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC; founded 1974; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Serve as a conduit for UAP-related information, providing a hotline for UAP sightings (206 722–3000) and offering the opportunity to make detailed online reports. NUFORC works closely with MUFON if a report warrants a follow-up investigation (most reports do not).
Data types and analyses: First-person reports and any images/films or other digitizable data that witnesses want to include with their reports — reports can be completely anonymous. They have received three reports from commercial airline pilots who were flabbergasted by what they saw.
Ideal evidence for UAPs: In an ideal report, the witness has academic training in a scientific field, the report is detailed (not the pervasive “lights in the sky”) and the source seems earnest, sober, and sane.
Future path for NUFORC: Passing the reins to another director is important going forward, as NUFORC is a large initial funnel for UAP reports (150k reports from around the world). Also, using passive radar to track UAPs could allow the comparison of eyewitness accounts with radar detection, which would revolutionize UAP reporting and investigation.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Hope is that the American people and human population feel more comfortable in reporting sightings to NUFORC or MUFON — even those that occurred in the past. Fear is that people will remain uncomfortable reporting and valuable data will be lost.
SETI Institute (founded 1999; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Support scientists (100+ PhDs) interested in finding evidence for non-human life and intelligence, largely beyond our solar system.
Data types and analyses: Non-atmospheric, non-terrestrial forms of electromagnetic radiation. They use a set of antennas in California pointed at nearby star systems to pick up any signals that are not of human origin, and they also look for visible laser light. Their collection systems are automatic, with automatic analysis that notifies the scientists if something interesting is picked up.
Ideal evidence for non-human intelligence: If a UAP sat on top of their antennas and sent a signal, they’d get it, but otherwise they can’t track UAPs and are not set up for that purpose — they are looking for distant intelligences. Best evidence for non-human intelligence is a narrowband signal originating outside the solar system.
Future path for SETI Institute: Access/build hundreds of antennas and other ways to speed up the search and cover more possible distant signal source locations simultaneously.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Work is relevant to the UAP discovery process only with respect to the possibility of discovering non-human intelligences.
National Aviation Reporting Center on Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP; founded 1999; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Stated purpose is to improve aviation safety. Founded with the quiet help of NASA scientists who shared the goal of reducing stigma around UAP reporting. At least one co-founder had witnessed clear and unambiguous UAP.
Data types and analyses: First-person reports from pilots, air traffic controllers, and (rarely) passengers. FOIA requests for radio and radar if granted. Only have a fraction of the data — there are unseen/unheard components that would be valuable if we could find a way to access them.
Ideal evidence for UAP: Eyewitness accounts combined with sensor data, with natural and humanmade phenomena ruled out. As much video capture with as much electromagnetic, audio and visual spectra as possible; peer-reviewed journal articles.
Future path for NARCAP: Independent research in the same area as the AIAA (see below) to determine whether converging conclusions are found on the same dataset. One future possibility is for AIAA to take over the analysis/investigation and for NARCAP to continue in an advocacy and de-stigmatization role.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Fears include that native lands with high UAP sightings will become inundated with tourists, the weaponization of UAP technology, and that people will not be able to deal emotionally with the idea that we are not the most intelligent beings here. Hopes include the possibility of working together with government, academia, and private industry in the US and around the world to address concerns and make discoveries faster.
UFO Data Acquisition Project (UFODAP; founded 2014; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: To produce technical sensing systems that have the appropriate characteristics to sustainably collect data from possible UAP, allowing citizen scientists to collect data all over the world. This one-person company arose from a UCLA research group originating in the 1970s.
Data types and analyses: Remote accessible (via IP) real-time video in the optical spectrum, and multi-sensor data measuring real-time changes to electromagnetic, gravity, and radio frequency fields with mission control software to set parameters and operate the multiple sensors. The owner of any of the systems owns the data, but they often choose to share it with SCU (see below).
Ideal evidence for UAP: Agnostic about this, but one idea is to look for changes in spectral characteristics that do not match the spectral-temporal patterns derived from humanmade craft.
Future path for UFODAP: New sensors (maybe underwater), new algorithms, continued collaboration with organizations proactively looking for UAP like UAPx (see below).
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Hope is to help the community effort to create and use technology to support people all over the world who want to provide data for the scientific understanding of UAP, including efforts from NASA, The Galileo Project (see below), and SCU. Fear is that even with all of these projects in the UAPS-US ecosystem, evidence will still be lacking and the mystery will not be solved.
Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU; founded 2017; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Put together collaborative multidisciplinary teams of scientists to examine UAP scientifically while providing a membership community for interested scientists and citizen scientists. SCU is working with government, academia, and private and public organizations — including the media — to move towards scientific discovery of the underpinnings of UAP and produce peer-reviewed publications on UAP and related phenomena.
Data types and analyses: Examine data provided by other organizations in UAPS-US ecosystem, about 8 or 9 cases a year (each case takes hundreds of hours to study and an extensive report is written). Multiple witnesses that are willing to be interviewed (usually not active servicemembers — yet), hard data (video, radar, photographs, electromagnetic measurements). Human witnesses are seen as valuable sensor data that gets stronger with accompanying data.
Ideal evidence for UAP: Multiple reputable witnesses who are well-qualified observers willing to be interviewed who saw something other than the ubiquitous “lights in the sky,” with hard data to match. Conclusion on the USS Nimitz case (“Tic-Tac”) was that this case represented intelligently controlled technology not known in the public domain.
Future path for SCU: SCU has provided information for and/or worked with representatives from the US and Canadian government, as well as University of Toronto. In the future, they will adapt to the necessarily transforming government positions on UAP to determine which research lines will be fruitful. Current projects include: propulsion research, intention analysis, and characterization of UAP shapes and movement patterns.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Short-term fear is that government interest in UAP dies away, long-term fear is that people cannot handle recognizing they are not at the top of the heap in terms of life forms. Hope is that congress identifies a need and appropriates major earmarked UAP research funding for NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Academies and other government and government-related research agencies and that this funding helps scientists bring clarity about UAP.
The Galileo Project (founded 2021; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Collect scientific quality data from a suite of instruments that are designed to obtain better evidence about the nature of UAP. The organization was funded by billionaires interested in advancing Harvard-based research into UAP and is expanding with about 100 scientists becoming affiliated in the past year, and more waiting to be vetted.
Data types and analyses: Infrared cameras receiving data from the entire sky 24/7, fish-eye lens camera receiving optical spectrum data, radio sensors that allow object localization, and an audio system — all passive sensing. Then AI methods will be used to analyze the data.
Ideal evidence for UAP: Eyewitness testimony is important, but data from well-calibrated instruments is key. If the data show intelligent behavior by something revealing measurements that we cannot identify as terrestrial, and if the government does not claim the thing, then the duty of science is to clear up the fog and draw a conclusion.
Future path for The Galileo Project: Vet all the applications for affiliations, work with government where possible and desired, and move forward with the artificial intelligence analysis portion of the project.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Hope is that there is good evidence for a “smarter kid on the cosmic block” — maybe this intelligence could help us get along better on the planet in multiple ways, and would help us have a sense of awe as humanity realizes that the universe includes much more than us. Fear is that jealous people will have ulterior motives and/or military industrial complex will get involved — we will use anything that happens as data.
Enigma Labs (founded 2021; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: Education and research; help facilitate getting answers in this field and work with the UAPS-US ecosystem and mainstream scientists to do it. Creating an accessible database from which other organizations can run analyses, also creating a witness-facing app that supports reporting. Transparency is key.
Data types and analyses: New first-person reports and any accompanying data; collating historical reports and old data as well as new data with standardized formats that are researcher-friendly. Still working on research partners; plan to use machine learning to help analyze massive datasets.
Ideal evidence for UAP: A strong case has multiple witnesses, larger size of object (more details), radar available, corroborative data from overlaying satellites and the lack of local military facilities (though this last one can also be helpful if the witnesses are military witnesses).
Future path for Enigma Labs: The best-case scenario is creating a robust, centralized reporting center by working with other reporting centers and partners in the UAPS-US ecosystem, in a way that allows people to be notified of a UAP in their area (to increase witness reports). Their app will be released at the end of the year, but people can enroll in the beta at the website.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: If other UAPS-US organizations do not want to cooperate and share data/insights, that is something that would hurt the project, but people are generally being cooperative and the key is responding to feedback well and the hope is that will continue and things will come together as a net positive for the field.
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics UAP Community of Interest (AIAA UAP CoI; founded 2021; Interview)
Paraphrased mission and related motivations: AIAA mission: Advance and create the future of aerospace and aeronautical industries. UAP CoI mission: Improve and maintain high standards of aviation safety by engaging in the study of and removing barriers to understanding UAP phenomena. This CoI is a precursor to an Integration Outreach Community (IOC); the leader is a former F18 pilot who was involved with a team seeing objects without explanations.
Data types and analyses: Aviation-related reports. Data types and analyses are being figured out now — there is no standardized detection manual but the ideal is proactive data collection — looking at both immediately actionable insights from existing data and long-term strategy to support the understanding of frequency, location, risk of mid-air collisions. The idea is to be as fruitfully engaged as possible with traditional gatekeepers and the UAPS-US ecosystem while pursuing rigorous scientific analyses and creating thorough reports.
Ideal evidence for UAP: Peer-reviewed, replicable UAP events.
Future path for AIAA UAAP CoI: Three areas of effort: Human factors (e.g., health and safety implications for pilots and professionals, making reporting more comfortable), hardware factors (e.g., sensing, flight-path prediction, swarm prediction), and outreach (e.g., working together to move forward and creating better and less stigmatized reporting opportunities). Will become three subcommittees.
Hopes/fears for the field and UAPS-US ecosystem: Fears include politicization/polarization driving people away from seriously addressing UAP and overclassification of data. Hopes include private organizations and individuals funding research and outreach efforts to professionalize the field and move it from a hobby or volunteer effort towards useful research that makes everyone safer.
2. Commentary: What’s missing from the UAPS-US ecosystem?
The UAPS-US ecosystem has a lot going for it, especially with several high-profile organizations coming on the scene in the last year and the new NASA program. But like any community that has evolved over more than five decades, there are a few aspects that could be improved or that have gone missing. From my point of view as a scientific observer with a keen interest in the field but not much prior work in the UAPS-US ecosystem, I’ve compiled a hopefully inoffensive (but thorough) list of potential areas for improvement.
Diversity. There is good age diversity at least among the leaders I interviewed, but like many STEM fields, the UAPS-US ecosystem could benefit from diversity of gender, race, and socioeconomic background. The UAP science diversity problem is made worse as a result of stigma that reduces researchers’ willingness to speak openly with each other. I asked David Mitchell, a Black colleague in consciousness research at the California Institute of Integral Studies and a long-time observer of the field, whether he knew of any UAPS-US organizations currently led by Black or Indigenous people — he did not know of any either. Neither of us could name any current UAPS-US organizations led by women. Previously, Jim and Coral Lorenzen founded and led APRO (1952–1988), one of the earliest UFO investigative groups, and Major Robert Friend, a Black officer, headed up Project Blue Book (1958–1963). Representation of people from all backgrounds at the leadership level would support the scientific advancement of the UAPS-US ecosystem, as diverse ecosystems solve problems faster than more homogenous ecosystems.
→ What might help? Federal research funding can reduce stigma so underrepresented researchers of all identities, orientations and backgrounds feel comfortable leading UAPS-US organizations and also less concerned about reputational, financial, and bodily harm risks. Each UAPS-US organization might consider drafting a diversity statement and actively assessing diversity initiatives within the organization — here is an example statement from SCU.
Social sciences. Maybe because of the lack of mainstream scientific belief in UAP, there is not currently enough scientific focus on large-stakes issues like determining UAP intention, communication/contact strategies and socio-cultural aspects of UAP.
→ What might help? At SCU and The Galileo Project, there are fledgling committees focused on these issues, but more social scientists and more discussion is needed — which again requires better funding and processes for addressing these issues. Planning ahead for potential contact may be appropriate for an international focus group.
GLOBAL EDUCATION ABOUT REPORTING
Global education about reporting. Starlink launches, thousands of satellites, ubiquitous but nondescript “lights in the sky,” and lack of scientific thinking result in 70–85% of purported UAP being identifiable natural or human-made phenomena.
→ What might help? A massive global education campaign related to UAP reporting and how to connect with others who are well educated about atmospheric phenomena, satellites and UAP would help reduce stigma and break down data silos.
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNICATION PROCESSES
International communication processes. There’s a tricky problem here in that, based on reputable reports and historical data, UAP are a global phenomenon — but we don’t want to communicate details of reports that reflect tests of secret military or intelligence programs.
→ What might help? Creation of a national UAPS post-analysis reporting structure for compelling cases that includes U.S. military and intelligence officers as active and supportive members could go a long way towards producing constructive international science communication about UAP.
SENSE OF AUTHORITY
Sense of authority. Perhaps due to so many years being ridiculed in public and consulted in private, the UAPS-US ecosystem does not have a sense of its own authority and can seem a bit insecure. This can result in under-preparation for being in the public eye, which can have an unanticipated negative effect.
→ What might help? Acknowledgement from NASA and other government agencies that the UAPS-US ecosystem has historically done a remarkable job with very few resources, but is now ready for media training (potentially as a NASEM project) to meet the next set of challenges as we move towards better public education about UAP.
3. Appendix: Inevitable superhero musings
About halfway through the interviews, which were conducted via video conference from Sept 2 to Sept 8 2022, I started mentally assigning superhero names to each of the organizations (Appendix Table). It sounds flip and silly, but hear me out — I found it was the best way to imagine how the UAPS-US ecosystem could work because I could characterize each organization as a powerful (yet flawed) superhero. Also, it’s not nothing that The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy are stories about protecting humanity, earth, and our galaxy from alien threats. Aliens or no aliens, it’s difficult for anyone to understand if something is a threat in the first place if you don’t understand the science of that something, and that’s what this superhero ecosystem is all about. So these are my superhero musings, and I’m sticking to them. Thanks for indulging me.
I would like to thank all the interview participants, including those from UAPx who tried to find time during a very busy week. This article and accompanying interviews would not exist without leadership and peer review from several SCU team members (especially S.A. Little, Robert Powell, and Alejandro Rojas), and I am grateful for their help.
About the author
I am a cognitive neuroscientist and experimental psychologist, and I study the science of precognition, unconditional love and wellbeing. I create and test technology to scale these human experiences, and as a result I’ve become interested in rigorous integrative approaches to controversial or “edge science” areas of research and technology. Relevant to this article, I am a member of SCU, an affiliate of the Galileo Project, and once I briefly did some data analysis for UAPx. I am also an affiliate professor in the department of physics and biophysics at University of San Diego, a fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (nonprofit) the co-founder of TILT: The Institute for Love and Time (nonprofit), and the founder of Mossbridge Institute (profit). She can be reached on LinkedIn, but not until October 2022. So please leave comments, corrections and feedback publicly on this article.
Citation (APA format)
Mossbridge, J.A. (2022, Sept. 12). What’s UAPS? The UAP Science ecosystem — United States. Medium. https://tinyurl.com/WhatsUAPS