by Daniel Kalder
Saturday, 6
November 2021
Off grid

NASA’s religious quest for UFOs

The space agency is channelling ancient human desires
by Daniel Kalder

Humans have been staring at the sky for a long time now, a fact reflected in our most ancient monuments. The oldest known stone circle, Gobekli Tepe, was erected 12,000 years ago, and not only does it align to the stars, the “Vulture stone” features zodiacal inscriptions.

The sophistication of Gobekli Tepe is quite perplexing, given that the site dates back to the era when hunter gatherers were (possibly) wiping out the last of the megafauna. Of course, it’s always possible that the stones were put there by space aliens, in line with the ancient astronaut theory of civilisation’s origins as advanced by Erich von Däniken (and mocked by Frank Zappa in his finest composition, Inca Roads).

Von Däniken’s books were massive in the 70s. By the time the 90s rolled around, however, visitors from space had shifted their attention to creating crop circles, and inserting foot-long anal probes into science fiction writers. The X-Files became a global cultural phenomenon, and posters depicting an alien smoking a joint beneath the legend “take me to your dealer” became popular. However, this enthusiasm for extraterrestrial life seemed to wane around the time a very different sort of UFO hit the Twin Towers, demonstrating with grim finality the truth of JG Ballard’s maxim that the most alien planet is earth.

And yet, twenty years on, it seems that we are once again ready to look to the stars. In fact, a new NASA-sponsored survey finds that the search for alien life is the top priority for astronomers over the next ten years. Perhaps this is not surprising coming from people whose job is to stare into space, but interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life is enjoying a broader revival in society. A recent Gallup survey found that 40% of Americans think that UFOs containing alien beings have visited earth, up from 33% in 2019. Belief is up the most among college grads, where 37% now believe, over 27% in 2019. In addition, last year Trump declassified a trove of documents about UFOS,  while Jeff Bezos recently took Captain Kirk himself into space.

Of course, enthusiasm for cosmic exploration is not universal. Prince William criticised Bezos (albeit without naming him), stating that billionaires should focus less on space and more on saving earth. I thought this was a bit churlish myself, an expression of the type of misrerabilist puritanism it used to be almost compulsory to lampoon, but which in these strange times marks you out as a righteous soul.

Speaking of righteousness, my own take on the search for alien life is that, rather like wokeness, it is an expression of a sublimated religious impulse that used to be directed at the real thing. You can even hear it in the language used by enthusiasts, who often speak of a desire to not be alone, which is of course the very same promise made by evangelical churches. That said, the differences are more significant than the similarities, as the type of organic molecules Curiosity Rover has been turning up on the surface of Mars since 2012 are a poor stand-in for a loving Heavenly Father, for sure.

If the astronomers did find intelligent life, we would still be completely alone, as it would be so far away we would never be able to touch it, or communicate with it. But regardless, this hope that is deep and ancient. So have at it, my astronomer friends, gaze through your telescopes and map the stars, following the same impulses that guided our long ago ancestors in Gobekli Tepe: continue their holy work.

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  • “Prince William criticised Bezos (albeit without naming him), stating that billionaires should focus less on space and more on saving earth. I thought this was a bit churlish myself, an expression of the type of misrerabilist puritanism it used to be almost compulsory to lampoon, but which in these strange times marks you out as a righteous soul.”

    I’m so glad someone else thinks this too – although I have to admit that I hadn’t managed to express it so well up to this point. Really, of all the people who should know better than to pontificate about how other people should spend their legitimately acquired and taxed wealth, Prince William stands pretty close to the front and centre in that picture.
    It also grieved me sorely that even the Queen herself has been drawn into the climate change fiasco. She of course merely made the point that it is no longer a partisan political issue, but of course that persuades nobody who is a sceptic and has looked on with disgust at how mainstream politics has given up recognising that climate change scepticism is a valid and defensible position. The fact that scepticism is no longer represented is a failure of politics, not a reason to conclude that a consensus created via the systematic expulsion of one side of the argument must mean that we’re all past the politics now.

    It is worth emphasising here that when I refer to climate change scepticism, this includes a recognition that the climate changes and is changing now, that this is indeed partly caused by human activity including CO2 emissions, that the effects are cumulative and cannot be continued indefinitely, that we should move to non-carbon dependent energy sources as fast as reasonably possible for many reasons beyond concern for the climate, and that some form of global political effort is needed to achieve this as well as the innovative capacity of free markets. Is this sceptical at all, you may ask? Well yes it is, when it is founded upon the justified view that the climate projections presented as evidence are not actually evidence, that it is very unlikely indeed that there is any near-term existential danger involved in climate change, that renewable energy is not a plausible replacement for the existing advanced energy generation infrastructure, and that not all forms of political effort in this context are worthwhile, helpful or compatible with the requirements of basic political and economic liberty.

    I have read persuasive views prior to this point that predict the end of the monarchy as we know it once Queen Elizabeth II dies, because the culture shock of having a nakedly-political King in the form of Charles will collapse the pro-Monarchy cohort in British society. The Queen’s descent from her own position of strict impartiality is both depressing and surprising, and it may well come to be seen as a historic error once Net Zero’s real costs start to bite. The destructive economic effects cannot be avoided: they are going to have powerful inflationary effects and reverse decades of progress in terms of the myriad benefits that cheap and reliable energy have delivered in terms of innovation, technology, liberty and living standards.

    The Queen should not have done this. It was a mistake, and a serious mistake at that.

  • I wonder if, many decades in the future, the climate change obsession of our times will provide material for a latter day version of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds.
    Aided by the lightning speed of 21st century communications technology, popular delusions can spread far and wide with ease.

  • There is also no reason to suppose that aliens do not exist. Given the age and size of the universe, and our knowledge of how life seems to be inevitable given the right conditions which we also know must exist in billions of other places in the universe, the proposition that Earth is unique is the odd idea for which a defence must be presented.

    I do however agree that this does not mean that alien life has developed interstellar travel but for some reason is only interested in revealing itself to drunken rednecks and tinfoil hatters in the USA.

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