The U.S. government has studied UFOs on and off now for 80 years, dating back to the dawn of the “flying saucer” age in 1947, when an Idaho businessman flying near Mount Rainer reported seeing bright saucer-like objects moving through the skies at tremendous speeds. It was hardly the first time humans spotted strange things in the sky — just a few years earlier, World War II pilots over Europe reported being chased by glowing green balls that came to be known as “foo fighters” — but the “flying saucers” caught the public’s imagination and launched a fascination that continues to this day.

Back then, at the dawn of the Cold War, the Pentagon launched three successive secret programs — known as PROJECT SIGN, GRUDGE and BLUE BOOK — that ran for decades without ever solving the mystery of what UFOs actually are. Neither did a secret CIA study panel in the 1950s, congressional hearings in the ’60s, and other assorted efforts over the years. Nor, most recently, did a series of classified Pentagon projects in the 2000s and 2010s, sponsored by Harry Reid and run by Las Vegas business titan Robert Bigelow, known as the Advanced Aerospace Weapon Systems Applications Program that was first reported by POLITICO and The New York Times in 2017.

Now, amid renewed public fascination and lawmaker interest in the years since AAWSAP was publicized, the Pentagon, the intelligence community and NASA have recommitted — albeit somewhat half-heartedly — to studying what the government now calls UAPs, unidentified anomalous phenomena, a term it introduced both to decrease the giggle factor of UFOs as well to acknowledge the possibility that not every UFO is actually either flying or a physical object. Ironically, it’s the second such rebranding: It was actually the early Air Force efforts of GRUDGE and BLUE BOOK, in part, that helped to popularize the very term “UFO,” which was intended to reduce the giggle factor of “flying saucers” and make witnesses feel more comfortable coming forward to talk.

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