Some time in 2009, I was sitting on a bar stool in Dulles Airport, killing an hour or two before a delayed flight back to the west coast. It was one of those horse shoe bars, and I was the only woman. The half a dozen or so suited men were being conspicuously polite about not imposing themselves, but I was feeling quite open to some company for the wait. I raised my glass to the two nearest guys and we got chatting. I was on white wine, and they were on whiskey. After a drink, one of them left to get his flight. The remaining guy stuck around. He was an ex-marine and very good company. He was itching to tell a story, but also kind of averse, so I sat back and let him come to it in his own time.
His old job at the Pentagon had been to sit in a single office and man two phones. One phone was for receiving calls through the public phone system. The other one, he simply picked up and it automatically went through to a blocked internal number. Every so often, the receiving call would ring. It would be a member of the public who wanted to report extra-terrestrial activity; strange lights, crop circles, abductions, whatever. Usually, though, just the strange lights. The guy would write down all the details verbatim, thank the caller for their information, and hang up. Then, he’d pick up the other phone, pass the details along to an unnamed individual, and hang up. And that was it. For two years, he recorded alien-sightings from the public and passed them to someone or other in the military chain of command.
The story tickled me. Not least, because it’s so inconclusive. You can see why the US military would want to keep tabs on sightings of odd-looking aircraft. (I still remember seeing the Stealth bomber parked in Dublin airport a while back and finding it hard to believe it was human tech.) But also, it’s kind of delicious to think the Pentagon is paying a little attention to stuff randomers see and report, just in case it turns out to be aliens.
Of course, the US is not the only country in the world trying, discreetly, to keep an open mind on intelligent, extra-terrestrial life. Recently, the UK’s National Archive opened some files about UFO sightings in Britain. The BBC news story says that between “1950 and 2009, a special Ministry of Defence unit investigated more than 10,000 UFO “sightings” – a rate of one every two days.” The unit followed the same model as my bar-buddy’s; a public hotline and a single staffer whose job was to record and refer. The more you look at the types of things recorded, the more it seems that it’s simply a way to keep track of all-too-terrestrial unexplained happenings in the sky.
All the same, I’m with Stephen Hawking on this; if more intelligent and inter-galactically mobile life exists out there, I very much hope they neither discover nor take any notice of us.