Betty and Barney Hill’s UFO incident is re-created in The Arrival, an image from “The Abductees, 1961” by Boston-based photographer, writer, and curator Cassandra Klos.
There’s a hillside not far from my New Hampshire home that is ideal for stargazing. Within a few minutes, distant worlds start to show themselves—a phenomenon, I know, that’s caused by my eyes adjusting to the dark. But it feels somehow personal, like a confidence shared, as the sky gradually fills.
Last year, however, any illusion that I had special access to the cosmos was erased by the glorious images beamed back by the new James Webb Space Telescope. Able to capture light that’s traveled millions of years, it reveals things that have never before been glimpsed by human eyes.
As stunning as those visuals are, they too have been overshadowed. This year, another space story has caught the media’s, and the public’s, attention: UFOs. Even the Webb’s extraordinary pictures pale against headlines such as “U.S. Jet Shoots Down Flying Object Over Canada” (The New York Times, February 12, 2023) and “U.S. Urged to Reveal UFO Evidence After Claim That It Has Intact Alien Vehicles” (The Guardian, June 6, 2023).
Recent technological advances, political revelations, and seemingly credible sightings have moved UFOs—or, as the U.S. government now prefers, UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena)—from the supermarket tabloids into the mainstream media. And while most scientists remain dismissive, both the public and the government are intrigued.
Whether you believe we’re being visited by some mysterious Other or think everything in our skies is either natural or man-made, getting answers would seem to be in our universal best interest. After all, as the late J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer who investigated (and some say quashed) UFO sightings for the U.S. government for decades, was fond of pointing out, the important question is not whether an object is unidentified, but rather, “Unidentified to whom?”
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And that question brings me, on an October evening in 2021, to the Coolidge Corner Theatre in downtown Brookline, Massachusetts, where Avi Loeb is speaking before a showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
As I take my seat, Loeb, clean-cut and dapper in a gray jacket with no tie, sits at a table signing copies of his recently published book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. A few minutes later, the theater’s director of development and marketing, Beth Gilligan, reads off his accolades as she introduces him: chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, director of the Institute of Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, founding director of the Black Hole Initiative, author of four books and more than 700 scientific papers, one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people in space science in 2012.
Stepping to the podium, Loeb smiles. Raised in Israel, he speaks in clear but deeply accented tones: “It is great to be here. Just a couple of anecdotes. Well, first of all, I was born on a farm, so you may pretty much ignore all those titles and regard me as a farm boy….”
In Extraterrestrial, Loeb the scientist indulges his farm-boy sense of wonder, speculating that the first interstellar object observed within our solar system, an oddly behaved “comet” dubbed ‘Oumuamua (a Hawaiian word that translates loosely as “first distant messenger”), may have been our first glimpse of alien technology. That suggestion landed Loeb at the center of a media storm and earned him the ire of many fellow scientists, who—while agreeing that ‘Oumuamua was unlike anything seen before—insisted that its origins were natural.
When astronomers spotted ‘Oumuamua in 2017 using a massive telescope located atop a dormant volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui, the object, estimated to be between 100 and 400 meters long, was 21 million miles distant and moving away at a speed of about 85,000 mph.
“It didn’t look like a comet or an asteroid, the type of rocks that we have seen before within the solar system,” Loeb tells the audience. “Its brightness changed by a factor of 10 as it was tumbling, implying a very extreme shape.” A widely circulated artist’s rendition shows ‘Oumuamua as a cigar-shaped rock, but Loeb’s calculations suggested more of a pancake-like object. Other astronomers, Loeb says, “were not happy with that interpretation, because nature doesn’t make such thin objects. It implies that perhaps it is artificial.”
Those extreme dimensions, paired with no evidence that ‘Oumuamua was emitting the gas or dust typical of a comet, led Loeb to speculate that it could be a solar sail—a device built to be so nearly weightless that light reflecting off it could propel it the same way that wind propels a sailboat.
“One thing I learned from practicing astronomy for several decades is a sense of cosmic modesty,” Loeb says. “And the reason is simple. About half of the sun-like stars in the universe have a planet the size of Earth, at roughly the same separation. That means that not only are we not in the center of the universe, as people thought thousands of years ago, but our backyard is not even unusual. We are not privileged in any way.”
Whatever ‘Oumuamua was, it was different. If it was indeed a manufactured object, who had made it? Had it been sent to our inner solar system intentionally, or was it random space litter? How long had it been traveling? Did the civilization responsible for it still exist?
As ‘Oumuamua tumbles through distant space, it seems likely that the little bit of data collected while it was visible to us is all we’ll ever have. The mystery will remain unsolved. But in the future, Loeb hopes, we can be better prepared to get answers.
It is our nature, Loeb says, to fit evidence to what we know. “Imagine a caveman finding a cellphone. The caveman, who is familiar with rocks, would likely think it was just a type of rock that he’d never seen before…. And if the caveman throws away the cellphone, that will be the end of it…. But it could also be the beginning of a learning experience. The caveman may press a button and record his voice and then press another button and record his image. And then it would be clear that the cellphone is not a rock. We need to press the buttons on objects like ‘Oumuamua.”
As Loeb leaves the stage, the lights dim and the audience settles in for the story of Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, an Indiana lineman who becomes obsessed after a close encounter with a UFO. Unlike the aliens in many popular “invasion” movies of earlier decades, these otherworldly beings aren’t coming to conquer. At its core, director Steven Spielberg’s story is one of curiosity, wonder, and the perhaps intergalactic desire for meaning and connection.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is fiction, but it draws on multiple stories from people who are certain they, too, know what it is like to have been part of the mystery—including famous close encounters that happened right here in New England.
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The history of UFOs in New England skies is a storied one. The earliest documented sighting in the “New World” was recorded in the diary of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In March 1639, he reported that “James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others saw a great light in the night at Muddy River. When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine: it ran as swift as an arrow … up and down about two or three hours.” In the centuries that followed, UFO sightings and stories have flowed in a seemingly unending stream through New England.
New Hampshire’s “Exeter Incident” (1965) gained credibility because two police officers were among the witnesses. Connecticut’s “Newtown Lights” (1987) were seen by hundreds of people. The claimed 1961 abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in the White Mountains became perhaps the region’s most famous UFO story, establishing tropes that have become staples of popular culture. There were many more sightings, with varying degrees of credibility, but all share one key similarity: an utter lack of tangible evidence.
“That’s part of the intrigue,” Maine-based UFO investigator Fred Richards, aka “UFO Fred,” tells me. “We can get proof that there was a light in the sky. And the way the human brain works, it’s not even entirely proof that there was a light in the sky.… Some people [who have had a sighting] want me to tell them it was an alien. Only the aliens can tell you that. Nobody on this planet can tell you for sure.”
For conspiracy-minded believers, this consistent lack of evidence seemed proof that it was being suppressed. Decades of reported sightings left many convinced that the government knew more than it was sharing. In 2017, fuel was added to the fire when a New York Times report revealed that the U.S. Department of Defense had secretly investigated incidents through its Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program. Three years later, seemingly acquiescing to public demand, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence called for a detailed analysis of UFO encounters and their national security implications. As compiled by a panel of military and intelligence officials, the resulting report (despite some tantalizing media speculation) didn’t reveal secret warehouses of confiscated alien airships. What it did do, though, was officially establish that strange phenomena and objects have been seen, and that many remain inexplicable even after thorough investigation.
In 2022, Congress held an official UFO hearing. Among those who testified was New Hampshire resident Ryan Graves, a former Navy fighter pilot who made public his own sightings; he would go on to help launch Americans for Safe Aerospace, a nonprofit to support pilots who have seen unidentified aerial phenomena and to advocate for more transparent investigations (Avi Loeb serves on the advisory board). Speaking to the press after his testimony, Graves highlighted the dangers that unidentified objects pose to pilots, arguing they should be treated like “a foreign adversary.” He added, “We have a mystery to solve.”
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From the time of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” that caused nationwide panic, to the spate of “little green men” from “outer space” that could be seen on movie screens throughout the 1950s—nearly always as threatening invaders—our fascination with the possibility that we are not alone has always come tinged with dread. I have that in mind when I pull into the nearly empty parking lot of Indian Head Resort just off Route 3 in Lincoln, New Hampshire. It is late March, the sun low in the sky. I walk through a light covering of snow to the road, where a large green New Hampshire Historical Highway Marker reads:
Betty and Barney Hill Incident: On the night of September 19-20, 1961, Portsmouth, NH, couple Betty and Barney Hill experienced a close encounter with an unidentified flying object and two hours of “lost” time while driving south on Rte. 3 near Lincoln. They filed an official Air Force Project Blue Book report of a brightly lit, cigar-shaped craft the next day, but were not public with their story until it was leaked in the Boston Traveler in 1965. This was the first widely reported UFO abduction report in the United States.
As a boy I had read The Interrupted Journey, John G. Fuller’s best-selling book about the Hill incident. While the story fascinated me, I never really believed it, even as a kid. I still don’t. But in light of all the recent discoveries and reports, my curiosity has been rejuvenated.
In the resort’s gift shop I find a collection of inflatable alien heads and UFO coasters and warning signs that this is an “Alien Abduction Zone.” I grab a coffee mug with an image of the highway marker on one side and the Indian Head formation on the other, along with a copy of Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience, co-written by Kathleen Marden, Betty’s niece. Halfway to the cash register, I turn back and grab a “Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience” T-shirt, too.
The cashier smiles and asks if I’ve seen anything yet, then promises, “Spend enough time out here and you will.” Ringing up the book, he adds, “The author’s real nice. She stops by sometimes.” After sitting in my car and reading until dark, I trace the route that the Hills traveled during their encounter. But whatever insight I thought I might gain remains elusive, and I drive home with my kitschy souvenirs.
A few weeks later I dig deeper, when I visit the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Large windows brighten the Milne Special Collections room of UNH’s Dimond Library. “This is one of our most popular collections,” a librarian says. My visit was expected, so a stack of gray archival boxes and a pair of white cotton gloves await at one of the room’s long tables. Not sure of what I’m hoping to find, I grab an archival box and dig in.
When the Hills’ story became public, they came across as honest, dependable citizens with little to gain from concocting a fable. Barney Hill died in 1969; Betty lived until 2004, becoming a mainstay of the UFO scene. The collection includes mundane reminders that the Hills were ordinary people who believed they had experienced something not of this world: family genealogies, certificates of birth, and marriage, and death; Barney’s discharge papers from the Army; a scrapbook of his work with the NAACP. In one early photo, Betty wears the dress that she’d be wearing the night of the UFO incident. The dress itself is also part of the collection, minus a few samples snipped for lab analysis.
A flimsy piece of paper shows a drawing Barney made of the UFO. There are transcripts and recordings of interviews and a mountain of newspaper and magazine accounts, along with documentation of the Hills’ many TV appearances, on such shows as Good Morning America and The Phil Donahue Show. There are letters from fellow UFO celebrities including Whitley Strieber, J. Allen Hynek, and Ray Fowler, who would become known for his books about another alleged New England abductee, Betty Andreasson, who was certain that on a winter night in 1967 she had been examined by aliens at her home in South Ashburnham, Massachusetts.
Reading the transcribed recordings of the Hills under hypnosis, I find it impossible to believe that they’re lying. But that doesn’t mean that their story is true. In the decades since the Hills’ sessions with the respected Boston psychiatrist Benjamin Simon, the reliability of memories recovered through hypnosis has been largely discredited. Under hypnosis, individuals may generate false memories or inadvertently incorporate information from external sources into their recollections.
“Reality is what we take to be true,” physicist David Bohm once said. He added, “What we take to be true is what we believe.… What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.” Bohm could have been describing not only Betty and Barney Hill, but also the universe of UFO adherents as well as disbelievers. For once we’ve settled on a truth, it becomes the easiest thing in the world to see any information that doesn’t align with it as untrue.
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On a rainy Saturday morning the day before Halloween, I’m standing in a long line outside a hotel in downtown Waterbury, Connecticut. We are getting soaked while waiting for an event dubbed “The Warren’s Seekers of the Supernatural ParaCon,” which has clearly underestimated its own popularity. The venue, we are told, is so full that we have to wait for folks to come out before anyone else enters.
The event is named for Ed and Lorraine Warren, a Connecticut couple who founded the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952, and who claimed to have investigated more than 10,000 cases during their career. The popular film The Conjuring and its sequels are based on some of their best-known cases. I’m here to meet the Maine researcher I spoke with on the phone, Fred Richards, who is among a lineup of presenters that—judging by the buzz whenever one of them passes by—represent superstars of this realm.
Finally inside, I slosh my way around the vendor hall, where colorful banners promote podcasts and web shows and where everything from personal seances to holy water is for sale, along with piles of books and DVDs (each seeming chock-full of “Previously Unseen Footage!!!”).
Richards lives in southern Maine. He has a good job, which for reasons related to his unusual side hustle he prefers not to talk about. In his off-hours, he serves as the Maine state director for the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, one of the world’s oldest and largest UFO investigation groups. Here, he doesn’t come across as someone who seeks attention. Close-cropped hair, well-trimmed beard, glasses. Tidy. Professional.
“I’m not real popular with some people in the community because I’m not a hard-core believer,” he tells me. “If you go in wanting a particular answer, it becomes far more likely that’s what you’re gonna find.”
Richards says he was about 10 when he had his first UFO sighting. “I woke up in the middle of the night. I looked out the window, and I saw a craft coming over the trees. It was low. It was all lit up. I watched it fly over the house. I ran to the next window and I saw it just go slowly over the woods.”
He didn’t talk about it much then, but he never stopped thinking about it. So when he discovered Art Bell’s late-night radio show, “Coast to Coast AM,” and heard people talking about experiences like his own, he was hooked. “I looked forward to it every night. I don’t know how much sleep I lost,” he laughs. “And that was where I first heard of MUFON.”
When a sighting in the state of Maine is reported on the MUFON website, the information gets forwarded to Richards, who may look into it himself, or assign it to another investigator. “What I typically do is I’ll go and collect all the hard data first,” he says. “I look at hard research—what was in the sky that night, what was the weather. I look at where the satellites and the International Space Station are. Have you seen the ISS at night? That gets reported a lot.
“Sometimes there’s an explanation for what you saw that is fascinating in its own right. The SpaceX Dragon just went up—I guarantee that gets reported. No, what you saw wasn’t an alien spacecraft, but what a cool thing to have seen. It’s a different mystery every time.
“When we get to a point that we have a concrete answer,” he continues, “maybe it becomes more serious then. But in the meantime, we can have fun, speculating and guessing and trying to figure it all out. That’s what keeps me here. I want to know the answer.”
Months later, I’m still in search of answers when I visit Exeter, New Hampshire, where the annual UFO Festival, a popular fundraiser for the local Kiwanis Club, has returned following a pandemic hiatus. The “Exeter Incident” is New Hampshire’s other famous alien encounter, and like the Betty and Barney Hill story, it also served as the basis for a popular book by John G. Fuller in the 1960s. Today, the town is bustling—and replete with inflatable green aliens—but the epicenter is the area right in front of the red brick town hall, where the Kiwanis are selling T-shirts, hats, and posters. There are food tables, face painters, a costume contest, and even a UFO “crash debris site” for kids to play in.
Throughout the weekend, a trolley takes visitors to a scenic farmhouse that’s actually just over the Exeter town line, in Kensington. It was here, on the night of September 3, 1965, that local teenager Norman Muscarello, walking home from his girlfriend’s house, spotted a large, brilliantly illuminated object that passed so low it scared him to the point that he ended up face down in a roadside ditch. When he eventually arrived in Exeter, he told the police, and officer Eugene Bertrand Jr. was dispatched to investigate. He, too, saw the object, which he described as a red light with a pulsating white top. Officer David Hunt was next to arrive, and he witnessed it as well.
But where they may have all seen something, we just look out to the road and meadow. The trolley doesn’t linger. Within minutes we are headed back, to be switched out for a fresh batch.
I dip in and out of speaker presentations, and in and out of conversations, for the rest of the afternoon. And somewhere along the line I realize that everyone I talked to is doing the same thing. They all believe that we must share the universe with other intelligent life, and are filling in the gaps as best they can, often with anecdotal evidence from their own experience or from those who share similar beliefs. Even Avi Loeb isn’t so different. The big difference with Loeb, of course, is that he has resources and access few others can muster.
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Avi Loeb’s gray shingled house is in Lexington, Massachusetts, within walking distance of the town green. A screened porch stretches across the front of the home. Loeb lives here with his wife, Ofrit, and two daughters. He offers fruit and drinks on the table between us. Our soundtrack is one of chirping birds and occasional planes overhead.
Loeb has written that scientific inquiry, over the years, has often been stifled “because the gatekeepers who established and enforced orthodoxy believed they knew all the answers ahead of time. To state the obvious, putting Galileo under house arrest did not change the fact that the earth moves around the sun.”
Loeb’s tenured position at Harvard, he says, gives him freedom from peer pressure and groupthink. “If you go to the beach, the sand that you see is basically sea shells that used to be very different from each other…. A shell gets swept ashore, where waves rub it against other shells, and break it into indistinguishable pieces. In much the same way, when humans interact with each other, they become indistinguishable. And I don’t want that. Science gives me the privilege of maintaining my childhood curiosity, of keeping my seashell from being broken by friction with other people.”
Loeb aims to answer the government’s call for better data with the Galileo Project, a privately funded effort to conduct a systematic survey of Earth’s immediate surroundings via a network of telescopic cameras placed on rooftops around the world. The project will analyze and hopefully photograph unidentified aerial phenomena and search for evidence of extraterrestrial technology. “I established the Galileo Project to examine two things,” he says. “One of those is unidentified aerial phenomena. And the second is objects like ‘Oumuamua that enter the solar system. They may very much be the same thing; they may be related.”
The Galileo Project’s data will be shared publicly, and collaborators are welcome. “It’s like a fishing expedition where you don’t know what kind of fish you will find,” he says. “Even if we don’t find anything, if we bring in only sardines, objects with mundane explanations, so be it. Whatever we find we will report. The data will be open. The analysis will be transparent.”
It is the breadth of those fishing nets, though, that worries some in the science community. In assembling his team, Loeb has chosen not just top scientists, but also non-scientist UFO believers, including Jacques Vallée, the model for the chief UFO researcher in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.Loeb dismisses critics’ concerns, promising an agnostic collection of data and analysis. His interest, he says, is not in what certain believers or skeptics have said in the past, but in what they see through these new telescopic cameras.
“I called it the Galileo Project because when the philosophers rejected Galileo’s claim that maybe the earth moves around the sun, they didn’t just put him under house arrest. They also said, ‘We don’t want to look through your telescope.’ They were unwilling to reconsider their position based on evidence.”
And as wonderful as it is to think of ourselves as the descendants of Galileo, we must also remember that we descend, too, from those who refused to look through his telescope. “Reality does not care whether we ignore it or not,” Loeb reminds me. “The existence—or nonexistence—of our neighbors is not altered if we refuse to open the curtains. So why not look?”
Four decades after the Betty and Barney Hill story put New Hampshire at the forefront of UFO lore, another Granite State resident’s account of a close encounter received national attention. In 2017, a Congressional hearing on UFOs featured an incident involving Navy pilot David Fravor of Windham, New Hampshire, who had been training with other pilots off the San Diego coast in November 2004 in an area where a Navy cruiser had reported strange sightings on its radar.
Picking up the story in an interview with podcast host Lex Fridman in 2020, Fravor said that it was “a clear day … no clouds” when he spotted a smooth white object, 40 feet long and shaped like a giant Tic Tac candy, hovering about 50 feet above the ocean and moving abruptly to the left and right. As Fravor and his copilot descended from about 20,000 feet, the object climbed toward them. “It obviously knows that we’re there, whatever this thing is,” he said. “It’s coming up and I’m coming down, and I’m just watching it.… This whole thing [lasts], like, five minutes. It’s not like we saw it and then it was gone.… On a crystal-clear day, four trained observers watched this thing fly around.” Fravor’s jet was about half a mile away when the object abruptly accelerated and disappeared. “In less than a half second, it just goes poof—it is gone.” Fravor’s encounter was not recorded, but the “Tic Tac” object was captured by another jet’s infrared camera when it soon reappeared. And while the video is grainy, it shows something was in the air that day.
After the 2017 hearing, Fravor told ABC News, “I can tell you I think it was not from this world…. After 18 years of flying, I’ve seen pretty much about everything that I can see in that realm, and this was nothing close.”