Phoenix's UFO Congress Probes What Believers Insist Comes From "Above"

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McClellan posits that Open Minds is one of the few companies in the United States with a paid staff dedicated to UFO research. Company founder John Rao stays out of the spotlight. He registered Open Minds Production as an LLC in 2010 and founded Secure Medical Inc., which aids in "remote" healthcare through electronic tools..

"He's just a guy who's really interested in this topic, who feels that more could be done to [explore] this topic," Rojas says. "So he's hired us to do that. He makes his money through other ventures, not through what we're doing with Open Minds [laughs]. Hopefully that will happen in the future. The [two-decades-plus annual Congress] might not be going without him."

Though the magazine has a healthy subscriber base and the site is one of the most popular UFO news outlets, the Congress is the most attention-drawing aspect of Open Minds' mission.

"We have such a big crowd every single year. [Participants] register as soon as we open up registration," Elsberry says. "We sell out [the conference] faster and faster."

Admission isn't cheap: Prices range from $35 to $80 for day passes, with full-attendance packages running as high as $319. The crowd, consequently, is older, but Rojas, McClellan, and Elsberry quietly challenge many conceptions of what UFO enthusiasts are like. Even if the Congress does draw more "fundamentalist" UFO believers, the Open Minds team is young, hip, and about as far from the tinfoil-hat-wearing stereotype as you can get.

If the vendor marketplace is an overview of the UFO Congress' vibe, the lecture hall is where things get specific. Over the course of five days, dozens of speakers give detailed, elaborate presentations. Many feature anecdotal stories about sightings and abductions, offering up artistic renditions in lieu of photographs and special effects-laden re-creations instead of videos.

Outdoorsman and blogger Mike Clelland gives a speech straight out of Twin Peaks, discussing variations of the cult-hit TV show's ominous quote, "The owls are not what they seem."

Kim Carlsberg, a former still photographer for Baywatch shares details of her "secret life," discussing her own account of personal abduction.

The Open Minds team selects its speakers, knowing that information provided will vary from talk to talk. Sometimes the speakers contradict each other.

Rojas explains that booking people is tricky. They bring in a wide variety of speakers (some not armed with hard data or information) but steer away from known hoaxers, such as former Georgia corrections officer Rick Dyer, who wanted to bring along his "Bigfoot corpse." Dyer was behind a similar claim in 2008, when his sasquatch was revealed to be a rubber gorilla suit.

This year, the Open Minds team made a conscious effort to bring in speakers with scientific backgrounds. People like Jeffrey Bennett, astrophysicist and author, and Richard Hoover, a former NASA astrobiologist convinced he's found evidence of extraterrestrial microbial life on meteors that have entered Earth's atmosphere.

"You get a lot of the same [speakers] at every UFO conference," McClellan says. "It's difficult, almost impossible, to avoid that. And they are some of the key players in the field — so you've gotta have these people. But something that we've done this year is we've gotten new people who have interesting research and topics, things people are interested in hearing. But they're not the usual suspects."

Hoover, who established the Astrobiology Research Group at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1998, has studied diatom algae and cyanobacteria (photosynthetic bacteria) nearly all his life. His credentials are stacked: He's an astrobiologist at Athens State University in Alabama and a visiting research professor with the Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Buckingham in England, and he won the NASA Inventor of the Year award in 1992 for his invention of the Water Window Imaging X-Ray Microscope. He's studied microbial extremophiles (organisms capable of withstanding extreme heat and cold) in the some of the most hostile conditions on Earth: in Antarctica and in Hawaiian volcanoes. Hover is convinced that he's found cyanobacteria on carbonaceous meteorites. He's certain the biological matter is indigenous in the stones — and not from Earth.

"I really [don't discuss] little green men or little gray men because I don't have any evidence of those things," Hoover says.

Hoover's work has been challenged — by scientists stating that his samples were contaminated — and NASA has distanced itself from his findings. He suggests that the potential existence of extraterrestrial life, no matter how minuscule, threatens people's beliefs.

"I was told that there might be people whose religious thoughts would be upset by this. But this was true in the days of Copernicus and Galileo," Hoover says. "The church was upset by [Galileo's] contention that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe. And, yes, there may be people who believe that the Earth is the only habitable planet in the universe and that man is the only intelligent species, but that's . . . not science. Scientists should only be concerned by what they can see and what they can obtain evidence for."

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.