Let’s say you’re interested in UFOs. It’s a fun hobby, but you’d like to monetize your efforts. What do you do?
Historically, your avenues were limited. There was entertainment—science fiction movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or E.T. (1982), purportedly nonfiction books like Chariots of the Gods? (1968) or The Mothman Prophecies (1975). There was journalism, sometimes serious but mostly sensationalist. There were conferences and festivals where you could make money with attendance fees and UFO-themed merchandise.
The final and far less common route was to get someone, preferably someone with a lot of money, to pay you to study the subject.
In 1995 that someone was the Nevada businessman Robert Bigelow. He had already been funding various individual UFO researchers, but that year he decided to set up his own research organization, the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS). He invited several luminaries of UFO research to participate, including Hal Puthoff, Jacques Vallée, and John Mack. Not simply a UFO organization, NIDS also probed the question of whether there is life after death. Its hotline (and later website) would take your reports of mysterious black flying triangles, but it also solicited reports of cattle mutilations and visits from “entities”—essentially ghosts.
In a rather odd government decision, the Federal Aviation Administration told pilots who wanted to report a UFO sighting that they should direct it to NIDS.
In 1996, NIDS started focusing on a place called Skinwalker Ranch. A nondescript cattle operation in northeastern Utah, the property was owned by the Sherman family, who for a year had been telling amazing tales of UFO sightings, cattle mutilations, and visits from mysterious entities. It was the trifecta, and so Bigelow bought the ranch and installed a full-time team of NIDS researchers.
For a year, they observed nothing. Accounts vary as to what transpired after that, but it apparently was enough to interest a U.S. senator.