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Was 1947's UFO incident at Roswell simply the result of a secret balloon experiment?

By Josh Weiss
Jesse Marcel

No place in the United States screams "ALIENS!!!" more than Roswell, New Mexico. The small town in the middle of America's southwestern desert is, without question, the epicenter of UFO conspiracy theories within this country. It has captivated our collective cultural imagination (manifesting itself over and over in film, television, and literature) for a little over seven decades — ever since an alleged alien vessel crash-landed there in the early summer of 1947.

But what really landed in the dehydrated scrub all those years ago? Was it actually a spaceship piloted by a life-form from beyond the stars or was it simply part of a top-secret balloon experiment conducted by the U.S. Air Force? Showtime's UFO docu-program (executive produced by the prolific J.J. Abrams under his Bad Robot banner) attempts to get to the bottom of the matter in the third and penultimate episode of the limited television series.

Episode 3 plays a clip from Air Force Colonel John Haynes, who postulated that the Roswell incident was nothing more than Project Mogul, an intelligence operation that involved sending high-altitude balloons into the atmosphere, so as to spy on Russian nuclear tests. (Let's not forget that the Cold War was in full swing at the time). UFO seems to imply that the government tacitly encouraged the alien story — which eventually grew like a wildfire in the middle of a California summer — with vague language and certain denials in order to throw the Soviets off the scent of what they were really up to.

What's really ironic is that the wreckage was not found in Roswell, but on a ranch near Corona, which is almost 100 miles northwest of Roswell. The town became inextricably tied to the event because the Roswell Daily Record was the first news outlet to break the story.

Jesse Marcel Newspaper Clipping

Since the project was still classified in '47, the Army had to try and pass it off as "a harmless high-altitude weather balloon" and not "a grounded flying disk" as some were claiming (see the article above). In 1995, half a century after Roswell became synonymous with little green men and flying saucers, the Air Force published a nearly 1,000-page report, which concluded that the wreckage was not a UFO, but most likely remnants of a Mogul test.

"Although that project was top-secret at the time, there was also no specific indication found to indicate an official preplanned cover story was in place to explain an event such as that which ultimately happened," reads the document. "It appears that the identification of the wreckage as being part of a weather balloon device, as reported in the newspapers at the time, was based on the fact that there was no physical difference in the radar targets and the neoprene balloons (other than the numbers and configuration) between MOGUL balloons and normal weather balloons. Additionally, it seems that there was overreaction by Colonel Blanchard and Major Marcel in originally reporting that a 'flying disc' had been recovered when, at that time, nobody knew for sure what that term even meant, since it had only been in use for a couple of weeks."

By the mid-1990s however, the damage was already done. Roswell was embedded so deep into the American psyche, that one might think it was originally put there by a sharp alien probe. What's more: the shaky trust in federal authority that came out of the counterculture movement of the '60s and '70s pretty much assured that many citizens were no longer willing to take the federal government at its word anymore.

For many of us, the true story can only be found in the "Book of Secrets" passed down from president to president...what's that, you say? The book was made up for National Treasure 2? Fair enough. Still, every POTUS is made aware of many national secrets most of us will never know about in our lifetimes. Before he left office, for example, Donald Trump said he claimed that he was privy to some "very interesting" information about Roswell, but refused to go into detail.

“Government secrecy has acted as a spur toward conspiratorial thinking, and it has aggravated that tendency in some sectors of the American public,” Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told The New York Times earlier this summer. “It’s not just limited to UFOs.”

Showtime subscribers with access to the network's official app can stream all four episodes of UFO right now. If you'd prefer to pace yourself, the fourth and final episode airs next Sunday (Aug. 29) at 9 p.m. EST. The premiere is currently free to watch on, and