July 7, 2007 — -- In July 1947, something remarkable happened outside Roswell, N.M., something that literally put the town on the map. The debris is long gone, but the reverberations have never stopped.
Was it an alien spaceship that crashed, killing its otherworldly occupants? Or just a weather balloon? It depends on whom you ask or what you read, and whether you believe them.
Enough people, however, believe the UFO story to warrant two simultaneous festivals this weekend as Roswell, population 53,000, celebrates the 60th anniversary of an event that etched Roswell into the memories of the public.
Ten years ago, for the 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident, an ABC News poll asked people what they thought of UFOs: "Are they something real, or just people's imagination?"
Forty-eight percent of those polled said they were real, with 36 percent saying they were imagined. From those who said they were real, 16 percent said they were likely to be alien spacecraft.
First, the facts. The one and only thing that absolutely everybody — believers, skeptics, military and the U.S. government — agrees on is that in early July 1947, something fell out of the sky and crashed on a ranch near Roswell, leaving scattered debris.
Ranch foreman Mac Brazel told Roswell's sheriff, George Wilcox, about the debris. Wilcox then called nearby Roswell Army Air Field, home of the 509th Bomb Group.
An intelligence officer, Maj. Jesse Marcel, headed out with Brazel to the debris field, where Marcel collected much of the material, described as shiny wreckage, including pieces of rubber, super-resistant tinfoil, wooden sticks, and what appeared to be I-beams of metallic-looking material.
En route to the Roswell base, Marcel stopped at home to show some of the debris to his wife and 11-year-old son, Jesse Marcel Jr.
"My dad woke me and my mother up. ... He knew this was so unusual that he wanted us to see it," Marcel Jr. said.
Marcel Jr., who recently returned from a 13-month stint as a flight surgeon in Iraq, told ABC News that seeing some of the debris had a lasting impression on him.
"There were these I-beams about 12 to 18 inches long, and the most unusual part of that was the symbols or writing on the inner surface. I thought, at first, it was like Egyptian hieroglyphics, but when I looked closer, it seemed more like geometric symbols of some kind — it was very strange," he said.
After Marcel Sr. brought the material to the Roswell Army Air Field, Col. William Blanchard ordered the base press officer, Lt. Walter Haut, to issue a press release indicating that the military had recovered a crashed flying saucer that was being shipped to the Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas.
Reporters clamored for more details about the amazing discovery. But just as quickly, as the flying saucer story emerged, it was deflated. A follow-up press release said the debris was, in fact, from a weather balloon.
"When my dad got home," Marcel Jr. recalled, "he sat my mother and myself down and told us never to talk about this again, this was a nonevent, it didn't happen. He was part of the cover-up. He was a good soldier following orders."
But the legend of Roswell didn't truly take shape until 30 years later.
In 1978, former nuclear physicist Stanton T. Friedman met the retired Marcel, who convinced him that he and other eyewitnesses from 1947 were willing to talk about what was really found on that ranch, something that Marcel referred to as "not of this Earth."
"It was clear that we're not talking about some dingbat base with a bunch of guys sitting around playing cards with nothing to do," Friedman said. "We're talking about the 509th — the atom bombers — these were the guys who dropped the bomb on Japan."
Friedman — who had previously worked on nuclear power plants for space applications — began his own investigation of the events surrounding Roswell. "I followed up enough to find a number of key people, and with no Internet available, it took a lot of work," he said.
As the story grew over the years, it included claims of multiple crash sites and the recovery of alien bodies.
The Air Force issued two subsequent reports in the 1990s, concluding that the material recovered in 1947 was, in fact, from Project Mogul, a secret program of atmospheric balloons used to detect Soviet nuclear tests.
The alien body stories were explained as misidentifications of crash test dummies used in later military experiments.
At the SETI Institute in California, where scientists are involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, doubts persist about what happened at Roswell.
"In the beginning, they would've kept it secret because they were trying to determine if the Soviet Union had the H-bomb," said SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak. "But the public finds it much more interesting to think that aliens traveled hundreds of light years, and in the last couple of hundred feet, made a navigational error and slammed into the New Mexico desert. ... It's more interesting to think that the government has the aliens freeze-dried and stacked up somewhere."
The burden of proof is always the main issue when it comes to UFO stories. Anecdotal evidence doesn't hold up in the world of scientific scrutiny — without a piece of an actual spaceship or an alien's body, skepticism abounds.
One of the biggest problems with the Roswell scenario is that the pro-alien authors and researchers vehemently disagree with one another as to the actual timeline of events and eyewitness accounts.
But this weekend, all are welcome in Roswell as two separate festivals pay tribute to the events of 1947.
"We've got alien hot air balloon rides, an air show, a huge carnival and a number of bands playing music every day," said Roswell's Mayor Sam LaGrone. "We also have an alien chase, where people dress up in alien costumes for a 5k or 10k run/walk."
LaGrone wants the festivities he's presenting to bring believers and skeptics together for a fun, family-oriented experience. He also hopes for some good revenue for the city. "Our state lottery even created a special lottery ticket, called the Space Invaders," he said.
On the other side of town is the International UFO Museum and Research Center, co-founded in 1992 by Haut. His daughter, Julie Shuster, runs the museum now and offers a more serious group of international speakers this weekend, including Friedman and Marcel Jr.
Shuster thinks she knows why Roswell is the center of attention for UFOs.
"It's the mystery. We don't have a piece of the wreck or pictures, but we have the newspaper that said it was a flying saucer and then, oops, no, it's not," she said. "This mystery involved a very elite group of military people in a very rural area, and the fact that it was kept quiet for so long intrigues people."
The moneymaking potential stemming from the Roswell legend may get an even bigger boost from a proposed UFO-themed amusement park with a possible 2010 opening — something that LaGrone is excited about.
"Our state legislators gave us $245,000 for a feasibility study, and I believe this is absolutely going to happen. Part of the plan includes a $100 million indoor roller coaster ride — it's a huge thing for us."
As the Roswell debate continues, UFO proponents see a political light at the end of the tunnel.
New Mexico's governor — and 2008 Democratic presidential hopeful — Bill Richardson has chimed in on the controversy and believes there's more to Roswell than meets the eye.
In the foreword to a 2004 book, "The Roswell Dig Diaries," Richardson wrote that "the mystery surrounding this crash has never been adequately explained — not by independent investigators and not by the U.S. government. … There are as many theories as there are official explanations.
"Clearly, it would help everyone if the U.S. government disclosed everything it knows," Richardson added. "The American people can handle the truth — no matter how bizarre or mundane."
Despite the ongoing disputes between flying saucer advocates and skeptics, Roswell is in no danger of losing its stature as the UFO capital of the world.
As Friedman delivers his pro-UFO ideas this weekend in Roswell, he goes into it knowing full well that the skeptical attitude is always close by.
"Naturally, the resistance to acceptance of this case is going to be stronger than any other case," he said, "because if it's true, it's everything — bodies, wreckage, cover-up, threats — what more do you need?"