Head in the Stars

Looking into the night sky and seeing some sort of blue and pink pulsating light, you might believe you’ve spotted an unidentified flying object. But then along comes Ben McGee—the skeptic on the National Geographic Channel’s Chasing UFOs—and tells you it’s actually Venus setting. Maybe that’s why the show’s crew has dubbed the geoscientist “Dream Crusher.”

That’s not to say the 31-year-old Las Vegan doesn’t have dreams of his own or believe in life forms on other planets. The show tracked McGee down thanks to his 2010 paper in the Journal of Space Policy on what he dubbed “Xenoarchaeology,” or how to credibly study possible alien artifacts on other planets. “At first I didn’t jump right in,” McGee says of the offer to join the Chasing UFOs team. “I thought ‘UFO’ is the kiss of death for the career scientist.” Upon reevaluating, he saw the opportunity to inject real astronomy and planetary science into the discussion. “I think that we’re probably not alone,” McGee says. “But I’m not convinced by anything I’ve seen that they are here.”

But how does a 1999 graduate of the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing & Visual Arts—a guy who played a mean trombone and was voted Best Eyes his senior year—go from band geek to science nerd? “I like to say that frontier science and jazz are not so different,” McGee says. “Really, what you’re doing is, you’ve got a set of rules—and in jazz, it’s chord changes—but you still have to innovate over it, come up with your own thing and have it agree with the rules. So really that’s like coming up with new ideas in science.”

Fascinated with the cosmos from an early age, McGee was the super-brain trying to build a giant electro-magnetic coil in his parents’ backyard. And as the son of two Ph.D.’s—father Richard chairs the College of Southern Nevada’s fine arts department and mother Joan is the college’s chief campus administrator and executive director of its learning centers—he grew up in an environment that prized learning. All the same, he says, “I think my dad would prefer that I kept my head a little closer to the planet’s surface—and I think a part of him wishes that I played a little more trombone.”

In addition to the show, the University of Wyoming grad juggles completing a space sciences master’s degree at the University of North Dakota, teaching geology part-time at CSN, working as staff scientist in a radiological engineering program at the Nevada Test Site and running his own Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting company. “I feel so vindicated because I thought for 15 years that the future [of space travel] had to be commercial because that’s where venture capitalists are willing to take risks,” McGee says. “[Astrowright] is a very small firm right now. We’re trying to hit the little spaceflight-support services for all these new commercial spaceflight providers like Virgin Galactic or SpaceX, ULA [United Launch Alliance], Boeing-Lockheed.” He’s particularly happy to see that Las Vegas’ Bigelow Aerospace is building space stations, with two test modules already in orbit. “Aerospace in Vegas!” he says. “I’m pushing to bring more of it here.”

McGee’s also a husband and the father of a 10-month-old boy. Family life has also grounded the hopeful astronaut a bit. “Having a kid changes everything,” he says. “It’s totally cliché, but I wanted to go to Mars before, and I wouldn’t do it now. It’s too far, too much risk. But I think the moon is still totally on the table. I want to be an astronaut. I’m still shooting for it. But to get there, I’ve decided to sort of try and do my own thing, which is a gamble. But, hey, I grew up in Vegas.”