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Abraham “Avi” Loeb got the idea to hunt for aliens from cable TV. In June 2021, Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, was at home, watching NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on CNN talking about recent UFO incidents involving U.S. Navy pilots. “Do you think we have been contacted by extraterrestrials?” the CNN interviewer asked. Nelson hedged, then said he was “turning to our scientists” to find out what the pilots saw.

UFOs were big news at the time. Outlets from The New York Times to 60 Minutes had run stories on shadowy objects that appear to dart and dance in grainy video clips taken by Navy jet pilots. On 25 June, shortly after Nelson mused about the footage on CNN, the Pentagon issued a report on nearly 2 decades’ worth of the “unidentified aerial phenomena” (UAP)—the government’s preferred new term for UFOs. It said the objects were likely to be drones, weather-related phenomena, or artifacts of sensor glitches. On the other hand, it said that, in some cases, the objects “appeared to exhibit unusual flight characteristics.” Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center poll that month found that half of Americans believed aliens were steering the UFOs.

Loeb, already obsessed with a mysterious interstellar object that whizzed through the Solar System in 2017, sensed an opportunity. Immediately after seeing Nelson on CNN, he emailed NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen to propose a government-funded UFO study. Later that day, the two spoke over the phone, and Loeb says Zurbuchen was “supportive” of the idea. But Loeb never heard back after that. He quickly pivoted to private funding. His first lucky strike came when Eugene Jhong, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Harvard alum who had heard Loeb talking about aliens on a podcast, offered up $1 million, no strings attached.

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