Summary: An article on the role of the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) in the investigation of the January 5, 2000 Illinois UFO sighting.
The Air Force did it, albeit reluctantly, for about two decades. A few private UFO organizations tried it, too -- and promptly lost their shirts.
Now the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS) is doing it -- fielding a rapid response team to investigate promising UFO reports. The question is: will they succeed where others have failed?
NIDS was founded in 1995 by Las Vegas real-estate tycoon Robert Bigelow to investigate UFO sightings, animal mutilations and other anomalous phenomena.
Through its first four years of operation, during which Bigelow hired a staff of scientists to run the institute, NIDS was largely silent about its work and cagey in its public statements.
Few people were even aware of its existence and those who were, primarily UFOlogists, regarded the fledging institute in the desert with suspicion.
All that has now changed.
See something? Call the experts
"About a year ago we decided it was time to start reaching out so that people could come to us with reports," notes biochemist Colm Kelleher, who runs the day-to-day research operations of the institute.
Four months ago the institute actually began mass mailing a NIDS brochure and sticker promoting its 24-hour hotline (702-798-1700) and web address to police departments and radio and television stations.
"These are the people who get called about UFO sightings, but they are not trained to investigate these things and are not even interested most of the time," Kelleher said. "We were hoping to persuade these people to call us and we would do the rest."
The plan worked. NIDS has been getting about 100 calls a month, but until the morning of January 5 when a call came in from a police officer in Illinois just east of St. Louis, no hotline UFO report had been deemed worthy of an all-out NIDS investigation.
This one was. Craig Stevens of the Milstadt Police Department called NIDS about two hours after his UFO sighting at 4:28 that morning. Stevens had been monitoring radio traffic when he heard that the Highland police department had a report of a large object flying in the air.
So he drove to the north end of town where he observed a very large object shaped like a fat arrowhead flying slowly at an altitude of 500 to 1000 ft. Police officers in Shiloh and Dupo also witnessed the object, as did a police officer in Lebanon.
The low-flying, triangular object was described as being between 200-600 feet long and 40-60 feet thick with bright white lights angled downward at the corners and a red light near the center.
Agents of NIDS arrive on the scene
After numerous follow-up phone calls, NIDS decided to deploy their two full-time investigators, former FBI agents, to Illinois.
Why FBI? "We like guys with a lot of forensic background," says Kelleher, "because in the mutilation area and in the tiny percent of cases where alleged landings occur, you really need people who can secure the scene and handle the evidence properly so that we can stand behind it."
The NIDS investigators arrived in Illinois two days after the initial sighting, spending almost four days interviewing eyewitnesses, taking photographs and seeking a possible explanation from a local Boeing facility, nearby Scott Air Force base, and the FAA.
NIDS immediately put the transcripts of the interviews on their web site in the hope of unearthing other witnesses who might have seen the object. Such openness in their investigation stands in stark contrast to similar efforts by the Air Force decades ago.
But their efforts to find a prosaic explanation for the sightings failed.
Ticking off the explanations
The FAA had not seen anything on radar. Scott Air Force Base officials said they didn't know anything about the object and there were no stealth B-2s in the area at the time.
NIDS even considered the possibility that the UFO might have been a secret blimp that resembled a small experimental model built and patented 30 years earlier by a New Jersey company called Aereon, but that design, according Aereon's CEO, never went past the proof of principle stage.
NIDS' eight eyewitness reports suggest that the object came down from Lake Michigan just north of Chicago at 10:00 p.m. on January 4 and headed southwest, appearing 6 hours later in Highland, before finally disappearing outside Dupo just before 7 a.m.
"That's about 9 hours in the air," notes Kelleher. "That's a long time."
"On the other hand, according to at least one police officer, the object would literally jump across the sky in a matter of seconds. The other weird thing is, if it's trying to be stealthy, what's it doing so low with these unbelievably bright, blinding lights?"
Physicist Bruce Maccabee, like many UFO believers, gave NIDS a thumbs up for "their quick response and excellent work in interviewing witnesses on the scene. I also congratulate them for publishing their results on their web site."
Not so for UFO skeptic Phil Klass.
"By curious coincidence," he writes in the March issue of his Skeptics UFO Newsletter, "a very bright planet Venus was just rising in the southeast on Jan. 5 at the time of the Illinois UFO sightings."
Klass accuses NIDS of not even considering the possibility that the UFO might have been Venus.
"Although I have not personally met [the NIDS investigators]," Klass told me in an email interview, "I suspect they are quite competent to investigate 'cattle mutilations,' but believe they are ill-trained to investigate UFO reports."
But according to NIDS astrophysicist Eric Davis, they did consider, then rejected, stars or planets as possible explanations for this case.
In fact, Davis told Michael Lindemann of CNI News that Venus was below the horizon when the UFO was first sighted near Highland at approximately 4 a.m.
Venus actually did not rise until 4:25 that morning and would have been difficult to see initially because of the surrounding trees, rolling hills and structures in the area.
"Bigelow is in this long term"
"But we still can't rule out the military," concludes Kelleher. And there, rather typically for a UFO sighting, the matter rests.
Whether NIDS will ultimately succeed where the Air Force and so many others have failed over the past 40 years is another question entirely.
"We have an ability to go to the wall, if necessary, on the analysis front," explains Kelleher. "We have the resources to pull out all the stops, our science advisory board has the ability to open doors, and Bigelow is in this long term."
"He's been into this ever since his family members had a sighting when he was a kid. He's been putting money into this for quite a while. Plus we have a full time staff not doing anything else. We are not a volunteer group doing it on our own time or funds. I think NIDS has a lot of potential."