The Urban Legend That Roswell, New Mexico Can't Shake

Photo: Courtesy of the CW.
For only five dollars, visitors to the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, NM can sift through the soil collected from an alleged flying saucer crash site, ogle at the patterns in a large Mayan sarcophagus lid, and find a prop alien corpse on a hospital gurney.
Since a certain incident in 1947, Roswell has become a mecca for people who, in the words of the X-Files,want to believe.” According to an interview given by the museum’s then-director Julie Schuster with Roadside America, 83% of the UFO Museum’s visitors traveled to Roswell specifically to visit the museum. The museum’s motto is, “The truth is here.” Visitors are just coming to see saucer-shaped proof.
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The CW show Roswell, which ran from 1999 to 2002, brought Roswell’s extraterrestrial urban legends into people’s living rooms — no pilgrimage to New Mexico required. On January 15, a new version of Roswell — now rebranded Roswell, New Mexico — is landing on the CW. Though the new version has key updates (it now centers on the Mexican daughter of undocumented immigrants), it shares the original's fixation with aliens. But how did Roswell become synonymous with aliens, government cover-ups, and little green men in the first place?
On June 14, 1947, a rancher named W.W. “Mac” Brazel and his son, Vernon, were driving to their land outside Roswell and encountered something unusual. Very unusual. A metallic, lightweight fabric was scattered around the desert, clinging to shrubs and sagebrush.
Here’s what we definitely know: Something crashed on Brazel’s sheep ranch 75 miles north of Roswell, NM. But was it of earthly or extraterrestrial origin? Brazel didn’t know, so he brought a container of the substance to Colonel “Butch” Blanchard, commander of the Roswell Army Airfield’s 509th Composite Group. From there, Brazel climbed up the army’s chain of command, seeking answers.
The alien theory solidified once Major Jesse Marcel, an intelligence officer, visited the site. Marcel was immediately convinced this was the crash site of a UFO. His suspicions were part of a national obsession with alien sightings: Over 300 UFOs were sighted. Still, Marcel was so convinced that he went on the record with a statement to the Roswell Daily Record saying that the army had come into the possession of a flying saucer. On the front page, posed posing with space debris. The article’s all-caps title, “RAAF CAPTURES FLYING SAUCER ON RANCH IN ROSWELL REGION,” naturally drew national attention.
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By the following day, the hysteria was squashed by the cold, hard, government-sponsored truth. The green, shredded substance wasn’t space debris at all. It was the litter of a crashed weather balloon. A July 9 article in the Roswell Dispatch dissipated excitement with the headline, “Army Debunks Roswell Flying Disc as World Simmers with Excitement.”
Though weather balloons are admittedly less thrilling than UFO crashes, this particular balloon has an equally astonishing (and conspiracy-laden) history. According to the government, the crashed balloon was part of a classified government initiative called Project Mogul, designed to monitor Soviet nuclear activity via 650-foot balloons capable of detecting sound waves. The massive balloons, which were equipped with sensing and listening devices on their tail, were launched from various sites around the U.S. and Pacific — including a site in New Mexico. Project Mogul was the government’s only means of detecting the Soviet Union’s activity (though the USSR didn't start conducting nuclear tests until 1949, two years after the Roswell incident).
Case closed, right? More like, “Case just getting started.” In 1978, Stanton Friedman, a former nuclear physicist and UFOlogist, decided to look into the Roswell incident. Friedman happened to live near Major Jesse Marcel, the then-retired intelligence officer who saw the wreckage. Shockingly, Marcel revealed that he never believed the weather balloon story, reigniting new interest in the Roswell incident.
Now, Marcel was free to give his unadulterated recollection of that day in July 1947. While visiting the site of the crash with a camera crew, Marcel described the unusual debris: “It felt like you had nothing in your hands. It wasn’t any thicker than the foil out of a pack of cigarettes. The thing about it that got me was that you couldn’t even bend it, couldn’t dent it. Even a sledgehammer would bounce off of it.” To Marcel, the conclusion of such a material was obvious. “It was not anything from this earth. That I’m quite sure of. Being an intelligence officer I was familiar with just about all materials used in aircraft and air travel. This was not like that. It could not have been.”
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In 1980, Marcel’s story reached a wider audience when it became the basis for Charles Berlitz and William Moore’s book The Roswell Incident. Together, Berlitz, Moore, Friedman, and Marcel hoped to uncover this grand cover-up. So began a flurry of other Roswell-centric books. To hear from Friedman himself, invest in the DVD Flying Saucers Are Real.
Meanwhile, the government tried to quell the conspiracy. In 1995, the air force admitted that the material found in Roswell was indeed from a spy balloon in an in-depth report called “The Roswell Report: Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert.” The report stressed that no aliens were involved in the crash. A second government report, released in 1997, devoted much of its 231 pages to dismissing claims of alien sightings.
Obviously, these government reports didn’t do much to stall conspiracy theories. Enthusiasts are still analyzing the tug of war between eyewitnesses and government authorities. Roswell later got looped into the Area 51 conspiracy — some thought that the government transported the alien debris to the secret military base in Nevada.
In December 2017, the Pentagon confirmed that Area 51 was, indeed, used as part of the government’s $22 million plan on UFO research. So if conspiracy theorists were right about Area 51, then who’s to say the Roswell dreamers are wrong? For now, we can watch Roswell, New Mexico — and wait patiently for revelations about the real Roswell.
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