With so much planet-hunting and -spotting going on, we are in a showdown to see whether the universe is perhaps chock-full of extraterrestrial life.

Distant starfolk is one thing. Having ET stopovers here on Earth, via UFOs, is another.

That was just the topic du jour here at the 38th annual International UFO Symposium, subtitled "An Estimate of the Situation: The ET Hypothesis," held August 10-12 and sponsored by the Denver-based Mutual UFO Network, Inc., or MUFON for short.

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As a yearly affair, the symposium provides a platform for specialists and investigators that delve into UFOs, purported military cover-ups and denials, physical evidence surrounding UFOs, as well as those "high strangeness" encounters with alien visitors.

The MUFON summit brought together more than 500 people — a true gabfest for the flying saucer devotee.

Passion for the truth

James Carrion, MUFON's international director, said the organization is fervent about resolving the scientific enigma known as unidentified flying objects.

"To me, it's all about the truth. I have a passion for the truth," Carrion told SPACE.com.

Still, after decades of pursuing "the truth" behind UFOs, Carrion admitted that the quest is befuddling. "Why is it always within out of reach ... kind of there, but it's not there?"

A new MUFON initiative being implemented this year is outreach to engage mainstream scientists, Carrion said, to assist in taking a more detailed look at the data.

An open letter to the professional scientific community is now being drafted, to be issued before year's end, he said.

"We have to gain respectability here ... so we're trying to kick-start intellectual curiosity out there," Carrion added. "We know that there are folks in academia who have an interest, but they don't know what to do with it."

The MUFON strategy initially centers on the hypothesis that UFOs are human-manufactured and then evaluate the data amassed to date against that premise, Carrion advised.

"If this triggers your intellectual curiosity ... help us out," he said.

Carrion said that MUFON is also forming two research teams: One to dive into the history of "UFOlogy" and government archives, the other to probe into the abduction encounters.

"I'm a skeptical believer," Carrion pointed out. "I've never seen a UFO. But I've read enough of our own evidence. There's something real to this. To me, it's an issue of 'What is it?'"

Tell it like it is

For nuclear physicist Stanton Friedman, there is no doubt that some UFOs are alien spacecraft. Moreover, the subject of flying saucers, in his view, represents a "Cosmic Watergate" — a colossal government cover-up.

Friedman is a globe-trotting lecturer on UFOs and is the original civilian investigator of the celebrated UFO crash case in Roswell, N.M.

That out-of-the-blue happening supposedly occurred some 60 years ago, in 1947, involving no less than two crashed saucers, strewn debris and recovered alien bodies, he reported at the MUFON meeting.

"I come on very, very strong. I'm not an apologist UFOlogist ... I tell it like it is," Friedman told SPACE.com.

He senses that a "big sea change" is taking place on several fronts.

"My overall impression is that people are more ready to accept [UFO visitation] because the world has changed ... space travel being an important part of that," Friedman noted. "What I'm saying is that the notion that most people don't believe in UFOs isn't true."

Also, the media is giving UFO sightings a much fairer shake than in the past, Friedman suggested, citing not only Roswell coverage, but the reporting of UFO sightings made at O'Hare Airport near Chicago late last year and more revelation concerning the Phoenix lights saga of March 1997.

"I don't look for advocacy ... I want fairness," Friedman added. "I feel the world is ready. I'm outspoken, yes. But I try to make it a rule: Fact in hand before mouth in gear."

Mind-bending finding?

UFOs as visitors from afar would be a simple, easy-to-grasp explanation, suggested George Knapp, an investigative reporter for KLAS-TV in Las Vegas, Nevada.

But he wonders if there isn't a mind-bending finding waiting at the bottom of the UFO barrel.

"It seems to stay one or two steps ahead of what we can do ... from airships to the saucers, to giant flying triangles ... almost teasing, taunting, or inspiring," Knapp told SPACE.com.

Given cutting-edge physics, talk of the "multiverse" and parallel universes, along with threshold biological and computer work, there are fundamental paradigm shifts ahead, he said.

"Although we can't figure out a way to get there ... doesn't mean they can't figure out a way to get here," Knapp said.

Involved in UFO reporting for some two decades, Knapp said he's committed to the journalistic credo that the public has a right to know.

"But you know what? Maybe not! It goes against everything in my professional life that I believe. What if it's not something we should know? That the truth is so unsettling that our social institutions would, in fact, crumble," Knapp confided.

Knapp underscored the prospect that perhaps we Earthlings live in the middle of some other kind of intelligence. Perhaps our planet is nothing more than a cosmic drive-in theater, he added, and UFOs skim in and out of our skies just to watch goofy movies.

"And if it's something else — like they live here among us and everything we do is like being in a glass shower — people are going to go crazy. So maybe there is a reason for keeping this secret ... and a need for government cover-up which I believe there is," Knapp said.

Knapp's on-air investigative work focuses primarily on government corruption and organized crime.

But asked about the angle that his next investigative piece on the UFO phenomenon will take, he quickly responded. "Nothing I'm going to tell you about."

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