Ah, Roswell. Perhaps there is no greater alien conspiracy theory that has captured the hearts and minds of the world. But does anyone know what actually happened? Why yes, yes they do.
It all began on a fateful day back on July 7, 1947. That was when a rancher in Roswell, New Mexico called Mac Brazel discovered some strange debris on his sheep pasture. This consisted of sticks, bits of metal, and a foil-like sheet that regained its structure when crumpled.
Unsure what it was, he spoke to the local sheriff, who in turn got in touch with the Roswell Army Air Force Base (RAAF). They sent out Major Jesse Marcel, who excitedly thought he might be seeing the remains of an extraterrestrial flying saucer.
Flying saucers were big news at the time, with the term only originating two weeks before. It was accidentally coined by aviator Kenneth Arnold on June 24, 1947, when he described seeing flying objects in the sky moving like a saucer skimming on water. These comments were taken out of context, and the flying saucer was born.
So when, on July 8, the RAAF sent out a press release saying they had recovered a “flying disk”, people were understandably excited. The following day, the Roswell Daily Record published an infamous front page story: “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region.”
The US Air Force sought to quell speculation by stating the next day that the debris was from a weather balloon. At the time, this seemed like a satisfactory explanation and the story was dropped. But decades later, it would be the catalyst for UFOlogists to run wild.
“Roswell has got everything really,” Nigel Watson, author of the Haynes UFO Investigations Manual, told IFLScience. “It’s got government conspiracy, it’s in a remote location, it’s got stories of aliens and spaceships, and there’s the [idea] this wreckage was perhaps taken to Area 51.”
In 1978, a former nuclear physicist called Stanton Friedman happened to meet Marcel while waiting for a television interview in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He heard Marcel’s story of the Roswell incident in 1947, and decided to investigate for himself. Friedman already had quite a vested interest in extraterrestrials by this point.
“I have concluded that the earth is being visited by intelligently controlled vehicles whose origin is extraterrestrial,” he told a committee of the House of Representatives previously in 1968. “This doesn't mean I know where they come from, why they are here, or how they operate.”
He spoke to supposed witnesses about Roswell, some of whom told him fantastical stories. There were tales of alien autopsies, secretive extraterrestrial technology, and more. Thinking he had found a monumental government cover-up, he made his research public, which became the basis of the book The Roswell Incident in 1980.
Interestingly, Friedman had actually discovered a cover-up. But sadly, it had nothing to do with aliens or flying saucers.
What he inadvertently uncovered was a secretive US Cold War program called Project Mogul. This had involved using high-altitude balloons equipped with microphones to monitor atomic bomb tests being performed by the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, this information was not made public by the US Air Force until 1994. This meant that there was more than a decade of speculation about Roswell until the real story actually came to light. Perhaps somewhat understandably, given how much information was being withheld, imaginations ran wild.
"If you look at the eyewitness testimony, a lot of it was either deathbed confessions, or things related years later," said Watson. "You'd think, for something so important, people would have written in their diary at the time, or taken pretty good notes."
It wasn't just a crashed flying saucer getting people worked up, though. There were also stories of alien bodies being recovered and taken to Area 51 for autopsies.
Again, there was a simple explanation, revealed by the US Air Force in 1997. Around the time of the Roswell incident, the military had been using dummies in high-altitude test programmes like Operation High Dive. This involved dropping dummies with parachutes from high altitudes that would be fatal to humans, to see what happened.
Some of these dummies, along with the balloon from Project Mogul, appear to have accidentally fallen near the small, unassuming town of Roswell. And with no official explanation coming for almost 40 years after the Roswell incident, things got a bit out of hand.
Being in the initial stages of the Cold War at the time, the US could not reveal the true nature of the Roswell incident and instead hoped the weather balloon explanation would be enough. It wasn’t. Today, Roswell is an ever-present conspiracy theory, and it’s unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
The aforementioned report from the US Air Force in 1994 attempted to put to bed the speculation. "The Air Force research did not locate or develop any information that the 'Roswell Incident' was a UFO event," it bluntly states. "The review of Air Force records did not locate even one piece of evidence to indicate that the Air Force has had any part in an 'alien' body recovery operation or continuing cover-up."
However, as a letter attached to the report suggested, this was never likely to be accepted by UFOlogists. "It is assumed that pro-UFO groups will strongly object to the attached report and denounce it as either shortsighted or a continuation of the 'cover-up' conspiracy," Colonel Richard Weaver from the US Air Force wrote.
Things weren’t helped by a film in 1995 called Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? that aired repeatedly on TV, showing grainy footage of an “alien autopsy” taking place in a government building. Although later revealed to be nothing but a hoax, many images from that movie are still circulated by conspiracy theorists today as being the real deal.
And unfortunately, like any a good conspiracy theory – from climate change to the Moon landings – no amount of evidence will ever be enough for those that truly believe.
“If you believe it’s a cover-up, you’ll never believe they revealed the full facts,” said Watson. “People who believe in Roswell will always believe in Roswell. I don’t think there’s any way you can really turn the clock back now.”
It’s an exciting tale, sure. Sadly, it’s just a tale. But for some, it doesn’t matter what we write here or what any government says. Roswell is ingrained in our culture now, the yardstick against which all other conspiracies are compared. And all because of a pesky Cold War.