The Universe Beckons: In Virginia, Ufologists Search Confidently For Life Outside Earth
*This article originally appeared in RVA Mag #36, on the streets now at all your favorite spots.
I want to believe. It’s the refrain of a generation, the innate human desire for something more. Everyone has a UFO story, and astronomer Seth Shostak of SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) says the fascination is hardwired into us.
“I get phone calls every day from people who are seeing things in the sky, and believe that they are alien craft,” said Shostak. “That’s because one-third of the population thinks that’s true: that the aliens are here, sailing the skies.”
My own fascination started when my mom dropped the news at the dinner table: apparently, my sleepy hometown of Crozet, Virginia is home to more than peach orchards, cow pastures, and microbreweries. On the outskirts of town lives acclaimed-Ufologist Steven Greer. Greer is the founder of the Sirius Disclosure project, a group working to expose the extraterrestrial intelligence that, according to the project’s website, “has been visiting planet Earth for decades, if not centuries.”
Best of all was the revelation that my mom had met him, at a dinner party years ago. It’s my favorite image — my rural, librarian mother chatting up the author of Ufology books, DVDs, and documentaries over canapés and locally-crafted beer. The same guy who claims he was given a briefing by former-CIA director James Woolsey, and who has appeared on CBS, BBC, and the Discovery Channel as an expert on all things “alien.”
I was already suspicious about the role of the paranormal in my small town, after participating in RVA Magazine’s inconclusive investigation of Afton’s Swannanoa Palace last year. But the presence of a nationally-known purveyor of the extraterrestrial in our locale is enough for me to be convinced this goes to the top.
Or maybe my fascination with UFOs started earlier, with grainy X-Files episodes on Netflix, and nights spent straining my neck to look at the night sky, desperate to see something supernatural in the star-speckled blur of the Milky Way.
Or maybe it starts here. Now, with the warning.
It came in an email, one which I received after poking into the Virginia UFO scene. The cautionary sentence was sandwiched between a message about availability and a signature: “This subject can be very dangerous,” I’m warned in faux-typewriter text. “One does not know what they will stumble upon…”
This is my first attempt at contact with the world of modern extraterrestrial study, and it doesn’t disappoint. The polite, if foreboding, heads-up is sent by Jessica Youness — self described Ufologist and theorist, the president and founder of the UFO Club of Virginia.
Youness has made the study of extraterrestrial existence her life’s work, a calling that began while growing up in Minnesota. She was five years old when her parents came home from a trip to Saint Paul, her mother visibly upset.
“She took me aside and she said she had seen something in the sky that she’d never seen before,” said Youness.
It was 1967 in America, where the mid-twentieth century was the height of UFO-mania as burgeoning space travel, alleged government conspiracy, and the infamous Roswell sighting brewed an iconoclastic cocktail of paranoia and extraterrestrial fascination.
Youness was spurred by an interest in astronomy and photography, and references UFO sightings she witnessed while living in Michigan (and now, Virginia Beach), where she founded the UFO Club.
“I went from light research to going full-out and founding the UFO club,” said Youness. “We want to make connections from ancient cultures and civilizations to present day sightings… and if there’s ever an event, we’ll be there to prepare. We’ll know what we’re dealing with.”
Youness conducts lectures centered around UFO preparedness and safety, down to the basics: like stockpiling drinkable water and rations to be ready in the case of an extraterrestrial attack. “No matter if it’s a natural disaster or a celestial disaster,” she said, “humans can’t seem to take care of themselves.”
Though it may sound like a cheesy sci-fi movie, she calls it a practical form of self-preservation — be it from an invasion from the stars, or a natural disaster like tornadoes or hurricanes.
Virginia itself offers the perfect combination of natural landmarks and manmade structures to create close encounters of the third kind. Major airports, naval bases, nuclear facilities, power plants, and military bases all create a draw, said Youness.
While living on the coast, Youness said she and her husband have made sightings both together and separately. “We go down to the ocean a lot, and we see things off the water.”
“Even with all my years of investigating, having different experiences and sightings, when something comes closer to you, when you can get the better picture… that’s when it’s time to stop,” said Youness.
As for the danger, Youness says that sometimes it’s best to leave things to the experts. “There are good and bad extraterrestrials, just like there are good and bad humans,” said Youness. “And I don’t feel that humans should be sending messages out into space, or trying to telepathically connect with them to bring them [here]. That can be very dangerous.”
The study of UFOs is often taboo, or at the very least, done in private. Despite the topic being a staple of cult-phenomenon, Youness said many members of the UFO Club don’t want their coworkers and families being privy to their late-night investigations. “It’s not something that the world accepts.”
In many cases, this pursuit is their night job. Take Susan Swiatek, the Virginia state director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) — one of the oldest and largest UFO research organizations, composed of volunteers who study alleged UFO sightings across the U.S.
While we talked, she pushed a cart around a grocery store, buying supplies for her day job stocking vending machines and micro-markets in Fairfax. Our conversation was intermittently interrupted by the soft sound of Muzak from overhead speakers, the beeping of the checkout line, and a brief debate over the best flavor of La Croix.
“I have my hands full,” said Swiatek. “Most people at MUFON have a day job, and do the UFO stuff on the side.”
Swiatek has been with MUFON for over 40 years, and is a member of the national board alongside her husband. Established in 1969, the organization boasts of four thousand members nationwide, with chapters in every state.
“UFOs are my first love,” said Swiatek. Like Youness, her interest started young. Spurred on by the cases of extraterrestrial interest that punctuated the 60s, it was the mystery of the Betty Hill case that drew her in. The “Hill Abduction” was the first widely publicized report of an alien abduction in the U.S. The story surrounded a rural New Hampshire couple, who claimed they were kidnapped by aliens in September of 1961.
As always, it began with a bright light in the sky — as did Swiatek’s own sighting, off the side of a Fairfax highway in broad daylight. “It looked like a gas burner in the sky… an oval circle of blue flame.”
As director of MUFON’s Virginia chapter, it’s Swiatek’s job to log, track, and investigate these UFO sightings. She manages teams of civilian investigators, whose ultimate goal is to collect and analyze UFO data and to discover the origin of the phenomenon. It’s a vein of work that relies on shaky cell phone footage and a plethora of false starts.
“The phenomena doesn’t really behave,” said Swiatek. “It’s not like any other thing… you can’t predict what the field is going to do. It’s not that easy.”
Thanks to the geography — lakes, mountains, and prime oceanside real estate — Swiatek tells me that Virginia is the ideal breeding ground for UFO activity.
“We have a little bit of everything to attract them. It’s like a microcosm. And of course, we have the big government and military presence in our state, more so than others.”
Swiatek directed me to a story of a UFO sighting in Richmond from 2017, where a witness reported watching and videotaping a cylinder-shaped object hovering over a neighbor’s home. There’s another report from Chesapeake of a triangle-shaped object, flying at a height of 500 feet which appeared to cloak itself and disappear. The lists of reported incidents are nearly endless, and Swiatek says some cases get very involved, while others are easily dismissed — a trick of the light, or a classic case of The Boy Who Cried UFO at the moon.
Though the study of UFOs is a side job for Youness and Swiatek, Shostak has made a living watching the stars. He’s a senior astronomer at the SETI institute, a research organization whose mission is to explore the nature of life in the universe.
Shostak is a NoVA native who began his search for intelligent life at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville. Though he was paid to study galaxies, in his free moments he would point the radio antennas in the direction of the black holes and planets, hoping to pick up a signal that would change his career.
“The universe beckons,” Shostak wrote in a 2015 editorial for The New York Times. He questions transmitting our messages into the cosmos, for fear of who could be listening.
Shostak ricocheted from Virginia to Europe, and finally to California in 1988: where he became entangled with the newly conceived SETI Institute, before it was even a whisper between Jodi Foster and Matthew McConaughey in 1997 sci-fi flick, Contact.
The SETI institute is a key research contractor for both NASA and the National Science Foundation. It employs more than 130 scientists, educators, and administrative staff. Work at the SETI Institute surrounds three centers: the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe (research), the Center for Education, and the Center for Outreach.
While SETI was originally created to find intelligent life in space, these days a majority of the scientists are more concerned with astrobiology — the study of all life beyond earth, encompassing a wide range of topics, including astronomy, geology, biology, and sociology.
“There’s all this real estate. Could it be that it’s all just sterile? Or does some of it have life?” said Shostak, of potentially-habitable planets like the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. “And, of course, that’s what we’re trying to find out.”
As far as our chances of finding life goes, Shostak is optimistic. Our technology and knowledge of astronomy is more advanced than any culture before us.
“There have been ten or fifteen thousand generations of humans before us; none of them could have found any of this life,” said Shostak. “The neanderthals had a very limited space program.”
In the end, It’s Shostak, and not The X Files, that convinces me that everyone truly wants to believe. He calls UFOs “evergreen.” They’re enormously popular with the public, because they give us something to unite against.
A common enemy. A universal mystery. They’re the stand-ins for our human fears, giving us the means to look into the vastness of space and to compartmentalize the intricacies of our own earthbound problems.
“It’s something that astronomy and physics can actually tell you,” said Shostak. “The stars will all burn out. The galaxy will turn into big black holes. These are things that are going to happen.”
UFOs are a universal fascination — whether it’s a life’s work, a hobby, or an idle pastime. Despite its association with fringe conspiracy, it’s a study legitimized among many major news sources.
See the The New York Times December 2017 exclusive on a secret Pentagon program investigating the phenomenon, or video released by the Defense Department’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program of an encounter between a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet and an unknown object.
See an article published last month by The Washington Post about a top Harvard Astronomer, Avi Loeb, who theorized an extraterrestrial craft may be among us and became what the article calls “perhaps the most academically-distinguished E.T. enthusiast of his time.”
These theories, suspicions, and studies exist at every tier of our society. From national organizations to local clubs, and to my small hometown — where a ufologist can make a career in the foothills of the Blue Ridge; estranged among cow pastures, copious wineries, and good ol’ rural Virginia.
Despite our hometown connection, I should have you know that Steven Greer declined to comment for this article.
For all the talk of aliens, this is what makes us so entirely human. That, amid everything — amid logic, skeptics, and grainy, inconclusive photographs; amid debunked abductions, dramatized 90s sci-fi television, and the radio silence from space that meets our calls — we are drawn to the stars in search of fundamental truths.
Or, at the very least, a spaceship.