Sign up for the MACH newsletter

You have been successfully added to our newsletter.

A daily newsletter charting the future: From technology to the scientific breakthroughs changing our lives.

The Roswell Incident and the Kardashians Have Something in Common

Many Americans believe an alien spacecraft crash-landed near Roswell, New Mexico 70 years ago. But SETI expert Seth Shostak isn’t convinced.

by Seth Shostak /
Costumed participants march in the UFO Festival Amazing Alien Parade in Roswell, New Mexico in 2009.Mark Wilson / Roswell Daily Record via AP file
Get the MACH newsletter.

If you’re a believer, you probably know that this month marks the 70th anniversary of a major cosmic mishap that took place not on the moon or Mars, nor in the dim recesses of our galaxy — but in New Mexico. On July 8, 1947, the Roswell Daily Record claimed that the U.S. Air Force had recovered a flying saucer in the desert scrub about 30 miles northwest of the city.

Apparently, aliens were sufficiently intrigued by the Land of Enchantment to travel untold trillions of miles to check it out. Alas, whether it was a result of altimeter failure or distracted driving, the saucer botched the approach and dived to the dirt.

The incident was of limited interest at the time. But it has become an icon for those who are convinced that aliens are in our skies. These folks maintain that for seven decades the U.S. government has covered up the extraterrestrial facts about Roswell.

Now a discussion of the merits of this claim is a book-length subject. Indeed, it’s a shelf-load-of-books subject, and any analysis in the limited space of this column will surely be trolled as either biased or incomplete by those who have spent their lives discussing Roswell — or made it their career.

 Air Force personnel identify metallic fragments found by a farmer near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 as pieces of a weather balloon. The discovery of the fragments became the basis of the Roswell incident. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

But let’s consider a few facts outside the specifics of this story.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Roswell incident is that — like the Kardashians — it’s famous for being famous. It has become a poster child for people who believe UFOs are craft from another world. And that’s a lot of people: one-third of Americans seem certain that our world hosts non-earthly visitors. If you asked these folks to cite evidence for this extraordinary idea, there’s little doubt that most would recount the events in Roswell.

Clearly, if you’re an advocate for alien visitation, it’s great to have a high-profile, go-to example. This is impossible for the one-third of the public who insist that ghosts or angels are real. There’s no ghost incident comparable to Roswell in notoriety. Ditto angels.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Roswell incident is that—like the Kardashians—it’s famous for being famous.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Roswell incident is that—like the Kardashians—it’s famous for being famous.

Roswell’s notoriety derives in part from the fact that the story has morphed from being a massively important discovery (if true) to something else: a conspiracy. Intrigue has trumped science, and the public finds the former considerably more appealing. A quick search on Amazon returned twice as many books under the search terms “Roswell UFO” as under “Higgs boson.”

Thanks to this metamorphosis, Roswell enthusiasts no longer need to deal with such vexing questions as “what powered this ill-fated spacecraft” or “where did it come from?” They can focus on the more visceral question of why the feds don’t give up the evidence. It’s easier, and it’s more emotional.

 Children look at a model of an alien on display at the UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico. Eric Draper / AP file

But that’s a second remarkable aspect of Roswell: the notion that the U.S. government is the sole proprietor of alien evidence, and is sufficiently worried about the effects of releasing the information to keep it secret for 70 years.

Frankly, the federal government doesn’t have much of a track record for keeping things under wraps over long periods. How to build an atomic bomb was an American secret for just four years. The Pentagon papers leaked out even faster. The Coca Cola Company has done better with its soft drink recipe.

And there’s this: why is it that despite the fact that three score and ten have elapsed since aliens totaled their transport in the desert, Roswell is still the trademark of the UFO crowd? Have the aliens lost interest in us? Have they simply become better at being cryptic? There are at least 10,000 reported sightings of UFOs every year, and none has developed the sheen of Roswell.

But there’s an indisputable upside to the Roswell incident. Roswell, a small, dusty city between the mountains and deserts of the west and the Great Plains to the east, has a cache that’s rare for other cities its size. The downtown area is dominated by stores catering to folks who've made a pilgrimage to the place where some unlucky beings came to grief all those years ago — a bit like what happened to the Donner Party — except that the aliens were martyred to the benefit of the Roswell Chamber of Commerce.

 Children hold stuffed aliens at the Roswell Carnival. Mark Peterson / Corbis / Getty Images file

So while I think the chance is slim to none that aliens were involved in any way, one can’t help but find the whole Roswell story modestly compelling, if not very instructive. A few years ago I asked Stanton Friedman, who has written and lectured about Roswell for much of his life, the following: “Even if I were to believe that aliens did crash at Roswell, what have we learned from that?”

His response: “We’ve learned that UFO’s are real! Isn’t that enough?”

I don’t think we’ve learned even that.

Get the MACH newsletter.
Get the MACH newsletter.
MORE FROM mach