The Mythogenesis of Crashed Space Ships
Posted May 27, 2012
Joe says he can broad-jump thirty feet. We take him to the track and give him three chances; his best effort falls short of twenty feet. We’re amicable about it, and treat Joe to a couple of Guinness Stouts at Murphy’s Pub. In walks Jim who claims he can jump thirty feet. Putting aside the fact that the world’s record for the broad jump is 29 feet, four and 3/8ths inches, it is an axiom of investigative research that if one person makes an extraordinary claim that we disprove, we cannot assume that a similar claim by another person is factually false unless we investigate it. Perhaps the most remarkable attribute about claims of UFO observations and alien encounters is that, although they harbor features in common, each is singular and independent. Disproving one does not mean that the others are automatically false. It is theoretically possible for a thousand such claims to be proven factually invalid—a result of hoaxes or misperceptions—and the next one to be empirically true. And though the parallels among the many bogus extraterrestrial assertions are provocative, intriguing, even evidentiary, this does not mean that the refutation of the thousandth is axiomatic.
By the way, I’d bet the house against Jim’s boast.
Now let’s say our friend Joe claims he jumped thirty feet twenty years ago and that Jim witnessed it, which we confirm by asking Jim. Then, a dozen—two dozen, a thousand—alleged eyewitnesses step forward and say they also saw Jim make that prodigious leap, but none of them told us that back then. We’re deeply impressed. After all, consensual validation usually constitutes strong evidence in journalism and the social and behavioral sciences, but the fact that they’re telling us this now—and they didn’t tell it to us two decades ago, when it supposedly happened—makes us feel kind of uneasy about the claim’s truth value. They knew us then; why didn’t they tell us at the time? And why doesn’t Joe show us his ability to jump now? We’re not sure what to think.
Crucial for “close encounters” stories is that each claim of extraterrestrials on Earth is anecdotal—a narrative told by one or more specific individuals about one or more specific events they supposedly experienced. True, the narration of such tales is embedded within a particular social environment and hence, subject to cultural circumstances as well as the conflation of events over time and the accretion of what supposed witnesses have learned since then. But consider the parallels among such stories. After all, common sense tells us that a pile of bogus stories makes the next one suspect. In UFOs and Alien Contact, researchers Robert Bartholomew and George Howard draw congruencies between earlier, implausible, claims of the crash of extra-earthly spaceships and the Roswell-Corona eyewitness reports. One such ship was said to have crashed on an island in the Indian Ocean; another, in Aurora, Texas: “A secondhand narrative of alien creatures in a space vessel that crashes in a remote, barren location. The craft is destroyed and foreign writing is found inside. Their bodies are disposed of and the debris lost. A piece of confirming evidence is salvaged.” Again, the parallels are intriguing—but not definitive. We can’t say Roswell is bogus because the others are.
The “Roswell Incident” is the most famous extraterrestrial visitation story and, in several key respects, it is the most paradigmatic—a blueprint for all later such incidents. If the evidence documenting Roswell is fatally flawed, many skeptics reason, similar tales lack veracity as well. This assumption is tempting, but scientifically invalid. For one thing, as many informed observers have pointed out, Roswell is an “easy win” for the skeptic. In “A Roswell Requiem,” B.D. “Duke” Gildenberg states that the New Mexico crash was “one of the worst candidates ever proposed as proof of alien visitation.” Yet the story grips the public’s imagination as no other E.T. tale does. From a scientific point of view, the New Mexico crash is highly questionable; from a popular perspective, it is not only credible but positively rhapsodic—an interstellar Odyssey with a bad ending for our visitors. But to a sociologist and a psychologist, its scientific weakness makes it all the more fascinating. If it’s such a weak case, why is the musk of its siren song so appealing to us? Its lure tells us a multitude about mythogenesis—the how and why of the birth, propagation, and credibility of legend, folktale, and apocrypha. Even better, what Roswell provides us with is a gold mine case study of a culture conflict between believers and debunkers: What each side regards as overwhelmingly convincing evidence is debunked and rejected by the other, and vice versa. How is it possible for two sides to disagree so strongly about the evidence?
The time-line of the Roswell incident is crucial. (And here, Gildenberg’s, “Roswell Requiem” seems most careful and reliable.)
On June 4th, the Alamogordo Army Air Force base released Mogul Flight #4, part of a high-altitude balloon array, each some 600 feet long, designed to monitor sound waves from Soviet nuclear tests. It was constructed of sheets of tin foil, balsa wood, Scotch tape, and rubber. Days later, it crash-landed in the desert some 30 miles southeast of Corona, New Mexico, and 75 miles northwest of Roswell.
On or about June 14, 1947, “Mack” Brazel, a ranch foreman, found some debris in the desert about seven or eight miles from his sheep ranch—precisely in the area of the balloon crash—scattered over a football field-sized area; he later described it as consisting of sheets of tinfoil, rubber strips, balsa struts partially covered with tape, and “tough paper.” He ignored the material.
On the 24th of June, pilot Kenneth Arnold, while over Washington State on a private expedition to recover a crashed military cargo plane, spotted what he thought were nine shiny aircraft flying past Mt. Rainier at an incredible speed. He later described their formation as resembling the tail of a kite, explaining that their movement (but not their shape) resembled stones or saucers being skipped over a pond. The story created a sensation, touching off nearly a thousand UFO reports, and the term “flying saucer” stuck. (Arnold did not automatically assume that the objects were extraterrestrial in origin.) However, Brazel, who lived in a cabin in the desert with no radio or phone, had not heard about the sighting until the following week.
On July 4th, he returned to the crash site with his son to gather up the material he had found earlier, rolled it up—it weighed about five pounds, he later explained—and tossed it under a bush.
On July 5th, Brazel went to Corona and heard about Arnold’s “flying disks.”
On the 6th or 7th (reports vary) Brazel told Chaves County Sheriff George Wilcox about his find, who suggested he may have found the remains of a disk. Wilcox called the Roswell Army Air Force (RAAF) base.
On the 7th, Major Jesse Marcel, Roswell Army Air Force field intelligence officer, and Sheridan Cavitt, RAAF base counterintelligence officer, accompanied Brazel to the ranch to locate more of the material and survey the site; Marcel packed up the material.
On July 8th, Marcel returned to the Roswell base with the material then flew to the Fort Worth Army Air Force field, en route to what is now referred to Wright-Patterson Air Force base, near Dayton, Ohio, where the material would be examined by “higher authorities.” The journey’s first stop was the Fort Worth Army Air Field, where the stuff was photographed.
Also on the 8th, while Marcel was in transit, his office released the “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region” story, which was published in the Roswell Daily Record that evening and picked up by the Associated Press. The subhead was far more subdued: “No details of Flying Disk Are Revealed.” Like Arnold’s sighting, the story created a world-wide sensation. At last, we had definitive proof of an extraterrestrial visitation!
On the 9th, pictures of the debris were published in the Fort Worth Evening Star-Telegram; the material corresponds to the description above—sticks, tinfoil, and rubber.
Also on the 9th, the RAAF released a story that the debris was a “weather balloon,” a cover story that appeared in the Roswell Daily Record (“Gen. Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer”), accompanied by another article about how “sorry” Mack was about revealing his discovery. Since Project Mogul was top secret until 1972, top brass at the Army Air Force thought the “weather balloon” story provided the necessary diversion.
This is how the Record described the material on the 9th.
The balloon which held it up . . . must have been 12 feet long. . . . The rubber was smoky gray in color and scattered over an area about 200 yards in diameter. When the debris was gathered up, the tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks made a bundle about three feet long and 7 or 8 inches thick, while the rubber bundle about 18 or 20 inches long. In all, he estimated, the entire lot would have weighed maybe five pounds. There was no sign of metal in the area which might have been used for an engine, and no sign of propellers of any kind, although at least one paper fin had been glued onto some of the tinfoil. There were no words to be found anywhere on the instrument, although there were letters on some of the parts. Considerable Scotch tape and some tape with flowers printed upon it had been used in the construction. No strings or wires were to be found but there were some eyelets in the paper to indicate that some sort of attachment may have been used.
It is important to keep in mind—and it is significant for the skeptic and the debunker—that none of the contemporaneous reports of the debris described alien bodies, tiny coffins, an autopsy, a space craft, multiple crash sites, or any magical properties of the material. No one mentioned massive cover-ups or conspiracies; only much later did supposed “witnesses”—and, subsequently, a substantial sector of the public—insist that the crashed material was composed of the remains of an inter-galactic starship containing dead extraterrestrial voyagers. All of the Roswell witness testimonies claiming to have seen aliens and a space ship are post-1947; they are thirty-plus-year reconstructions. At the time, even UFOlogists failed to mention the crash as evidentiary to their case. Roswell was not an issue, and following the Army cover-story and the appearance of the photographs, there occurred three decades of thundering silence.
Three media events opened the torrent of allegations and disputation. First, in 1978, a television station manager, knowing of Stanton Friedman’s interest in matters extraterrestrial, suggested that he talk to Maj. Marcel, a key witness to the Roswell materials, and a 1979 television documentary, UFOs Are Real, based on Marcel’s statements, was broadcast. Second, in February 1980, the National Enquirer published an interview with Maj. Marcel, in which he expounded on the nature of the debris. At that time, he had concluded that the floral patterns on the Scotch tape represented “hieroglyphics,” and that the materials were not of this earth—hard, durable, unbreakable, unburnable, unbendable, undentable. He did not mention alien bodies. And the third event, later in 1980, was the publication of The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William Moore (Stanton Friedman was not given co-authorship), authors of The Bermuda Triangle—which argued the demonstrably spurious claim that ships and planes mysteriously disappeared in an area of the Atlantic Ocean. Again, the fact that they were catastrophically wrong about one assertion doesn’t necessarily mean that they were wrong about another.
Together, the TV documentary, the National Enquirer interview, and the Berlitz-Moore-Friedman book advanced the contention that the debris found in the New Mexico desert was the wreckage of an extraterrestrial craft. Moreover, the book took a bold step forward and related the extraordinary story, narrated by a man who had died in 1969, about a second crash some 150 miles from the Corona debris, on the plains of Saint Augustin, which was littered with tiny humanoid bodies—a secondhand story in which, back then, no one, including, Friedman says, Friedman himself, placed any credence. The story, and its subsequent chronicling in the Berlitz-Moore book, put the element of the alien bodies on the mythological map. The Roswell space ship crash, feeble provenance aside, is one hell of a great story; its drama, à la “proof of the pudding,” is demonstrated by its stupendous media popularity. Today, it is standard lore for a substantial proportion of UFOlogists.
Since then, virtually all subsequent “Roswell” narratives have contained the crashed-space-ship and alien-bodies assertions; dozens of books and thousands upon thousands of articles have made use of these themes, working their way into the body of American culture. Multiple witnesses have stepped forward, narrating and reinforcing the Roswell legend, which now rivals the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (another conspiracy theory) as a pivotal bone of contention. At this point, no conceivable piece of locatable evidence will satisfy all or most parties on both sides of this dispute that the case is closed.
Roswell is a delectable mouthful of mythology. Who can resist it? We’ll be feasting on its morsels for decades to come
John B. Alexander, UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies, and Realities. Thomas Dunne Books/St.
Martin’s Press, 2011.
Robert E. Bartholomew and George S. Howard, UFOs and Alien Contact: Two Centuries of
Mystery. Prometheus Books, 1998.
Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, The Roswell Incident. Grosset & Dunlap, 1980.
Thomas E. Bullard, The Myth and Mystery of UFOs. University Press of Kansas, 2010.
Thomas J. Carey and Donald R. Schmitt. Witness to Roswell (rev. & exp. ed.). New Page
B. “Duke” Gildenberg, “A Roswell Requiem,” Skeptic, vol. 10, no. 1, 2003.
Joe Nickell and James McGaha. “The Roswellian Syndrome: How Some UFO Myths
Develop.” Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2012.