By Judy Keen, USA TODAY
Bryan Fains still thinks the blue object he saw skittering across the sky above Centreville, Va., on Nov. 3 might have been a UFO.

Although the object that Fains captured on cellphone video was later identified as a remote-controlled glider plane outfitted with LED lights, he's just not sure. "It seems impossible that we're the only ones in this universe," says Fains, 29, a warehouse worker. "Whatever it was, I've never seen anything like it before."


Recent sightings have revived a debate that has stirred skepticism and research for generations. Were lights over El Paso in October skydivers with flares or extraterrestrial aircraft? Were objects over New York City this fall balloons or alien visitors? Was the California mystery plume really a jet contrail?


Fascination with unidentified flying objects seems unabated, though there are limits: Denver voters on Nov. 2 rejected a ballot measure that would have required the city to develop a protocol for welcoming aliens.


Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, says there's no tangible evidence of visits from other planets. "The evidence is so fleeting, so thin, so fraught with human error," he says. "People have fantastic imaginations."


George Mason University astronomer Harold Geller says Venus and Jupiter might be responsible for recent sightings. "The more reports picked up by the media, the more people report seeing such apparitions," he says, but there's "no convincing evidence" of alien visitors.


Some search for hope, hostility


Christopher French, a University of London psychology professor who studies paranormal beliefs, says some UFO believers are drawn to the idea that aliens are contacting humans. "It would just make the world a more interesting place," he says.


For some, belief in extraterrestrials "takes on a spiritual dimension," French says.


Stephen Diamond, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Los Angeles, says the need for meaning can be satisfied by UFOs. "It's a questing for something to believe in that goes beyond ourselves" and is especially potent in times of cultural upheaval and economic crisis, he says.


"People need a sense of beauty in life, and a sense of mystery and awe," Diamond says, and the "sense of dread" that accompanies the notion of alien beings also can be tantalizing.


"People who view the world as a hostile place are more likely to think extraterrestrials will be hostile," says Douglas Vakoch, a psychologist who leads a SETI Institute project to compose messages that could be sent in reply to a signal from extraterrestrials. The institute uses astronomy in its Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.


A 2008 Scripps Howard News Service/Ohio University poll of 1,003 adults found that 56% believe it is very or somewhat likely that intelligent life exists in other worlds. One in every 12 Americans say they have seen a mysterious object in the sky, it found.


Tales that 'really curl your hair'


Those who are convinced that UFOs exist have their own theories about people who won't acknowledge their existence.


Cliff Clift, international director of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), which investigates reports of sightings, says admitting "that there is an intelligence more advanced than we are is really an affront to (skeptics') intelligence."


He says he and his grandmother saw a UFO in 1953.


Clift's group collects about 500 reports a month. Of those, he says, about 100 can't be readily explained and 15 "really curl your hair."


In one recent case, he says, a farmer and two MUFON investigators say they saw a UFO and a 3-foot-tall alien creature in the Southeast.


Jeff Peckman, who led the effort to put Denver's UFO measure on the ballot, believes the federal government is covering up decades of alien visitations. His explanation for non-believers: "Some people are just afraid of the unknown" and choose to ignore "overwhelming" evidence.


Former Air Force captain Robert Salas didn't believe in UFOs until 1967. He was in an underground missile launch facility in Montana when guards outside spotted strange lights in the sky. Then all the missiles shut down.


Salas believes extraterrestrial visitors disabled them to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons.


Salas thinks there was another message: "We're here; we're real."


He is accustomed to skeptics. "Nobody really understands what the heck is going on," he says of those who doubt that aliens were responsible. "Fear is definitely part of it."


Fains is waiting for proof.


"I catch myself looking at the sky," he says, "every time I'm outside."


Bryan Fains of Centreville, Va., made a video of a strange flying object on his cellphone camera.
By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
Bryan Fains of Centreville, Va., made a video of a strange flying object on his cellphone camera.


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