Flying saucers made their first official appearance in the summer of 1947. On June 25, Kenneth Arnold, a Boise, Idaho, rescue pilot working for the U.S. Forest Service, flew over the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, searching for a missing plane. He spotted nine disc-shaped craft, which he guessed to be moving at a speed of 1,200 miles an hour and at an altitude of 10,000 feet. When Arnold described their motion as resembling "a saucer skipping over water," a newspaper headline dubbed them "flying saucers." Almost instantly, believable witnesses from other states and several foreign countries reported similar sightings--enlivening wire-service dispatches for days.
Within two weeks, on July 8, 1947, the United States Army announced that it had recovered a flying saucer from the New Mexican desert, near a town called Roswell. The morning after, the Army corrected itself: The "saucer" had been a misidentified weather balloon.
Thus began the infamous "Roswell Incident," the mother of all UFO scenarios. At first, it seemed to be a burst of excitement over nothing--a story of "Man Bites Dog" that quickly faded into "Dog Bites Man." But over decades, the event at Roswell has been repeatedly remembered, reevaluated, and retold, so that it now boasts seminal importance in the annals of contacts with extraterrestrial civilizations.
According to several residents of Roswell who claim to be eyewitnesses, at least one alien craft crashed there that summer of 1947. However, they say, military and government parties--including the Air Force, the FBI, and the White House--intentionally covered up the facts. As a former employee of the local funeral parlor recalls, the humanoid bodies of the saucer's crew were autopsied at the Roswell Army Air Field Hospital immediately after the crash. Then their remains were flown to Dayton, Ohio, to the site of what is now Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where they were frozen for future study.
Rumors circulated that one of the creatures had even survived the accident. It lived for over a year, sequestered and cared for in a specially built top-secret facility, before succumbing to an Earth-acquired infection.
Now, nearly half a century after the precipitating event, New Mexico Congressman Stephen H. Schiff has asked the General Accounting Office (GAO), which is the investigative arm of Congress, to investigate the incident.
Did the military act appropriately at the time--or did it move to suppress information, spread lies, and silence the residents of Roswell, some of whom claim they received death threats warning them never to reveal what went on there in July 1947?
GAO spokesman Cleve Corlett insists his agency is not investigating Roswell, as many students of the case contend. "We don't talk about our work till it's finished," Corlett said. But whatever the truth, thanks to publicity from Schiff and others, Roswell has spawned interest from many quarters indeed.
For example, a recent Showtime movie called Roswell, based on the book UFO Crash at Roswell, paints a vivid picture of charred aliens on operating tables, amid a Watergate-style cover-up masterminded by four- and five-star generals, scientists, super-spies, and Cabinet members. The film celebrates the twin themes of the Roswell Incident--the arrival of extraterrestrial visitors and the paranoia regarding government conspiracy. With documentary verisimilitude, Roswell depicts UFOs as the vehicles that ferry aliens to Earth, and the governments of the world as the powers that conceal the alien presence.
At the opposite extreme, the U.S. Air Force has completed its own internal review of the events and allegations. Its "Report on Roswell," which was released in September 1994, identifies the so-called "weather balloon" as part of a once-top-secret experimental program, "Project Mogul," for monitoring Russian nuclear bomb tests. A page-one story in the New York Times of September 18, 1994, heralded this explanation as the long-awaited denouement of the Roswell Incident. Project Mogul, the Air Force and the Times agreed, dismissed the alien-spaceship tale as a modern myth. Proponents of the alleged saucer crash and subsequent cover-up, however, remain unconvinced by the Air Force account.
How good is the evidence on each side of the Roswell Incident? What really happened there? And if all that landed was a glorified weather balloon, why won't the legend die?
I came to this story prejudiced, as all journalists are, with my own preconceived notions. As the co-author of a book about the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) through radio astronomy, I firmly believe that other civilizations share our galaxy, and may even be trying to contact us. But I do not think that flying saucers are landing here. The alien presence would have to be ubiquitous to explain all the claims of contact I have heard. Nevertheless, the Roswell incident intrigued me because it was born practically at the moment of my birth, in June of 1947. Maybe Roswell was as real as I am. I mean, if the entire universe could happen once--rise whole cloth out of one Big Bang--why not admit the arrival on Earth of a lone flying saucer?