A red square the size of a football field hovered in the sky for nearly a minute before zipping off.

That’s how a former Navy pilot described a mysterious, unidentified aerial phenomena that was spotted at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the Central Coast in 2003, brought to light last week during a House Oversight subcommittee hearing.

Once dismissed as conspiracy theories or fodder for a good party joke, UAPs — more commonly referred to as UFOs — are now under scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where the July 26 hearing sought to investigate the phenomena and whether they pose a national security risk.

Ryan Graves, a former Navy pilot and founder of a nonprofit organization focused on UAP sightings, testified in part about his own sightings on the East Coast in 2014 and 2015, and was asked about the Vandenberg event by Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla). Graves did not observe the event himself but said a witness came to his organization, Americans for Safe Aerospace, with a firsthand account and evidence including police blotters and other documentation.

“A large group of Boeing contractors were operating near one of the launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base when they observed a very large, 100-yard-sided red square approach the base from the ocean and hover at low altitude over one of the launch facilities,” Graves said. According to the witness, who remains anonymous, the square hovered for about 45 seconds before taking off.

There were additional reports of sightings later that evening after sunset, “including some aggressive behaviors,” Graves said.

“These objects were approaching some of the security guards at rapid speeds before darting off,” he said.

Americans for Safe Aerospace declined to comment on the record about the Vandenberg event or Graves’ testimony.

“More than 30 commercial aircrew and military UAP witnesses have approached Americans for Safe Aerospace to share their accounts,” a spokesperson said.

A Boeing spokesperson said it did not have additional comments. The Department of Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

Graves’ testimony was far from the first report of a UAP in California’s “space country.”

At a 2021 news conference on UFOs, Robert Jacobs, a former first lieutenant at Vandenberg, said a telescope video camera his crew set up at the base to record a missile test in September 1964 captured a flying saucer-shaped object that “went around the top of the warhead” and “fired a beam of light down on the top of the warhead” before flying out of the frame. Jacobs said that the footage was later cut and that he was warned by his superior never to talk about the incident.

“That thing was up there, and I saw it,” he said.

Graves did not speculate about the Vandenberg event, and his statements were just one part of an extraordinary hearing to feature the first public, unclassified testimony from servicemembers about what they believe they witnessed in the skies.

The Pentagon, NASA and other national security agencies are investigating a rise in reports of UAPs, which they stress are unidentified and often have far less interesting origins than being sent from a galaxy far, far away.

Still, reports of UAP sightings inevitably rally curiosity about intelligent life beyond Earth, and surveys show an increasing number of Americans share the belief that we are not alone.

According to a 2022 YouGov poll, 34% of Americans believe UFOs are likely alien ships or life forms, up from 20% in 1996. Only 32% of Americans say UFOs are likely to have a scientific explanation, compared with 51% in 1996.

Those who believe in extraterrestrial intelligent life are more likely to consider military reports of UAPs as evidence, according to a June 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center.

Experts don’t absolutely rule out that an alien civilization could be behind something like the red square described in last week’s hearing, though they said it is incredibly unlikely. The journey to Earth is no trivial matter; such a trip would expend tremendous energy and require an unbelievably fast, strong rocket — and, well, money. (Consider the billions NASA spent to develop the Space Shuttle — and that was not even meant to leave Earth’s orbit.)

“It’s very expensive to do that,” said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, which focuses on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And aliens probably don’t have “unlimited amounts of alien money,” he added with a chuckle.

Funding difficulties aside, an interstellar trip to Earth would be taxing and dangerous, unfolding over a million years in space. Every piece of dust could be potentially catastrophic given the speed a rocket would travel to reach our planet.

Jean-Luc Margot, a planetary astronomer and UCLA professor who is also part of the SETI group, likened it to a car getting totaled if a bug hit its windshield at relativistic speeds.

Even when traveling at 10% the speed of light, it would still take a million years to cross the galaxy, Margot said.

“Who has that kind of patience?” Margot asked. “Imagine the wear and tear on that spacecraft.”

With any UAP account, there’s the question of evidence. Photos can too easily be manipulated or faked with artificial intelligence, but physical objects could be proof of alien life — say, some kind of material that can be tested and examined in a lab and proved to be manufactured by alien life.

According to retired Maj. David Grusch, a former Air Force officer and intelligence official who delivered the most striking testimony last week, such evidence exists. Grusch claims that the programs he worked on recovered “intact and partially intact vehicles” that testing showed were designed by “non-human intelligence.”

The Pentagon has pushed back against those claims.

“If the aliens really are here, we gotta say they don’t do much,” Shostak said. “They’re like house guests who never ask for dinner.”

That’s not to say there isn’t other intelligent life unfolding somewhere in this vast universe, trying to communicate with Earth. Margot and Shostak are among the scientists committing their life’s work to that search.

“There are many things in the sky that look strange, but it takes more than a strange appearance to qualify as alien,” Margot wrote in an email. “Many of us wish to believe that aliens are out there, but we ought to reserve judgment until we obtain compelling evidence of their existence.”

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