Alien landscape: Road sign outside Rachel, Nevada

Out of this world?

A fevered year of Covid and Trump has produced a record spike in UFO sightings

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Drive north out of Las Vegas for long enough, along disconcertingly straight roads through the Nevada desert, and you eventually find yourself on the “Extraterrestrial Highway”. Route 375 takes you about as close to Area 51 as a civilian is allowed to get. 

It’s a curious and very American paradox that while the US military wants you to know as little as possible about its top-secret base, another corner of officialdom, the Nevada tourist board, has leant into the wild speculation about what secrets lie deep in the desert with plenty of alien branding.

Hence the road sign, announcing the official start of the Extraterrestrial Highway in a font you’d expect to see on the front of a trashy sci-fi novel. To drive the highway is to delve into America’s weird, kitschy alien subculture. It is to traverse a remote part of Nevada that has been a destination for ufologists ever since the late 1980s when an engineer called Bob Lazar claimed he had been recruited by the US Air Force to reverse engineer alien craft in a hidden base in the side of a mountain somewhere in Area 51. 

“Population: Human, yes. Aliens?” reads the sign that welcomes you to Rachel, a tiny wind-battered cluster of bungalows 25 miles north of Area 51. The main attraction is the Little A’Le’Inn, a scruffy little bed and breakfast that has embraced all things flying saucers and little green men to stay afloat. 

The inn is a shrine to UFO ephemera, a place where you learn that there really is nothing you can’t stick a green-skinned, big-eyed creature on and sell for $9.99; the inn’s kitchen prides itself on the alien burger. (Eating aliens is an unsettling theme: at E.T. Fresh Jerky, patrons can pick up an array of dried Martian meat.) The nearby Alien Research Centre’s idea of scientific inquiry is an Alien tequila tasting session. On the other side of Area 51, the Alien Cathouse brothel offers UFO watchers their very own close encounter of the third kind. 

Aliens inbound? US Defence Department “UFO” picture released in September 2019

But while Nevada’s tiny UFO tourism industry could hardly be sillier, the more serious end of America’s ufology spectrum is having a bit of a moment: 2020 was a bumper year for those interested in the question of whether we have been visited by alien life. The Pentagon released footage of “unidentified flying phenomena”. Donald Trump teased “interesting” details about Roswell, the site of the 1947 crash that launched a million theories about alien spacecraft, and promised to take a “good, strong look” at the UFO issue. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked the Pentagon to produce an unclassified report on the subject. 

Over the summer, the Pentagon launched the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force to “standardise collection and reporting” of sightings of unexplained flying objects. The American military says that there is footage of objects in the sky that they really cannot explain. America’s self-regarding liberal press now takes UFOs surprisingly seriously, with straight-faced reporting on the subject not uncommon on the front page of the New York Times. 

Those willing to take the possibility of an extraterrestrial explanation for UFOs include former officials who have had top security clearance. Barack Obama’s CIA chief John Brennan recently said that some unidentified flying objects “continue to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life”. 

Retired Nevada Senator Harry Reid recently reiterated his view that the prospect of alien visitation to earth is something that should be taken much more seriously. Then there are the considerably more outlandish claims of the former head of Israel’s Defence Ministry’s space directorate, who alleged in an interview in December that a “galactic federation” has already made contact with humanity, signed a deal with the US government but is waiting to announce its arrival because “humanity is not ready yet”. 

According to a poll released last year by Ipsos, 66 per cent of Americans believe there is life on other planets, 57 per cent believe there is intelligent life on other planets and just under half of the country thinks that UFOs exist and have visited earth.


Doug Wilson is part of a much smaller minority: the group of Americans who don’t just believe that alien spacecraft have visited earth but believes he has seen one for himself. When he was 19 years old, in the late 1970s, Wilson says he was on a ride along with a police officer in rural Missouri when he encountered something strange. “It was about 30 feet across, probably about 12 to 15 feet tall and oval in shape,” he tells me. “We had a very clear view of it and observed it for about two minutes.” He says that over the following four decades he has seen enough and studied enough documents to be “convinced these things are almost certainly coming to us from the outside”. 

As the Chief Investigator at the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), Wilson is something of a pillar of the ufology community. An all-volunteer organisation, MUFON investigates thousands of UFO reports a year. Wilson thinks America is in the middle of an important UFO moment: “From day one, the buzzword has been disclosure. People want to know when the American government is going to disclose what they know about UFOs and possible extraterrestrial life. My feeling is we are a few years into a soft disclosure.” 

By that, Wilson means a drip, drip of UFO-related information rather than a dramatic moment when the President announces live on television that ET has arrived. “They’ll continue to release this type of information bit by bit so that it becomes part of our social understanding, and society will simply very gradually come to the realisation that this stuff is real, that the military is dealing with it.” 

In Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, David J. Halperin, an Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, argues: “UFOs are a myth — but myths are real.” 

MUFON shoulder patches

“UFOs have nothing to do with life on other planets or with space travel,” Halperin tells me. A UFO obsessive in his teenage years, he argues that “What they’re about is us. They’re about our longings, our terrors, and particularly the greatest terror of all, which is the end of our existence. These are things that we project into the sky.” 

By Halperin’s logic, it’s no surprise that 2020 saw a record number of UFO sightings in the US. The initial postwar spike in interest in UFOs coincided with anxiety about nuclear war wiping out humankind. “2020 is a year we’ve endured a real alien invasion, C-O-V-I-D not U-F-O,” he says. 

The Trump presidency is also part of the story, Halperin speculates. Those driven most mad by Trump’s election, and most convinced that his presidency meant imminent catastrophe, started to take UFOs more seriously. Add to that dread a widening of the question of what else might be possible if Donald Trump could be elected president. “There’s a sense that the world has turned surreal,” says Halperin.

If there’s such a thing as a scientific establishment, Avi Loeb is part of it. An Israeli-American astrophysicist and professor at Harvard, where he runs the Black Hole Initiative, Loeb has served as a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. And yet he has just published a book that puts him outside the scientific mainstream. In Extraterrestrial he posits a superficially outlandish claim: that our solar system was visited by an advanced alien technology from a distant star. 

Loeb’s theory is the answer to a riddle called Oumuamua, an object either the shape of a cigar or a pancake that zipped through our corner of the universe at 58,900 miles per hour in September 2017. At the time it was the first interstellar object ever recorded and scientists were at a loss to explain the gravity-defying course it took. Loeb doesn’t think theories that ‘Oumuamua is a comet or an asteroid stack up. Channelling Sherlock Holmes and his famous rule that “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, Loeb thinks an alien civilisation is the most plausible explanation. 

It struck this non-expert reader as a compelling if far-fetched theory. Loeb’s colleagues haven’t been quite so sympathetic, but he argues that the ‘Oumuamua mystery, and the response to his explanation, is a case study in science’s overcautiousness: “Scientific progress has been stifled many times over the years because the gatekeepers who established and enforced orthodoxy believed they knew all the answers ahead of time.

“Many scientists see themselves as a breed apart, members of an elite intelligentsia,” Loeb writes. “Consciously or subconsciously, they want to separate themselves from the rabble.”

The post- war spike in UFOs coincided with anxiety about nuclear

Why, asks Loeb, is a multiverse — the idea that an infinite number of universes all exist simultaneously — treated as an area of serious and important scientific study while something arguably less far-fetched is disdained? “The search for extra-terrestrial life has never been more than an oddity to the vast majority of scientists,” he writes. “To them, it is a subject worthy of, at best, glancing interest and at worst, outright derision.” 

Loeb blames it on the little green people: “Sensationalised depictions of aliens have led to a popular and scientific culture in which it is acceptable to laugh off many serious discussions of alien life even when the evidence clearly indicates that this is a topic worthy of discussion; indeed, one that we ought to be discussing now more than ever.” 

While Loeb thinks the UFO chasers and Area 51 conspiracy theorists have given the scientific efforts to answer the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe a bad name, Halperin is much less disparaging. “I sort of consider myself a ufologist,” he says, “and I think we’re just as serious as he is. We’re just looking in different directions.” 

Andrew Siemion, the head of research at the California-based SETI Institute, one of the leading mainstream organisations dedicated to establishing whether or not we are alone in the universe, also expresses some sympathy with the UFO chasers, telling me: “As astronomers and engineers, we approach this using the tools of modern science, but in some ways, it’s equally valid to read a good science fiction novel and to speculate. This is an incredibly interesting question, and one that a lot of people are going to think about in a lot of different ways.” 

Harvard Professor Avi Loeb in his observatory, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Siemion’s focus is the search for evidence of alien communication technology as part of the Breakthrough Listen project. At present, they are investigating a radio wave emission that appears to have come from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our solar system. He is tightlipped about that research and he and his colleagues will publish their findings soon. But he says we are in the middle of a “renaissance” in the search for extraterrestrial life. 

What Siemion and Loeb share is an appreciation of how much remains undiscovered. In Extraterrestrial, Loeb writes that “science at its core demands humility”. The pandemic has brought about a new-found reverence for science in American politics, but too often that is presented as a static, agreed upon set of facts. You don’t need to buy Loeb’s explanation of ‘Oumuamua to acknowledge how much we still don’t know and to appreciate the need to give outlandish theories a fair hearing.

 It’s not just science. Politics is increasingly a clash between two tribes absolutely certain about their respective sets of facts. Doubt isn’t tolerated while gatekeepers obsess over the line between truth and “disinformation”.

Back at the Little A’Le’Inn, the man behind the bar confides in me: “I’m personally not that into the alien stuff,” he says. “But you meet the best people here.” An ex-miner siting at the bar is also a sceptic. Most UFO sightings have perfectly ordinary explanations he tells me as he tucks into his alien burger. Watching customers browse E.T. t-shirts and order alien-themed booze, it’s easy to dismiss anything even loosely related to this weird, kitschy slice of Americana. Step outside, gaze up at the ever-expanding universe on a clear night in the Nevada desert, however, and you can’t help but wonder: are we alone?

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