What They’re Still Not Telling Us About the UFOs They Shot Down
The skies and space above aren't things that nations can control or corporations can subjugate; it's time for a different narrative.
This morning, as I started writing this, the entire U.S. Senate was getting a classified briefing from top Pentagon officials on the four objects that have been shot down in and near American airspace in the last eight days. While it seems increasingly clear, based on what we’ve been told about the wreckage recovered off the Atlantic coast, that the first object was a Chinese balloon carrying some combination of surveillance and weather observation equipment, we know extremely little about the other three objects. Into that gap has flowed a flood of speculation: maybe we’re just seeing more low-flying balloons because, since the first one, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is paying closer attention to such flyovers; maybe China or Russia wants to poke the U.S. by floating more objects at us; maybe they’re just responding to secret flyovers by American or other powers; maybe these are just civilian projects; or, maybe we’re being visited by aliens, since some Pentagon officials have said they don’t know how some of these objects have propelled themselves.
This whole moment is weird and revealing, both for what it shows about how easily Americans can get stampeded into an international confrontation over something inconsequential (in this case, with China) and more for what it shows about our unexamined assumptions about America’s standing not just on Earth, but in relation to space and the possibility that someone or something out there could be more powerful than us.
First, and quickly, China. In early January, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly (365-65) to establish a “Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.” Not the competition with China, the country, but with the CCP. Five days ago, a resolution condemning the CCP’s use of a high-surveillance balloon over U.S. territory as a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty” went through the chamber like a dose of salts, 419-0. The text is full of nutty chest-thumping about how important it is to prevent “foreign adversaries” from spying on us “in the national airspace system,” ignoring completely that just a few miles higher up a variety of foreign surveillance satellites regularly fly over the United States. Those don’t seem to bother us, right? After we clear the skies of all balloons, what are going to do next, inspect every Canadian goose that flies overhead to see if it’s wearing a GoPro?
The deeper problem, though, is that we aren’t responding logically to any of this, but rather following a script that is deeply embedded in our national narrative, so well rooted that my next question may surprise you. Why is the one major Trump-era objective that has been retained by the Biden Administration the creation of the U.S. Space Force, the sixth branch of the military, dedicated to warfighting in near space, along with the expansion of our efforts to colonize the Moon and Mars? Why is Biden continuing what Trump in 2020 called America’s “manifest destiny in the stars”? Why did his 2023 budget request for the Space Force add $5 billion to the $19.5 billion Congress appropriated in 2022? Why are American taxpayers giving billions in contracts to Elon Musk to send astronauts back to the Moon, and dangling a second contract for a lunar lander to Jeff Bezos, two of the world’s richest tech billionaires?
For the answer to these questions, I strongly suggest you read Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race, which Mary-Jane Rubenstein, a professor of religion and science in society at Wesleyan University, published last year. In highly entertaining prose, she unpacks the absurdity of Musk and Bezos’s space ambitions while exploring the larger issue of how our national priorities for space continue to be guided by destructive myths instead of sustainable, peaceful ones. As she writes, “We can draw an eerily straight line from the ‘doctrine of discovery’ that ‘gave’ Africa to Portugal and the New World to Spain, through the ‘manifest destiny’ that carried white settlers across the American continent, to the NewSpace claim to the whole solar system and, eventually, the galaxy.”
We are, thus, bellicose about balloons breaching our borders for the same reason that, boo-ya, we have stopped talking about going to the stars for the “benefit of all mankind” or treating the Moon as the “common heritage of humankind.” Instead, now we pass laws like the bipartisan 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, declaring that anything a private American citizen manages to “recover” from an asteroid or planetary body can be owned, used and sold by them. Neoliberalism plus Christian imperialism is alive and well when it comes to space.
Rubenstein wrote her book before Musk made his maniacal decision to buy Twitter and before Star Trek star William Shatner shat on Bezos’s delusions of space grandeur after his flight on a Blue Origin craft in October 2021 (more on that in a moment). So it’s understandable that she felt compelled to dig the her pen in as far as she could to pop their reputations as tech visionaries and far-sighted humanitarians. Musk, as you probably know, wants to colonize Mars; Bezos thinks going to Mars is too hard (he’s right) but instead wants to build giant space colonies by mining the Moon and the asteroids.
Or, as Rubinstein puts it, “here are the two utopias: ‘fuck Earth and occupy Mars’ versus ‘save Earth by drilling the universe.’” Never mind that the current price tag for putting a human on Mars is at least $10 billion per person, or that they’d probably die there faster than any of the first European colonists to land in the Western hemisphere. (The human denizens of Biosphere 2 didn’t even last two years inside their hermetically sealed bubble in the Arizona desert.) Or that whatever “rare earth” minerals that can be found on the Moon or the asteroids are actually still available in abundance on Earth, especially if we put a little more effort into recycling them.
Neither man’s vision is anywhere close to what we need to prioritize, and neither is anywhere close to feasible without massive government support. But that, so far, isn’t a problem since both major parties in America are in thrall to this nonsense, which makes it really hard to shift the narrative. And it’s not just that Biden is joined at the hip with Trump on this. The real push for the corporate colonization of space (the nice word is commercialization, but let’s be honest) didn’t start with Trump, but with his predecessor, Barack Obama. In 2010, Rubenstein notes, President Obama announced that he was going to downsize the federal space program while stimulating the rise of the private space industry, with the goal of “accelerating the pace of innovation.” Privatizing space, he claimed, would drive down costs and “revitalize NASA and its mission.” (If you are reminded of the Clinton-Gore decision to privatize the Internet in the mid-1990s, well, these choices have the same political root: neoliberalism.)
Privatization, however, hasn’t meant that private companies are actually bearing the real costs of “developing” space. As Rubenstein shows, most of what NASA is funding, apart from science projects like the Webb and Hubbell space telescopes, is centered on propping up an industry that couldn’t exist on its own, but then the propping-up activities are used to justify themselves. “Why do any of it?” she writes. “Why not invest in those space technologies—like weather tracking, energy efficiency, disaster relief, and environmental protection—that directly benefit Earth?...What I’ve found is a logical circle: we are establishing a long-term presence in space to retrieve and use the resources that will establish a long-term presence in space.”
In one case, in September 2021, NASA paid a company called Lunar Outpost ten cents as a down payment for some lunar soil. If and when the company collects that soil and deposits it elsewhere on the Moon, NASA will pay them ninety cents more. “This process will establish a critical precedent that lunar resources can be extracted and purchased from the private sector,” the agency explained. Or, as Rubenstein writes, NASA decided to prove space isn’t a commons by buying some of it. “Buying lunar resources will demonstrate that it’s possible to buy lunar resources,” she scoffs.
Why aren’t we all laughing heartily at this or demanding an end to the blatant waste of our tax dollars? Because it’s our godly mission. Before reading Astrotopia, I hadn’t realized how much “God’s New Israel” (that’s the United States) had welded the Bible to the Saturn V and embraced the chance to extend the old frontier it had closed when it finished conquering the indigenous natives to the “New Frontier” of space. Did you know that Werner von Braun, the former Nazi rocket engineer who was given amnesty in order to help kickstart the American space program later converted to evangelical Christianity? Or that on Christmas Eve, 1968, when the first Apollo mission circled the moon (exquisite timing that was not a coincidence), a billion people watched on their TVs as astronauts Bill Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell took turns reading the entire book of Genesis to them? Why should we be surprised that the ideology of the early American space program was so blatantly Christian and imperialist? (After sharing these stories, Rubinstein wrily notes that the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, is said to have exclaimed, “I see no God up here,” which the state-controlled media in then-Communist and officially atheist Russia dutifully popularized.)
Sure, the Internet jokes about Musk and Bezos’s compensatory phallus-shaped rockets, and both men are less popular than they were a few years ago. That said, nothing seems to be slowing the flow of precious billions in public dollars to fuel their literally outlandish fantasies of planetary escape and plunder, or the similar sums we’re spending on extending our military capacities into near space. The current non-debate over the Chinese balloons and other foreign objects is indicative. Indeed, across the political spectrum the working assumption seems to be: of course we should shoot those things down. We’re the world’s greatest superpower, right? Nobody floats above us.
But What About Unidentified Flying Objects?
UFOs, if they were real, complicate this picture enormously. The US government has opened up somewhat about the historic record on unidentified objects that American servicemen in the Air Force and Navy have reported over the decades; most have been explained. But there are still many unexplained sightings, especially of things that appear to move faster and more nimbly than any known human-made object, and the blurriness at the edge of what the “authorities” say is the “official” truth has left the door open to a lot of conspiracy thinking. That, along with the nervous eye-rolling on display this past week whenever the unexplained parts of the recent shootdowns have been discussed in the mainstream media. After all, if you can’t shoot down or explain a UFO, what’s the point of all our chest-thumping?
Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University and a colleague of Rubenstein’s, remarked to me today that, “The response of the public and the media to this not-knowing, however, is really very interesting and significant, I think.” He added, “The question of some kind of ‘extraterrestrial’ or ‘alien’ surveillance comes up in people’s minds, and quickly. This, it seems to me, is partly a function of our profound public dishonesty around this topic in the past (snarkiness or laughter are not intellectual responses), its unthinkability in our present political systems (which seem to presume human and national sovereignty), and the endless conspiracy theories that have resulted from this intellectual dishonesty and political impossibility.”
Recall that when official Washington encounters something that just doesn’t fit inside the scope of what Serious People think is worth taking seriously, their response is snark and laughter. I remember when suggesting we legalize weed was also responded to with snark and laughter from the political class; in 2009 the Obama White House couldn't stomach the idea that the #1 topic the public raised in their brief experiment with inviting open public questions was decriminalization of marijuana. Now former Republican House Speaker John Boehner is a lobbyist for the cannabis industry.
What do we need more honesty about? In my view, it’s not that we need to be told the truth about extraterrestrials, Men In Black style, and then not get our memories wiped. It’s that we need to be allowed to embrace the older truth, known by most of the indigenous inhabitants of the earth, before the rise of capitalism and imperial Christianity, that we are all connected, including nature, and that we have to live in harmony with each other.
Just as technology is making the subjugation of the world and, maybe, near space, more feasible, it is also making it possible for us to (re)gain this understanding too. Stewart Brand understood this back in 1966, when America was on its way to “winning” the “space race.” Instead of celebrating that fantasy product of the Cold War at its height, Brand took some LSD, sat on the roof of his San Francisco apartment, and wondered, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?” He wrote in his diary, “A photograph would do it — a color photograph from space of the earth,” Brand wrote. “There it would be for all to see, the earth complete, tiny, adrift, and no one would ever perceive things the same way.” In response to his quirky campaign, a NASA weather satellite took such a picture a year later, but it wasn’t until the Apollo mission I mentioned above that humans really saw it en masse. That was when the astronauts on Apollo 8 pointed their camera back at Earth. Bill Anders, one of them, later said “Here we came all this way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth.”
This is now called the Overview Effect, and many of the men and women who have made it to space have said that the experience of seeing the planet whole has changed their thinking profoundly. Indeed, it could be the only useful thing that Jeff Bezos did was invite a man who was already a celebrity, the actor William Shatner, on one of his first Blue Origin flights to near space. Shatner reflected on his experience in his recent book, Boldly Go:
“I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home. I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her.
Everything I had thought was wrong. Everything I had expected to see was wrong.
…It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral.
I learned later that I was not alone in this feeling. It is called the “Overview Effect” and is not uncommon among astronauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride, and many others. Essentially, when someone travels to space and views Earth from orbit, a sense of the planet’s fragility takes hold in an ineffable, instinctive manner. Author Frank White first coined the term in 1987: “There are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.”
Would it be that hard for one member of Congress to say that the astrotopians have no clothes?
—Bonus link: The Overview Effect, a short film made by the Planetary Collective.
Odds and Ends
—To me, the fact that 100,000 Israelis demonstrated yesterday in Jerusalem in front of the Knesset to protest the government’s plans to weaken the independence of the country’s judicial system is most notable not just because it comes on the heels of weekly Saturday rallies of tens of thousands since early January, but because it happened on a work day. Most protests happen on weekends when people are off from work; the iconic 1963 March on Washington, which brought 250,000 to DC for civil rights, was exceptional in part because it took place on a Wednesday.
—Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is making headway advancing crypto regulation by framing the still un-regulated industry as a boon for money-launderers, giving her a foothold with conservatives in the Senate, Zachary Warmbrodt reports for Politico.
—Meanwhile, the accelerating collapse of major crypto firms isn’t stopping Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) from continuing to shill for cryptocurrency as a solution for the needs of the South Bronx, his district. If anything, he’s trying to use the FTX scandal to make the case that federal regulation to “distinguish the best actors from the worst actors” will save the industry.
—New Media Ventures has announced its latest cohort of investments, tapping INTRVL, Gen-Z for Change, New Disabled South, Frame, Bloc Media, and The Center for New Data for support. As I’ve noted here previously, these choices by NMV are a continuation of a shift away from tech-centric projects towards new efforts at story-telling and media change.
—Apply: Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action is looking to hire a deputy director.
Whatever may come, do not let this happen to you, or to your tuktuk.