Jacques Vallée

Jacques Vallée: Pursuing Unidentified Aerial Phenomena and ‘Impossible Futures’

ON APRIL 17, 2013, attendees at an independently organized TEDx event in Geneva, Switzerland, were offered a glimpse at a seemingly impossible future.

Presented under the theme of “eCulture 360° and Wikinomics”, the event offered something unique even to a gathering of some of the most renowned international speakers on science and technology: the organizers billed it as a “TEDx with the opportunity to meet Jacques Vallée, one of the founder[s] of ARPANET, the first version of the Internet.”

Vallée’s lecture at the event, titled “The Age of Impossible: Anticipating Discontinuous Futures,” dealt with how the speed at which modern technology accelerates has resulted in events that would have seemed impossible to many people only years before they transpired. With examples ranging from the collapse of General Motors in 2009 to Bernie Madoff’s role in the financial crisis of 2007-2008, Vallee presented what he called a “Typology of the Impossible” that hinged on four main kinds of scenarios: events that escalated too quickly, convergences of “low-p scenarios,” events that appear to violate current cultural norms, and finally, scenarios that involve the appearance of a “completely alien concept within a particular culture.”

“There are many things in our culture today that fit that model,” Vallée said at one point during the talk, as he described historical instances where things that seemed unimaginable at one time later became technological norms. Such things, Vallee said, “are possible, but we cannot imagine them. The public is not aware that they can be done. History provides many examples, and the internet itself is an example of something that was unimaginable.”

After discussing his own part in helping create ARPANET, Vallée went on to share several more examples from recent history where unforeseen scientific advancements occurred, seemingly out of the blue.

“And finally,” the scientist said, never evincing a change in his measured tone and demeanor, “the Pentagon could not imagine that fast, erratic, mobile, oval objects in the sky were anything other than mental illusions, and they…” After a brief pause, Vallée cryptically added, “and you can fill out the answers in the next few years.”

Despite his success as a venture capitalist and “co-creator of the Internet”, most of the attendees at the 2013 TEDx event in Geneva were likely aware of what Vallée is best known for: his decades of involvement with the study of unidentified aerial phenomena. As a young computer scientist and astronomer in the 1960s, Vallee not only worked alongside Northwestern University astronomer J. Allen Hynek, the official scientific advisor to the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book but also authored Anatomy of a Phenomenon, one of the earliest popular books written on the UFO subject by a professional scientist. Though he never uttered any of the popular names or abbreviations for the phenomenon, it was obvious what Vallee had been alluding to during this brief, passing reference to “oval objects” during his talk.

At least at that time, what had not been so obvious had been why Vallée specifically referenced the Pentagon’s relationship to UAP, nor why a series of seemingly impossible future events might come to pass involving this subject “in the next few years.”


THE CALL FROM DR. VALLÉE came through earlier than I expected.

The scientist’s voice, softened by age yet still resonant with the French he learned as a youth in Pontoise before emigrating to America many decades ago, was unmistakable to me, having heard it in many interviews and documentaries over the years. Vallée, now 83, is a man whose work in the study of unidentified aerial phenomena is only one finger on the glove of his impressive resume, spanning decades of work in astronomy, physics, computer science, and venture capitalism.

As evidenced by his billing at the TEDx event in 2013, one could indeed argue that Vallée is partly responsible for the creation of the Internet, although the affable Frenchman is modest on this point, nearly to a fault. This much was evident almost immediately as we began our discussion, and I wasted no time in bringing up the talk in Geneva and some of the intriguing hints he had dropped at that time.

“I’ve seen the development and the unfolding of a number of technologies,” Vallée told me during our call. “Very often what happens is that a discovery is made, and everyone agrees that it is important, and people write papers, and so on. And then it disappears.” 

Vallée with collaborator and fellow author Chris Aubeck (Credit: Chris Aubeck).


Don’t miss Jacques Vallée’s recent interview on Rebelliously Curious with Chrissy Newton over on The Debrief’s YouTube Channel, and linked at the end of this article.

“You know, the Arpanet was essentially dead for a while,” Vallée recalls from his years working on the project decades ago. “Until [the] National Science Foundation picked up the funding, thinking that there would be several internets.” Initially a simple matter of accounting, the NSF initially believed it would be easier to fund three separate projects that looked at using networks through which computers could connect for purposes of communication.

“And then they picked it up from the DOD, and it became the Internet, as we know it now.”

Vallée offered several similar examples of predecessors to the Internet—not all of them American innovations—a point which Vallée emphasized as he shifted back to our subject of greater mutual interest: UAP.

“When I watched the meetings in Congress recently, all they talk about is American cases,” Vallee said. “And among American cases, all they talk about is military cases.”

“I can tell you, having developed a lot of databases over the years, the U.S. is less than 2% of the habitable surface of the Earth,” Vallée said.

“So, if this is extraterrestrial, what about the other 98%?”


THE PATH THAT BROUGHT Vallée into the tempest that is the study of unidentified aerial phenomena is a long one, which stems back to his early years in Pontoise at an age when the world was still at war.

“There are things you don’t forget,” Vallée said during our call, describing his memories of seeing American aircraft being shot down over his town when he was five years old.

“I remember seeing the crew dropping out in parachutes and the Germans shooting at them.”

By 1945, the war had ended, although fears of a return to conflict lingered throughout parts of Europe. To the north, reports of ghostly “rockets” over countries like Sweden in the summer of 1946 kept many guessing whether the Soviets were conducting tests, perhaps with a form of secret new aerial weapon they had captured from the Germans. The following year, an all-new kind of paranoia would erupt across the Atlantic, as American newspapers were flooded with stories of “flying saucers” seen careening through the skies, especially in airspace around sites of importance to U.S. national security.

By the Autumn of 1954, as the wave of sightings of strange objects was cresting over North America, France was having its own torrent of reports of similar phenomena. Major newspapers like L’Aurore and France-Soir were carrying stories about unidentified flying objects almost daily, and Vallée began collecting clippings of stories like those of Marius Dewilde, a railroad worker who described his observation of a pair of diminutive “robots” next to a dark machine resting on the train tracks.

The reports seemed incredible, and very well might have remained so had it not been for what occurred the following year in May 1955, when Vallée had his own sighting.

“My mother saw it first,” he would later recall of the incident. She had been working in the garden when Vallée, sixteen at the time, heard her screaming for him and his father. Vallée made his way from the attic where his father’s woodworking shop was located, and down three flights of stairs just in time to observe a metallic disc-shaped object “with a clear bubble on top” as it hovered over the nearby church of Saint-Maclou.

A modern view of Pontoise with the Cathédrale Saint-Maclou visible in the distance (Credit: Rozinante/CC BY-SA 4.0).

The object reminded them of the parachutists the family had watched descending from the skies during the war. His mother, who continued watching it, recalled how it sped away, leaving only a few wisps of white vapor where the object had been. Vallée would later learn that a schoolmate nearby had also noticed the object, observing it through binoculars.

Despite his father’s disapproval, Vallée maintained his interest in these unusual aerial objects. “I realized,” he would later write in his journal, “that I would forever be ashamed of the human race if we simply ignored ‘their’ presence.” The young Frenchman began to educate himself on the topic by reading the works of Aimé Michel, one of the earliest serious French researchers to undertake the study of unusual aerial phenomena. It was an interest he maintained through his college years, completing his degree in mathematics at the University of Paris in 1959 and going on to receive his M.S. from the University of Lille Nord de France two years later. By 1961, Vallée was employed at the Paris Observatory as an astronomer with its artificial satellite service, tracking space objects through theodolites by night.

“Naively, I started work here with great enthusiasm, assuming that we would be engaged in genuine research,” Vallée would recall of his years at the observatory. “That is not what I found.” In July of 1961, he and the other astronomers recalled a few instances where they observed objects passing overhead that they could not identify. “The next morning,” he recalled of one incident, his superior “simply confiscated the tape and destroyed it.” Vallée inquired as to why they hadn’t sent this seemingly important information along with their normal Telex tape dispatches to U.S. Navy officials in Paris.

“The Americans would laugh at us,” his superior scoffed.

Having his fill of the prevailing attitudes in Paris, by 1962, Vallée had emigrated to the United States, first working at the University of Texas, Austin, as a research associate in astronomy, and thereafter for a short stint at the McDonald Observatory, where he helped to compile the first informational map of the planet Mars with fellow French astronomer Gérard de Vaucouleurs. However, by the summer of 1963, Vallée was looking ahead at new opportunities, one of which arrived following a meeting in September with astronomer J. Allen Hynek, chair of Northwestern University’s astronomy department, who helped the young scientist find work as a systems analyst on campus. Hynek, at the time the scientific advisor to the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book UFO investigation, was a natural ally; not only would he serve as a mentor to Vallée, who went on to receive his Ph.D. from the institution in 1967, but for years thereafter the two would remain close colleagues in the pursuit of their mutual interest.

An undated photo of astronomer J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallée (public domain).

However, by the late 1960s, it seemed evident that scientific opinions on the UFO subject in the United States had finally begun to sour, despite the efforts of Hynek, Vallée, and a close network of like-minded scientists looking into the problem. By the end of 1968, the University of Colorado UFO Project, a U.S. Air Force-funded study headed by physicist Edward U. Condon, had delivered its findings; in an introductory summary to the lengthy report, Condon wrote that “nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge,” adding that “further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.”

Vallée, musing over the Condon study during our call, remembered his incredulity at the time he first heard about its conclusions.

“That’s an interesting chapter in science,” he said. “Or the failure of science.”

By then, Vallee had already returned to France. As he, his wife Janine, and their son, Oliver, were acclimating to life in Europe again, Vallée was quietly readjusting his approach to the UFO question.

“Once I was back in France, in a way, it served to give me the space to rethink what we had done,” Vallée told me. “I mean, I knew the Condon Committee was a joke… and that science was somewhere else. So it forced me to ask some fundamental questions that I would not have asked if I had stayed at Northwestern.”

“So I thought, where does all this come from, anyway?”

Vallée began haunting the old Paris bookshops, acquiring rare historical texts and early treatises on the sciences. An interesting question had begun to form in his mind, as he recorded in a journal entry on October 29, 1967: What about the forgotten accounts of Little People, of Elementals, of Leprechauns? If these beings are part of the same phenomenon we see now, what does that mean for their nature? Are we necessarily dealing with extraterrestrials?

“I found that the phenomenon has always been there,” Vallée says of his years spent mining observations of unusual aerial phenomena from texts that date back to classical antiquity. “Of course, they are describing it in the language of the time,” he notes, “but they are describing something that’s very, very much like what I get from witnesses today.”

The fruits of such musings culminated in Vallée’s seminal 1969 effort, Passport to Magonia, widely regarded as one of his most influential early works and, paradoxically, the effort that cast him as a pariah in the eyes of many of his ufological peers.

Mass market paperback edition of Passport to Magonia (Credit: Archives for the Unexplained).

“At first, it was completely rejected.” he says, recalling one UFO magazine that featured his likeness shortly after Magonia was published, accompanied by the headline, “Vallée has gone off the deep end.” Today, Vallée laughs about the chiding he received from his peers, and I note a hint of nostalgia about those early works behind the dry chuckle that emerges.

“Maybe the truth was in the deep end.”


OVER THE COURSE OF the ensuing decades, Vallée would continue to challenge the extraterrestrial hypothesis favored particularly among American UFO researchers. Parallel to this effort, his professional career brought him into work with the Institute for the Future in the mid-1970s, where he worked as principal investigator on the National Science Foundation computer networking project that gave rise to one of the earliest iterations of the ARPANET conferencing system. In the following decade, Vallée would become involved in venture capitalism, first as a partner at Sofinnova, then moving on to become a general partner in multiple different Silicon Valley funds, including his involvement in private investments today.

As his professional career flourished, Vallée never lost sight of his fascination with strange aerial phenomena. He authored a string of follow-ups to Magonia on the topic of UFOs throughout the 1970s and 80s, each continuing to build on the premise that the phenomenon could be far more complex than conventional opinions on UFOs would offer. His pioneering work continued to garner attention along the way, even serving as the inspiration for Claude Lacombe, a French scientist portrayed by actor François Truffaut in Stephen Spielberg’s classic film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

Actor François Truffaut in Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (fair use).

In the 1990s, Vallée authored a trilogy of books that focused on the prospects of alien contact. However, he always maintained a healthy distance from drawing conclusions about what any exotic technologies behind UFOs might represent. It was also during this period that Vallée began working with real estate developer Robert Bigelow’s National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), a privately funded scientific research effort that looked at UFOs and related phenomena.

In July 2014, Vallée presented a paper at the GEIPAN International Workshop in Paris, France, titled “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena: A Strategy for Research,” offering both a snapshot of what he had learned about the complexities of the phenomenon over several decades of study, as well as what he believed might be a path toward more fruitful future research.

“After years of ideological arguments based on anecdotal data the field of UAP research appears ready to emerge into a more mature phase of reliable study,” Vallée wrote in the paper’s abstract. Citing the mounting scientific interest in UAP around the world, based in part on documents conveying an official military interest in these phenomena, the scientist argued that the path forward would require the analysis of hard data, paired with intelligently informed theoretical studies.

“Without pre-judging the origin and nature of the phenomena, a range of opportunities arise for investigation,” Vallée wrote, warning that “such projects need to generate new hypotheses and test them in a rigorous way against the accumulated reports of thousands of observers.”

The problem was that in 2014, despite the existence of several notable independent catalogs containing information on historical incidents, there was no single collection of reliable UAP reports—a centralized database, in other words—upon which such studies could rely. This had been part of what prompted Vallée to assemble such a database for NIDS, work that would later carry over as Bigelow’s efforts moved out of the private sector and into the official world as part of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Advanced Aerospace Weapons Systems Application Program (AAWSAP).

(Credit: Jacques Vallée/fair use)

“In the United States the National Institute for Discovery Science (“NIDS”) and the Bigelow Aerospace Corporation have initiated a series of special catalogues to safeguard their own reports from public sources and from their staff,” Vallée wrote in his 2014 paper, adding that he had been asked to develop a UAP data warehouse containing 11 individual databases.

“The project is known as ‘Capella,’” it stated.

According to slides accompanying Vallée’s 2014 presentation, the Capella project focused on several areas that ranged from patterns emerging from UAP data to possible physics underlying the phenomenon and its impact on humans.

During our call, Vallée spoke candidly about the project and what he hopes it might still be used to achieve.

“There is such a database. It is the one we built as part of the AATIP/BAASS project in Las Vegas,” Vallée told me. Comprising roughly 260,000 cases from countries around the world, the scientist said during our call that the Capella database had been one of the major focal points of the program.

“Contrary to what people believe, [Capella] is the largest part of the budget that was spent on the classified project,” Vallée said. This included paying for translations of incident reports from Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and several other languages into English, and providing funding for teams that conducted additional research on-site.

“It was a large effort for two years, Vallée said, though he added that in reality, “probably close to fifty or sixty years of work went into the database.” Although Capella constitutes what is arguably the most extensive database containing information on UAP ever built, don’t expect to see it any time soon; it remains classified as a part of the data developed under the DIA’s AAWSAP program managed by James Lackatski between 2008 and 2010.

“The database is still classified, to my knowledge,” Vallée said during our call, prompting me to ask whether such a vast amount of historical information on the UAP subject shouldn’t be made publicly available.

Speaking with The Debrief in December 2021, Mark Rodeghier, Ph.D., director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies and a longtime colleague of Vallée, expressed frustration over previous statements made by Colm Kelleher, Ph.D., another of the scientists who worked on the AAWSAP program, who noted that much of the AAWSAP data will likely remain classified.

“I mean, isn’t that discouraging, disappointing, [and] ridiculous,” Rodeghier told The Debrief. “It’s not work on how we can get a hypersonic missile. It’s UFO investigations. How can that be classified at this point? And the answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t be classified now.”

During our call, Vallée expressed similar sentiments to Rodeghier’s, although he also defended Capella’s current classified status on account of some of the information it protects.

“You make a good point,” Vallée told me. “That’s the kind of thing that should be accessible to science,” although adding that “it will be accessible to very highly competent people who can continue to look at it under the proper classification.”

“I think it’s properly classified,” Vallée added, “because it contains a lot of medical data that should be private.” However, he said that he thinks that over time, perhaps portions can be “sanitized” for release to the public, “so that we don’t invade the privacy of individuals who have reported those things, especially their medical data.”

“It’s not classified for any military or intelligence reason as far as I know,” Vallée said. “But I’m not part of the project anymore.” Vallée noted that even he no longer has access to Capella, although several longtime colleagues of his who still work in government do.

“I’m very proud to have worked on that,” Vallée said. “It’s probably the high water mark in the computer study of UFOs so far.”

“But as we know, the high water mark is going to go even higher after this.”


DESPITE HIS OWN LEVEL of involvement with government UAP studies, as well as the level of interest generated by videos of unidentified objects collected by the U.S. military—the existence of which Vallée himself hinted at in Geneva as early as 2013—the 83-year-old scientist still doesn’t necessarily hold military UAP data in higher regard than that collected by civilians.

“The military cases in the databases I know of are less than ten percent in every country,” Vallee said during our call. “They are really good because the military has radar. They have, of course, planes that can chase the objects… pilots who are very well trained and very well positioned to give a description.”

“Those are excellent reports,” Vallée concedes. “But what about the farmer in the field, who sees [an object] close to him, and has traces, and has materials? Who has felt physiological reactions?”

“What about those cases?” he asks. “They are full of information.”

Vallée’s appreciation for UAP information collected from non-governmental sources is particularly evident in his latest book, Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret, coauthored with Italian journalist Paola Leopizzi Harris. In it, they unravel the story of two men, Jose Padilla and Reme Baca, who claim to have witnessed the crash of an unusual aircraft near San Antonito, New Mexico, in August 1945. Padilla, who went on to become a State Trooper in Rowland Heights, California, maintained that as children, he and Baca had seen a large, dull-gray avocado-shaped object—along with its frantic occupants—where it had apparently crashed near his family’s ranch. The object, they say, was later recovered by the military.

Vallée while conducting field research in New Mexico in advance of the publication of Trinity: The Best-Kept Secret (Credit: Jacques Vallée).

In a newly updated second edition of the book, Vallée and Harris present additional witness testimony they have gathered about the alleged incident, which includes an observation of the crash remembered by the family of Lt. Colonel William J. Brothy, who at the time had been piloting a B-25 on a training mission. According to Brothy, he and his crew had flown over the site and recalled, “There were a lot of pieces.”

In Trinity, Vallée emphasizes what he believes are undeniable similarities between descriptions of the 1945 incident and a UAP landing in New Mexico observed by police officer Lonnie Zamora in 1964. Then, the following year another strikingly similar incident occurred near Valensole, France, involving the close observation of a landed craft and its apparent pilot or occupant.

“There is a case in Valensole, in France, and the case in Socorro. The object is identical to the Trinity object,” Vallée said. “And the [occupants] are identical to the creatures that Mr. Padilla is describing to me at Trinity, that he saw.”

“I was involved in Socorro, and I was involved in Valensole. Those are cases I know very well,” Vallée said, adding that Trinity contains new information on the Socorro case, once referred to by Hector Quintanilla, director of the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book at the time of the incident, as being “the best documented case on record.”

Today, much of Vallée’s research is focused on the collection and study of material samples believed to have been collected from UAP. Compared with his earlier work, which challenged popular notions about extraterrestrials being associated with UAP, this might surprise longtime followers of the scientist’s work. For Vallée, however, it is only the next phase in the many decades he has spent working toward resolving the mystery.

“It’s all one thing,” Vallée said during our call. “The first book I wrote was Anatomy of a Phenomenon, which… I took as a study of extraterrestrial intelligence in general, and how it was I thought UFOs illustrated the idea of life elsewhere and intelligence elsewhere… that’s definitely the place from which we started.”

“Then, when I started working with Dr. Hynek, and I started working with—in those days, it was just called ‘computer catalogs,’ it wasn’t dignified as databases or data warehouses—but those catalogs held thousands of cases. My first complete catalog was donated to the Condon Committee at the University of Colorado, when they did the study funded by the Air Force.”

“Which,” Vallée notes, “to my surprise, concluded the problem didn’t exist. So, we’ve come a long way from that.”

Given his level of involvement in working to resolve the UAP question—an effort now spanning more than six decades, including his involvement in official government UAP investigations in several countries and having authored some of the most popular books ever written on the subject—perhaps the most surprising thing expressed by Vallée during our discussion had been his predictions about how he thinks his own work will be remembered by future generations.

“I think everything I’ve done, and everything my contemporaries have done, is going to be forgotten,” he said, mirroring his observations of the invention, and subsequent reinvention, of so many other innovations in science over time, not least among them the World Wide Web.

“And then in a few years, it’s going to be reinvented by, you know, great people at Stanford and Harvard in a new way,” he tells me, accompanied by the distinctive chuckle I had by now come to expect after one of his witty responses.

“That’s always the way science works.”


Micah Hanks is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of The Debrief. Follow his work at micahhanks.com and on Twitter: @MicahHanks