Image: Screengrab via the New York Times

The X-Files are real, y’all. No, seriously, here is some wild news for anyone who, like me, cried at the end of Arrival, or perhaps fears that one day aliens will roll on through planet Earth and absolutely wreck our shit.

The Pentagon quietly ran a $22 million program to study unidentified flying objects from 2008 to 2012 at the behest of former Senator Harry Reid, the New York Times reported on Saturday, after considering numerous accounts of unexplained phenomena that could involve advanced technology developed by foreign governments or even aliens dropping in to spy on our crapsack world. For years, this program had federal contractors scurrying around trying to identify unexplained phenomena like Mulder and Scully instead of developing new and innovative ways to kill people.

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The unclassified but secretive Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was funded $22 million from 2008 to 2011, with the vast majority of the funding going to Bigelow Airspace. That’s a company conveniently owned by one of Reid’s friends and donors, Robert Bigelow, though the program was also approved by since-deceased (COINCIDENCE?) Senators Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye. That $22 million enabled contractors to build a low-key Nevada warehouse for what they claimed was unidentified artifacts obtained from UFOs, as well as compile witness accounts:

Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes. In addition, researchers spoke to military service members who had reported sightings of strange aircraft.

Reid has long held an interest in UFOs, and it’s certainly possible the program essentially amounted to good ol’ fashioned D.C. pork barrel spending at the behest of a dude with a weird hobby and a friend he could hook up with a sweet government contract. The feds have launched numerous investigations of UFOs and found very little, including the 1947-1969 Project Blue Book.

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But according to the Times, Reid later decided AATIP had “made such extraordinary discoveries that he argued for heightened security to protect it,” requesting the deputy defense secretary list it as a “restricted special access program” which would keep its findings in the hands of just a few officials. AATIP analysts claimed compelling evidence the unidentified objects in question used some kind of next-generation propulsion technology and that the U.S. was incapable of defending against them if they turned hostile (yeah, sounds about right).

The restricted access designation was denied, though, and the program was eventually canceled to free up its resources as it failed to turn up further leads. Per Politico, even Reid agreed AATIP had reached a dead end—though it did turn up some unnerving incidents.

One of the accounts, extensively detailed in the New York Times, involved two F/A-18F Super Hornets dispatched to investigate “mysterious aircraft” detected by the U.S.S. Princeton off the coast of San Diego in 2004. The UFOs were detected appearing out of nowhere at an elevation of 80,000 feet, plummeting towards the sea, and then hovering above the water at 20,000 feet. They then shot back into the air or descended below radar range. Per aviation enthusiast site FighterSweep.com, at the time the Princeton’s SPY-1 system was “the most sophisticated and powerful tactical radar on the planet.”

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The two pilots, Cmdr. David Fravor and Lt. Cmdr. Jim Slaight, flew so close to the location of the aircraft that their radar signatures couldn’t be separated from the unknown object’s. They then noticed that the sea appeared to be churning before the scene descended into utter fucking madness, per the Times:

Hovering 50 feet above the churn was an aircraft of some kind—whitish—that was around 40 feet long and oval in shape. The craft was jumping around erratically, staying over the wave disturbance but not moving in any specific direction, Commander Fravor said. The disturbance looked like frothy waves and foam, as if the water were boiling.

When the aircraft approached, Fravor told the paper, “It accelerated like nothing I’ve ever seen” and disappeared, causing him to be “pretty weirded out.” But then something happened that weirded him out even more. When the jets began to retreat to another position 60 miles away, radar showed the object reappeared there in less than a minute.

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What’s more, there’s some pretty freaky video of the encounter showing an unidentified object pirouetting in the sky as the pilots marvel:

This isn’t necessarily evidence of aliens and there’s probably a rational explanation for this! But if the descriptions of the object’s behavior are accurate and not describing some kind of illusion, it seemingly defies humanity’s current engineering ability or understanding of physics—suggesting either a foreign power has made amazing advances in aeronautics or, well, an extraterrestrial tourist. So it’s maybe not so surprising that someone took an interest in verifying the phenomena and figuring out what to do about it.

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Reid insists the program was money well spent at the time.

“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed or sorry I got this thing going,” he told the Times. “I think it’s one of the good things I did in my congressional service. I’ve done something that no one has done before.”

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One of the researchers involved, military intelligence official Luis Elizondo, has since resigned after the budget for the program was killed but told the Times that an unnamed successor at the Pentagon has continued to investigate aerial phenomena. (Elizondo has since become involved with Blink 182 rocker Tom DeLonge’s To The Stars Media.)

Per Reuters, Defense Department spokeswoman Laura Ochoa declined to comment on whether the program continued in some fashion in the government, writing “The DoD takes seriously all threats and potential threats to our people, our assets, and our mission and takes action whenever credible information is developed.”

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[New York Times]