Roswell incident

The Roswell incident is a collection of events and myths surrounding the 1947 crash of a United States Army Air Forces balloon, near Roswell, New Mexico. Operated from the nearby Alamogordo Army Air Field and part of the top secret Project Mogul, the balloon’s purpose was remote detection of Soviet nuclear tests.[1] After metallic and rubber debris was recovered by Roswell Army Air Field personnel, the United States Army announced their possession of a “flying disc”. This announcement made international headlines but was retracted within a day. Obscuring the true purpose and source of the crashed balloon, the Army subsequently stated that it was a conventional weather balloon.

In 1978, retired Air Force officer Jesse Marcel revealed that the Army’s weather balloon claim had been a cover story, but added to that his speculation that the debris was of extraterrestrial origin. Popularized by the 1980 book The Roswell Incident, this speculation became the basis for long-lasting and increasingly complex and contradictory UFO conspiracy theories, which over time expanded the incident to include governments concealing evidence of extraterrestrial beings, grey aliens, multiple crashed flying saucers, alien corpses and autopsies, and the reverse engineering of extraterrestrial technology, none of which have any factual basis.

Despite the lack of evidence, many UFO proponents claim that the Roswell debris was derived from an alien craft, and accuse the US government of a cover-up. The conspiracy narrative has become a trope in science fiction literature, film, and television. The town of Roswell leverages this to promote itself as a destination for UFO-associated tourism.

1947 military balloon crash

Roswell incident is located in New Mexico

Alamogordo
Alamogordo
Clovis
Clovis
Kirtland
Kirtland
Carlsbad
Carlsbad
Deming
Deming
Fort Sumner
Fort Sumner
Hobbs
Hobbs
Roswell
Roswell
Corona debris
Corona debris

Roswell was one of many Army Airfields in New Mexico when debris was recovered from a ranch near Corona. Researchers at Alamogordo Air Field, less than 150 miles from Roswell, were launching classified balloons during the prior weeks.

By 1947, the United States had launched thousands of top-secret Project Mogulballoons carrying devices to listen for Soviet atomic tests.[2] On June 4, researchers at Alamogordo Army Air Field launched a long train of these balloons; they lost contact within 17 miles (27 km) of W.W. “Mac” Brazel’s ranch, where the balloon subsequently crashed.[3][4] Later that month, Brazel discovered tinfoil, rubber, tape, and thin wooden beams scattered across several acres of his ranch.[5][6] Amid the first summer of the Cold War,[7] press nationwide covered Kenneth Arnold‘s June 24 account of what became known as flying saucers, objects which allegedly performed maneuvers beyond the capabilities of any known aircraft. Publicity of Arnold’s report incited a wave of over 800 sightings.[8] Press accounts speculated that the disc sightings might be the result of atomic research or rocket tests at government facilities such as New Mexico’s White Sands and Alamogordo.[9][10] With no phone or radio, Brazel was initially unaware of the ongoing flying disc craze,[11] but he was told about it when visiting his uncle in Corona, New Mexico on July 5; the next day he informed Sheriff George Wilcox of the debris he had found.[12] Wilcox called Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF, now Walker Air Force Base), who assigned Major Jesse Marcel and Captain Sheridan Cavitt to return with Brazel and gather the material from the ranch.[13]

External audio
audio icon ABC News radio broadcast on Roswell disc – July 8, 1947

On July 8, RAAF public information officer Walter Haut issued a press releasestating that the military had recovered a “flying disc” near Roswell.[14] Robert Porter, an RAAF flight engineer, was part of the crew who loaded what he was “told was a flying saucer” onto the flight bound for Fort Worth Army Air Field (FWAAF). He described the material – packaged in wrapping paper when he received it – as lightweight and not too large to fit inside the trunk of a car.[15][16] After station director George Walsh broke the news over Roswell radio station KSWS and relayed it to the Associated Press, his phone lines were overwhelmed. He later recalled, “All afternoon, I tried to call Sheriff Wilcox for more information, but could never get through to him […] Media people called me from all over the world.”[17]

Marcel holding torn foil above packing paper
At Fort Worth Army Air Field, Major Jesse A. Marcel posing with debris on July 8, 1947.

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.
The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the sheriff’s office, who in turn notified Maj. Jesse A. Marcel of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence Office.

— Associated Press (July 8, 1947)[18]
Ramey and Dubose with torn foil and sticks on packing paper
Brig. General Roger Ramey, left, and Col. Thomas J. DuBose pose with debris.

Media interest in the case dissipated soon after a press conference where General Roger Ramey, his chief of staff Colonel Thomas Dubose, and weather officer Irving Newton identified the material as pieces of a weather balloon.[19][20] Newton told reporters that similar radar targets were used at about 80 weather stations across the country.[5][21][22] The small number of subsequent news stories offered mundane and prosaic accounts of the crash.[19]On July 9, the Roswell Daily Record highlighted that no engine or metal parts had been found in the wreckage.[23] Brazel told the Record that the debris consisted of a rubber strips, “tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks”[23][24] Brazel said he paid little attention to it but returned later with his wife and daughter to gather up some of the debris.[23][25] When interviewed in Fort-Worth, Texas, Marcel described the wreckage as “parts of the weather device” composed of “tinfoil and broken wooden beams”.[5][26]

The 1947 official account omitted any connection to Cold War military programs.[27] On July 10, military personnel at Alamogordo gave a misleading demonstration to the press. Four officers provided a false account of mundane weather balloon usage throughout the previous year. They demonstrated balloon configurations that used many of the unusual configurations employed by the Mogul team as ways to gather meteorological data, offering a plausible explanation for any unusual aspects of the Roswell debris.[28][29] Major Wilbur D. Pritchard, then stationed at Alamogordo Army Air Field, would later describe the weather balloon story as “an attempt to deflect attention from the top secret Mogul project.”[30]

UFO conspiracy theories (1947–1978)

The Roswell incident remained relatively obscure for three decades.[31] Reporting on the incident ceased soon after the government provided a mundane explanation,[32] and broader reporting on flying saucers declined rapidly after the Twin Falls saucer hoax.[33] Just days after the Roswell incident, a widely reported crashed disc from Twin Falls, Idaho, was found to be a hoax created by four teenagers using parts from a jukebox.[34][35]

Nevertheless, belief in a UFO cover-up by the US government became widespread in this period.[36] During Roswell’s decades of obscurity, a UFO mythology developed fueled by hoaxes, legends, and stories of crashed spaceships and alien bodies in New Mexico.[37] In 1947, many Americans attributed flying saucers to unknown military aircraft.[2] In the decades between the initial debris recovery and the emergence of Roswell theories, flying saucers became synonymous with alien spacecraft.[38] Trust in the US government declined and acceptance of conspiracy theories became widespread.[39] UFO believers accused the government of a “Cosmic Watergate”.[40] The 1947 incident was reinterpreted to fit the public’s increasingly conspiratorial outlook.[41][42]

Aztec crashed saucer hoax

Three men demonstrate the Aztec hoax claims using an inverted bowl to represent Earth and a copy of Frank Scully's book to represent a magnetism-powered flying saucer.
Author Frank Scully (right) and confidence man Silas Newton (center)[43]

The Aztec, New Mexico crashed saucer hoax introduced stories of recovered alien bodies that would later become associated with Roswell.[44][45] It achieved broad exposure when the con artists behind it convinced Variety columnist Frank Scully to cover their fictitious crash.[46]The hoax narrative included small grey humanoid bodies, metal stronger than any found on Earth, indecipherable writing, and a government coverup to prevent public panic – these elements appeared in later versions of the Roswell myth.[44][47] In retellings of the Roswell incident, the mundane debris reported at the actual crash site was replaced with the Aztec hoax’s fantastical alloys.[48][49] By the time Roswell returned to media attention, grey alienshad become a part of American culture through the Barney and Betty Hill incident.[50][51] In a 1997 Roswell report, Air Force investigator James McAndrew wrote that “even with the exposure of this obvious fraud, the Aztec story is still revered by UFO theorists. Elements of this story occasionally reemerge and are thought to be the catalyst for other crashed flying saucer stories, including the Roswell Incident.”[52]

Hangar 18

Hangar 18” is a non-existent location that many later conspiracy theories allege housed extraterrestrial craft or bodies recovered from Roswell.[53] The idea of alien corpses from a crashed ship being stored in an Air Force morgue at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was mentioned in Scully’s Behind the Flying Saucers,[54] expanded in the 1966 book Incident at Exeter, and became the basis for a 1968 science-fiction novel The Fortec Conspiracy.[55][56] Fortec was about a fictional cover-up by the Air Force unit charged with reverse-engineering other nations’ technical advancements.[56]

In 1974, science-fiction author and conspiracy theorist Robert Spencer Carr alleged that alien bodies recovered from the Aztec crash were stored in “Hangar 18” at Wright-Patterson.[57] Carr claimed that his sources had witnessed the alien autopsy,[58] another idea later incorporated into the Roswell narrative.[59][60] The Air Force explained that no “Hangar 18” existed at the base, noting a similarity between Carr’s story and the fictional Fortec Conspiracy.[61] The 1980 film Hangar 18, which dramatized Carr’s claims, was described as “a modern-day dramatization” of Roswell by the film’s director James L. Conway,[62] and as “nascent Roswell mythology” by folklorist Thomas Bullard.[63] Decades later, Carr’s son recalled that his father had been a habitual liar who often “mortified my mother and me by spinning preposterous stories in front of strangers… [tales of] befriending a giant alligator in the Florida swamps, and sharing complex philosophical ideas with porpoises in the Gulf of Mexico.”[64]

Roswell conspiracy theories (1978–1994)

Portrait of Friedman
UFO researcher Stanton Friedman, who first interviewed Jesse Marcel, promoted Roswell conspiracy theories, and was a target of the Majestic 12 hoax.
External videos
video icon Interviews with Jesse Marcel Sr. and Jr.included in an Unsolved Mysteries episode
video icon Interview with Jesse Marcel Jr.

Interest in the Roswell incident was rekindled after ufologist Stanton Friedman interviewed Jesse Marcel in February 1978.[65] Marcel had accompanied the Roswell debris from the ranch to the Fort Worth press conference. In the 1978 interview, Marcel stated that the “weather balloon” explanation from the press conference was a cover story,[10] and that he now believed the debris was extraterrestrial.[66] On December 19, 1979, Marcel was interviewed by Bob Pratt of the National Enquirer,[67] and the tabloid brought large-scale attention to the Marcel story the following February.[68][69] On September 20, 1980, the TV series In Search of… aired an interview where Marcel described his participation in the 1947 press conference:[31]

They wanted some comments from me, but I wasn’t at liberty to do that. So, all I could do is keep my mouth shut. And General Ramey is the one who discussed – told the newspapers, I mean the newsman, what it was, and to forget about it. It is nothing more than a weather observation balloon. Of course, we both knew differently.[70]

Diagram of Roswell myths, full description in section.
Balloon debris near Roswell, though publicly called a weather balloon, was later revealed to stem from Project Mogul. Meanwhile, hoaxes from the 1940s about crashed saucers and dead bodies were incorporated into Roswell Incident mythology.[44][47][71]

The 1980 book The Roswell Incident popularized Marcel’s account and added the claimed discovery of alien bodies,[24] found approximately 150 miles west of the original debris site on the Plains of San Agustin.[72] Marcel had consistently denied the presence of bodies.[73] Major Marcel’s son, Jesse A. Marcel Jr. M.D., maintained throughout his life that, when he was 10 years old, his father had shown him alien debris recovered from the Roswell crash site, including, “a small beam with purple-hued hieroglyphics on it”.[74][75] Friedman, Berlitz, and Moore also connected Marcel’s account to an earlier statement by Lydia Sleppy, a former teletype operator at the KOAT radio station in Albuquerque, New Mexico.[32] Sleppy claimed that she was typing a story about crashed saucer wreckage as dictated by reporter Johnny McBoyle until interrupted by an incoming message, ordering her to end communications.[32]

Between 1978 and the early 1990s, UFO researchers such as Stanton T. Friedman, William Moore, and the team of Kevin D. Randle and Donald R. Schmitt interviewed many people who claimed to have had a connection with the events at Roswell in 1947, generating competing and conflicting accounts.[76]

The Roswell Incident

Roswell incident is located in New Mexico

Corona debris (1947)
Corona debris
(1947)
Barnett Legend (1980)
Barnett Legend(1980)
Aztec Hoax (1949)
Aztec Hoax(1949)
Roswell Army Air Field (1947)
Roswell Army Air Field
(1947)

In 1947, officers from Roswell Army Air Field investigated a debris field near Corona. By the 1980s, popular accounts conflated the debris investigation with two separate myths of humanoid bodies over 300 miles away from Roswell.[77]

The first Roswell conspiracy book, released in October 1980, was The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William Moore.[78] The authors had previously written popular books on fringe topics like the Philadelphia Experiment and the Bermuda Triangle.[79] Anthropologist Charles Ziegler described the 1980 book as “version 1” of the Roswell myth.[80] Berlitz and Moore’s narrative was the dominant version of the Roswell conspiracy during the 1980s.[81]

The book argues that an extraterrestrial craft was flying over the New Mexico desert to observe nuclear weapons activity when a lightning strike killed the alien crew.[82] It alleges that, after recovering the crashed alien technology, the US government engaged in a cover-up to prevent mass panic.[83] The Roswell Incident quoted Marcel’s later description of the debris as “nothing made on this earth”.[84][85] The book claims that in some photographs, the debris recovered by Marcel had been substituted for the debris from a weather device despite no visible differences in the photographed material.[86] The Roswell Incidentintroduced alien bodies – via the second-hand stories of deceased civil engineer Grady “Barney” Barnett – purportedly found by archaeologists on the Plains of San Agustin.[87]

The authors claimed to have interviewed over 90 witnesses, though the testimony of only 25 appears in the book. Only seven of them claimed to have seen the debris. Of these, five claimed to have handled it.[88] Some elements of the witness accounts – small alien bodies, indestructible metals, hieroglyphic writing – matched other crashed saucer legends more than the 1947 reports from Roswell. Berlitz and Moore claimed Scully’s long-discredited crashed saucer hoax to be an account of the Roswell incident that mistakenly “placed the area of the crash near Aztec”.[85][89] In an interview with Mac Brazel’s son, William Brazel Jr. described how the military arrested his father and “swore him to secrecy”.[90][87] However, during the time that Brazel was alleged to have been in military custody, multiple people reported seeing him in Roswell, and he provided an interview to local radio station KGFL.[91] The most significant witness was Jesse Marcel.[92] Berlitz and Moore prioritized Marcel’s description of the material over the mundane details provided by Captain Sheridan Cavitt.[93] Independent researchers would find patterns of embellishment in Jesse Marcel’s accounts, including provably false statements about his military career and educational background.[94]

Majestic 12 hoax

External videos
video icon Bill Moore addresses MUFON, July 1 1989

Majestic 12 was the purported organization behind faked government documents delivered anonymously to multiple ufologists in the early 1980s.[95] All individuals who received the fake documents were connected to Bill Moore.[96] After the publication of The Roswell Incident, Richard Doty and other individuals presenting themselves as Air Force Intelligence Officers approached Moore.[97] They used the unfulfilled promise of hard evidence of extraterrestrial retrievals to recruit Moore, who kept notes on other ufologists and intentionally spread misinformation within the UFO community.[97] At a 1989 Mutual UFO Network conference, Bill Moore confessed that he had intentionally fed fake evidence of extraterrestrials to UFO researchers including Paul Bennewitz.[98] Doty would later say that he intentionally gave fabricated information to UFO researchers while working at Kirtland Air Force Base in the 1980s.[99] Roswell conspiracy proponents turned on Moore, but not the broader conspiracy theory.[100]

The Majestic-12 materials have been heavily scrutinized and discredited.[101] The various purported memos existed only as copies of photographs of documents.[102] Carl Sagan criticized the complete lack of provenance of documents “miraculously dropped on a doorstep like something out of a fairy story, perhaps ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker‘.”[103] Researchers noted the idiosyncratic date format not found in government documents from the time they were purported to originate, but widely used in Bill Moore’s personal notes.[104]

In this variant of the Roswell legend, the bodies were ejected from the craft shortly before it exploded over the ranch. The propulsion unit is destroyed and the government concludes the ship was a “short range reconnaissance craft”. The following week, the bodies are recovered some miles away, decomposing from exposure and predators.[105]

Role of Glenn Dennis

Dennis, seated
Mortician Glenn Dennis during a 1990 interview.
External videos
video icon Unsolved Mysteries segment September 20, 1989
video icon Glenn Dennis’s story as dramatized by Unsolved Mysteries September 18, 1994

On August 5, 1989, Stanton Friedman interviewed former mortician Glenn Dennis. Dennis claimed to have received “four or five calls” from the Air Base with questions about body preservation and inquiries about small or hermetically sealed caskets; he further claimed that a local nurse told him she had witnessed an “alien autopsy”. Glenn Dennis has been called the “star witness” of the Roswell incident.[106]

On September 20, 1989, an episode of Unsolved Mysteries included second-hand stories of “Barney” Barnett seeing alien bodies captured by the Army and pilot “Pappy” Henderson transporting bodies from Roswell to Texas. The episode was watched by 28 million people.[107]

In September 1991, Dennis co-founded a UFO museum in Roswell along with former RAAF public affairs officer Walter Haut and Max Littell.[108] Dennis appeared in multiple books and documentaries repeating his story. In 1994, Dennis’s tale was dramatized in the made-for-TV movie Roswell and by the television show Unsolved Mysteries.[109][110]

Exterior photograph of building with sign reading UFO Museum and Research Center
In 1991, Glenn Dennis and Walter Haut opened a UFO museum in Roswell.

Dennis provided false names for the nurse who allegedly witnessed the autopsy. Presented with evidence that no such person existed, Dennis admitted to lying about the name.[111] Karl Pflock observed that Dennis’s story “sounds like a B-grade thriller conceived by Oliver Stone.”[112] Scientific skeptic author Brian Dunning said that Dennis cannot be regarded as a reliable witness, considering that he had seemingly waited over 40 years before he started recounting a series of unconnected events. Such events, Dunnings argues, were then arbitrarily joined to form what has become the most popular narrative of the alleged alien crash.[113] Prominent UFO researchers, including Pflock and Kevin Randle, have become convinced that no bodies were recovered from the Roswell crash.[114]

Competing accounts and schism

A proliferation of competing Roswell accounts led to a schism among ufologists in the early 1990s.[115] The two leading UFO societies disagreed on the scenarios presented by Randle–Schmitt and Friedman–Berliner. One issue was the location of Barnett’s account. A 1992 UFO conference attempted to achieve a consensus among the various scenarios portrayed in Crash at Corona and UFO Crash at Roswell; however, the publication of The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell “resolved” the Barnett problem by simply ignoring Barnett and citing a new location for the alien craft recovery, including a new group of archaeologists not connected the Barnett story.[115]

UFO Crash at Roswell

Grey alien film prop
Still from the 1994 film Roswell: The UFO Cover Up, based on the 1991 book.

In 1991, Kevin Randle and Donald Schmitt published UFO Crash at Roswell.[116] The 1991 book sold 160,000 copies and served as the basis for the 1994 television film Roswell.[117]Randle and Schmitt added testimony from 100 new witnesses.[81] Though hundreds of people were interviewed by various researchers, only a few claimed to have seen debris or aliens. According to Pflock, of the 300-plus individuals reportedly interviewed for UFO Crash at Roswell (1991), only 23 could be “reasonably thought to have seen physical evidence, debris”. Of these, only seven asserted anything suggestive of otherworldly origins for the debris.[118]

External videos
video icon Thomas DuBose interview in Recollections of Roswell (1992)

The book claimed that General Arthur Exon had been aware of debris and bodies, but Exon disputed his depiction.[119] Glenn Dennis’s claims of an alien autopsy and Grady Barnett’s “alien body” accounts appeared in the book.[120][121] However, the dates and locations of Barnett’s account in The Roswell Incident were changed without explanation. Brazel was described as leading the Army to a second crash site on the ranch, where the Army personnel were supposedly “horrified to find civilians [including Barnett] there already.”[122][116] Also in 1991, retired USAF Brigadier General Thomas DuBose, who had posed with debris for press photographs in 1947, acknowledged the weather balloon cover story.[123]

Crash at Corona

In 1992, Stanton Friedman released Crash at Corona, co-authored with Don Berliner.[117] The book introduced new “witnesses” and added to the narrative by doubling the number of flying saucers to two, and the number of aliens to eight – two of which were said to have survived and been taken into custody by the government.[117] [124] Friedman interviewed Lydia Sleppy the teletype operator who years earlier had said that she was ordered not to transmit a crashed saucer story.[125] Friedman attributed Sleppy’s account to FBI usage of an alleged nationwide surveillance system that he believed was put in place following “an earlier crash”.[126] [125] However, no evidence was found that the FBI had ever monitored any transmissions from her radio station.[127] Friedman’s description of her typing as “interrupted” by an FBI message and Moore’s claim that “the machine suddenly stopped itself” were found to be impossible for the teletype model that Sleppy operated in 1947.[128][129]

The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell

In 1994, Randle and Schmitt authored another book, The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell which claimed a cargo plane delivered alien bodies to Dwight D. Eisenhower.[130][117] The book abandoned the Barnett crash site on the Plains of San Agustin as lacking evidence and contradicting its “framework of the Roswell event”.[131][132] Randle and Schmitt proposed a new crash site 35 miles north of Roswell, based on statements from Jim Ragsdale and Frank Kaufman.[133] Kaufman claimed he monitored a UFO’s path on radar and recovered debris from a crashed spaceship similar in shape to an F-117 stealth fighter.[134] Kaufmann’s statements did not match the personnel at the base, his service record, the radar technology available, or the known topography of the proposed crashed site.[135] Jim Ragsdale claimed that while driving home along Highway 285 with his girlfriend Trudy Truelove, they watched a craft that was “narrow with a bat-like wing” crash.[136][137] A later interview with Ragsdale clarified that his alleged crash site was nowhere near either the purported Barnett or Kaufman sites.[138] In further interviews, Ragsdale’s story grew to include bizarre details such as Ragsdale and Truelove removing eleven golden helmets from the alien craft to bury in the desert.[139]

Air Force response

Duration: 24 minutes and 35 seconds.
The Air Force reports identified a military program as the source of the 1947 debris and concluded that other alien crash accounts were likely misidentified military programs or accidents.
USAF reports

Under pressure from a New Mexico congressman and the General Accounting Office (GAO),[140] the Air Force provided official responses to Roswell conspiracy theories during the mid-1990s.[141] The initial 1994 USAF report, admitted that the weather balloon explanation was a cover story but for Project Mogul, a military surveillance program.[142][143] Published the following year, The Roswell Report: Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert supported this with extensive documentation that narrowed the cause of the debris to a specific Mogul balloon train launched on June 4, 1947, and lost near the Roswell debris field.[144] Within the UFO community, the reports were not accepted.[145] UFO researchers dismissed the reports as containing no information about MJ-12 or extraterrestrial corpses but noted the reports did admit the 1947 account to have been false.[3] Contemporary polls found the majority of Americans doubted the Air Force explanation.[146][147]

News media and skeptical researchers embraced the findings.[3] Project Mogul offered a cohesive explanation for the contemporary accounts of the debris – failing only to explain later conflicting additions.[148] Carl Sagan and Phil Klass noted that the symbols from the 1947 debris – described by Jesse Marcel Jr. as alien hieroglyphics – were easily explained as matching the symbols on the adhesive tape that Project Mogul sourced from a New York toy manufacturer.[149][150] In 1997, the Air Force published a second report The Roswell Report: Case Closed. It detailed how eyewitness accounts of military personnel loading aliens into “body bags” matched the Air Force’s procedures for retrieving parachute test dummies in insulation bags, designed to shield temperature-sensitive equipment in the desert.[151]

Later theories and hoaxes (1994–present)

Alien Autopsy

The 1995 film Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction (top) purported to show an alien recovered at Roswell. The extremely influential program was “aggressively satirized” the following year by The X-Files in a sequence (bottom) that “bears an uncanny resemblance in its visual style to the infamous Alien Autopsy“.[152][153]

Pseudo-documentaries, most notably Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction, have taken a major role in shaping popular opinion of Roswell.[154] In 1995, British entrepreneur Ray Santilli claimed to have footage of an alien autopsy filmed after the 1947 Roswell crash, purchased from an elderly Army Air Force cameraman.[155] Alien Autopsy centers around Santilli’s hoaxed footage, which it presents as a probable artifact of the government’s investigation into Roswell.[156][157] The purported cameraman Barnett had died in 1967 without ever serving in the military,[158] and visual effects expert Stan Winston told newspapers that Alien Autopsy had misrepresented his conclusion that Santilli’s footage was an obvious fake.[152]Santilli would admit years later that the footage was fabricated.[159]

Over twenty million viewers watched the purported autopsy.[78] Fox aired the program immediately before and implicitly connected to the fictional X-Files, which later parodied the film.[153][160] Alien Autopsy established a template for future pseudo-documentaries built on questioning a presumed government cover-up.[154]Though thoroughly debunked, core UFO believers, many of whom still accepted earlier hoaxes like the Aztec crash,[161] weighed the autopsy footage as additional evidence strengthening the connection between Roswell and extraterrestrials.[162]

The Day After Roswell

In 1997, retired Army Intelligence officer Philip J. Corso released The Day After Roswell before the incident’s 50th anniversary.[163] Corso’s book combined many existing and conflicting conspiracies with his own claims.[164] Corso alleged that he was shown a purportedly nonhuman body suspended in liquid inside a glass coffin.[54][165] The Day After Roswell contains many factual errors and inconsistencies.[166] For example, Corso says the 1947 debris was “shipped to Fort Bliss, Texas, headquarters of the 8th Army Air Force”.[167] All other Roswell books correctly located the 8th Army Air Force headquarters at Fort Worth Army Air Field, 500 miles away.[168]

Corso further claimed that he helped oversee a project to reverse engineer recovered crash debris.[166] Other ufologists expressed doubts about Corso’s book.[169] Don Schmitt openly questioned if Corso was “part of the disinformation” Schmitt believed was working to discredit ufology.[170] Corso’s story was criticized for its similarities to science fiction like The X-Files and the film “Terminator 2“.[171]Lacking evidence, the book relied on weight provided by Corso’s past work on the Foreign Technology Division, and a foreword from U.S. Senator and World War II veteran Strom Thurmond.[172] Corso had misled Thurmond to believe he was providing a foreword for a different book. Upon discovering the book’s actual contents, Thurmond demanded the publisher remove his name and writing from future printings stating, “I did not, and would not, pen the foreword to a book about, or containing, a suggestion that the success of the United States in the Cold War is attributable to the technology found on a crashed UFO.”[173][174]

Related debunked or fringe theories

Roswell has remained the subject of divergent popular works, including those by ufologist Walter Bosley, paranormal author Nick Redfern, and American journalist Annie Jacobsen.[175] In 2011, Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base featured a claim that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was recruited by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to produce “grotesque, child-size aviators” to cause hysteria.[176] The book was criticized for extensive errors by scientists from the Federation of American Scientists.[177] Historian Richard Rhodes, writing in The Washington Post, also criticized the book’s sensationalistic reporting of “old news” and its “error-ridden” reporting. He wrote: “All of [her main source’s] claims appear in one or another of the various publicly available Roswell/UFO/Area 51 books and documents churned out by believers, charlatans and scholars over the past 60 years. In attributing the stories she reports to an unnamed engineer and Manhattan Project veteran while seemingly failing to conduct even minimal research into the man’s sources, Jacobsen shows herself at a minimum extraordinarily gullible or journalistically incompetent.”[178]

The 2013 documentary Mirage Men suggests there was conspiracy by the U.S. military to fabricate UFO folklore in order to deflect attention from classified military projects.[179] The book it is based on, also called Mirage Men, was published in 2010 by Constable & Robinson.[180]

In September 2017, UK newspaper The Guardian reported on Kodachrome slides which some had claimed showed a dead space alien.[181] First presented at a BeWitness event in Mexico, organised by Jaime Maussan and attended by almost 7,000 people, days afterwards it was revealed that the slides were in fact of a mummified Native American child discovered in 1896 and which had been on display at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum in Mesa Verde, Colorado, for many decades.[181]

In February 2020, an Air Force historian revealed a recently declassified report of a circa-1951 incident in which two Roswell personnel donned poorly fitting radioactive suits, complete with oxygen masks, while retrieving a weather balloon after an atomic test. On one occasion, they encountered a lone woman in the desert, who fainted when she saw them. One of the personnel suggests they could have appeared to someone unaccustomed to then-modern gear, to be alien.[182][183]

Explanations

Secrecy around the initial incident was due to Cold War military programs rather than aliens.[184] Contrary to evidence, UFO believers maintain that a spacecraft crashed near Roswell,[141] and “Roswell” remains synonymous with UFOs.[185] B. D. Gildenberg has called the Roswell incident “the world’s most famous, most exhaustively investigated, and most thoroughly debunked UFO claim”.[186]Accounts of alien recovery sites are contradictory and not present in any 1947 reports.[187] Some accounts are likely distorted memories of recoveries of servicemen in plane crashes, or parachute test dummies, as suggested by the Air Force in their 1997 report.[188] Karl Pflock argues that proponents of the crashed-saucer explanation tend to overlook contradictions and absurdities, compiling supporting elements without adequate scrutiny.[189] Kal Korff attributes the poor research standards to financial incentives, “Let’s not pull any punches here: The Roswell UFO myth has been very good business for UFO groups, publishers, for Hollywood, the town of Roswell, the media, and UFOlogy … [The] number of researchers who employ science and its disciplined methodology is appallingly small.”[190]

Project Mogul

A vintage military photo shows a string of balloons and reflectors stretching into the sky.
A Project Mogul array

A 1994 USAF report identified the crashed object from the 1947 incident as a Project Moguldevice.[1] Mogul – the classified portion of an unclassified New York University atmospheric research project – was a military surveillance program employing high-altitude balloons to monitor nuclear tests.[191] The project launched Flight No. 4 from Alamogordo Army Air Fieldon June 4. Flight No. 4 was drifting toward Corona within 17 miles of Brazel’s ranch when its tracking equipment failed.[142] The military, charged with protecting the classified project, claimed that the crash was of a weather balloon.[83][192] Major Jesse Marcel and USAF Brigadier General Thomas DuBose publicly described the claims of a weather balloon as a cover story in 1978 and 1991, respectively.[123] In the USAF report, Richard Weaver states that the weather balloon story may have been intended to “deflect interest from” Mogul, or it may have been the perception of the weather officer because Mogul balloons were constructed from the same materials.[193] Sheridan W. Cavitt, who accompanied Marcel to the debris field, provided a sworn witness statement for the report.[194] Cavitt stated, “I thought at the time and think so now, that this debris was from a crashed balloon.”[195]

Ufologists had previously considered the possibility that the Roswell debris had come from a top-secret balloon. In March 1990, John Keel proposed that the debris had been from a Japanese balloon bomb launched in World War II.[196][197] An Air Force meteorologist rejected Keel’s theory, explaining that the Fu-Go balloons “could not possibly have stayed aloft for two years”.[198] Project Mogul, an American balloon program inspired by the Japanese balloons, first connected to Roswell by independent researcher Robert G. Todd first in 1990.[199][200] Todd contacted ufologists and in the 1994 book Roswell in Perspective, Karl Pflock agreed that the Brazel ranch debris was from Mogul.[199][201] In response to a 1993 inquiry from US congressman Steven Schiff of New Mexico,[202] the General Accounting Office launched an inquiry and directed the Office of the United States Secretary of the Air Force to conduct an internal investigation.[142] Air Force declassification officer Lieutenant James McAndrew concluded:

When the civilians and personnel from Roswell AAF […] ‘stumbled’ upon the highly classified project and collected the debris, no one at Roswell had a ‘need to know’ about information concerning MOGUL. This fact, along with the initial mis-identification and subsequent rumors that the ‘capture’ of a ‘flying disc’ occurred, ultimately left many people with unanswered questions that have endured to this day.[203]

Anthropomorphic dummies

Anthropomorphic dummy in insulation bag
Anthropomorphic dummies with gurney
Anthropomorphic dummies were transported on medical gurneys and sometimes inside black insulation bags visually similar to “body bags” used for cadavers[204]

The 1947 Roswell accounts did not mention alien bodies.[205] The reports of bodies came decades later.[206] None of the primary eyewitnesses mentioned bodies.[207] Jesse Marcel denied their presence when asked,[208] and Roswell authors interviewed only four people with supposed firsthand knowledge of alien bodies.[209] The claims of alien bodies – made decades later by elderly witnesses, sometimes as death-bed confessions – contradict each other in basic details such as the location of the crash, the number of extraterrestrials, and the description of the bodies.[210]

The 1997 Air Force report concluded that the alleged “bodies” reported by later eyewitnesses came from memories of accidents involving military casualties and memories of the recovery of anthropomorphic dummies.[188] Military programs, such as the 1950s Operation High Dive, released test dummies from high-altitude balloons above the New Mexico Desert.[188] The Air Force concluded that the number of accounts of body retrievals suggested an explanation other than dishonesty, and that the retrieval process for their dummies resembled the body retrieval stories in many aspects.[211] The dummies were transported using stretchers, casket-shaped crates, and sometimes insulation bags that resembled body bags.[212] Descriptions of “weapons carriers” and a “jeeplike truck that had a bunch of radios” matched the Dodge M37 used for 1950s test retrievals.[213] Eyewitnesses described the purported bodies as bald, “dummies”, resembling “plastic dolls”, and wearing flight suits. These attributes were consistent with Air Force dummies used in the 1950s.[214]

Roswell as modern myth and folklore

The mythology of Roswell involving increasingly elaborate accounts of alien crash landings and government cover-ups has been analyzed and documented by social anthropologists and skeptics.[215] Anthropologists Susan Harding and Kathleen Stewart highlight the Roswell Story was a prime example of how a discourse moved from the fringes to the mainstream, aligning with the 1980s zeitgeist of public fascination with “conspiracy, cover-up and repression”.[42] Skeptics Joe Nickell and James McGaha proposed that Roswell’s time spent away from public attention allowed the development of a mythology drawing from later UFO folklore, and that the early debunking of the incident created space for ufologists to intentionally distort accounts towards sensationalism.[216]

Charles Ziegler argues that the Roswell story exhibits characteristics typical of traditional folk narratives. He identifies six distinct narratives and a process of transmission through storytellers, wherein a core story was formed from various witness accounts and then shaped and altered by those involved in the UFO community. Additional “witnesses” were sought to expand upon the core narrative, while accounts that did not align with the prevailing beliefs were discredited or excluded by the “gatekeepers”.[217][218]

Cultural impact

Tourism and commercialization

Sign reading "Welcome to Roswell"
The City of Roswell’s welcome sign, featuring a flying saucer

Roswell‘s tourism industry is based on ufology museums and businesses, as well as alien-themed iconography and alien kitsch.[219] Many typical city features in Roswell are UFO-themed, including fast food restaurants, grocery stores, and street lights. A broad range of establishments offer UFO items.[220] A yearly UFO festival has been held since 1995.[221][222]Several alleged crash sites are open to visitors for a fee. There are also alien museums, festivals, and conventions, including the International UFO Museum and Research Center, founded in 1991.[223] Around 90,000 tourists visit Roswell each year.[224]

Popular fiction

In the 1980 independently distributed film Hangar 18, an alien ship crashes in the desert of the US Southwest. Debris and bodies are recovered, but their existence is covered up by the government.[62] Director James L. Conway summarized the film as “a modern-day dramatization of the Roswell incident”.[62] Conway later revisited the concept in 1995 when he filmed the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Little Green Men“; In that episode, characters travel to 1947, triggering the Roswell incident, with their ship being stored in Hangar 18.[225][226]

Beginning in 1993, the hit television series The X-Files featured the Roswell incident as a recurring element. The show’s second episode “Deep Throat”, introduced a Roswell alien crash into the show’s mythology. The comical 1996 episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” satirized the recently-broadcast Santelli Alien Autopsy hoax film.[227] After the success of The X-Files, Roswell alien conspiracies were featured in other sci-fi drama series, including Dark Skies (1996–97) and Taken (2002).[228][229][230]

In 1994 a film titled Roswell, based on the book UFO Crash at Roswell, by Kevin D. Randle and Donald R. Schmitt was released.[231]

In the 1996 film Independence Day, an alien invasion prompts the revelation of a Roswell crash and cover-up extending even to concealing the information from the President of the United States, to facilitate plausible deniability, according to the Defense Secretary.[232][233] The 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull sees the protagonist on a quest for an alien body from the Roswell Incident.[234]

In a 2001 episode of the animated comedy Futurama, titled, “Roswell That Ends Well“, protagonists from the 31st century travel back in time and cause the Roswell incident.[235] The 2006 comedy Alien Autopsy revolves around the 1990s-creation of the Santilli hoax film.[236] The 2011 Simon Pegg comedy Paul tells the story of Roswell tourists who rescue a grey alien.[237] Starting in 1998, Pocket Books published a series of young adult novels titled Roswell High; From 1999 to 2002, the books were adapted into the WB/UPN TV series Roswell,[238] with a second adaption release in 2019 under the title Roswell, New Mexico.[239]

Statements by US Presidents

In a 2012 visit to Roswell, Barack Obama joked “I come in peace.”[240] When asked during a 2015 interview with GQ magazine about whether he had looked at top-secret classified information, Obama replied, “I gotta tell you, it’s a little disappointing. People always ask me about Roswell and the aliens and UFOs, and it turns out the stuff going on that’s top secret isn’t nearly as exciting as you expect. In this day and age, it’s not as top secret as you’d think.”[241] In December 2020, Obama joked with Stephen Colbert: “It used to be that UFOs and Roswell was the biggest conspiracy. And now that seems so tame, the idea that the government might have an alien spaceship.”[242]

In a 2014 interview, Bill Clinton said that his administration had investigated the incident, saying “When the Roswell thing came up, I knew we’d get gazillions of letters. So I had all the Roswell papers reviewed, everything”.[243]

In June 2020, Donald Trump, when asked if he would consider releasing more information about the Roswell incident, said “I won’t talk to you about what I know about it, but it’s very interesting.”[244]

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