Other Views: Congressional Report on UFOs Landing Soon; Why It Matters to Washington State


With an unclassified military report covering two decades of UFO sightings set to be presented to Congress this month, a quote from one of Hollywood's earliest (and corniest) space-invader movies comes to mind.

"My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer!" intones the grim narrator of "Plan 9 From Outer Space." The 1959 sci-fi schlock classic captured America's Cold War obsessions with flying saucers and government coverups.

Yes, it's historic that the Pentagon is sharing findings and images after reviewing more than 100 UFO sightings involving Navy personnel. But anyone hoping for proof of little green men or their modern-day equivalent should brace for disappointment.

Early media glimpses of the report neither confirm nor rule out close encounters with extraterrestrial life. The report apparently leaves room for unidentified aerial phenomena — or, UAPs, the term preferred by scientists — stealthily deployed by America's geopolitical adversaries.

What's undeniable is that the report can help scratch an itch in our state — one that's proven irresistible since the dawn of our country's UFO craze.

The South Sound has a long tradition of staring at the sky, observing what's observable and wondering what lies beyond. The Tacoma Astronomical Society, formed in 1931, is the second-oldest astronomy club in the US.

Theirs is a curiosity worth nurturing in the youngest stargazers, even when it leads to leaps of imagination that may trouble skeptics.

Washington routinely ranks among states with the most UFO sightings, according to the National UFO Reporting Center. Measured in raw numbers, we had the third-most sightings last year (386), behind only Florida (567) and California (752).

This month brings the anniversary of a seminal moment in UFO lore. On June 24, 1947, a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold reportedly saw nine circular objects zooming near Mount Rainier; before long,"flying saucer" was part of the national vernacular.

Another local sensation, later deemed a hoax, took place around the same time. Dubbed "the Maury Island Incident," it centered on six flying discs reported by Tacoma resident Harold Dahl and his son. It also introduced an enduring pop-culture term, "men in black," on Dahl's claim that a dark-dressed government operative tried to intimidate him into silence.

That period went down in history as "The Summer of the Saucers," culminating with the alleged August 1947 crash of a UFO outside Roswell, New Mexico. In 2017, the Washington Senate commemorated the local contributions with a 70-year anniversary resolution.

Talk to some scientists, however, and they'll tell you the mythology and vocabulary surrounding UFOs can be problematic.

Tom Bush, who teaches earth and space sciences at Pierce College, told us it's "distressing" that "the term UFO seems to have taken on the meaning of extraterrestrial visits to Earth."

His colleague, astronomy teacher Hillary Stephens, added: "The search for extraterrestrial life is a real scientific endeavor that, like all scientific undertakings, is methodical and rigorous. An unidentified object does not automatically mean alien."

Case in point: the May 4 mass sighting of bright lights across the Washington night sky. It turned out to be low-orbit Starlink satellites launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX company.

"This is a new sight in our skies and they are mistakenly identified by many people," Stephens told us by email.

It's an important lesson, which teachers like Stephens and Bush are well suited to share. Pierce College's nine-year-old Science Dome, a digital planetarium at the Lakewood campus, is a breathtaking place to learn for students and amateur astronomers alike

The truth is out there, but this much we already know: Humans have been fascinated by mysteries flying overhead at supersonic speeds since prehistoric times. And public interest in UFOs won't ebb as long as influential people — including presidents and senators — fan the flames.

Barack Obama mused in a recent talk-show interview about "objects in the skies that we don't know exactly what they are." Donald Trump set the stage for the release of this month's unclassified report when he signed it into a pandemic aid bill.

Untangling these mysteries is a grand pursuit when done in a spirit of wonder — not conspiracy mongering, or fear — if for no other reason than it keeps us from staring too long at our feet.