Luis Elizondo wanted me to believe. I’d spent the past few hours pounding Diet Cokes at the Chart House bar north of San Diego while Elizondo, a retired Army counterintelligence special agent and former head of the Pentagon’s UFO program, drank beers and told me war stories. It had been about half a year since Elizondo went on CNN in primetime and declared: “There is very compelling evidence that we”—meaning sentient earthlings—“may not be alone.” In that appearance, as he spoke to anchor Erin Burnett, his face floated beside grainy looped videos from two Navy F/A-18 fighter jets’ infrared cameras, tracking an “unidentified aerial phenomenon”–typical, Elizondo said, of the craft studied by the military’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, “things that don’t have any obvious flight surfaces and obvious means of propulsion … seemingly defying the laws of aerodynamics.”
The video was already more than a decade old when it had come to light that week in a New York Times story, but in a golden age of magical and conspiratorial thinking, it spurred a string of revelations about the United States government’s possible evidence that our planet has been visited by beings from elsewhere in the universe. The following year, 2018, another Navy UFO video came to light, spurring Christopher Mellon—a former high-ranking Pentagon official in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as well as an heir to that Mellon fortune—to call for more U.S. government research and transparency around UFO encounters and their “national security implications.” (Close encounters persisted in the military, Mellon insisted, “but nobody wants to be ‘the alien guy’ in the national security bureaucracy; nobody wants to be ridiculed or sidelined for drawing attention to the issue.”)
By 2019—“one of the biggest years” for aliens “in our modern era,” according to New York magazine—UFO sightings in North America were estimated to have doubled over the previous year to nearly 6,000. The national coverage of alien speculation culminated in last September’s viral (and unsuccessful) “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” movement to breach the U.S. government’s secret desert testing site, where believers say the feds stash their evidence of little green men and flying saucers. By the time the coronavirus racked the country this spring, Congress began demanding information on what the bureaucracy knows about extraterrestrial life and technology. Florida Senator Marco Rubio told The New York Times he needed to be sure the Navy videos didn’t show some superior Russian or Chinese technology; retired Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose native Nevada includes Area 51, told the paper he knew of reports “that there were actual [alien UFO] materials that the government and the private sector had in their possession.”
Behind all these revelations, all of this renewed popular interest and government declassification, there was one primary mover: To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, a for-profit company advised by Mellon, employing Elizondo, and run by co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Tom DeLonge, who was better known as the lead singer of the pop-punk band Blink-182 until the group’s conscious uncoupling in 2015.
I’d always been interested in UFOs, and I had an appointment the following day to meet with DeLonge and Steve Justice, To The Stars’s new chief operating officer, who’d spent three decades running research into advanced aeronautical systems at Lockheed Martin’s notoriously secretive Skunk Works. But first, I’d connected with Elizondo through a mutual friend, and we met up for a drink. “Lue,” as his friends called him, acted like we’d known each other for years. An old intelligence officer trick, no doubt. At the bar, he’d shown me documents on his tablet and told me stories about senior Pentagon officials that sounded … well, here, you decide.
Elizondo left the Pentagon in October 2017, he said, over the military’s secrecy and inertia. During his tenure, one senior Defense Intelligence Agency official in particular expressed discomfort with investigation of UFOs because the official, a staunch Christian, felt the evidence suggested UFO’s were demonic. Crazy as it may sound, Elizondo’s stories certainly gave the DIA executive’s conclusions a whiff of plausibility.
He told me about “five observables” the Pentagon used to decide if strange aerial phenomenon rated the X-Files treatment. Have you ever seen an aircraft display: 1) sudden and instantaneous acceleration, or 2) hypersonic velocities without acoustic or heat signatures? Is it 3) difficult to observe through multiple sensors—eyeball, infrared, radar—and can it 4) travel seamlessly through air and sea and outer space, while 5) showing positive lift despite a lack of aerodynamic surfaces? If so, and you report it, someone from Elizondo’s old office may come and talk to you.
There was also, he told me, another “observable” they were more reluctant to discuss. “The sixth is biological effects,” he said, the sun descending over the Pacific Ocean. People with close encounters and paranormal experiences were in danger of potential morphological changes to the body and brain, something Lue’s people had to deal with.
In one instance, a staff officer came home from a mission, went to their apartment, and fell asleep in the bedroom. The officer’s roommate experienced what can only be described as poltergeist phenomena—mostly books flying off shelves—serious enough that the police were called. That case, Elizondo told me, posed an only-in-the-Pentagon bureaucratic problem: There’s no way for a service member to qualify for a service-connected disability based on demonic possession, poltergeist inhabitation, or spontaneous close-encounter telekinesis. He told me this story while flirting with the bartender and encouraging me to eat appetizers.
I’ve been looking into UFOs for a while now; it is a difficult subject to write about and a hard one to think about. A lot of it, admittedly, is pretty far out. Plus there’s the social stigma: It’s when you start talking about alien visitors or psychic phenomena or time travel that people start thinking you’re bonkers. Not that I’m worried anyone will think I’ve gone crazy—that’s already well-documented—but considering the world we’re living in, I consider this a privilege and a responsibility: standing on the edge of crazy, welcoming you all to shore.
The next morning, I showered up by the beach and went over to To The Stars’s headquarters to talk with Elizondo, DeLonge, Justice, and a publicist who’d driven down from L.A. to babysit us during the interview. The headquarters of the UFO movement’s main player, it turned out, was an Encinitas storefront off U.S. 101, nestled between a luxury used-car dealer and a health-food restaurant, where To The Stars sells surf-style apparel, books, and accessories. (They also offer free shipping on online orders over $100; their website’s footer lists four social media accounts and 12 accepted forms of payment.)
It was DeLonge’s ambition to make To The Stars into a powerhouse conglomerate: cutting-edge research and development plus entertainment with high production value, ushering in a golden age powered by … alien technology and material science gleaned from earthbound mystical artifacts. “Communicate about it, study and build it,” he said. “That’s really transforming civilization.”
DeLonge did not lack for ambition and felt that To The Stars was ahead of the curve, the scrappy startup that would revolutionize the world. The big companies, “Lockheed, Apple, Google, whatever,” would eventually follow suit. But before the alien gold rush comes, he said, “we think we can make a big dent.”
The trick to making this all work was balance, said Steve Justice—a mild-mannered, middle-aged engineer with a well-trimmed beard, a degree from Georgia Tech, and the affect of a beekeeper. “Priority shift is a function of time,” he said quietly. Everyone listened to Steve. “Now, there’s a lot of storytelling that can be done while we bring up the science end of it and the aerospace end, but it’s the fusion of those three that’s the real powerful element, and it’s hard to describe to people.”
Indeed it was. I left that day excited but confused. I was having trouble decoding signal from noise. I wanted to believe their pitch, though I didn’t quite understand what it was. Thinking back on it, on DeLonge and his assembled rockstars of the American extraterrestrial research movement, they stopped being funky weird rebels bucking a fucked-up system to me. They’re up to something else. I can’t put my finger on it entirely. These guys are upfront, I think, about what they know but less so about what they are really up to, why they’re working together. “If you were to make a movie about what’s been going on over the past hundred years, people would go, ‘Oh my God’ and leave the movie confused, scared and intrigued,” DeLonge told me. “What happens next?” To try and get at that, I first needed to understand what they’d been up to as individuals here on Earth before deciding collectively to go To The Stars.
Russell Targ is a pioneering physicist whose early career advanced humanity’s understanding of lasers, but he’s best known for the decade he spent studying extrasensory perception, or ESP, and psychic abilities with Stanford-trained electrical engineer Harold “Hal” Puthoff—who co-founded To The Stars with Tom DeLonge and now sits on the group’s executive board. Living consciousnesses, you see, can be separated spatially by thousands of miles but may have no psychic distance between them, and “the most remarkable thing we were able to do is to get the CIA to let us study that for twenty years,” Targ said in a 2015 lecture about his and Puthoff’s research into “remote viewing.” Much of their work—performed at the Stanford Research Institute, the same place that made SIRI on your iPhone—focused on the psychic abilities of mentalists like spoon-bending Uri Geller. Geller was shown on multiple occasions to be a fraud yet still somehow managed to secure steady streams of funding from oil and mining companies to act as a psychic dowsing rod.
Nevertheless, Puthoff and Targ’s research into psychic abilities was well-funded, in no small part because of a former Nazi rocket scientist. “I got the program started by showing Werner Von Braun a mechanical ESP teaching machine at a conference on speculative technology,” Targ said. After World War II ended and Operation Paperclip began, Von Braun and several hundred of his Teutonic brothers gave up all their Nazi beliefs and shifted seamlessly into the simple existence of American rocket scientists living in Alabama. Von Braun, who reportedly had a clairvoyant grandmother as well as a cozy relationship with the U.S. intelligence community, “was prodigiously successful with my ESP game,” Targ explained. “He took me up to meet the administrator of NASA, and that was the first money we got to start a program.”
Once President Jimmy Carter gave his blessing to the CIA’s X-files research, the intelligence agency began to incorporate Targ and Puthoff’s studies of Psi phenomena. Carter was particularly impressed with the intelligence-gathering abilities of psychics during his tenure in the Oval Office. “We had a plane go down in the Central African Republic—a twin-engine plane, small plane. And we couldn’t find it,” Carter told GQ in 2005. “The director of the CIA came and told me that he had contacted a woman in California that claimed to have supernatural capabilities. And she went in a trance, and she wrote down latitudes and longitudes, and we sent our satellite over that latitude and longitude, and there was the plane.”
The former president also told GQ he’d seen a UFO in the sky “one night when I was preparing to give a speech to a Lions Club.” Carter, who’d studied science at Georgia Tech and the Naval Academy and had been a pioneering nuclear submarine officer, couldn’t explain these phenomena, but he sure could fund people like Puthoff and Targ—and so have successive presidential administrations.
The government began to employ hand-selected, government-trained soldier-psychic spies—“Remote Viewers”—like Major Ed Dames or Major David Morehouse. They also hired contract civilian psychics—including a coven of witches—who operated out of a dilapidated structure on Fort Meade in Maryland, using nothing but their gray matter to find Soviet submarines, track illegal drug shipments, and spy on Mars a million years ago. These programs were officially shut down in the 1990s, but as with many defense programs, they continued to exist off the books, shifted to private contractors.
Elizondo, the son of a Cuban exile who’d worked with the CIA on the Bay of Pigs Invasion, enlisted in Army counterintelligence during the early 1990s; he showed me a picture of himself as a young soldier wearing Army greens and an old garrison cap. Elizondo flirted with becoming a psychic spy, but that program was shut down, so he became a regular spy. After working in Afghanistan and Cuba, he was tapped to run counterintelligence for the Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program until he departed in late 2017 to work for DeLonge, whose 1998 release “Dick Lips” has been described by Consequence of Sound as Blink-182’s “brattiest song.”
“You asked what we’re doing?” DeLonge said, early on in our day together. We had just bonded over a love of Diet Coke and conspiratorial thinking. “They got you good,” he’d told me when I showed him the four spare sodas I carried in my satchel as he sipped from his own can. “Pulled you in. That’s fuckin’ … that’s gnarly.”
Then he dove into his explanation of To The Stars’s work: “We’re doing a lot of foundational work to try and change the world or be a force for change, and that foundational work is creating an organization, inviting anyone to come in and own it with us, getting the right team members that have the credibility and skill sets to go out and attack some major themes about the human race.”
I still can’t tell you what that means. I tried to ask the question multiple times. “You’ve got a huge collection of talent,” I pressed at another point. “So what’s going on?”
“What we’re trying to do,” he replied, “is completely swim upstream, go against the grain and try to do the most ambitious and difficult thing that could be imagined, and all of it kinda going against what the government really wants.”
They rebuffed my attempts to talk to their extended UFO family that day. I never reached Chris Mellon, the American aristocrat and former defense official who now sits on To The Stars’s board. I didn’t talk to Central Intelligence Agency ESP expert Hal Puthoff nor to former Clinton official and conspiracy theory lodestar John Podesta, who is a UFO believer. (Podesta has exchanged messages with DeLonge on the topic, and Lue Elizondo spoke warmly of him.)
I toured To The Stars’s office suite, ate donuts in the conference at Lue’s insistence, and listened to a lot of pitch while seeing very little product. DeLonge had a big glassed-off collection of CIA and Air Force challenge coins, popular tokens of exchange among some service members as well as Presidents Clinton and Trump. The whole scene struck me as the remnants of a Pentagon project to appeal to recruiting-age youth that had perhaps selected Tom DeLonge as a frontman back when Blink-182 was at the height of its popularity. It even occurred to me that To The Stars might be a government front, created to prepare the American public for knowledge of long-classified breakthrough technologies and materials. Perhaps this is all cheaper than the traditional method of desensitizing the U.S. electorate to CIA and Pentagon projects, hiring Aaron Sorkin or Ridley Scott or Mark Boal, or at the very least getting CBS to push out a gritty but ultimately life-affirming military procedural that doesn’t have to worry about funding, ratings be damned.
The unflappable Steve Justice fidgeted when I brought this up, the same way he fidgeted when I talked about the Haunted Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada. The secretive F-117 stealth fighter, which Justice worked on, was initially based out of the Tonopah Test Range. Anything he knew about these matters was probably still classified.
Unable as I was to decode the ultimate meaning of To The Stars Academy’s ambiguously worded pitch to me two years ago, the government did not share my misgivings. Amid the pop-culture UFO furor that it helped whip up, To The Stars inked a contract last September with the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, promising to “offer capability advancements for Army ground vehicles.” DeLonge’s group, the Army insisted, had acquired knowledge of “advancements in metamaterials and quantum physics” that could be used to make better military vehicles. Two decades after lending his vocals to Enema of the State, DeLonge may be the U.S. defense establishment’s secret weapon in its obsession with greater lethality.
I still wonder why a budding aerospace and entertainment company vying to be the corporate lovechild of Howard Hughes and Walt Disney would pick storefront retail space down the street from a “Self-Realization Fellowship” ashram. They did tell me they were thinking of moving into different offices near San Diego’s defense contractors, a place where they could have their own SCIF—Secure Compartmented Intelligence Facility—in which to discuss deeply classified information. Yet when I returned to Encinitas that October to go ocean fishing with my Dad—we caught a bunch—To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science was still based in the same storefront, though Lue and Steve and Tom were out of town, the cashier told me. Two years later, there they remain. Although they also have a show on the History Channel now.
What conclusions can one draw from all this? I’ve already burned through three psychiatrists in the Veterans Healthcare System of the Ozarks alone. Now I’m treading into the strange dimension of celebrity-meets-parapsychology in which another pop-culture icon, actor/musician Jared Leto, runs a cult called Echelon (which shares a name with an extinct NSA global surveillance program) out of a decommissioned Air Force missile silo tucked away in Los Angeles canyonland.
Perhaps there are no sane conclusions to draw, except that things once considered insane are real: UFOs, or at least those interested in them, exert influence on our lives and public policy every day. Scientific American published a serious, sober piece a week ago saying that UFOs deserve scientific investigation. Four years ago, the Navy secured a patent for an anti-gravity drive. The truth is out there. Far out there. Maybe someday soon, you’ll learn the whole truth, and maybe, just maybe, it will all be because you bought Take Off Your Pants and Jacket in 2001.