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The Roswell Incident at 70: Facts, Not Myths

Special Report

Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.6, November/December 2017


The seventieth anniversary of the so-called Roswell Incident came and went this past summer with a refreshing lack of fuss. One might even hope to think the passions it evokes among believers that a flying saucer crashed on a ranch in south-central New Mexico back in July 1947 have, over time, finally waned. But the rationalists in us realizes that is not likely. Maybe they are just tired and will be back again after a rest.

That’s kind of what happened with Roswell. It was a big story back in early July 1947 for a few days, but then when the Air Force announced that what the rancher found was related to balloon flights and not to anything more mysterious, the story disappeared from public discourse until it was resurrected again by several factually unscrupulous writers in the early 1980s.

From your editor’s vantage point as a Roswell-watcher from Albuquerque, only about a hundred air miles from the supposed crash site, the most noticeable recent blip on the radar was an anniversary story by the Carlsbad Current-Argus reprinted in the July 8 Albuquerque Journal and titled “Roswell Incident Lives on 70 Years Later.”

The largest newspaper in the state, the Albuquerque Journal has been noticeably free of sensationalism about Roswell for a long time. This reprinted story was a bit of an anomaly. It basically recounted the myth and various claims believers have put forth about it since but unfortunately gave no information that explains the origin story.

That moved me to write a letter to the Journal that, to their credit, they published as a short op-ed piece in their Sunday, July 16, edition, “Roswell Myth Lives on Despite the Established Facts.” (Available online at https://www.abqjournal.com/1033584/roswell-myth-lives-on-despite-the-established-facts.html.)

In it I simply pointed out some key facts the article failed to mention. It may be worthwhile reminding you, our readers, of those, and a few others as well.

What rancher W. W. (Mac) Brazel reported finding on his ranch, sixty miles northwest of Roswell, was simply this: Debris consisting of a large number of pieces of paper covered with a foil-like substance and pieced together with small sticks, much like a kite. And also some pieces of grey rubber (my emphases). All were small and hardly some high-tech alien flying saucer!

The reporter should have told readers what we now know (almost certainly) the debris to have been: remnants of a long vertical “train” of research balloons and equipment launched by New York University atmospheric researchers and not recovered—specifically, Flight No. 4. The research team launched NYU Flight #4 on June 4, 1947, from Alamogordo Army Air Field and tracked it flying east-northeast toward Corona. It was within seventeen miles of the Brazel ranch when the tracking batteries failed and contact was lost.

New York University’s role in launching the “constant-level” research balloons was unclassified. In the 1990s, it was learned that the mission also had a classified purpose, called “Project Mogul,” to learn whether such balloons could take highly sensitive microphones and keep them at a level in the atmosphere (the tropopause) where they might be able to detect acoustic signals channeled round the Earth from Soviet nuclear tests.

On the evening of February 8, 1995, I was present at a meeting in Albuquerque of New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) when the man who helped launch Flight 4, Professor Charles B. Moore, showed us some of what was on that flight. In 1947, Moore was an NYU graduate student, working on the balloon launches. He spent the rest of his career as a respected professor of atmospheric physics at New Mexico Tech in Socorro.

NMSR is the local science-oriented skeptics group in Albuquerque. I helped found it in 1990, based on CSICOP’s inspiration, and it has been headed for years now by physicist/mathematician and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Fellow Dave Thomas. Thomas works in Socorro and also teaches a course on pseudoscience there at New Mexico Tech.

In addition to Thomas and me (and many others), physicist and CSI Fellow Mark Boslough told me recently that he remembers being in the audience at that remarkable 1995 evening meeting.

Moore brought with him a radar reflector like the three that were attached to Flight 4. Specifically, they were Signal Corps ML 307B RAWIN targets. It looked much like a box kite but with some angular surfaces. The sticks and metallic paper are similar to what Brazel described. The rubber Brazel noted was similar to the neoprene balloons used to carry equipment aloft. The radar reflectors contained small metal eyelets, similar to those Brazel had described on the debris he found.

Moore also provided a new and very telling detail. The reinforcing tape used on the NYU targets had curious markings; UFO believers later described these markings on the debris Brazel discovered as “hieroglyphics,” implying some form of alien writing. In fact, Moore told us the tape had been purchased from a New York City toy factory and the symbols on the tape were “abstract flower-like” designs made to appeal to kids (Figure 1).

These and other established facts of the Roswell incident will of course never catch up with the charming myth. It is understandable that UFO believers and Roswell city boosters will promote the myth as possible reality (wink, wink), but, as I wrote in my op-ed, “in this day of ‘fake news,’ let’s not be a party to that.”

All these facts, and many more supporting details, have been widely available since the mid-to-late 1990s in various scholarly publications. They include a book that Charles Moore himself coauthored with two anthropology professors, UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth, Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997); The UFO Invasion, a Skeptical Inquirer anthology I coedited with Barry Karr and Joe Nickell (Prometheus Books, 1996), which includes David E. Thomas’s special report from the July/August 1995 Skeptical Inquirer “The Roswell Incident and Project Mogul” and many other Roswell-related articles; and two U.S. Air Force investigative reports, Report of Air Force Research Regarding the ‘Roswell Incident’ (1994) and The Roswell Report: Case Closed, Headquarters United States Air Force, written by Capt. James McAndrew, 1997.

The NYU balloon flight assemblages were huge. The diagram Moore supplied in his talk for flight 2, similar to flight 4, and published in the above-mentioned Skeptical Inquirer article (Figure 2 here), requires three vertical columns to display all the components. They include three radar reflectors, various measuring instruments, and twenty-four separate balloons. Charles Moore told us the whole interconnected array extended a vertical distance of 700 to 800 feet. So the common explanation of “weather balloon” is quite the understatement.

Some additional points: The director of research for the NYU balloon-launch experiments in 1947 was famous New York University geophysicist and meteorologist Athelstan Spilhaus. I knew Spilhaus when I was editor of Science News in the 1970s because he then was on the Board of Trustees of Science Service, Science News’s publisher. I knew nothing about Roswell then. Spilhaus died in 1998 at the age of eighty-six.

Figure 1. “Abstract flower-like designs” on toy-factory tape used on the NYU radar targets.

In 2009 when his son, Fred Spilhaus, retired from his longtime position as executive director of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., he wrote whimsically that his father was the man responsible for the Roswell Incident (Physics Today, February 2009, quoted in the May/June 2009 Skeptical Inquirer). Athelstan Spilhaus was quite a colorful character. He is the only scientist I have ever heard of who had his own Sunday newspaper comic strip. Titled “Our New Age,” it ran in color in 110 newspapers all over the world from 1958 until 1975. When President Kennedy met Spilhaus in 1962, JFK told him, “The only science I ever learned was from your comic strip in the Boston Globe” (see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/sunday-funnies-blast-off-into-the-space-age-81559551/).

If what Brazel found was so mundane, why did someone think it had to do with a crashed “flying saucer”? The reason is that the term flying saucer had just hit the news media for the first time. On June 24, 1947, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported a series of what he described as boomerang-shaped objects flying up and down near Washington’s Mt. Rainier. He said they “flew erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water,” and from then on the term flying saucer took hold, even though he never said they looked like saucers (see Robert Sheaffer, The UFO Verdict, Prometheus Books, 1998, p. 15). This started a media frenzy and people began looking to the skies and seeing things they’d never seen before (including over New Mexico) and reporting more “flying discs” or “flying saucers.” Many possible explanations for Arnold’s sighting have been suggested. In their May/June 2014 Skeptical Inquirercover article “Mount Rainier: Saucer Magnet,” James McGaha and Joe Nickell describe McGaha’s hypothesis that it was due to optical phenomena called “mountain-top mirages.” (I wonder if at least some of the “flying disc” sightings in New Mexico were reflections of the huge NYU/Project Mogul balloon assemblages being launched fairly regularly.)

Figure 2. Diagram of balloon train from NYU Flight 2, similar to that of Flight 4, debris from which seems to have stimulated the original Roswell Incident.

Brazel had been persuaded that the debris he had found might have something to do with the reports of “flying discs” that were then exciting everyone. His report was made public in Roswell July 8, 1947, at the height of the craze.

A public affairs officer at the local army air field was excited about the find and so made the now-famous announcement that it had something to do with saucer sightings, without further checking. That made front-page news. By then Brazel said he was amazed at the fuss and sorry he said anything about it.

Ironically, the report of what Brazel actually found, an explanation that it was a “weather balloon”(not quite right but kind of close), and the date he had found it, June 14, before the media frenzy of sightings started—all are reported in an Associated Press article published on page 2 in the July 9, 1947, Carlsbad Current-Argus (“‘Flying Disc’ turns Out to Be Weather Balloon”; I have a copy of it, see Figure 3). This is the same newspaper that unfortunately seemed to forget those facts in their July 2017 anniversary article.

In the subsequent mythmaking, one of the main sensationalist books (The Roswell Incident, Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, 1980) claimed that the debris was from a flying saucer that passed over Roswell the evening of July 2, 1947. But in fact Brazel had found the debris much earlier, on June 14, just ten days after the NYU team had lost track of Flight #4, headed toward his ranch. (“This blows the whole yarn out of the water,” wrote James Moseley in his Saucer Smear newsletter, v. 29, No. 4, May 15, 1982.)

Back then these “flying discs” didn’t have the associations they have today. Nobody knew what they might be (and indeed some reports at the time did suggest that they were meteorological phenomena, or delusions, or mass hysteria, or visual misinterpretations of things seen in the skies). The idea of alien spacecraft hadn’t gained hold yet. At best the concern was that if they were physical craft at all, they might be Soviet or even holdover Nazi aircraft.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the mythmaking process really took off. More fantastic and wild stories emerged (or were concocted) in a process familiar to folklorists. Three out-and-out hoaxes were widely publicized, then exposed.

As for reports of sightings of alien bodies, the second (1997) U.S. Air Force report investigated and found there were no contemporary reports of alien bodies being found in 1947. These (unverified) reports came only in UFO books and articles published after 1978.

The Air Force report describes in detail a long series of Air Force experiments over decades in which instrumented lifelike anthropomorphic dummies were dropped out of high-altitude research balloons over New Mexico. This began in the 1950s and continued for many years. Most were launched over Holloman Air Force Base or the White Sands Missile Range, but the balloons soon floated beyond those boundaries. The idea was to measure the effects of extreme environments and situations deemed too hazardous for a human being (page 17).

Such instrumented crash-test dummies were not familiar at that time, and the report suggests that one “very likely could be mistaken for an alien.” This conclusion was widely ridiculed by UFO believers at the time, but the report gives a large amount of supporting detail and shows dozens of photographs. That explanation, to most fair-minded observers, has stood the test of time. Among the kinds of eye-witness statements that support the crash-test dummies explanation were statements such as “his eyes were open, staring blankly,” “their skin coloration . . . a bluish-tinted milky white.” At other times, the report says, injured airmen, some seriously so, were brought to the Roswell base after accidents, and it suggests some reports are mixed-up remembrances of those.

One last piece of corroborating testimony: In 2001 journalist Guy P. Harrison interviewed Joe Kittinger (Colonel, U.S. Air Force, ret.), one of the great aviation pioneers of the twentieth century. In 1960 Kittinger had jumped out of a balloon over New Mexico from the very upper edge of the atmosphere (102,800 feet, or nineteen miles). In a free fall that lasted four minutes, he reached a speed of 600 miles per hour.

Harrison was mainly interested in those kinds of real adventures, but he hesitantly asked Kittinger about Roswell. “It never happened,” Kittinger said, and went on to describe the events involving the NYU balloon experiments I have reported here. “The so-called alien spaceship was that balloon. . . . A lot of people want to believe it was aliens, and they want to believe there was a big cover-up. But I’ll tell you, it never happened.”

Figure 3. Associated Press article published July 9, 1947, reporting that the debris rancher Mac Brazel had found on June 14 (long before the July 2 “flying saucer” sighting over Roswell) consisted of “pieces of paper with a foil-like substance, and pieced together with small sticks, much like a kite.” Plus “pieces of grey rubber. All were small.” (Author’s collection.)

What did happen, he said, is that these high-altitude drops of humanlike dummies contributed to the Roswell myth. “Absolutely they did. These dummies we dropped from balloons were dressed in pressure suits, so they looked unusual.” (These quotes are from Chapter 13 of Harrison’s excellent 2012 book, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True [Prometheus Books], and I relate them here with his permission.)

“One time we dropped one and it fell way up in the mountains,” Kittinger said. “These dummies weighed more than two hundred fifty pounds. So how do you carry one out of the mountains? We put it on a stretcher and carried it in the back of an ambulance to take away. Now if somebody is back in the weeds watching this they are going to say, ‘Wow, look at that alien they have there.’ We think that a lot of the alien sightings were actually us doing our work with the test dummies.”

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier's photo

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.