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Aliens have landed ... in the headlines

Did UFOs interfere with nuclear missile systems in the 1960s? Has the U.N. appointed an ambassador to the aliens? Due to a grand convergence, such questions have been generating fresh waves of headlines over the past few days — and that provides a ripe opportunity for a reality check.

The nuke-test angle was today's highlight, due to a much publicized news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. Eyewitness accounts about funny business at and around military bases have been circulating for years, and in fact are among the main themes of Leslie Kean's recently published book "UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record."


Several retired military men discussed their recollections of an incident that took place at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana in March 1967, relating to reported missile system malfunctions at two locations known as Echo Flight and Oscar Flight. The recollections were mostly secondhand: Robert Salas, Dwynne Arneson and Robert Jamieson, three retired military officers who played a part in the Malmstrom incident, said they were told that UFOs had been sighted around the time of the malfunctions. Salas said he was told that a "red, glowing object," about 30 feet in diameter, hovered just outside the silo facility when the weapon systems went offline.

You can hear the two men tell their stories in the video clip above, recorded by the NECN news network, or watch the full news conference here. "I've studied UFOs for over 60 years, believe it or not," Arneson said, "and I am convinced that somebody out there is trying to send us a message. If I knew who they were, I probably would not be here."

Another retired U.S. military officer, Charles Halt, discussed the well-known 1980 Bentwaters incident. Halt was deputy base commander at the Bentwaters air base in England when sentries reported seeing strange lights in the surrounding Rendlesham Forest. A few weeks later, there were renewed reports about the lights — and when he went out with a couple of policemen to take a look for himself, he saw a "bright glowing object like an eye" that exploded right in front of them.

"I have no idea what we saw that night, but I do know it was under intelligent control," Britain's Mail Online quoted Halt as saying. "My theory is that it was from another dimension or extraterrestrial."

UFO researcher Robert Hastings said the men at today's news conference were among more than 100 former or retired U.S. Air Force personnel who "have come forward and revealed ongoing UFO surveillance of, and occasional interference with, our nuclear weapons. ... The fact that the Pentagon and CIA have successfully kept the truth from public view for so long is in itself mind-boggling."

Actually, the tales have long served as grist for an inconclusive debate over the nature of unidentified flying objects. Skeptics have said the fact that Cold War weapons systems sometimes malfunctioned should not be surprising, and that it's too much of a stretch to link such malfunctions with lights that may have been seen in the sky. Over at the Reality Uncovered website, the debate over what was seen (or not seen) is raging anew in the wake of today's news briefing.

Our roundup of eight UFO cases that generate buzz includes the Malmstrom incident — and for the full background on the Rendelsham Forest sightings, you can check out this story as well as the declassified X-Files from Britain's National Archives. To get the flavor of the UFO debate in general, take a look at our recently published pair of commentaries by NBC News space analyst James Oberg and "UFOs" author Leslie Kean.

Ambassador to the aliens?
Could it be that U.N. officials know something we don't know? Over the weekend, Britain's Telegraph and other news outlets suggested that Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman may be campaigning for the role of official greeter in the event that aliens make contact. Othman, who set up Malaysia's space agency several years ago, now serves as head of the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna.

She was quoted as telling scientists during a recent talk that the search for alien signals "sustains the hope that someday humankind will receive signals from extraterrestrials." If contact is made, "we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject," she said. "The U.N. is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination."

The Telegraph reported that a plan to make Othman's office the coordinating body for alien encounters would be debated by U.N. scientific advisory committees and would eventually be considered by the U.N. General Assembly. It said Othman would lay out the role for the U.N. and herself at a Royal Society conference in Buckinghamshire next week.

The only problem with all this is, there's already an international group designated to address the issue of potential alien contact.

"We consider it our job, and have for many years, to cover this topic," said Arizona State University astrobiologist Paul Davies, who cjairs the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup. "We have no idea who this person is or where the U.N.'s coming from, but they don't seem to follow through very well."

The task group, operating under the aegis of the U.N.-recognized International Academy of Astronautics, is charged with developing a protocol for dealing with the discovery of signals or other evidence of the existence of an extraterrestrial civilization. Davies and his colleagues are considering this very topic during the International Astronautical Congress this week in Prague, the Czech capital.

During a phone call from Prague, Davies told me that the protocol is in draft form. The current version suggests a number of organizations that could be involved in planning a response to alien signals, including the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. If there is a confirmed detection, the U.N. secretary-general would be among the first to know. But there's nary a mention of the U.N. Office of Outer Space Affairs, the place where Othman is in charge.

There's always the chance that Othman's intentions were misunderstood. And in fact, Othman herself reportedly knocked down the idea that she was seeking the U.N.'s appointment to be ambassador to the aliens. "It sounds really cool but I have to deny it," she told The Guardian in an e-mail.

Davies told me that the idea of having an "official greeter" for a visiting alien delegation is ridiculous in any case.

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"No serious scientist working in this field ever thinks this is a remote possibility," he said. "The best we can hope for is that we can pick up some kind of signal, or perhaps some semblance of alien technology. ... Nobody in this field expects flesh-and-blood beings to be traveling across vast distances of time and space to receive some ceremonial greeting from Earth."

In a book titled "The Eerie Silence," Davies delves into the decades-long search for alien signals and lays out the scenarios for future extraterrestrial contact.

Davies doubts there will be a clear-cut "take me to your leader" message. Instead, scientists may well have to puzzle over ambiguous indications: Is a particular series of blips a coded transmission from E.T., or is it a natural phenomenon ... or could it even be blowback from our own space communication systems? Might scientists discover a planetary system with activity strange enough to be classified as the result of life at work?

Scientists are pretty good at sorting out those kinds of questions, Davies said. "What we're not so good at is figuring out how, in the event of some putative signal, it would play out," he added. So on that score, maybe it's a good sign that U.N. officials — and news media outlets as well — are taking more of an interest in the question of what happens after we get a signal from E.T.

"We do welcome the interest of the U.N., as we welcome the interest of any major diplomatic organization," Davies said. "If they knew what they were doing, I would be slightly more confident."

What would you do if E.T. came up to you and said, "Take me to your leader"? Or, for that matter, neutralized our nukes? How seriously should we be taking UFO reports? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 1:45 a.m. ET Sept. 28: Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, sent these observations about the first-contact issue via e-mail from Prague, where he's also attending the International Astronautical Congress (and attending task group meetings):

"Any signal would likely come from hundreds to thousands of light-years away. Our reply would take centuries to get there, and be to a society that had already advanced centuries or millennia beyond their original query.

"Most important: Any society that's targeting us with a strong signal is more technically advanced than we are. Ergo, they already have the receiving capability to pick up our leakage — the radio and TV we've been inadvertently sending into space for 70 years. Since those signals are out there, they are our de facto envoys."

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