Science  /  Retrieval

In 1947, A High-Altitude Balloon Crash Landed in Roswell. The Aliens Never Left

Despite its persistence in popular culture, extraterrestrial life owes more to the imagination than reality.
J Dykstra/Wikimedia Commons

In Roswell, New Mexico, exactly seven decades ago this month, the first little green men arrived.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s start closer to the beginning. On June 14, 1947, a rancher named W.W. “Mac” Brazel and his son Vernon were driving across their ranchland some 80 miles northwest of Roswell when they encountered something they’d never seen before. It was, in Brazel’s words, “a large area of bright wreckage made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, and rather tough paper, and sticks.

The metallic-looking, lightweight fabric was scattered, shredded across the gravel and sagebrush of the New Mexico desert. Brazel didn’t know what to do with the newfound items, or how they had landed on the property, so on July 4 he collected all of the mysterious wreckage he could find. On July 7, he drove it all to Roswell, delivering the goods to Sheriff George Wilcox.

Wilcox, too, was confounded.

Seeking answers, he contacted Colonel “Butch” Blanchard, commander of the Roswell Army Airfield’s 509th Composite Group, located just outside of town. Blanchard was stymied. Working his way up the chain of command, he decided to contact his superior, General Roger W. Ramey, commander of the 8th Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas.

Blanchard also sent Major Jesse Marcel, an intelligence officer from the base, to investigate more thoroughly. Accompanied by the sheriff and Brazel, Marcel returned to the site and collected all of the “wreckage.” As they tried to ascertain what the materials were, Marcel chose to make a public statement. On July 8, Marcel’s comments ran in the local afternoon newspaper, the Roswell Daily Record, alongside a headline stating “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell.”

The body of the story contained a dramatic, memorable sentence: “The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment Group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into the possession of a Flying Saucer.”

“Apparently, it was better from the Air Force’s perspective that there was a crashed ‘alien’ spacecraft out there than to tell the truth,” says Roger Launius, the recently-retired curator of space history at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

“A flying saucer was easier to admit than Project Mogul,” Launius adds, a chuckle in his voice. “And with that, we were off to the races.”