'Something was there:' Chicago expert on O'Hare UFO, government program

Seeing a lot of UFOs lately?

Not in the sky, but in headlines or on TV? Well, you're not alone.

A New York Times exposé on a secret $22 million, five-year joint venture between the military and a private aviation firm, coupled with the release of videos recorded by military aircraft, has touched off an international UFO frenzy. The program ended in 2012, according to the report.

But why is this different from any other time the public's fascination with unidentified flying objects has been piqued?

"This shows the U.S. government is serious about it," said Mark Rodeghier, scientific director for the Chicago-based Center for UFO Studies. "And The New York Times covered it, so you've got serious on top of serious."

Illinois is not immune to UFO sightings. The National UFO Reporting Center in Washington state has logged 3,470 such reports in Illinois dating back to the early 1980s, with the most recent coming Dec. 9 when two observers in Vienna and Carbondale reported lights hovering in formation in the night sky. Many reports can be simply explained away, but there are several - like a 2006 incident at O'Hare International Airport - that remain a mystery.

Rodeghier said the fascination with UFOs isn't only about little green men visiting from another planet; it's about understanding why these probably aren't alien encounters.

<b>Q.</b> What's with all the renewed interest in UFOs?

<b>Rodeghier:</b> There's a rich guy named Robert Bigelow who got involved in UFOs in the '90s and had the money to do something about it, but despite spending literally millions of dollars, he got nothing. He owns Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada and he goes to (former U.S. Sen) Harry Reid, who's from Nevada and who was in charge of the Senate at the time, and says let's get together a program and get the intelligence people involved and Bigelow Aerospace can help financially as well. Reid gets two other prominent senators to join him and they put together a modest $22 million program called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program.

<b>Q.</b> Why the word "threat?"

<b>Rodeghier:</b> I believe this is how they sold the program to the Defense Department. Harry Reid still had to convince people to do this and that we're going to look into unidentified sightings because they could be a threat that are Russian or Chinese devices, but the undertone was they could be extraterrestrial. It certainly makes it more fundable, may be the right word.

<b>Q.</b> What was the deal with that 2006 O'Hare UFO incident where a bunch of airline employees on the tarmac saw an object floating above the airfield for several minutes?

Rodeghier:</b> The whole 2006 thing was a travesty from the word go. The (Federal Aviation Administration) should have looked into it, but they just blew it off. I can't explain why there aren't any photos or videos of it. This is one of the mysteries around UFOs, but there's more than enough witness testimony. I'm convinced something was there, but you wind up with a mystery, though you certainly can't say it's alien because you don't have all the information. That's what's so important about the acknowledgment of this government program. We want to see the data and reports from this program released to the public if it's not a national security issue. If the program has been defunded, let's see what you did and what we got for $22 million.

<b>Q.</b> How often are UFO sightings explainable?

<b>Rodeghier:</b> People still commonly make mistakes about astronomy. Most sightings can be explained. People aren't any smarter about the sky than they were before.

<b>Q.</b> You have to be pretty stoked about the UFO videos taken by the military in 2004 and released as part of The New York Times investigation, right?

<b>Rodeghier:</b> I'm excited, but the reason I'm not jumping around is that while we have the pilots talking about it, we don't have any other data. No radar from the warship or any other supporting evidence we'd need to look at and say, "Yes, this is really strange." These are from what are called gun camera video, and we haven't had anything like that from the military for about 40 years, so these are really unique. And they never did figure out what these were.

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