We want to believe

As has been noted, the truth is out there. A more less-likely place for truth to reside, however, is in here — a Denny’s restaurant in north central San Antonio. Once a month, a congregation convenes to discuss a topic that lurks in the penumbra of mainstream discourse. The diverse cast rarely changes; attendees refer to regulars as “the usual suspects” and newcomers are introduced when they materialize. The group is neither small, nor secret. Its topic is not even arcane.

The stated mission of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) promises “scientific study of UFOs for the benefit of humanity.” The local chapter invites interested members of the public to witness presentations by authors, scientists, and paranormal researchers. Afterward, tables in the rear section of Denny’s become an open-mic forum to recount UFO sightings or extraterrestrial contact, including abduction experiences.

At the March meeting, an El Paso woman named Rita spoke to the group, describing abductions that began in the 1950s.  Aliens who’ve appeared to her include “the famous gray ones with big eyes, the taller, uglier ones, “and, certainly, the reptilian ones.” On at least one occasion, she shared, witnesses had seen captors nab her, and she returned with small holes bored through her flesh and down to the bone. Neighbors suffered similar ordeals.

Rita claims she has gained a full 12 senses, including precognition and clairvoyance. She had prior knowledge of the federal-building bombing in Oklahoma, the 9/11 attacks, and the Katrina catastrophe. She sporadically sees unidentified craft flying in the skies above — always while alone. Rita has been a card-carrying MUFON member for 15 years, and this has provided her with the consolation that comes from acceptance; though some members are more skeptical, all approach the issue with an open mind. Those who reject the possibility of extraterrestrial civilization are termed, simply, “non-believers.”

One of the primary goals of MUFON is to “investigate UFO sightings and collect the data in the MUFON Database for use by researchers worldwide.” Each report to the MUFON website triggers a follow-up inquiry within 48 hours and a personal visit by an investigator. For the San Antonio region, this usually means Jorge Santana, a scientist and retired army officer.

“It all starts with an email,” says Santana, hauling a 250-page field manual onto the table in a Denny’s booth. “I go out there, I gather information, I listen to the story, and I let them know that they are not alone. The human factor is very important. I also take a GPS with me and some other instrumentation,” he says, meticulously paging through tidy file folders. “Most of my cases have been simple sightings,” he adds, pausing to flip through a case.   “This one was a lady that I went to visit, Maria. I closed this one, and I left it as unknown. But it is my belief that this was the international space station going over. Yes, the way she described it, I am quite certain it was.” He smiles, knowingly. “And she didn’t like that assessment, so I left it as unknown.”

Other cases remain more complex. In one instance, a man alerted MUFON after a close encounter of the fifth kind: visitation. Walking through a field outside of San Antonio one night, he allegedly came face-to-face with an alien entity. He and his four friends turned and fled, but the individual filed a report afterward and later drew a sketch of the creature. His friends now deny anything happened, and, under pressure from his wife, the man now refuses to discuss it — a common outcome, the MUFON field investigator explains evenly.

Santana’s matter-of-fact disposition conforms to the organization’s official position that “the `UFO` phenomenon can and should be approached dispassionately and scientifically.” Nevertheless, passion clearly sways many of the group’s followers, who seem tempted to embrace speculation as theory simply because, though we can’t prove it, neither can we disprove it.

“Many people think few people have really seen a UFO,” MUFON literature states; “In fact, according to a Roper poll conducted in 2002, one in seven Americans say they or someone they know has had an experience involving a UFO.” Extension of that single degree of separation renders the opinion poll unavailing by scholarly standards; hearsay, not surprisingly, dilutes the result. But, predictably, adherence to strict scientific methods loses its stick in an open forum whose purpose is dialog regarding topics almost inherently subjective and unmoored by hard evidence. Technological advances are, however, starting to change the game.

“The search for life elsewhere is becoming a real scientific question,” says Dr. Eric Schlegel, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, “because of the number of exoplanets we have now found.” In 1995, the existence of planets orbiting other stars was first confirmed; there are now nearly 500 in the catalog. Schlegel estimates that within the next decade, humankind will have a highly accurate picture not only of how many extrasolar planets exist, but how many orbit within the habitable zone where liquid water could be present. Within 15 to 20 years, researchers will be able to specify engineering projects to attempt to test for civilizations. And, Schlegel says, within 40 or 50 years, he expects humanity will know if extraterrestrial civilizations exist.

“So the whole question of search for life elsewhere is still down the road a ways, but you’re starting to tackle it from the scientific point of view. NASA has gotten very interested in this subject over the past decade or so, largely because they now see that this is a technically possible thing to do. It now forms part of their strategic plan.”

Until then, those of us who cannot foresee the future must wait. And until then, as MUFON San Antonio head John puts it, UFO enthusiasts will have to limit their speculations to “a thing we all know is something.” •

Jeffrey Wright is the Executive Director of Americas News Intel Publishing, LLC

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