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The UFO community still believes — and science is starting to listen

In the last two years, scientists, politicians, and professionals have increasingly been willing to touch the taboo subject of UFOs and perhaps lend a little credence to those who still believe.

Trish Bishop shows the spot in the backyard of her Kissimmee, Fla., home on February 1, 2019, where she claims to have witnessed an alien and UFO hovering 10 feet above the ground in March 2013. (Rich Pope / Orlando Sentinel / TNS)
Trish Bishop shows the spot in the backyard of her Kissimmee, Fla., home on February 1, 2019, where she claims to have witnessed an alien and UFO hovering 10 feet above the ground in March 2013. (Rich Pope / Orlando Sentinel / TNS)Read moreRich Pope / MCT

ORLANDO, Fla. — He appeared as if a hologram at first — then solid — suddenly there and clear as you or I, at the edge of the forest behind Trish Bishop’s home in Kissimmee.

It was a Thursday in March 2013, the glow of the afternoon tucking in for the day behind the trees. He stood tall, at least 6-foot-3, perhaps 220 pounds and certainly muscular, wearing a formfitting tan colored uniform, boots, and gloves. He lingered by the crape myrtle tree in the middle of the backyard.

When he turned around, it was his face, she remembers, that stopped her.

Bulging eyes jutting so far out of the sockets that Bishop wondered whether he could close them. Skin white as chalk. And a jaw so large, it dispelled any notions the government worker had of the visitor being human.

“If you compare a human jawbone to his, we would be a Chihuahua to a pit bull,” Bishop said.

Paralyzed with fear, she watched as what she believed to be an alien appeared to climb invisible steps, stopping often to snatch glances at her from where she sat on her back porch, fumbling with her phone to appear as though she couldn’t see him.

Her finger was pressed on the number “9” to dial for help.

When he was about 10 feet off the ground, he turned his back to her and pulled himself up — “into a UFO?” she thought — and was gone.

Bishop sat stunned. “I’ve got a freaking alien in my backyard,” she thought.

It would be four years before she told anyone her story, before she’d discover the Mutual Unidentified Flying Objects Network, a nationwide organization 50 years old, and file her report under case number 84886 with the local Florida chapter.

But she worried: Who would believe her?

These days, more people than you’d think.

Across restaurants and meeting rooms in the United States, MUFON groups still gather every month to discuss cases like Bishop’s with the enthusiasm that once gripped the nation during the Cold War, when UFO sightings still made a splash on the front page.

The Space Coast group, made up of some former NASA employees and engineers, has 118 members, the largest in the state. Across the U.S. they number 3,500, with additional offices in 42 countries.

For many years, they were alone entertaining UFO theories. No more.

In the last two years, scientists, politicians, and professionals have increasingly been willing to touch the taboo subject and perhaps lend a little credence to those who still believe.

In December 2017, the New York Times uncovered that the U.S. had gone so far as to fund a secret, $22 million, five-year project to study UFO claims.

Since then, respected researchers, from the chairman of Harvard University’s astronomy department to at least one scientist at NASA, have come out with theories, albeit controversial ones, that suggest closer study of the role extraterrestrials may play in certain phenomena.

What’s changed, said Robert Powell, an executive board member on the nonprofit Scientific Coalition for Ufology, is our understanding of the universe. As scientists have discovered more Earthlike exoplanets and begun to delve into the options for interstellar travel — one idea includes using a laser-propelled, microchip-shaped probe — the conversation has been shifting.

“We still think of ourselves, as a species, as the center of everything,” Powell said. “Once you … at least start to discuss interstellar travel, you have to admit that, if there is intelligent life out there, then they have to be able to travel interstellar, too.”

The challenge with UFO and alien sightings has always been the lack of evidence. Bishop said she was too scared to take a photo of her alien. Little to no consequential evidence exists in other cases.

Psychology can explain some of it. Common explanations include a person projecting their unconscious desires onto something, or a predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories informing what a person thinks they saw, said Alvin Wang, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida.

People who believe they witnessed something may seek out others who reaffirm that belief, like “being in an echo chamber,” Wang said.

“People tend to hold on to that particularly if it fits in with their worldview and their belief system that there are other beings that inhabit the universe,” Wang said. “And they get … confirmation support, when they are members of UFO believers community.”

But Bishop stands by what she said she saw. She works a government security job with three area contractors and said she has no reason to lie.

And she’s on the hunt for ET now. After reporting her case in 2017, she bought three hunting trackers on eBay and set them up in her backyard. They’re motion activated, and sometimes they’ll go off in the night and capture 6,000 images — but there’s nothing in the frame. She once caught a Tic Tac-shaped blur in the sky she believes to be a UFO.

“I just think it’s a belief thing until you actually see them,” Bishop said. “You always gotta wonder.”

Some people, like Kathleen Marden, have been wondering all their lives.

It was September 1961 when the then 13-year-old got the call: Her aunt, Betty Hill, and her uncle, Barney Hill, said they’d seen a UFO on their drive through the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

Betty’s dress was torn and Barney’s shoes were scuffed. There were two hours they couldn’t account for and Barney was sure he’d seen eight to 11 figures dressed in black shiny uniforms that were “somehow not human,” said Marden, who now lives outside Orlando.

It wasn’t until the Hills were put through a hypnosis session by Boston psychiatrist Benjamin Simon that their stories of being taken into a UFO and physically examined were revealed.

“They were interested in the skin, in the skeletal structure, in the joints,” said Marden, MUFON’s director of experiencer research. “They examined their hands, they took their shoes off, they examined their feet, they did tests on them that appear to be testing their nervous systems, as well.”

The Hills’ alleged abduction was made public in 1965 — and the story gripped the nation. “Did They Seize Couple?” the Boston Traveler posited. “I Was Quizzed in ‘Space Ship,’” read another headline.

Marden has dedicated her life to uncovering the truth behind she says was government tampering with the Hills’ case and has written four books about her aunt and uncle and flying saucers. She’s seen the change in perception about UFOs in the public and scientific community firsthand.

“I absolutely do think that there is a shift, that people are giving more credence to this they did in the past,” she said, pointing to the 2017 New York Times story on the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program as the turning point.

The program was run by military intelligence official Luis Elizondo and put together at the request of then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid. It ran from 2007 to 2012 in partnership with businessman Robert Bigelow’s company Bigelow Aerospace, which studied cases of American military personnel observing unknown objects.

One case in particular garnered attention when it was declassified because videos showed a craft with no apparent propulsion moving at alarmingly fast speeds. It was filmed in 2004 by two Navy F/A-18F fighter jets off the coast of San Diego.

Navy pilot Commander David Fravor, who witnessed the Tic Tac-shaped craft, told the Washington Post in late 2017 that he maintained it was “something not from Earth.”

Then came Harvard’s astronomy department chair, Avi Loeb, a renowned scientist whom Time Magazine named one of the 25 most influential people in space in 2012.

He, along with colleague Shmuel Bialy, wrote in a publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters that a thin interstellar object seen passing through our solar system called Oumuamua “is a lightsail, flowing in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment.”

Loeb went a step further, theorizing that, “alternatively, a more exotic scenario is that Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.” The theory has provoked the ire of the scientific community, but Loeb has stood by it.

Is it aliens, for sure? Loeb can’t say. He just says he can’t find another explanation.

At NASA Ames Research Center in California, scientist Silvano Colombano has gone on record suggesting the space agency look at all explanations in its approach to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, known as SETI. Historically, NASA has not weighed in on the issue much, most recently opening a Center for Life Detection Science that is more about finding biosignatures than analyzing alleged UFO sightings.

But Colombano argued in a March 2018 white paper that the scientific community should be more open about looking at the evidence that is already there, “consider the UFO phenomenon worthy of study,” and engage in “speculative physics” grounded in solid scientific theories but with some “willingness to stretch possibilities as to the nature of space-time and energy.”

Essentially, he said, it was time NASA had a more open mind.

While science dukes it out, the members of the MUFON’s Space Coast chapter take their places at their monthly meeting in the back room of an old-fashioned BBQ joint in Palm Bay called Memaw’s to discuss what they all believe to be a universal truth.

Many believers come to the meetings because someone they know saw something they couldn’t explain, or because they’ve nursed an interest in the subject since the days of the Cold War, when UFO sightings and abduction claims spiked. Some say they have seen things. Others put stock in more eccentric theories.

They are what’s left of a movement that once captured the interest of thousands, inspired books like Carl Sagan’s Contact, long-running TV show The X-Files, and made Betty and Barney Hill the stars of a 1975 film starring James Earl Jones.

There are many people like Barbara Stusse, who says her mother saw a UFO in 1947 and kept it from her children for 30 years. Stusse remembers waiting for her copy of the Boston Herald every day for a week in 1965, when the Hills’ story unraveled in three to four pages of newsprint a day.

“I read that and I thought, ‘I believed it,’ “ said Stusse, 80, who has been coming to MUFON meetings for three years.

And there’s Bill Fisk, who is always at meetings taking notes. He’s in charge of taking in reported sightings like Bishop’s and trying to explain them. Could weather have played a role? Could the person have dreamed it?

Fisk, who has been hooked since the moment he saw a light in the sky make a sharp 90-degree turn when he was 9 years old, joined the local MUFON chapter in 2015.

He went all in, taking 100 hours of online classes over three months to get certified as a field investigator for MUFON. He learned how to read flight plans, how to measure longitude, latitude, and cloud altitude, how to use a Geiger counter to measure ionizing radiation.

Sometimes he gets hoaxes. One man copyrighted an image he took of the sky through a window because he was convinced it was a UFO. Turns out, it was just the reflection of his hotel room’s ceiling light on the glass. Chinese lanterns in the sky are often confused with flying saucers. And one woman even claimed an alien came into her house and had sex with her.

“A lot of it is that people don’t look up, they don’t pay attention to the sky, the last time they read a science book was in 12th grade,” Fisk said. “It’s just one of those things that sometimes you just have to bring them along, give them the information, the education to do something with what they saw, put it into a framework.”

A customer solutions representative for CareerSource Brevard, Fisk works on cases at lunch or after work. He can close most in three to four days, write them off as someone thinking Venus was a UFO, but sometimes he gets one he can’t crack.

It joins the small percentage of true “unknowns” that can’t be explained by weather phenomena or other means. That possibility keeps him and his colleagues going, always considering each case, always looking up to the sky.

“I would like to see people accept the fact that there are things they can’t explain,” Fisk said. “ … I’m not going to stop doing it. [I’ll keep adding] to the database because that’s all I can do.”