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.
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.
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.
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.
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