I dug my slippered heels into our shag carpet and bore deeper into my lime-green vinyl bean bag chair, thoroughly terrified but unable to avert my widened eyes from our console television. The riveting hypnosis scene from the 1975 television movie “The UFO Incident” starring James Earl Jones was imprinting itself permanently into my impressionable eleven-year-old brain.
The memory still gives me the willies, 43 years later.
The movie depicted the real-life story of Betty and Barney Hill, an average New Hampshire couple who, while driving home from a holiday in Niagara falls on a dark lonely road, claimed to have been briefly abducted, then medically examined, by aliens. In the hypnosis scene, Barney (played by Jones) cries out as he recalls horrifying details buried by traumatic amnesia.
Some researchers hypothesize that stories of alien abductions like Betty and Barney Hill’s gained traction in the 1980s due to media coverage of new reproductive technologies and controversial human experimentation. Others believe that reports of UFO sightings and alien encounters, which began in the 1950s, were simply “cultural mass hysteria” brought on by fear of Cold War nuclear destruction.
Like others of my generation, I remember conspiracy theories about UFOs crashing in Roswell, New Mexico and alien autopsies at Area 51. At the movie theater, I saw “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alien,” and “E.T. the Extraterrestrial.” I said “Nanu-nanu” like Robin William’s alien character in “Mork and Mindy.” I watched “The Jetsons” after school, and giggled when little green Gazoo appeared on “The Flintstones.” I nibbled Pillsbury Space Food Sticks and slurped Tang because that’s what astronauts did.
When you consider our cultural influences, it’s no wonder we were alien-obsessed back then. But, will recent developments in science and technology reconstitute media attention and public suspicions about intelligent life beyond Earth? Are we on the cusp of another UFO craze?
This month, Harvard’s long-time Astronomy Department Chair, Avi Loeb, publishes his new book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, in which he hypothesizes that an interstellar object named Oumuamua which passed through our solar system in 2017 was actually a hunk of alien equipment.
Last month, it was reported that astronomers from the Breakthrough Listen Project, which attempts to detect stray or intentional alien broadcasts, discovered a narrow beam of intriguing radio waves (BLC1) coming from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun. The transmission, which was picked up by the Parkes Telescope in Australia, is the first beam NOT believed to originate from human-made interference or natural sources. In other words, astronomers believe it may have come from intelligent life.
To complicate matters, new technologies will put more flying objects that could be confused as UFOs into the sky. The United States military currently operates more than 11,000 Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS or “drones”) in support of domestic training events and overseas contingency missions. Military drones — performing secret surveillance/reconnaissance, situational awareness, weapons delivery, and battle damage assessment — range in size from the hand-held RQ-11B Raven to the largest 32,000 pound RQ/MQ-4 Global Hawk/Triton, and fly training missions in specially designated U.S. airspace.
Also, the commercial drone industry has limited approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to develop drone fleets to expedite deliveries of small packages to consumers. Commercial drones fly between 200-400 feet overhead and are equipped with anti-collision lights at night. This rapidly growing industry currently has 1.7 million registered drones and 203,000 FAA-certified remote pilots.
With so many flying objects in our airspace and new scientific evidence supporting intelligent life beyond Earth, how are average citizens supposed to know whether the lights they see in the sky are aliens coming to abduct them or just a flying package of K-cups from Amazon?
As for me, I won’t be looking for flying saucers, because I’ll be too busy binging the next alien-themed television series on Netflix, making trips to the nearest Planetarium, and rereading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Who knows, maybe Pillsbury will bring back Space Food Sticks?
Dare to dream.