July 7, 2010
“It was 58 years ago today that the Roswell incident occurred,” said Roger Launius, a National Air and Space Museum Space History curator who could also be considered NASM’s chief skeptic. (An earlier talk of his concerned people who refuse to believe the Apollo program landed men on the moon.) His “Ask an Expert” presentation for museum visitors, ”Assessing the Legacy of the Roswell Incident,” clearly defined fact versus fiction in the UFO craze that got its start at New Mexico’s Roswell Army Air Field in July 1947—shortly after pilot Ken Arnold coined the term “flying saucer” to describe what he saw on a flight one June afternoon.
“Most Ask an Expert presentations focus on an artifact,” said Launius. “Unfortunately, we have no artifacts from Roswell. Maybe in the future, we will [SNERK].” Fellow snerker David DeVorkin had dusted off his tin foil hat, which he had worn at the “No Apollo” talk, and later lobbed a few softball questions at his Space History co-worker.
All the fuss and feathers arose from debris found by rancher Mac Brazel, who brought it to county sheriff George Wilcox, who notified Roswell Army Air Field, where, the story goes, a colonel okayed a press release that stated the base had captured a flying saucer. There is no documentation whatsoever on how this info was released to the local newspapers, and, as Launius put it, the stories from the major players, some of whom lived into the 1990s, “got better with time.”
The next day, the Army debunked the entire tale, but the damage was done, and the UFO craze continues today, with Roswell and its UFO Museum a big tourist attraction.
What really happened? Project Mogul. Mogul, conceived by Columbia University’s Maurice Ewing, involved a 600-foot-long chain of high-altitude Mylar balloons, microphones, sensors, and instrumentation designed to audibly detect Soviet A-bomb tests. Mogul Flight 4 was launched from Alamogordo on June 4, 1947, and is likely the source of the debris Brazel brought to Sheriff Wilcox. Although that doesn’t make for nearly as much whoop-dee-do as alien autopsies, another Roswell legacy.
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