A Cursory Explainer of This Summer’s Verified UFO News, Somehow a Real Phenomenon

A few months ago, Twitter was briefly rocked by a set of X-Files-esque revelations, most notably that Air Force pilots had been reporting strange sightings of unidentified craft and also the fact that also for years, the Pentagon has been funding a classified program researching the possibility of UFOs. Chill! As is the case with everything these days, this news that would once have seemed necessarily world-changing quickly faded into obscurity and a distant sense of bafflement, drowned out by trying to parse the constant deluge of information related to the concentration camps the US has instituted at the border, the rising tide of a fascist miltary police state, and the question of whether the president has declared war on any other nations via Twitter. As I watched “Area 51” become a trending topic and meme format over the weekend and idly wondered whether we were about to enact Independence Day, I found myself wishing for some sort of brief explainer on the UFO-related events of the past few months, just so one could have some semblance of a fuck of an idea what was going on. Not having found one, I have decided to be the change I want to see in the world. Here, for you, a cursory and incomplete timeline.

December 2017

In 2017, the New York Times casually revealed the exposé that the Pentagon has had, essentially, a UFO research program since 2007. It was spearheaded by Democratic speaker of the house Harry Reid and appears to have been working in partnership with the aerospace “a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow,” who is “‘absolutely convinced’ that aliens exist and that U.F.O.s have visited Earth.” Anecdotally, the program was also supported by astronaut John Glenn, and had the involvement of several senators who said that they had also seen objects whose origin they couldn’t explain while in the Air Force. In more direct terms, the arrangement of Pentagon ‘black money’ being used to contract with Bigelow Aerospace for this project does in fact mean that large amounts of classified military money was given to a billionaire friend of Harry Reid’s to research UFOs while the year-old Trump Administration worked on dismantling the functionality of the federal government.

May 2019

Yet another NYT story (really on top of the UFO beat!) shared the stories of multiple Navy pilots who, during training based on an aircraft carrier off the East Coast, consistently reported multiple encounters with flying objects that seemed to defy the basic logistics of flight, reaching unthinkable speeds with no exhaust or changing direction sharply and effortlessly in midair. They didn’t believe they were military flight experiments or government-approved drones; why would they be in their flight paths without any warning? The pilots were alarmed enough and confident enough about what they’d seen to file formal reports.

“Lieutenant Accoin said he interacted twice with the objects. The first time, after picking up the object on his radar, he set his plane to merge with it, flying 1,000 feet below it. He said he should have been able to see it with his helmet camera, but could not, even though his radar told him it was there. A few days later, Lieutenant Accoin said a training missile on his jet locked on the object and his infrared camera picked it up as well. “I knew I had it, I knew it was not a false hit,” he said. But still, “I could not pick it up visually.”

“…The pilot and his wingman were flying in tandem about 100 feet apart over the Atlantic east of Virginia Beach when something flew between them, right past the cockpit. It looked to the pilot, Lieutenant Graves said, like a sphere encasing a cube. The incident so spooked the squadron that an aviation flight safety report was filed, Lieutenant Graves said. The near miss, he and other pilots interviewed said, angered the squadron, and convinced them that the objects were not part of a classified drone program. Government officials would know fighter pilots were training in the area, they reasoned, and would not send drones to get in the way.”

These pilots’ stories were brought back to the public eye in part because of the airing of a new History Channel miniseries, Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, heavily featuring former director of the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) Luis Elizondo. Elizondo resigned in 2017 “to protest what he characterized as excessive secrecy and internal opposition” — “Why aren’t we spending more time and effort on this issue?” Mr. Elizondo wrote in a resignation letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.”

June 2019

According to Politico, perhaps Elizondo is getting his wish — at least three US senators were confirmed to have received briefings on UFOs from the Pentagon, the specific content of which was unclear. Staff were not authorized to speak publicly about the briefings.

“There are people coming out of the woodwork,” said one former government official who has participated in some of the meetings. A current intelligence official added: “More requests for briefings are coming in.” The sessions have been organized by the Navy but have also included staff from the under secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the sources said. Both were not authorized to talk publicly about the briefings.”

Around the same time, President Trump gave a meandering statement to ABC news that didn’t clear much up but did seem to confirm he has also been briefed on the situation of pilots reporting unexplained craft.

“I think it’s probably – I want them to think whatever they think,” the president told ABC News. “They do say, and I’ve seen, and I’ve read, and I’ve heard. And I did have one very brief meeting on it. But people are saying they’re seeing UFOs. Do I believe it? Not particular.” Asked if he would be told if extraterrestrial life was found, Trump said: “We’re watching, and you’ll be the first to know.”

It’s impossible to really tell how much of a priority the question of extraterrestrial life is being made internal to the US government; more than ever, it seems obvious the US government itself is unclear on how much of a priority any given issue is. Is someone asking Nancy Pelosi every morning whether she wants to get in on the UFO briefing, in addition to inquiring as to the status of impeachment proceedings and, you know, what the plan is for closing the concentration camps? Unclear.

(Also in June came this story, which looks back at a 1973 reported abduction, recently given its own historical plaque commemorating its occurrence and remarkable credibility.)

In the last weeks of June, “mysterious white spheres” were spotted above Kansas City; some think they may have been DARPA balloons, but there’s no official confirmed explanation. The orbs were the subject of a town hall meeting in the area this week. For those who have been following along closely from home, the same Navy pilots the NYT reported on were describing “whitish ovals object[s]… described as a giant Tic Tac” in 2004.

July 2019

July 2nd was World UFO Day! Just a fun fact. July 4th was the unofficial holiday of Independence Day, arguably the greatest alien invasion movie of all time. Were either of these the reason why digital youths began a meme centered around storming Area 51? We may never know; like Wendy realizing she can no longer fly with pixie dust, I have found I can no longer speak the language of youths. Anyways, someone (probably teens?) created a Facebook event dedicated to overcoming Area 51, the storied open-secret alien investigation government black site, on September 20. Let the memes begin, etc.

It probably first started on TikTok, where impossibly young humans—born after 2001 somehow—do 15-second sketches usually set to music. Then maybe Reddit? Or Instagram. Can’t say for sure. But the attention from the government and local news stations around the country has only attracted more memes, which then pushed the meme narrative forward, from crashing Area 51 in order to “save” the aliens, to planning what they’re going to do with their alien after they “get” him, to distracting the guards in order to “clap” the aliens’ “cheeks.”

As many have extremely correctly observed, the joke is either very thoughtless or very pointed considering that there are currently very provably real government sites holding very real, non-alien humans captive in the same desert as Area 51 and in fact all 50 US states; the event’s observation that “they can’t stop all of us” seems… well, first of all, true. Teens! Who can tell what they mean by anything.

Aside from some nervous-sounding requests to, you know, not do that from the Air Force, it seems that the Area 51 meme and its progeny will run its course soon, until the next alarming outer-space-related news event that we are now almost completely unable to contextualize meaningfully as a culture. Until then, if you do feel your interest piqued by the idea of testing out the power of a populace moving in concert toward a shared goal against consolidated military state power, interesting idea, maybe to be explored outside the format of a public facebook event! The truth is out there, etc.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. I cherish this explainer and how it so succinctly expresses so many of my feelings regarding the events it explains. Also just yesterday was trying to understand the sudden Area 51 memes so you are not alone in the Teens! Who can tell what they mean by anything beat.

  2. Truly a detailed and fascinating breakdown of what I had dismissed as “another meme I guess.”

  3. I hope when the aliens come they are nice and polyamorous like the ones in Malinda Lo’s science fiction series.

  4. this is just so very Rachel in every single way and i now feel more informed, decidedly more distressed, and totally Old. as it should be, i guess.

  5. Wow my two favorite things at once – aliens and autostraddle. This is definitely why I keep giving y’all money.

  6. Thank Goddess you are on this. I’m the only person I know who was excited when this story broke. Please keep up this important work! 🛸🛸

  7. No one has made the joke about it being Captain Kirk and Spock accidentally coming back in time and somehow having a cloaking device so here I am, sort of making this joke. STARFLEET 4 LYFE.

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