In 2007, U.S. Senator Harry Reid and two other influential senators covertly secured $22 million for the Department of Defense (DoD) to study UAP through what became known as the Advanced Aeronautics Weapons System Application Program, or AAWSAP. Running from 2008 to 2010, AAWSAP largely consisted of the work of its sole contractor, Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, or BAASS, an organization founded by the hotel-turned-aerospace magnate Robert Bigelow.
Bigelow and Reid met years earlier in their shared home state of Nevada as Bigelow was creating the National Institute for Discovery Science, or NIDSci, a privately funded predecessor to BAASS/AAWSAP.¹ NIDSci took an expansive approach to UAP that investigated both theoretical physics and paranormal occurrences, many of which arose from NIDSci’s field laboratory, a Utah property called Skinwalker Ranch, so named for a shape-shifting witch of indegenous American Ute and Navajo legend.
In 2008, BAASS/AAWSAP revived the lab at Skinwalker and created NIDSci-style work on UAP, psychic phenomenon, astrophysics, and alleged incidents with bizarre entities, including creatures resembling werewolves. The program’s reports circulated within the DoD and reportedly stirred concern that BAASS/AAWSAP was pursuing Satanic phenomena.
The program was shuttered in December 2010. However, a sub-office of AAWSAP called AATIP, for Advanced Aerospace Threat and Identification Program, which operated in the Pentagon and focused exclusively on UAP reports from the military, survived AAWSAP’s demise. In 2020, AATIP would in effect morph into the UAP Task Force under the DoD and the U.S. Navy.
NIDSci - the forerunner
In 1995, Robert Bigelow, owner of the aeronautics contractor Bigelow Aerospace and the hotel chain Budget Suites of America, founded NIDSci to investigate two topics that had long fascinated him: consciousness after death and UAP. He recruited a multidisciplinary investigative team, and through several meetings over the course of a year in conference rooms near McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, NIDSci and its prospective members formulated its approach. The attendees to these meetings included:
In 1996, early in the project’s formation, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, one of the most influential legislators in the U.S. attended a NIDSci conference.
Reid went at the urging of his friend George Knapp, a prominent Las Vegas journalist who met Reid while reporting on “Area 51,’ a highly classified U.S. Air Force facility and reputed storehouse of UAP remnants. Reid, who had nurtured an interest in UAP, would later describe the conference as a collection of academics, concerned citizens and, admittedly, “a few oddballs,” all discussing UAP in terms of technology and national security.
“I was hooked,” Reid later wrote.³
Among the lasting connections Reid made at NIDSci was to Bigelow, the man who had drawn them all together.
Both men grew up in Nevada of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Bigelow was from the city of Las Vegas, where from his bedroom he watched nuclear test explosions flash on the horizon.⁴ Meanwhile, Reid grew up in Searchlight, a tiny town where he’d spend evenings gazing up at the star-filled sky. “It was a rare night I didn’t see a shooting star,” he later wrote.⁵
By his own telling, Robert Bigelow’s interest in UAP and the paranormal is deep and lifelong, perhaps beginning in early childhood when he allegedly awoke to small, dark beings observing him in bed. When he was ten years old his mother told him that his grandparents once saw an airplane on fire that they knew was not an airplane on fire. They were driving down a mountain road, the story goes, and the bright object rushed toward them. They pulled over, the burning light filled the windshield, and at the final moment, it shot away and disappeared.
Bigelow’s grandparents lived next door, and so after hearing his mother’s version of the story, he went over to get more details. His grandparents were still loath to speak of the terrifying event. Bigelow went out in the neighborhood and began asking fellow kids and their parents if they had ever seen something strange in the sky.
Often enough, he’d find, his neighbors had stories of UAP.⁶
Decades later, Bigelow had made his fortune in real estate and hotels.⁷ He then took his expertise in accommodations and synergized it with Nevada prominence in aeronautics by creating Bigelow Aerospace, a technology company that specialized in modular habitats for space stations.
Meanwhile, Bigelow pursued his less conventional interests, the limits of consciousness and UAP. For them, he founded NIDSci.
And for NIDSci, he bought a field station.
In 1996, Bigelow purchased a 484 acre property in north eastern Utah that had been the alleged site of strange occurrences. The previous owners, who remained to work the ranch after Bigelow’s purchase, reported that glowing orbs would appear on the property, some small and blue, and others that were large and orange and gave the impression of an opening tunnel. Stranger yet, they reported that a massive wolf-like creature, unfazed by human presence and impervious to high-caliber bullets, was slaughtering their cattle.⁸
The ranch sat in a large basin that lore of the local Ute tribe called “the path of the skinwalker,” the skinwalker being a malevolent, shapeshifting witch.⁹ The property became known as Skinwalker Ranch.
A NIDSci team that included biochemist Dr. Colm Kelleher, physicist Dr. Eric Davis, retired U.S. Army intelligence officer Dr. John Alexander, parapsychologist Dr. Hal Puthoff and others would investigate the area over the next eight years.¹⁰ NIDSci set up surveillance systems of cameras and electromagnetic sensors. Reportedly, an entity would dismantle some of the surveillance arrays, which were constructed with PVC pipe and duct tape, and once did so within milliseconds and apparently without startling a closeby herd of cattle.¹¹ NIDSci members also reported appearances of a glowing orange tunnel, and that a black, faceless figure climbed out of the aperture and walked away into the forest. Some on the NIDSci team hypothesized that the ranch was home to sentient, non-human intelligence, or perhaps a site of portals to other dimensions or universes.¹²
Some NIDSci investigators went so far as to post pictorial alphabets around the ranch to spark communication with the entity, or entities, but by 2000, the occurrences waned. Two years later, they seemed to cease all together.¹³
NIDSci closed in 2004.
Not all of NIDSci concerned the occurrences at Skinwalker Ranch. Under NIDSci, Edgar Mitchell produced a paper on “quantum holograms” as a framework for understanding consciousness; Colm Kelleher theorized that UAP might produce changes in our physiology by accessing “transposons,” the portion of our DNA that does not encode the body; and Dr. Kenneth Ring proposed that UAP and near death experiences can resemble a “shamanic initiation” into a visionary mindset.¹⁴
Notably, astrophysicist, data scientist and UAP theorist Dr. Jacques Vallee partnered with Eric Davis to propose a UAP investigatory framework that could strip the counterproductive orthodoxies from both “Ufology,” which had hardened around an extraterrestrial hypothesis, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, which has long dismissed UAP without examination, and make room for religious occurrences as well as theories of time-travel, parallel universes, and different dimensions.
Vallee and Davis argued for a multidisciplinary approach that suspends debate over the origin of the phenomenon and instead examines the physical, “anti-physical” (meaning the apparently impossible aspects of an occurrence), psychological, physiological, psychic (meaning phenomenon such as “poltergeist” activity and mind-to-mind communication), and cultural aspects of UAP. Such an approach could make headway on the immense mysteries of the universe (or universes), they argued.¹⁵
However high-minded and scientific NIDSci’s work often was, the most impactful document to emerge from the group was arguably a book that returned the strange and terrifying occurrences at Skinwalker.
That book, Hunt for the Skinwalker by Kelleher and George Knapp, the journalist who had introduced Harry Reid to Robert Bigelow, not only lifted the ranch’s veil to the public, but found an influential audience in the DoD’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
Dr. Lacastki’s experience
In March 2007, Defense Intelligence Agency officer and ballistic missile physicist Dr. James Lacatski read Hunt for the Skinwalker.¹⁶ A few months later, Lacatski wrote a letter to Robert Bigelow.
Bigelow, upon reading the letter, put Lacatski in contact with Harry Reid, who was then the Senate Majority Leader. By July 2007, Lacatski was on a Bigelow private jet to Vernal, Utah, to visit Skinwalker. He arrived at the ranch and fifteen minutes into a tour of the property with Bigelow and Eric Davis, Lacastki allegedly beheld something strange.
While standing in the living room of a trailer, Lacatski turned to the kitchen area. A “machine” appeared in the air, he later said.
Lacatski looked away, looked back, but the machine remained.
It was, Lacatski later said, “a complex semi-opaque yellowish tubular structure.”¹⁷
The machine hung in the air for 30 seconds, according to Lacatski. He did not mention it to Bigelow or Davis at the time, though for some time after, he thought of little else.
Shortly after Lacatski returned to Washington D.C., Harry Reid met in a classified location in the U.S. Capitol building with Daniel Inouye, U.S. Senator from Hawaii, and Ted Stevens, U.S. Senator from Alaska, two senators who had long influenced legislative discretionary spending through leadership on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. Reid asked Inouye and Stevens to covertly funnel money towards a UAP investigation program. Inouye and Stevens agreed.¹⁹
According to Reid, Stevens told him that when he had flown fighter planes in World War II, a bright object once appeared off his wing and executed seemingly impossible maneuvers around him. Stevens had been waiting for decades, according to Reid, to start a UAP investigation program.²⁰
The trio of senators arranged for $22 million in secret, “black budget” funding to investigate UAP.
“It was done,” Reid later recalled. “Those two men wanted it and it was done.”²¹
More specifically, Reid, Stevens and Inouye designated the $22 million black budget to the Defense Warning Office at the Defense Intelligence Agency, the office where Lacatski worked.
From there, Lacatski allegedly designed and managed much of the project, first by drafting the program objectives, structure and requirements into the $22 million-“Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program” contract and then by taking on the roles of the “contracting officer representative,” the DIA program manager, and the security and intelligence coordinator.²²
In August 2008, the contract went out to aerospace firms with top secret security clearance, and Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies (BAASS) — a subsidiary Bigelow Aerospace created specifically for the project — put in a bid. Twelve days later, BAASS won the $22 million contract for a duration of two years.
No other contractors put in a bid.
AAWSAP, as a Pentagon project, came with military-minded objectives. In particular, it sought to understand the science of the “future threat environment” as far out as 2050 by focusing on “breakthrough technologies” as opposed to “extrapolations of current aerospace technology.”
In effect, however, AAWSAP/BAASS was a revival of NIDSci, a multidisciplinary investigative team that took an all-embracing approach to UAP and related phenomena from headquarters in Washington D.C., Las Vegas and at Skinwalker Ranch.
The hypothetical engineering and physics of UAP were top priority. Dr. Friedwardt Winterberg produced work on nuclear propulsion to cross deep space. Eric Davis wrote on “wormholes” and “warp drive”. Dr. Ulf Leonhardt attempted experiments in “invisibility cloaking.”²³
Aside from theoretical “breakthrough technologies,” AAWSAP/BAASS investigated specific UAP incidents. The project exhumed historic cases, sending team members to Colares, Brazil, to investigate the alleged UAP attacks there in the late 1970s, for instance. Likewise, the project investigated reports of flying, potentially pathogenic blue orbs in Oregon, Indiana and California.²⁴
The project also aggregated and organized UAP records, hiring Jacques Vallee to work on a virtual warehouse of datasets called CAPELLA, which drew from sources such as the Mutual UFO Network and the Cold-War era study Project Blue Book.²⁵
According to Lacatski and Kelleher, a core team of 50 to 75 scientists and technicians produced this mix of experimental and straightforward work with the help of several hundred part-time field investigators,²⁶ ultimately producing 38 papers, referred to as “Defense Intelligence Reference Documents,” or DIRDs, which AAWSAP/BAASS submitted to the Pentagon.²⁷
The project also submitted monthly reports, the majority of which dealt with occurrences connected to Skinwalker Ranch. These reports are not yet available to the public, but according to Skinwalkers at the Pentagon, written by project administrators Lacatski and Kelleher and journalist George Knapp, the project reported over 200 anomalous incidents at the ranch.²⁸
As befits a team of scientists and technicians, AAWSAP/BAASS attempted a systematic investigation of the property, including survey maps of the ranch’s magnetic fields and gamma radiation.²⁹ And in keeping with its paranormal bent, the team also tried unconventional approaches. For instance, reputed psychic Joseph McMoneagle, veteran of the DIA’s Stargate Project, added to the surveys of Skinwalker by drawing the ranch without having been there. The result, according to Knapp, Lacatski and Kelleher, was an accurate cartographic rendering that included plant, animal and human life, save that it added “a male, 60–70 pounds, with a height of 4'3" with no hair.”³⁰
The hitchhiker effect
According to Lacatski, Kelleher and Knapp’s account, many of the Skinwalker occurrences of the AAWSAP era resemble those NIDSci alleged: blue orbs, orange tunnels, bizarre creatures and black figures without faces. However, some occurrences from the AAWSAP/BAASS tenure present a new, disturbing feature; anomalies occurring at Skinwalker appear to have followed some witnesses home.
Skinwalkers at the Pentagon relays two such series of incidents as follows:
Early in the autumn of 2008, defense intelligence officer Juliet Witt visited Skinwalker. On her first evening on the ranch, she toured the property with Kelleher, and while the pair was walking a path through a forested area, a cone of silence descended, cutting out the sound of the wind in the trees and crickets around them. A moment later, a shadowy creature with “dinosaur-like spines” and a beaver tail glided past them. Soon after, when Witt had returned to Washington D.C., a massive, owlish bird repeatedly dive-bombed her car while she was driving and left long gouges on the hood. In the following weeks, poltergeist behavior occurred, such as wine bottles rocketing across the room and books piling themselves at the foot of the stairs.³¹
In July 2009, a trio of military personnel that included intelligence officer Jonathan Axelrod and marine William Costigan were patrolling Skinwalker after dark. The three men, who had each served in Iraq and Afghanistan, hit a wall of cold and were paralyzed with fear. Costigan observed a black, lightless oval approximately 50 yards ahead. Costigan, however, was wearing a night vision headset, indicating that that oval existed in typically non-visible wavelengths.
The men returned to the sleeping quarters and after that, their lives in the D.C. suburbs.
Ten days later at 2 A.M., Axelrod’s wife Ruth observed a black faceless figure walk through their bedroom. On another night, their 16 year-old son saw softball-sized blue orbs fly around his room. On a morning soon after, Ruth was in the kitchen, looking onto the backyard when she beheld a large wolf standing on its hindlegs.
The upright wolf glared at her and walked, still upright, into the trees.
Three days later, their sons saw the wolf creature standing in the backyard. Ruth, hoping her experience had been a hallucination, had said nothing of the creature to her boys.³²
Meanwhile, in Costigan’s neighborhood in Maryland, an orb appeared in the air and touched the arm of Costigan’s wife, Laila. Laila took ill immediately and was soon diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.³³
According to Bigelow, the seemingly contagious nature of Skinwalker’s anomalies, which the team the “hitchhiker effect,” afflicted many visitors:
“Everybody took things home with them; I took things to my house, things happened to my wife and to me,” Bigelow told Knapp in a 2021 interview. Worse, the apparent contagion of Skinwalker would linger. “We didn’t know that this was going to stay with you for maybe years and years or the rest of your life. Who knows?”³⁴
The end of AAWSAP
Scrutiny at the Pentagon
In June 2009, Harry Reid wrote to Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn with a request to elevate AAWSAP’s security profile by designating it a Special Access Program, or SAP.³⁵ In the following weeks, the letter went beyond Lynn’s office, and apparently caused several DoD higher ups — including Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence General James R. Clapper, senior DIA officer Robert Carlsberg, and Marcel Lettre, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs — to scrutinize the incoming AAWSAP papers and reports. By the end of the summer, these DoD influentials met to discuss AAWSAP’s future.³⁶
Apparently, reports that may have included poltergeists, pathogenic flying orbs and cross country werewolves did not bode well for the program. Reid’s request for SAP status was delayed indefinitely and in December 2010, the DoD closed AAWSAP.
Lacatski, Kelleher and Harold Puthoff later said that they attempted to move the program to the Department of Homeland Security, but despite some promising meetings, nothing came of the effort.³⁷
Theories on the shutdown
To date, Lynn, Clapper, Carlsberg and other influential officials at the Department of Defense have not spoken as to why the Pentagon discontinued AAWSAP.
In 2017, George Knapp asked Harry Reid for his theory on the shutdown. Reid pointed to a general aversion to risk and the unknown in the US Government.
“Well meaning people are afraid to take chances,” he said. “If it hasn’t been done before, we’re not going to do it.”
Knapp pressed further, asking, “Was there opposition to this research for religious reasons? Opposition that maybe this is something evil?”
Reid replied, “Yes.”³⁸
This resistance may have come from a belief not uncommon among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians that paranormal occurrences and UAP sightings are a secularized and dangerous misreadings of Satan’s presence in the world.³⁹
For instance, Luis Elizondo, who investigated military sightings of UAP for AAWSAP, told the New York Post that a senior official told him UAP are demonic and should not be pursued.
Eric Davis alleged similar pushback. “They objected to UFOs as being Satanic!” Davis told the New York Post.⁴⁰
Under this view, engagement with UAP and the paranormal increases demonic influence over us.
According to George Knapp, his reporting on AAWSAP indicated that fundamentalist Christians high up in military and the intelligence agencies felt that “by studying [UAP] we invite Satan into this world, and they wanted it killed for those reasons.”⁴¹
AAWSAP’s passing, however, did not mean the end of UAP investigation at the Department of Defense. From early in AAWSAP’s days, DoD counterintelligence officer Luis Elizondo had been working for the program by investigating UAP occurrences reported by the military. In November 2009, Elizondo’s office within the Pentagon was given a name: AATIP, for Advanced Aerospace Threat and Identification Program. The name appears to have come from Reid’s June 2009 SAP request letter to Lynn where the senator used the acronym as a stand-in for AAWSAP to protect the program's identity.⁴²
Subsequent DoD documents appear to use “AAWSAP” and “AATIP” interchangeably until the predecessor program was closed.⁴³
By 2012, the DoD shut down AATIP, as well. However, according to Elizondo and other sources, his office in the Pentagon continued to receive and investigate UAP reports.⁴⁴
Among their investigations, AATIP looked into a UAP incident from November 2004. Radar on a cruiser ship of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group of the U.S. Navy had picked up strange presences executing incredible maneuvers between 80,000 and sea level over the waters near San Diego, California. In response, command scrambled the Nimitz’s so-called Black Ace squadron. Pilots spotted an approximately 40-foot long craft that had a capsule or “Tic Tac” shape. The pilots returned to the aircraft, went out again, this time with an infrared camera, and filmed the craft as it maneuvered without apparent means of propulsion.
In October 2017, Elizondo quit the Department of Defense, and shortly afterward, Elizondo, Puthoff, a former Central Intelligence Agency operations officer named Jim Semivan, and Christopher Mellon, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, met with journalist Leslie Kean.
In December of that year, Kean co-wrote an expose on AATIP in the New York Times.⁴⁵
In support of the article, the New York Times released video obtained from AATIP of UAP filmed by pilots from the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the “Tic Tac” footage captured by pilots from the USS Nimitz.
The New York Times article misstepped by conflating AATIP and AAWSAP, but the videos and the fact that the Pentagon had spent $22 million investigating UAP set off a public and political shockwave.
By August 2020 that fallout resulted in an announcement from Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist that the DoD and the U.S. Navy had instituted the aptly-named “UAP Task Force” to investigate the phenomenon. The task force would, Norquist said, seek to “improve understanding of, and gain insight into, the nature and origins of UAPs.”⁴⁶