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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

The Truth is Out There: Where Tourism Meets Conspiracy

Discovery Channel Magazine, September 2012

We wanted to write about conspiracy, about cover-ups, about what we don’t know; about strange sightings and alien landings, secret military projects and devious governments. So let us take you on a roadtrip from Roswell to Area 51, the two holy grails of conspiracy and misdirection. The truth, as they say, is out there.

So. You find Discovery Channel Magazine in the middle of the New Mexico desert, three hours drive from the nearest town, with a man who believes he may have found parts of an alien spacecraft, though he’s prepared to concede they could also be bits of a beer can. It’s a peaceful place: the scrubby, barren emptiness of the windswept high desert, similar to so much of the vast American southwest. But this is no ordinary patch of nothingness, for it is perhaps the most revered place in all UFO and conspiracy theory folklore. This is the Roswell crash site.

Roswell today is an unexceptional American town, a long way from anywhere in southeast New Mexico, but there are little things that set it apart. There are the little green aliens all over the front of the local Wal-Mart, for example, and the flying saucer protruding from the McDonald’s. The focal point of the town – the bedrock of its tourist economy, in fact – is not a church or a town hall, a theatre or a park, but a UFO museum. That’s because Roswell is the home of the most enduring UFO mystery of them all. It is, unquestionably, a cover-up; the only question is, of what?

What we know for sure is that in July 1947 something crashed on ranchland northeast of Roswell, and was discovered by a ranch hand called WW Brazel. He’d never seen anything like the debris before. He put the wreckage in his pick-up truck, and later drove it to the local sheriff’s office. The sheriff called the Roswell Army Air Field – Roswell was, at the time, a far bigger military hotbed than it is today, with much of the nation’s nuclear testing taking place not far away – and the base commander sent over an intelligence officer with a press officer, called Walter Haut.

Later, Haut called a local radio station, KGFL, with an important press release to be read on air. It was no ordinary release and it was swiftly picked up elsewhere, including a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle. The release referred, unequivocally, to the crash of a flying saucer.

But just three hours later, Haut was back at KGFL with a new press release, saying that the first had been a silly mistake, and what had crashed was just a weather balloon. A photo was staged with some weather balloon wreckage – jetsam that those who saw the original debris say had absolutely nothing in common with it – and people were told, with a firmness that would not become clear until much later, to stick to this revised truth.

Not much more was made of this until a researcher called Stan Friedman began looking into the incident in 1978, publishing a book in 1980. After interviewing 62 witnesses who, more than 30 years on, were becoming more willing to speak, he turned up some interesting information: that Brazel had been jailed for nearly a week after his discovery, and told to change his story; that boxes of the debris were loaded onto military trucks and aircraft; that a request was made from the military for child-sized coffins that could be hermetically sealed; that people in town were threatened with prison if they told others what they saw; and that not only had the crash definitely involved a round disk, with an unfamiliar metal that would regain its shape instantly after being crumpled, but that there were child size, humanoid bodies with large heads, large oval eyes, and no noses.

From then on, Roswell has become one of those names that has magnetic resonance for those who are drawn to the unknown, or to what is known to an exclusive few. The major hole in the theory is that there is not one fragment of the craft in civilian hands – supposedly because the military took it all – and hence the evidence we have is eyewitness testimony, which isn’t helped by the fact that none of those closest to the incident spoke about it. Brazel, having been incarcerated (for discovering a weather balloon? In those days weather balloons were widespread; he would have seen dozens of them and certainly wouldn’t have bothered to drive the wreckage to a sheriff), never spoke about what he really saw again. Dee Proctor, a young child who traveled with Brazel when he found or retrieved the wreckage, was so alarmed and frightened by what he saw that he never spoke about it to anyone, even his closest friends. Both are now dead. Most of the military involved in the clear-up never spoke. Books continue to appear on Roswell every couple of years but increasingly they quote children or grandchildren of the main players and the evidence becomes more circumstantial.

Yet there is one fabulous smoking gun. Remember Walter Haut, the man who put the first version on the air and then swiftly corrected it? He subsequently founded Roswell’s UFO Museum and Research Center in order to deal with all the requests for information. And when he died in 2005, he left a sworn affidavit to be opened after his death. It was explosive. The affidavit says that the second press release was a fraud, and that the first was true; he says he saw bodies; and he says: “I am convinced that what I personally observed was some kind of craft and its crew from space.”

Two questions. Why New Mexico? It always seems to be an obscure part of America where these incidents arise. And two, where is the wreckage and the bodies?

Let’s take the first one. Barren as southern New Mexico is today, in 1947 it was “the single most sensitive weapons-related domain in all of America,” according to Annie Jacobsen, an investigative reporter for The Los Angeles Times and author of a new book, Area 51, which we will return to. If you drive west of Roswell for a few hours you reach the extraordinary White Sands, a huge expanse of pristine, sweeping, blindingly white dunes; alongside it is the White Sands Missile Range, and not far from that in the 1940s was the Los Alamos Laboratory. This is where the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had been developed, and where much bigger nuclear packages were now underway. Little Roswell’s air field hosted the 509th Bomb Wing, which had the lone long-range bombers equipped to carry (and drop) nuclear bombs. “A popular theory among ufologists about why aliens would want to visit Earth in the first place has to do with Earthlings’ sudden advance of technologies beginning with the atomic bomb,” Jacobsen says.

And where’s the wreckage? Most ufologists and researchers assert that it was first taken to Wright-Paterson base in Ohio, and then to Area 51 in Nevada – a place so secret that, officially, it doesn’t exist. To this day. We’ll take you there shortly.

But before we do, let us introduce you to Frank Kimbler, who is the man who has taken us to the crash site. Kimbler caused something of a stir when he said he had found metal at the site with “otherworldly properties.” You can see tiny fragments of the metal – smaller than a coin – on . So what’s his story?

One of the interesting things about people drawn to this sort of stuff is that they are not the out-there, conspiracy-frazzled, paranoid Unabomber twerps you might expect. Kimbler is, at heart, a skeptic with a sense of curiosity. He is a respected teacher at the New Mexico Military Institute. “I’m an educated skeptic,” he says. “I’m a scientist. Something scared the hell out of the people around here, and I have tried to look at what it [the wreckage] might be. I know it’s not a balloon.”

“They saw something up there that they refused to talk about until about 10 years ago – and many don’t want to talk about it still, especially the older folks,” he adds, as his 4x4 bounces over the ranch dirt roads near the crash site. “People were told: if you talk about this, they will find your bones in the desert.” He knows Dee Procter’s closest friend, and confirms that Dee never spoke about what happened for his whole life. It’s not a response triggered by a weather balloon.

But as a scientist, he doesn’t blindly follow the alien theory. “I know the government is hiding something; what, I don’t know.” There are many theories beyond aliens: that it was a revolutionary craft built by the Horten brothers, famed Nazi-era aeronautical scientists who were believed to have been recruited by Stalin after the Second World War, for example. “There is still the possibility that it was a German craft. Is it alien? As a scientist, I can’t put my finger on it. The only proof is the stuff I found, which needs more analysis.”

So, about that stuff. Kimbler figured out where the crash site was – the UFO Museum knows, but doesn’t tell people to prevent it becoming overrun with sightseers – and became a regular visitor with his metal detector. When he found fragments, he knew he needed to get them independently tested. “It looks like everyday aluminum,” he says. “So far I’ve found probably 20 pieces, most of which are like confetti.” When the first piece he sent – to the University of Arizona, by Federal Express – disappeared en route, he began to become unnerved. The other pieces, he says “are hidden away, because I try to keep them protected. Some are locked in a vault, others in various places. People have scared me to death with this stuff.” He notes an abnormal level of viruses on his computer since his discovery, and on one occasion a laser was shone through the windows of his home. “Any time you have something to do with UFOs, people just go crazy.”

Nevertheless, he got one fragment tested by representatives of the aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, who will analyze things like this for free on the condition that they get to keep the meaningful results for themselves in the hope that they can reverse engineer them. Kimbler drove to Austin, Texas, for testing. It was a fraught occasion. “In Austin I was so paranoid I slept with a gun under my pillow. I drove nearly all night to get back from that. When people tell you stories, you begin to believe it.”

When the results came in, they showed aluminum, silicon and magnesium, superficially similar to the same alloys we use to make aluminum cans or aircraft. Shouldn’t we have been seeing some weird alien element? “I’m not sure there are unknown elements,” Kimbler says. “Every element that’s out there, it’s here too. The stuff that stars are made of, and what we’re made of, it’s going to be on other worlds too. The magical part is the ratios of how these things match together.”

And that’s the crucial point. Metals have things called isotope ratios; the standards for magnesium, for example, are 24, 25 and 26. “On earth, those ratios don’t vary; it’s a fingerprint for the earth. No matter where you go on the planet, it’s the same ratios, plus or minus a few parts per million. But if you get a meteorite or a moon rock, those ratios are off. You can tell something is extraterrestrial by the ratios.” And what were Frank’s ratios? “In my samples, the ratios were off significantly.” They were just about at the margins within the error factor, so the findings were not conclusive, but demand further research, which he has underway right now; in fact, one such independent study should have taken place by the time you read this, at the Roswell UFO festival in July, in front of an audience for verification using an analysis machine called a Niton.

Kimbler is smart, pragmatic, and good company. But getting into this sort of field attracts a lot of attention from all ends of the spectrum. On one end are the deniers. “The debunkers get on my back like a field day.” He has some enemies among the UFO scientist community too, since as a skeptic, he speaks out when he finds something dubious; one noted scientist won’t speak to him because Kimber publicly said he thought this researcher’s alien discovery was a pot pie plate. Then there are the overbelievers – particularly during the UFO festival. “You get the most twisted, contorted, oddball people who have ever walked the planet. Some believe they are from another world. ‘I was in a Pledian ship and traveled the galaxy.’ What have you been smoking?”

As we bounce back along the dirt tracks near the crash site, the glove box repeatedly popping open as the suspension judders and slams, we pass some of the sights revered to Ufologists: a windmill near the site, a corral and ranch building where Brazel first put the wreckage, a plaque placed near the site by the Sci-Fi Channel during a dig several years ago. It is a peaceful, empty place, but only because nobody generally discloses where it is. “The problem,” Kimbler says as we turn south,” is that everybody and his dog is all over Roswell.”

Two days later, DCM is driving across Nevada in the fading twilight when a road sign is caught in the headlights: Extraterrestrial Highway. It is festooned in graffiti but rests in a wholly nondescript place: US375, a sparsely travelled route some way north of Las Vegas that stretches northwest across the desert in the general direction of Reno. Extraterrestrial or not, not much comes this way; two cars pass in the next forty miles.

After a whole lot of windy desert, US375 passes through Rachel, Nevada, a town so small the GPS system refuses to believe it exists. And there is not much here, but what there is, cannot be missed: bright, flashing lights – from a distance it looks like a traffic accident – and what appears to be a flying saucer suspended from the back of a truck. This is the Little A’le’Inn, which, if you say it enough times, tells you both that it’s an inn and that it’s about aliens.

Stepping into this place at night is quite something. Images of aliens cover the walls. There is a long bar with thousands of dollar bills stuck to the ceiling, all adorned with messages from people who have come this way. Asking for my long-since reserved room, I find myself billeted with a family, and dog, in a trailer, outside which rests the man’s Harley; his mullet reaches to his waist. The wind is so strong that my folder of fuel receipts vanishes out the car door as soon as I open it. The receipts fly off towards Utah, never to be seen again.

We have brought you here because Rachel is the closest town to the fabled Area 51 – although that’s a difficult claim to pin down because America has never formally acknowledged that it even exists.

Area 51 is something of a nexus of conspiracy theories. The name refers to a parcel of land within the Nevada Test and Training Range, which is where hundreds of atomic weapons were exploded , mainly in the 1950s, as America sought to cement its leadership in the nuclear arms race so devastatingly demonstrated at Hiroshima a few years earlier. Area 51 is a relatively small part of the area, built around a dried out lake bed called Groom Lake, and it is unquestionably America’s most secret military facility.

What’s certainly true about Area 51 is that it is a place where secret military hardware has long been tested, and still is. It is where the U-2 and the A-12 Oxcart spyplanes were developed, for example. There are many things we do know about Area 51: that it was developed by two CIA officers, Richard Bissell and Herbert Miller, in 1955 to develop the U2 plane, adjacent to land already being used by the Atomic Energy Commission; that many employees fly in and out on so-called Janets, scheduled flights of a private Area 51 commuter fleet called Janet Airlines; that the airspace above it is otherwise restricted; and that there is a huge pylon in the desert which is hoisted into the air with planes attached so as to measure radar cross-sections on prototype stealth aircraft. America works hard on its secrecy: even in declassified documents, which have started to appear since the 1990s, the name Area 51 is always redacted or blacked out, with only two known exceptions, both of which were probably oversights. It is a place where black operations take place: those that have extremely restricted access and knowledge. “The atomic bomb was the mother of all black projects and it is the parent from which all black operations have sprung,” notes Annie Jacobson.

It’s always tempting to think that governments keep stuff from us, but the best conspiracy theories concern things that aren’t known even to presidents – and these are more widespread than one might think. “When the world learned that America had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, no one was more surprised than the US Congress, none of whose members had had any idea it was being developed,” writes Jacobson. “Vice President Harry Truman had been equally stunned to learn about the bomb when he became president of the United States, on April 12, 1945.” Truman had been the chairman of the Senate special committee to investigate the National Defense Program - “meaning he was in charge of watching how money was spent during the war” – yet even he had no idea about the atomic bomb until he became president and was told by Vennevar Bush (the president’s science advisor, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb) and Henry Stimson, the secretary of war. Much later, when President Kennedy was assassinated, the new president Lyndon Johnson would not be briefed about developments at Area 51 until a good week after he had become president.

The Manhattan project is a good example of how the best sinister developments can be completely missed by conspiracy theorists anyway, and just how big they can be – or at least could be in the 1940s. The Manhattan Project employed 200,000 people across 80 offices and dozens of production plants, “including a 60,000 acre facility in rural Tennessee that pulled more power off the nation’s electrical grid than New York City did on any given night,” says Jacobsen. “And no one knew the Manhattan Project was there. That is how powerful a black operation can be.”

Another lesson of Area 51 is how easy it is to hide things if they are in illogical places; Jacobson argues this is why it was genius for the CIA to put a secret base in an area under the jurisdiction of the Atomic Energy Commission. “If you move a clandestine, highly controversial project into a classified agency that does not logically have anything to do with such a program, the chances of anyone looking for it there are slim.”

But the reason conspiracy theorists really love Area 51 is around Roswell and UFOs. Contemporary thinking has it that whatever crashed in Roswell, its remains were taken to Area 51 (and possibly Wright-Paterson in Ohio first), where they still reside – including the aliens. Jacobsen reckons Area 51 gets its name because the crash remains were taken there from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1951.

This theory gained a lot of attention in November 1989 when a 30-year old man from Florida called Robert Scott Lazar, who said he had worked at Area 51, spoke to a news show in Las Vegas. He said that within an area called S-4 (inside Area 51), there was a flying saucer, and that it was his job to reverse engineer its technology, particularly its propulsion system. He says he was told that the flying saucers (there were nine) had come from another planet and that one day, through a window, he saw a small, grey alien with a large head.

Lazar’s credibility is widely doubted; nobody has ever been able to find records to match his engineering qualifications he claims to have, for example. But the long term effects were enormous: “From the moment Lazar appeared… making utterly shocking allegations, the public’s fascination with Area 51, already percolating for decades, took on a life of its own,” writes Jacobsen. “Movies, television shows, record albums and video games would spring forth, all paying homage to a secret base that no outsider could ever visit.”

Jacobsen is an interesting example of how things like Area 51 can drive sane, measured, professional people to believe extraordinary things. Her book, Area 51, is an immaculately sourced and researched history of Area 51 and American secret weapon development over a 50 year period. It reveals a lot of new things: my favourite is that when Bill Clinton, as president, created by executive order a committee to look into secrets kept by the Atomic Energy Commission, some programs in Area 51 were still kept from him – as President! – on the grounds that he did not have a need to know.

Then, after 350 pages of this impeccable research, comes a stunning bombshell of a claim: that there were no aliens – but there were human guinea pigs inside a Russian craft. Basing her claim on an interview with an unnamed man who she says was one of only five people given a set of keys to a facility containing the bodies, she says the figures – small, with large heads and oversized eyes – were children, aged about 13, who had been kidnapped by Josef Mengele, the Nazi who had performed horrific experiments among prisoners at Auschwitz during the Second World War. The claim continues that Stalin offered Mengele a chance to continue his experiments “if he could create a crew of grotesque, child-size aviators for Stalin”. Stalin then had them put in a saucer engineered by German scientists, with the hope that they would step out in America, be mistaken for aliens and cause nationwide panic. Next to this theory, an alien visit doesn’t seem so strange after all.

Speaking to DCM, she seems to step back a little from this claim. “I wrote a 500 page book and what almost everyone who interviews me wants to know about is the last seven pages of the last chapter,” she says, which is perhaps not surprising when those pages combine Stalin, a Nazi war criminal, flying saucers and genetically mutated mock-aliens. She asserts that she’s just passing on a story she was told, but she adds: “I do believe him. But I do make room, with a footnote, for the possibility that some of the information that was given to him was erroneous. Some people tell me they believe the footnote more than the story, that the information is disinformation. That speaks to a whole other layer of Area 51: the mystery in the riddle in the enigma. Churchill could have been talking about Area 51.”

The only way to see inside Area 51 is to do the following. Drive from Las Vegas up the Extraterrestrial Highway to Rachel in a stout and well-fuelled four wheel drive. There, go off road – very off road – up a mountain called Tikaboo Peak, 26 miles east of Area 51. Don hiking boots as you will have to walk the last few miles. Wait until dark - there’s too much heat distortion from the desert to see anything in the day. Get your powerful binoculars out. And then wait. And wait. If you are very lucky, suddenly in the middle of the night, runway lights may suddenly appear in the apparently black desert night. An aircraft takes off, and by the time the wheels are up, those lights will have gone out again.

Alternatively, you can drive right up to the perimeter of the base – and this is where you find DCM this morning, hurtling away from Rachel after a morning spent listening to Connie, the proprietor and daughter of the Little A’le’Inn’s founders, venting at length about how the family were screwed by the makers of the alien movie Paul. She is engagingly furious, though likeable for all that, and threatens to throw me out if I take any video. Perhaps you read our recent feature about the indestructible American pilot, Chuck Yeager? I reckon Connie may be tougher. And it seems to run in the family. She recalls that Kate Moss and Pete Doherty once visited, pursued by paparazzi; Connie’s 16-year-old son chased off the photographers with a 12-bore shotgun.

Nonetheless, Connie has given me a map with which I can find the base’s boundary. The first thing to look for is the famous black mailbox – a curious appellation, because it’s now white. It is not, as is commonly believed, where Area 51 gets its mail – it’s not as if the military collects its letters 15 miles outside its own base – but belongs to a local rancher, who replaced the original black box with a sturdier white one because people kept defacing or stealing from the old one. The new one, too, is swamped with graffiti and the occasional plastic alien head.

Turning off the road at the mailbox, you drive among hundreds of Joshua trees along dirt roads until you reach the edge of the base. There is no fence. The most secret installation in America has no fence.

Instead, there are little orange markers in the scrub, and some signs. You can make out cameras and other instruments amid the cacti. And on top of a nearby hill sits a white four wheel drive truck, its occupants watching you silently as you ignore the signs and take pictures. (They’re a private security firm; they have no jurisdiction outside the base.) The whole thing seems so benign that it looks straightforward to go right on in to the base, but this would be inadvisable. Connie tells me that some idiots have taken the view that nobody would incarcerate a child, so have encouraged their kids to jump past the signs; this was a spectacularly bad call, and the children were indeed detained. Generally, the penalty for a first offence is a $600 fine and very possibly a night in a cell once you are turned over to the local sheriff.

The guys in the white cars work for a defence contractor called EG&G, which is a central part of the Area 51 mythology. In previous years its jobs have included taking millions of stop motion photographs of nuclear bomb explosions, testing the radar images of secret new jets, and it was involved in a simulation of a crash in which radioactive particles were dispersed across Nevada (the 57 Project). “Not until as late as 1998 was the top layer of earth from Area 13 (the test site) scraped up and removed,” says Jacobsen. “By then, earthworms in the area, and birds eating those earthworms, had been moving plutonium-laden soil who knows how far for more than 40 years.”

In some senses it is natural that Area 51 should, throughout its history, be a place around which ordinary people thought they had seen UFOs. Every plane developed there has been, by definition, something nobody else had ever seen before; supersonic weird-shaped jets flying around are bound to alarm the natives. The thing is, it has always suited Area 51’s management to let this idea gather pace, because it diverts attention away from the genuine secret military projects that are conducted there.

“Many citizens believed the government was trying to cover up the existence of extraterrestrial beings,” says Jacobsen. “People did not consider the fact that by overfocusing on martians, they would pay less attention to other UFO realities, namely, that these were sightings of radical aircraft made by men.”

One former employee told her: “We worked under a code that said, ‘What you learn here, leave here.’ That was pretty simple to follow. You couldn’t afford to talk. You’d lose your job and you’d be blackballed. So instead, my wife and family thought I fixed TVs.” This man described arriving at Area 51 as “like I was arriving on the far side of the moon.”

Ah, the moon; Area 51 even fits into lunar landing conspiracies, with some believing the landings were filmed in Nevada (in fact, a great deal of training took place in the area). “As of 2011, the lunar landing conspiracy is one of three primary conspiracies said to have been orchestrated at Area 51,” says Jacobsen. “The other two that dominate conspiracy thinking involve captured aliens and UFOs, and an underground tunnel and bunker system that supposedly exists below Area 51 and connects it to other military facilities and nuclear laboratories around the country.” It has even been woven into the Greenbrier bunker story – a huge facility 800 feet below the Greenbrier resort in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia (a really good example of a conspiracy theory turning out to be true). Truly, Area 51 is where conspiracy theories meet up for a beer.

Driving north from Area 51 towards what Nevada cheerfully calls The Loneliest Road in America, there is a lot to reflect upon.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I have heard from people engaged in uncovering conspiracy for a living is that there are some things we don’t need to know.

Mark Briscoe at the Roswell UFO Museum and Research Center – who says “I do believe we are visited by extraterrestrials on a daily basis” – is nevertheless quite conservative about the freedom of all information. “I do believe we have a right to know about things, but there’s some things we just don’t need to know,” he says. “There are some military secrets that are a true threat and they don’t tell us for fear of panicking us. We are surrounded by idiots: if they feel like something’s going to happen, there are those who will rape and pillage.”

Even about Roswell, he does not call for greater disclosure, despite running a research centre within a museum devoted to exactly that. “People want to know why the government doesn’t come out and tell the truth. I hate to say this, but I think 20% of the total population couldn’t handle the truth.” He – as does Jacobsen – talks about HG Wells notorious War of the Worlds broadcast in the early days of American radio, a mock newscast of an alien invasion; it took days for the panic to subside from people who thought it was real. “We still have people today who will follow the idiot off a cliff.”

Jacobsen’s professional career, largely at the Los Angeles Times, has been devoted to unearthing military secrets, but even she does not believe everyone has a right to know everything. “What I had the most trouble reconciling as I was researching the story is exactly that,” she says. “A parallel system of secret-keeping is not the way the constitution was written. People call it an unanswerable authority, and I don’t think anyone could argue that’s a democratic situation. But there have been some very patriotic, admirable espionage programs from Area 51 that have kept America safe.” There was a specific incident when America came close to war with North Korea after a US ship was captured by its navy; a U2 was sent over the country to see if the North Koreans were lining up for war. “They weren’t, so that situation was diffused because of a secret spy plane project from Area 51. There, top secrecy no doubt kept America safe.”

One other thought for the road: that by focusing on flying saucers, we blind ourselves to some perfectly good conspiracies. We’ll just leave you with this to consider. “Approximately 600 million pages of information about the government’s postwar use of Nazi criminals’ expertise remains classified as of 2011,” says Jacobsen. “Many documents about Area 51 exist in that pile.”

Where tourism meets conspiracy

The UFO Museum and Research Centre is a serious place, despite all the little green men painted on the front and the weird models of aliens emerging from a crashed spaceship. Its library is sufficiently professional to be linked to the Library of Congress and researchers here take their work impeccably seriously.

And then you go to the gift shop and find the alien toilet paper. “Designed for hard to reach areas like Area 51,” it says. “Also good for areas 1 or 2. Use generously for an out of this world wipe.” If you can’t find it, it’s right there in between the alien fridge magnets, greeting cards, test tube slime, alien eggs, pencils, bendy alien toys, alien drivers licences, water bottles, jigsaws, baseballs, monsters, shot glasses, mugs, golf balls and towels.

The research centre, and the annual Roswell festival, show the uneasy connection between what for some is a serious and vital area of rigorous study, and for others an exercise in kitsch goofiness.

In the temporary absence of museum curator Julie Schuster – who is Walter Haut’s daughter – the museum’s main spokesman is its librarian, a man called Mark Briscoe. He is sanguine about this tension between research and commercialism. He says the museum receives around 180,000 visitors per year, making it the second-most visited attraction in the entire state of New Mexico, and while the larger part of his job is academic – logging around 1.000 reported UFO sightings from around the world each week whose details are sent to him for collation, and preserving the collection of books and documents here with a rigour that would do the Smithsonian proud – he fully acknowledges the need for the commercial side. “The economic impact it has on this community is really mind-boggling for one little old museum,” he says. “You are looking at up to $20 million a year.”

And does it dilute what you’re trying to do? “We’re the serious side. We bring in all the credible researchers and authors. Our objective here is not to convince you one way or another, it is to give you the most accurate information we possibly can.” Originally, the museum ran on donations and volunteers, but that became impractical as the museum grew. “To be able to expand and add to the museum, we have the giftshop, and that’s where 85 to 90% of our money comes from. So, yes, we have capitalized on that side, but people don’t donate what you might think and we employ 15 to 20 people full-time.”

Naturally, his job brings him into contact with some people with ideas that are an awfully long way from the mainstream. “I deal with some of the most brilliant minds in the world,” he says. “And then I deal with that person who fell out of a 400-foot tree, hit every branch on the way down and bounced when they hit the ground.” How do you handle them? “You’re polite and listen to their stories. I have a gentleman from Canada who calls constantly, bless his little heart. He calls to let me know the big asteroids are coming to hit the earth and we need to get ready for it. It was making him sick, he was so worried.” When the man called again the day before our interview, Briscoe said: “Don’t worry about it, I talked to the aliens and they’re going to take care of it for us. And you could hear in his voice: oh, I can sleep now.” Not all can be placated. “There are some you just don’t deal with because it doesn’t matter what you do, they will consume all your time. I had one who claimed to be a descendent of the aliens who crashed, who “they” would impregnate every six months and harvest her children. She was dragging in cases of rocks from the field by her house; a piece of glass that she said was one of their steering wheels.” Eventually he had to claim he had just run out of room.

At the other extreme, he gets invited to speak at serious scientific conferences, such as the Space Symposium at New Mexico State University, attended by some of the world’s brightest and most revered minds. Yet he says he was surrounded by them, bombarded by questions. “It was the darndest thing I’ve seen in my life.”

He is a fascinating man to be working in a place like this. He has three degrees, one of them in psychology, and has been a successful college professor. He is conservative, a practicing southern Baptist, a man who worries about declining standards of punctuation and the throw-away mentality of today’s children (the first several minutes of the interview are spent bemoaning the fact that nobody bothers mending toasters anymore). He is devoted to the craft of document preservation, keeping 8mm film in freezers to stop decomposition and imposing standards so high that the museum is linked to the Library of Congress, to the Smithsonian itself, and is receiving material to exhibit from NASA. He is normal.

But along the way his idea of craziness has changed. I note that people tend to see it as a mental health issue when people talk about a level of consciousness beyond accepted science, but that perhaps we’re missing something. “You know, I would never have felt that way until I worked here. I would have thought they were all crazy. But it makes you sit back and think: maaaaaaaybe.” His experience as a teacher who has taught kids with autism, with that combination of brilliance and social incompatability, has helped him to reconsider what he thinks of people. “I’m a very open-minded person. I try to take a little bit of everything and come up with something rational and halfway intelligent within my own beliefs.”

Certainly, many of the people involved in the annual festival sit on the very threshold of the free-thinking and the mad. The bio of one speaker, called Amariah, includes this line: “Amariah now makes telepathic contact with many different beings including archangels and extraterrestrials.”

The downside of all this attention, says Frank Kembler, is that it removes any sense of serious inquiry. “The problem with Roswell is that with anything about UFOs, the universities don’t want their name associated with it,” says Kembler. “Other scientists have met with ridicule, notably about the Pierce object,” a supposed alien artifact that had been inserted into a man, but which eventually turned out to be a cyst from some bloke’s penis. “There are lots of flakey people out there.”

Relationships between the government and the tourist industry that has grown up alongside are surprisingly good. NASA’s contribution to the miseum is telling, and perhaps it’s even more surprising that the military have no problem with the Little A’le’Inn. There, Connie tells me that when her father died, she did not have a flag to put at half mast; the military provided one to her. Recently, a reunion of U2 spyplane pilots chose the Little A’le’Inn as their venue; a waitress tells me she was mortified to discover that a cheeky patron she had clouted over the head turned out to be an American espionage hero.

The truth about Roswell, government-style

On the 50th anniversary of the crash, the government finally admitted there had been a cover-up at Roswell. An announcement was made saying that the wreckage was from a secret military project of the time, called Project Mogul, which combined balloons with weaponry; the secrecy and deception was because that project was classified at the time. For some, this was case closed, and reflected a popular view that whatever crashed at Roswell was bound to be experimental and military in origin. But for others, this was still more cover-up. What about the bodies?

The official explanation was that there was a period of time when crash test dummies were used in test flights. When it was pointed out that this practice didn’t begin until 10 years after the Roswell crash, the government said it must be a function of time compressing memories. Those who were at the press conference recall the room cracking up in laughter at this response; it didn’t really help and if anything just deepened and contorted the mystery.

The UFO files

Jacobsen believes the CIA did begrudgingly open up a UFO data-collecting department. Its case file, she says, “was, and remains, one of the most top secret files in CIA history.” It has yet to be declassified. But one study that was declassified shows that by 1951 the Air Force had investigated between 800 and 1,000 UFO sightings across America, and 1900 by 1952. Jacobsen says they generated 37 cubic feet of case files. The vast majority were easily explained (there were, for example, 2,850 flights of the secret Oxcart plane in the 1960s, causing similar results to the U2 in the 50s), but there were always a handful that were not – chiefly Roswell.

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