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UFOs and the U.S. government: An out-of-this-world conversation with Garrett Graff

A drawing of a blue UFO beaming yellow light into a dark forest.
Author Garrett Graff, a Vermont native, explores life out there in his latest book, UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here – and Out There.

When you hear UFO, do you picture a flying saucer in the sky? Do you imagine aliens as green creatures? Our obsession with alien life in pop culture dates back to the 1940s. And it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

A modern-day resurgence of alien interest dating back to 2017 has brought us pop culture moments like "Storm Area 51" in 2019, or even new alien imagery, like this creature from Wes Anderson's "Asteroid City" from 2023.

Pulitzer nominated author and Vermont native Garrett Graff unpacks this phenomenon in his new book: UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here – and Out There.

Graff was not "born and raised on Star Trek," as he says. He's drawn to this story from a national security perspective.

This modern mainstream interest in aliens coincides with a change in how the topic is being approached by the national government. Graff cites ex-CIA director John Brennan's comments made in 2020 as one example of the change that caught his interest.

"You began to see serious people talking seriously about this subject," Graff says.

While aliens may not be the top priority when considering national security, Graff says what we do see is a sustained interest in the topic — unlike what the government tends to let on to.

The intellectual movement to understand our universe:

"We need to actually be pretty humble about our understanding of the universe," Graff says.

As technology advances, and interest in the topic continues, Graff says it's important to remember there's still a lot for us to learn about science.

"It is possible that some chunk of the answer to UAPs and UFOs are things that are actually far weirder than anything that we can possibly imagine right now."

Our understanding of physics — things like relativity and quantum physics that might be at play — and atmospheric science is quite new, and we live on a planet that's young compared to the rest of the universe. We only just discovered planets outside of our solar system in the 1990s — and now we know that the majority of them exist in the "Goldilocks zone" which means they are capable of sustaining life.

Graff says we're at a very early stage of understanding our world. The answer to the question of aliens and UFOs and life "out there" may be more complex than we can understand right now — things like the multiverse, or even time travel.

"One of the biggest revolutions in human knowledge, really in the last 25 years, is this idea that the math is very much on the side of the aliens," Graff says. "It's actually quite possible that life is not only quite common across the universe, but that intelligent life is quite common across the universe."

"Are we alone?"

At the heart of the search for extraterrestrial life is conspiracy theories.

Graff says the movement to find other life exists on the same broad spectrum as any other political or intellectual movement.

"I don't think you get January 6, without the foundation of the UFO conspiracies that were laid in the 1970s and 1980s," Graff says. "The UFO conspiracy sort of lay this groundwork for a sinister deep state government that is acting in, you know, acting of its own accord against the wishes and against the benefit of the American people,"

But the thing about the search for aliens is the "national popular fascination," Graff says. It's the idea that any one of us could, potentially, have an experience with aliens or UFOs at any given moment.

And Graff says it's tied up in the most fundamental questions of human existence.

"'Are we alone?' is one of the sort of two or three, you know, biggest mysteries of human life, you know, with like, 'Is there a God?' you know, 'What happens to us after death?'" Graff says. "Questions, by the way, that like, may not be entirely unrelated from one another, depending on what the answers to any of them end up being. And so this is, you know, one of the things that probably every human who has ever looked up at the stars has contemplated going back thousands of years."

So while this question — "Are we alone?" — may be a modern quandary (Graff says many ancient civilizations long assumed the answer was no), it's the foundation for what brings us all together, why this curiosity has stuck around for so long.

"This is a funny topic to tell people that you're writing about because everyone's first inclination is to laugh," Graff says. "But then everyone immediately leans forward and is interested."

Broadcast at noon Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Today's Vermont Edition episode also included a conversation on ice fishing.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.