IF THE TRUTH IS ANYWHERE, IT’S out there in Roswell, New Mexico, the site of the most famous UFO incident in American history. In July 1947 something fell out of the sky and crashed onto a ranch outside of town, and that something—described as an alien spacecraft by many locals and UFO buffs, dismissed as a weather balloon by the Army—has made the city’s name synonymous with “government cover-up.” Although Roswell for decades distanced itself from spacey sorts, today its UFO fame is no longer an alien concept. This month, as the town gears up to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the crash with a galaxy of events—a costume contest, a “spaceship” design competition, a “flying saucer” (pancake) eating contest—it will also be celebrating its emergence as a pop culture phenomenon and bona fide tourist destination.
Centered in the southeastern quadrant of New Mexico, the town of 50,000 is ninety miles or so from the Texas state line and about a two-hour drive from Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands, and it snags a healthy percentage of visitors to those sites (some 10,000 a month even before the summer hordes begin to descend, some 50,000 expected for the July 1—6 anniversary celebration). But the real impetus for Roswell’s rebirth has been the gradual popular acceptance of belief in extraterrestrials, once the province of unabashed wackos. For example, Roswell (the town is interchangeable with the incident) is regularly invoked on the hit show The X-Files, and it’s also the basis of a regular spoof featured in The Simpsons comic-book spin-offs. This spring a national commercial for Butterfinger candy bars also capitalized on the Roswell appeal.
Closer to home, much of the credit for Roswell’s fame is due Mayor Tom Jennings, a trim, mustachioed 47-year-old. His predecessors steadfastly refused to exploit the flying saucer saga, but Jennings—trying to revitalize a town with a household income 23 percent below the national median—welcomed the UFO connection as a way to boost the lo-cal economy. The town adopted a new slogan—“Welcome to Roswell, Wherever You’re From”—and now boasts not one but two UFO museums. Since 1995, when Jennings backed the first UFO festival (the brainchild of local oilman Stan Crosby), the city has benefited to the tune of $5 million a year, from motel rooms to bumper stickers proclaiming “I Crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.” Local business endeavors took off too, such as Impact Confections, a candy company that has marketed its alien-headed Glow Pop nationwide.
A steady stream of visitors cruises Roswell’s eleven-mile main drag ( U.S. Highway 285), which is punctuated by more than a dozen traffic lights. Like most cities hereabouts, Roswell sprawls across relatively flat terrain broken occasionally by gulleys and mesas. The wide-open spaces and unobstructed sky account for the area’s status as an aeronautics center; the military has long tested aircraft in the state’s wild blue yonder (not to mention guided missiles and atomic bombs), and the elbowroom also inspired rocketry pioneer Robert H. Goddard to relocate from Massachusetts. Even New Mexico’s state symbol—the zia, adapted from a Native American sun sign—pays homage to the heavens. (Some stars are more earthbound; actress Demi Moore, whose maternal grandmother lives in Roswell, is occasionally sighted at a local cappuccino bar.)
As for the 1947 incident itself, there are few undisputed facts, but the basics are these: Around July 4 a ranch foreman named Mac Brazel discovered metallic debris scattered across pastureland near the hamlet of Corona. He showed a few scraps to fascinated locals and to the Chaves County sheriff, who in turn alerted officers at the Roswell Army Air Field. Those officers, intrigued by the unfamiliar nature of the material—supposedly it could be crumpled but not torn—quickly dispatched two hundred soldiers to retrieve the remaining debris. They then issued a press release alerting the public to the recovery of a “flying disc” and shipped the strange material to the Fort Worth Army Air Field (later Carswell Air Force Base) for further testing. It was there that General Roger Ramey summarily quashed the report, brusquely identifying the wreckage as nothing more than a weather balloon. Subsequently several other key figures, including ranch foreman Brazel, also recast their recollection of the events.
But the government’s explanation rang resoundingly false. As many as 350 locals, both military and civilian, claimed to have examined the debris firsthand. In addition, plenty of people asserted something more astonishing: The Army had found one alien that had survived the crash and the bodies of two others. The feds have fessed up to their deceit in other shocking cases—for instance, their deliberate failure, for a period of forty years, to treat African American men in Tuskegee, Alabama, who had syphilis—but half a century later, Uncle Sam remains mum about Roswell. In March, Space Center Houston, NASA’s entertainment complex, advertised an exhibit titled “The Roswell Incident: Fact or Fiction? You Decide.” But a few weeks before its scheduled opening, the exhibit was canceled without explanation. (Other institutions are also skittish: Pepsi-Cola canceled its backing of a rock concert during the Roswell celebration because—according to concert organizers—it feared being linked to “Heaven’s Gate cult nuts” and other fringe types.)
The nonstop stonewalling has, of course, fueled ever-wilder speculation about what truly happened that summer of 1947. The town’s duo of UFO museums provides a crash course. One, the UFO Enigma Museum (6108 S. Main, 505-347-2275, $1), is a wan little storefront operation on the south edge of town stocked largely with laughably faked UFO photographs and tabloid clippings so blown up that the type suggests nebulas. Best of show is a diorama of the spaceship wreckage complete with lifeless E.T.’s, an expressionless plaster GI, and a coiled rattlesnake. The larger undertaking—a don’t-miss venue—is the International UFO Museum and Research Center (114 N. Main, 625-9495, free), housed in the former Plains Theater. The warehousey setting offers an endearingly tacky jumble of UFO-related displays. There are homemade UFO-themed crafts (metallic polyester fabric and glow-in-the-dark paint figure largely) as well as declassified government documents;