Another side of the flying saucer incident

A visitor takes a picture of an alien on a gurney at the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell. The upcoming Roswell UFO Festival, July 5-7 this year, celebrates the 66th anniversary of a legendary flying saucer crash about 100 miles northwest of Roswell on a ranch near Corona. Jake Schoellkopf/The Associated Press, 2007

The upcoming Roswell UFO Festival, July 5-7 this year, celebrates the 66th anniversary of a legendary flying saucer crash about 100 miles northwest of Roswell on a ranch near Corona. To this day, nobody knows for sure why officials at the Roswell Army Air Base at the time announced that a “flying disk” had been recovered. The story was quickly rescinded and the universe was seemingly split between those who believe the initial account and those who don’t. The officially corrected version and follow-up explanations long after the fact declared that the debris was from a secret research balloon project code-named MOGUL and that the “small bodies” recovered in the crash were not aliens, but test dummies.

The UFO festival caters to the believers and puts on a world-class agenda of paranormal experts in everything from the latest archaeological finds from the 1947 incident to crop circles, alien abductions, prehistoric astronomy and government cover-ups.

Asked to pick a high point of the program this year, Mark Briscoe, executive director of the International UFO Museum said all 20 speakers were major researchers. “We’re really excited about Jesse Marcel Jr.,” he added. According to Marcel’s book, The Roswell Legacy, published in 2008, his father Jesse Marcel Sr. was the first military officer at the scene of the crash and in the middle of the original controversy. “From my understanding, Jesse Jr. got to see the debris and hold it,” said Briscoe. “This is the last time he is going to speak.”

Those who don’t subscribe to the Roswell narrative, on the other hand, side with the scientific consensus. From nearly the beginning, scientists took almost the opposite tack. At the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos in about 1950, according to an archival document, Edward Teller remembered walking to lunch at Fuller Lodge with three other scientists, including Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi. Teller, often identified as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” said he had kind of a vague memory, “that we talked about flying saucers and the obvious statement that the flying saucers are not real.”

Over lunch, Teller recalled that in the middle of the conversation, “Fermi came out with the quite unexpected question, ‘Where is everybody?’ ” The group laughed, Teller explained, because even though it came out of the blue, they knew it was about extraterrestrials. Despite all the talk about aliens and flying saucers, Fermi was asking why we had seen no sign of them so far.

Fermi’s question would become known as the Fermi Paradox. Another member of the group, Herbert York, continued the story in a letter. “[Fermi] then followed up with a series of calculations on the probability of Earth-like planets, the probability of life given an Earth, the probability of humans given life, the likely rise and duration of high technology, and so on.”

While the circumstances of the alien encounter are argued each year in Roswell, there can be little doubt that this most famous of alien encounters had a great deal to do with the birth of whole new field of science. The search for other intelligent life in the universe that was casually born in Los Alamos in 1950 has led in turn to the discovery of Earth-like planets and now includes the study of extraterrestrial life, or astrobiology. Fermi’s paradox and back-of-the-envelope calculations were the first steps toward a formulation known as the Drake Equation, conceived by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 that identified seven factors thought to determine how many technological civilizations exist in our galaxy. Numbers for those variables have grown more certain since then, and Drake wrote an essay in the International Journal of Astrobiology this year in which he said, “It is gratifying to know that over the years the Equation has not been found erroneous: It is alive and well in its original form.”

Eric Jones, the LANL astronomer who did the research on the birth of the Fermi Paradox, went on to co-edit a book published in 1985, Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, which includes his findings for the Los Alamos monograph in an appendix. Among many other developments in this field, last year the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency began funding the 100-year Starship program to develop capabilities for human interstellar travel by the next century.

Contact Roger Snodgrass at