This past December, amid the increasingly unnerving cacophony of presidential tweets taunting North Korea with nuclear fire and fury—a couple of weeks after Donald Trump called Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man” and a couple of weeks before he bragged about the size of his nuclear “button”—the New York Times ran an emphatically italicized headline: Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program. Tapping into an anxious zeitgeist, underscoring the tender vulnerability of planet Earth, hinting at unknowable threats posed by alien surveillance and the excitement of magically superior technologies, the story circulated in all the mainstream news outlets. It included a video clip showing an unidentifiable thing moving swiftly and oddly through space, accompanied by unseen pilots marveling at its strangeness.
As the episode moved through various media, many iterations included a balancing note: a quotation by a SETI scientist or astronomer admonishing the public to understand how many potential non-alien-spacecraft effects we might be witnessing in this clip. But then there were the voices of the unseen pilots, breathing in wonder.
It seems the Pentagon had investigated reports of UFOs in a program whose funding had been officially terminated in 2012 but which might still be operating secretly. (The US military has investigated UFO reports on and off for over half a century, in fact.) The director was a military intelligence official named Luis Elizondo, who said he had quit the Pentagon program in part to protest its secrecy. Elizondo instead joined To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a corporation run by Tom DeLonge, former guitarist of the band Blink-182.
To The Stars has a vertiginous set of ambitions and alignments. It is a science fiction media company. Its research and development branch wants to build spacecraft and laser technologies. And it investigates UFOs. Along with the UFO-buff /rocker DeLonge, it boasts partners who once worked for the CIA, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and now Elizondo, recently of the Pentagon.
DeLonge promises his company will be a “perpetual funding machine” to advance science and entertainment. These fluid borders—between science fiction and science, between military and entertainment—perform a similarly fluid border between profound cosmological yearning and optimistic capitalist questing. When DeLonge describes his media projects, he earnestly evokes his own desire to bring “the many elusive and mysterious events that seemed to have interacted with mankind for thousands of years, sometimes for good and sometimes not so much” to public consciousness. The cliché and the mystical intertwine in his voice: “We have a plan to bring the unimaginable—the stuff of dreams—to the world.”
Is this all there is? The urgent circulation of the Pentagon story was haunted by this question in multiple registers. Is this—the social and economic structure we find ourselves reproducing in more and more intricately mediated ways, a world that seems grounded only by the certainty of capitalism and its unstoppable advances—all there is? Or is all there is, as Elon Musk, like a magician of borders, sends a Tesla Roadster into outer space, now performing human technology as itself the colonizing UFO, its mannequin driver cruising into the atmosphere like some gentrifyer of the cosmos?
Or is this all there is?—our small, tender, singular Earth? This pricks at everything here. In this moment of unbearable precariousness, what does it mean to turn one’s face away from the only this of the Earth, the endlessly recycling terrarium of our world? Is this all there is—the rain on your face is the water of the Big Bang, the water of the ocean is your spit and blood, the returning pee of a dinosaur swims in the black puddle your dog drinks when he bounds from your car? Is this all there is?
The first modern UFO came to Earth just a couple of years after we bombed Japan. As those now-kitschy saucers performed uncanny maneuvers like no human aircraft of the time could make, the mushroom clouds were rising over our deserts and exploding, drifting beneath them. Once upon a time, generations came and went but the Earth lasted forever. Today, as I write, Trump’s shallow rage speaks of nuclear holocaust like just another crisis. You can feel the resignation in the public affect; maybe there is going to be another world, one we can escape to after this one is sucked dry. We know the story of colonization: We move into the virgin space, we extract what is there, we move again. And then another layer, the haunting, the unbearable terror. Is this all there is?