The recent revelation that the United States military had funneled some $22 million out of the Pentagon’s black budget to investigate reports of Unidentified Flying Objects was met with a variety of responses in the media, and from the public at large.  Some saw the investigation as a waste of money, others called it confirmation that we’ve been visited by extra-terrestrials, and as is so often the case when it comes to ideologically polarizing issues like the existence of alien life, the truth, most likely, lies somewhere in between.

In truth, the existence of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, started in 2007 and funded through 2012 while continuing to operate without specified funding, really only means one thing: The Pentagon decided to investigate what they deemed to be credible reports about what could be advanced aircraft in American airspace.

 

The term “UFO” doesn’t have to mean aliens.

While some have been eager to claim the Pentagon’s allocation of funds toward investigating these reports must mean Uncle Sam is aware of E.T.’s presence on earth, we need to remember that the nature of the investigation doesn’t dictate the origin of the aircraft being investigated.  In short, advanced aircraft in the skies over the United States pose a direct and legitimate threat to the nation’s national security, regardless of where they hail from.

“The feds have long had an interest in UFOs, going back to the celebrity cases of the late 1940s—Roswell, anyone?” explained Seth Shostak, a senior researcher at the once government-funded SETI Institute – an organization that searches for alien life via radio astronomy. “Much of the motivation for this interest was the worry that the strange things being reported in the sky might be novel Soviet—or today, Russian or Chinese—aircraft.”

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Shostak is right.  Interested as Jim Mattis might be to learn that little green men from Mars are zipping through controlled airspace, the basis for allocating funds to investigate these reports is clear: threat identification and mitigation.  Whether these craft come from Alpha Centuari or Beijing, if they exist, the U.S. military needs to assess what threat they may pose to the American people.

 

The government has a long history of investigating these things.

An image from the CIA’s “How to Investigate a Flying Saucer” depicting a witness account of a UFO sighting

Many have accurately reported that, even while the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program was investigating reports of unidentified objects in the sky, the federal government has long denied taking any interest in reports of UFOs.  It is true that if you ask most politicians and government officials directly, they’ll tell you that they have more important things to worry about, and allocate funding to.

The thing is, that’s not exactly true. The United States government has always had an interest in the possibility of Unidentified Flying Objects, regardless of their origin. In the 1940s and 50s, the Air Force funded Projects Sign and Grudge, both tasked with finding explanations for military reports of strange aerial phenomena. In the 50s and 60s, Project Blue Book was born out of the two previous efforts.  Over the span of 17 years, Project Blue Book investigators looked into 12,618 reports of “flying saucers” and similar mysterious aircraft, before being shut down. That was the last time the government openly acknowledged their efforts in this field, but was far from the end of their interest.

The CIA continued to study UFOs (as well as even stranger paranormal mysteries) well into the 1990s. Starting in the 1970s and continuing through the 90s, NASA provided around $12 million per year to SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) and today, NASA’s Astrobiology Institute exists solely to look for and postulate on the possibility of alien life.

 

Not much money was spent on the project.

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As the New York Times revealed in its investigation, the Pentagon’s secret UFO investigative arm received around $22 million in funding, a lofty figure that has drawn some criticism.  There’s no question that $22 million is a LOT, but for the sake of perspective, let’s try to view that number through the scope of defense enterprises, rather than your average American’s budget.

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program received funding through the Pentagon from its inception in 2007 through its fiscal cutoff in 2012, meaning that $22 million was disbursed over six years of effort. That means the annual budget for the effort was around $3.6 million per year. It’s true that even the smaller figure is still a lot of money, but let’s compare it to some other things the defense department spends money on each year to gain a bit of perspective:

$283,500 per year to monitor the day-to-day life of baby gnatchatchers, an endangered species of bird.

$84 million per year on erectile dysfunction medications for military service members.

$100 million in flight tickets purchased but then not used between 1997 and 2003.

$3.1 billion over two years on sending employees on paid administrative leave when “barred from their desks” for a variety of reasons.

 

It could be riddled with corruption.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver is given a tour of the Bigelow Aerospace facilities by the company’s President Robert Bigelow

Now that we’ve clarified that, all in all, the Pentagon’s most recent effort to identify mysterious craft in the skies wasn’t a particularly expensive endeavor, it’s equally important that we acknowledge the likelihood that much of that money may have simply been squandered on a celestial snake oil salesman.

While Luis Elizondo was in charge of the Pentagon’s staff of investigators, he and his team were not the direct recipient of much of the funding allocated to the effort. Instead, most of that $22 million went to billionaire industrialist, Space contractor and UFO believer Robert Bigelow. By his own admission, it was a trip to Bigelow’s legendary “Skinwalker Ranch” that first convinced Senator Harry Reid that the investigation needed to be opened, and it was Bigelow’s company that then received the lion’s share of the Pentagon’s funding for the effort. In the eyes of believers, this sounds like Bigelow could have been onto something… but it’s just as likely that he used one hell of a sales pitch to funnel more money out of Uncle Sam’s pockets.

 

Images courtsey of Wikimedia Commons