I’m wearing a Hollywood disguise—a baseball cap and fake glasses (and my tee bears a picture of Bigfoot being beamed up by a flying saucer)—talking to two women dressed from head to toe in various metallic fabrics (including a cape), and beginning to wonder if I’m not as open-minded as I think. After all, these are the fourth and fifth people I’ve talked to today who believe aliens have visited Earth. I’m desperately trying not to leap in and tell them what I do for a living. Closed-minded, holier-than-thou rocket scientist. It’s Day 3 of in Pasadena, California.
In a job like mine, there are a few hopes key to getting through long days and years-long projects. The first is that the world as we know it will continue to exist when your mission is ready to begin. The second is the big picture of whatever you’re working on.
When I’m putting together work forecasts and budgets, the thing that gets me through the rough patches and stressful moments is the prospect of finding aliens. That’s why I gravitated toward AlienCon, a convention built around the History Channel show for people interested in “seeking the truth about extraterrestrial existence throughout history.” I’m hoping to find my people. But what I find is an older woman selling crystals who claims she’s been abducted five times. She uses the words alien and angel interchangeably. Some of her experiences didn’t make sense until she found forums on the internet—a common theme—that explained that marks on her arm after a return from one abduction were a sign the aliens harvested her eggs. From my arguably limited understanding of biology, this seems like it is not the most effective way.
Then I meet a woman wearing jeans and a simple T-shirt reading “MUFON.” She is an investigator for the Mutual UFO Network. Individuals who see something they can’t explain MUFON, which gathers details about the event. They evaluate the most probable causes, like if the observer was near a military base or there was a known rocket launch that day. If it passes muster, they’ll send a local investigator. It’s refreshing to hear a more logical, scientific approach. But then the woman explains how she interprets the truly baffling cases: She sees them as evidence of aliens.
It’s that leap at the end that throws me off.
The reason for my discomfort comes into focus as I start to register the photographic evidence on display around the convention center. Myriad space pictures purport to show evidence of alien craft. Some I recognize from missions I’ve worked on, and if any of those have found aliens, no one told me. Another, of the sun, shows a phenomenon I’m familiar with: a bright, vertical, elongated light off on the side, here labeled “alien ship.” It looks to me like a cosmic-ray hit, in which a high-energy particle hits the camera detector, lighting up the area. It’s understandable that people might suspect it to be a real object—our experience on Earth doesn’t involve nearly as many events like this, thanks to our atmosphere, so we’re not used to questioning whether that flash of light we saw is actually light.
And on some level that’s what science means to me: It’s not adherence to an explanation, but a process of honest inquiry. Me and everyone else at AlienCon were all hoping for the same thing, but what I saw from the other attendees was science not applied but appropriated, to justify beliefs. For me the science—the work that leads to the understanding that, given the great numbers of places out there, we’re likely not alone—is the source of my beliefs. Science is my open mind.
, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who helped land the Curiosity rover, writes about the new space age. Views are his own and not endorsed by his employer. This appears in the November 2018 issue.