Lamp post shaped like alien head
History,  New Mexico

The truth is out there: the Roswell Incident

Roswell would be a totally unremarkable town were it not for a single event – an event that quite possibly didn’t even happen, or at least not in the way that many believe it to have done. In the summer of 1947 a local man found some odd-looking debris on a ranch some 30 miles north of the town. Many of those who believe in UFOs are convinced that he had found a crashed spaceship, complete with its alien pilot who died in the crash. Sceptics are equally convinced that it was no such thing. But whatever the truth of the matter, one thing is certain; today, Roswell is a town obsessed.

You cannot spend time in Roswell today without encountering a large number of aliens – they are everywhere! In shop window displays, on lamp-posts; the local McDonalds even provides parking for them. And it is clear that whatever you want to promote or sell in Roswell (t-shirts, ice cream, burgers, souvenirs) the best way to do it is to attach an alien to it!

Depending on your viewpoint this is either an endearing example of American kitsch at its best; or a desperate attempt to attract visitors to a town that would otherwise be well off the beaten tourist trail. We fall firmly into the former group; so we spent a happy afternoon poring over the exhibits in the town’s UFO museum.

The Roswell Incident

As I mentioned above, in June or July 1947 a local rancher, ‘Mack’ Brazel, found some odd-looking debris on his land some 30 miles north of Roswell. Several ‘flying saucer’ stories had appeared in the national press that summer; and these led Brazel to believe that the wreckage (rubber strips, tinfoil, paper etc.) might be something like that. So he showed some of the material to the local sheriff; and he in turn brought it to the attention of the commanding officer of the Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF).

The next day the RAAF issued a statement about the find:

The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County.

Needless to say, this was headline news in the local paper.

Front page of newspaper with headline about flying saucer
Roswell Daily Record, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But U.S. Army officials quickly retracted the ‘flying disc’ claim, saying that the debris was in fact from a weather balloon. And they released photographs of their investigator posing with pieces of this supposed weather balloon debris as proof.

The incident was soon forgotten by most; and it was only in the 1970s, with UFO fever at a height, that it was investigated further. By that time many of those involved would have had plenty of time to forget what had happened; but that hasn’t stopped a very detailed account being put together, albeit with many conflicting stories within it.

Official explanations today

In 1994 the U.S. Air Force released a report in which they conceded that the ‘weather balloon’ story had been bogus. Instead, they said, the wreckage came from a spy device created for a classified project called Project Mogul. This was a string of high-altitude balloons equipped with microphones, designed to float secretly over the USSR, detecting sound waves. The aim was to monitor the Soviet government’s attempts at testing their own atomic bomb. Because Project Mogul was a covert operation, the new report claimed, a false explanation of the crash had been necessary. And the claims by eyewitnesses that they saw alien bodies being taken from the site were refuted in a follow-up report in 1997 which identified these as fallen parachute test-dummies.

But many of those who believe in UFOs remain convinced that Brazel had found a crashed spaceship, complete with its alien pilot who died in the crash. Sceptics are equally convinced that it was no such thing. The believers, including (naturally) those who run the UFO museum, can find plenty of evidence to indicate some sort of cover-up by the authorities; while those who are unconvinced by tales of aliens can easily explain these cover-ups by speculation about secret government programmes or Soviet activity. The internet of course has plenty of accounts of the incident from all perspectives. For a balanced summary, longer than my own, have a look at https://www.history.com/news/roswell-ufo-aliens-what-happened.

The International UFO Museum

Whichever ‘camp’ you belong to, you have to be impressed with the dedication and attention to detail of those who have amassed this museum’s collection. It is extremely thorough. Of most visual appeal are the several dioramas of aliens; and most famously the rather gruesome visualisation of the supposed ‘alien autopsy’ that followed the 1947 discovery.

Three alien figures
Alien diorama

But these are just the tip of the iceberg when compared to the sizeable collections here. These are spread across a number of bays, each with a theme. The first few deal specifically with the Roswell Incident, with numerous press cuttings of the time, transcripts of interviews with those involved (and many who weren’t but were subsequently keen to air their views).

There is little attempt at balance; we were left in no doubt that those responsible for these displays are convinced that the debris found on that ranch was the remains of an alien spaceship. In fact, as an open-minded sceptic I found it difficult not to get drawn into that belief myself, such was the weight of ‘evidence’ presented to me here, at least in terms of its quantity.

Models of two aliens and flying saucer
Alien diorama

What is incontrovertible is that the official story was changed a day or two after the initial press release; and the material displayed here certainly seems to point to the fact that this was no mere weather balloon. But whether this was done to cover up an alien invasion, or perhaps more plausibly to correct the loose wording of an over enthusiastic individual and to conceal a secret government programme, is certainly open to question.

Model of alien lying in glass capsule
Model of the supposed alien found at the site

In addition to the material about the Roswell Incident itself, there are displays about other suggested examples of evidence of alien activity (such as crop circles, images left by ancient cultures etc); other famous sightings; quotes from famous people who have some belief in extra-terrestrial life (including astronauts and even a former President!); and a section devoted to the film that was made about the Roswell Incident. It is in this last section that you will find the ‘alien autopsy’, which I think could be quite scary for younger visitors.

I was pleased that it was permitted to take photos throughout the museum; it’s not every day that you get to photograph an alien! There was also a large gift shop, and for those who want to really immerse themselves in the subject matter, an onsite research library.

The museum can also claim a major role in putting Roswell on the tourist map. Its popularity has brought visitors here in large numbers, encouraged business growth and even spawned an annual UFO Festival.

Whatever you think about the claims made about the ‘Roswell Incident’ it is much more fun, at least for the duration of your visit, to suspend any disbelief and go along with the possibility at least that aliens once came here! And as a big science fiction fan, I certainly wanted to believe.

I visited Roswell in 2011

31 Comments

  • slfinnell

    Looked like a great visit! Just finished watching a series with Laurence Fishburne on the Roswell incident. Very interesting. I do believe our universe is too large just to have one planet with life, but not sure on the rest. I do have to give those people kudos on trying to prove it.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I think I’m with you on that – I feel there has to be some other sort of life out there but I’m not at all convinced by stories of little green men etc. actually landing here. But yes, the people who do believe really throw themselves into trying to prove it, and when you visit this museum and read everything they’ve pulled together, you find yourself wondering just a little. Then you remember that they’re only presenting one side of the story, and you become more sceptical again!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank Lisa! I can see how you could become obsessed with this place, there are just so many stories about the events of 1947 and more recent. I don’t think we’ve had those TV series over here in the UK. I’d be curious to see the second one you mention as I see from that Wikipedia article it was filmed in many of the places we visited on this trip. I’ll have to look out for it coming over here!

  • Tracey

    Oh, this was such a surprise to see in your blog! We were visiting White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns on our first trip to New Mexico and decided to go through Roswell on the way home. Honestly, I was quite impressed with the time line and all the documentation. It got a lot of media coverage, true or not!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Tracey 🙂 We were on our way TO White Sands when we decided to take in a stop in Roswell and we were very glad we did (although to tell the truth, as SF fans we were never going to miss it!) The work that has gone into the museum is indeed impressive, whatever your views on the event itself.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not a believer in Alien encounters but I still think Roswell would be a fun place to visit. The McDonalds providing parking for them is so funny as are all the Alien themed things lol The museum would also be interesting to visit to explain why people are believers, or not, and to see all the “evidence” for both sides…Nancy

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, you don’t have to believe to enjoy Roswell Nancy 🙂 But I wouldn’t go to the museum expecting to see the evidence from both sides – it’s completely one-sided, out to prove that an alien did crash there!!

  • starship VT

    Your posts about your visit to New Mexico, including this newest one on Roswell, are responsible for my desire to visit the state as you well know, Sarah! Like you, I would find Roswell too interesting to pass up. However, I willingly admit that when I was a child, seeing any TV shows such as the “Twilight Zone” or movies such as “It Came from Outerspace,” or involved aliens, blobs, giant flies, or unidentifiable things meant that I would be going to bed with the light on in my bedroom that night, LOL! Had I visited Roswell as a child, I might not have been able to sleep at all for days! Great post, Sarah!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Sylvia 🙂 I do hope you get to visit NM one day, I know you would love it! And Roswell is definitely worth a stop. I think as a child you’d have found the stuff around the town OK (inflatable toys and t-shirts etc.) but I do think that alien autopsy and the dioramas could frighten a sensitive child.

  • Maaike

    It’s fascinating to see how ‘fascinated’ so many people are with everything that has to do with either aliens or conspiracy theories. There’s certainly something to say for the dedication that this town has put into making this such a memorable place to visit. I could probably also spend some hours there having fun just looking at all the memorabilia and other items.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for visiting Maaike, and I’m glad you enjoyed this 🙂 Yes, the town has certainly made the most of the opportunity to create some tourist traffic and it’s rather fun in a kitsch sort of a way!

  • margaret21

    I’m someone who wouldn’t read SF unless there was absolutely nothing else to read (and that includes cereal packets and phone directories). But this sounds a fascinating way to spend an afternoon, though how far I would detour to go there is another question entirely. Great post!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Margaret! I used to read quite a lot of SF in my teens. I was a Star Trek fan too, and I still enjoy a good SF film, as does my husband. So this was a must given that we were even vaguely in the area 😀

  • wetanddustyroads

    Hmm … I’ not sure what to say on your post (and that’s very unusual for me 😉). Well, it is very interesting – and if it’s true, it will be quite astonishing.
    I guess all I have to say is that I hope I never encounter an alien – they look a little bit scary …

  • maristravels

    What a fascinating post. I had a friend many years ago who was of the ‘aliens are among us’ persuasion: in fact it was her increasing involvement in the ‘movement’ that caused our friendship to reach breaking point. She even went to the US to follow up her research into alien culture and sightings, spent all her money, lost her job and oh dear, it was a sad story. I think it is difficult to avoid being drawn into these things if you are half way there and with vested interests bent on seeing government conspiracies everywhere, it can be hard to resist. Anyway, glad you had this trip and glad I’ve had a chance to read about what must be one of the most unusual museums in the world.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Mari – that’s such a shame that it took over your friend’s life like that. I have a bit of a fascination with these things but quite a detached one. I enjoyed Roswell and was curious to see both sides of the debate in the museum. I wouldn’t rule out the existence of aliens but I’m sceptical about the idea of ‘little green men’ landing here! I’m glad you enjoyed the read anyway 🙂

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

%d bloggers like this: