Rockets and Aliens

The LandingsAs a lifelong X-Files fan and space-lover, I couldn’t wander through New Mexico without a stop in Roswell. I had heard mixed things about the town. Some said it was cool and different, others said it was a kitschy waste of time. I feel like all the descriptions were accurate.

Without a doubt, the town of Roswell has embraced its alien legacy. Billboards for various businesses have pictures of cartoon aliens and claim prices to be “out of this world.” A single block of Main Street seems to hold all the main tourist attractions, including the International UFO Museum. Of course, the museum has no real artifacts to speak of, since such things would be, you know, evidence of extraterrestrial life. It does have an impressive collection of newspaper reports, photos, and first person accounts from the crash in 1947. The official word from the US Air Force is that the object that crashed was a weather balloon, which was all anyone thought for some time. It was years after the actual event that accounts began to spring up that called into question the government explanation for the crash. For one, many supposedly firsthand accounts claim to have seen strange, dead bodies inside the crashed object.

UFO TrashI am not inclined to believe an alien race that just happened to form in a remarkably similar humanoid shape developed spacefaring technology only to fly a single, tiny ship to our planet with zero followup. Nor am I of the opinion that the government is involved in a massive conspiracy to hide continued visits from such creatures. However in reading the accounts from Roswell, noting that they come from a wide variety of sources (from the backwoods farmer to the military nurse), it’s hard not to believe something strange went down in the desert in the 1940s. Personally the most logical explanation I’ve ever heard came out recently in a book by reporter Annie Jacobsen, whose anonymous source claims the crash was a soviet craft piloted by surgically-altered humans, possibly children. Her source also claims that the reason the military chose to hide this information was that our government, in response, decided to engage in similar experiments. Some of the source’s story is a bit much for me, but the basic principle seems sound: the crash was a result of military technology being developed in the Cold War. The event was kept secret because of ongoing experiments the government did not want known to the public. I imagine a similar explanation could be applied to any number of other, less notable events in the 20th century.

Crowd watching aliensNone of this changes the fact that the signature piece in the International UFO Museum is a full-size diorama depicting a flying saucer and four aliens. Every 10-15 minutes the saucer spins in mid-air, smoke appears, and the aliens move their heads back and forth while the sound of an incomprehensible, high-pitched, beep-based alien language is heard. Of course even taking all accounts at face value this is ludicrous, since everyone who claims to have seen the bodies agrees they were dead on or before impact. Still, the kids seemed to enjoy it.

I looked around outside the museum, but all the other businesses seemed to be interested only in selling me cheap things I don’t want. These cheap things have aliens on them, which is what distinguishes Roswell from other tourist areas, but my needs had not changed. I bought a shot glass for my collection and headed over to the visitor’s center for recommendations on how to spend the next couple hours. I was told that the “best restaurant in town” was Margarita’s, the Mexican and Chinese buffet. The food was good, and I could see looking at the other customers that this place was popular among locals, not tourists. It also seemed to be popular among hispanics, which is usually a good quality in a Mexican restaurant.

RocketAfter lunch I headed to the Roswell Museum & Art Center. They have a sizable exhibit on Robert Goddard, the American physicist and inventor credited with building the world’s first successful liquid-fuel rocket. I think I had heard of Goddard before, and probably seen his name adorning buildings or star systems. I loved the exhibit. In contrast to the UFO Museum where there are no actual artifacts and everything is speculation, the Goddard exhibit was filled with original pieces from his workshop and experiments. These were real remnants of our first journeys towards space. A year ago we used a hovering crane to land a robot on Mars, and here in front of me were the now antiquated tools used to start the process less than 90 years ago.

Line up

Some of the pieces seemed so strange, like they came out of a Dr. Seuss book on machines. Or a 1950s B-Movie. Or a medieval torture chamber. There were fragments from that first flight in 1926, and various trial versions of the rocket components. I watched a documentary showing footage from some of the first flights. It’s amazing to think how many hours of work had to go into getting such a small piece of metal to fly just a little ways up into the air. But it would have all been worth it just to have done it. We are so used to the concept of flight and even space travel, it’s hard to imagine what it was like to live in a world where 50 feet in the air might as well be the moon.

Outside the museum a couple stopped to talk with me after noticing my Washington license plate. They were traveling as well, and after I explained my trip they asked where I was headed next. I told them Carlsbad Caverns, which was apparently where they were headed as well. “Maybe we’ll see you there,” said the man. Maybe, I thought. It would seem that stranger things have happened.

Must See List

In my planning, I try to keep an open mind about where to go, what’s worth seeing, and what really qualifies as a detour. After all, nothing is really out of the way when you’re not going anywhere. My trip is a circle, and the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” is overly applicable. Things can only be out of the way if they make it impossible for me to see something else. So I’m going to have to prioritize. I thought it best to put together a “Must See List” to give myself more direction. So, as of right now, here are the eight things I feel like I Must See on this trip:

  1. Grand Canyon
  2. Niagara Falls
  3. San Francisco, CA
  4. The Deep South
  5. Roswell, NM
  6. Memphis, TN
  7. Glacier National Park
  8. The Oregon Vortex

One thing to remember about this list, is that it is personal to my experience. This is not a Must See for the United States. For example, if I had never seen any of the U.S. before, places like Mount Rushmore and New York City would be obvious choices. They’re not on the list because I have already seen them, so if I miss them on this trip it’s not a big deal.

There are a few other places that I originally thought were must see destinations, but in the spirit of setting priorities, I had to make some tough choices. When thinking of a destination, I asked myself if I might visit this place again one day. Certain cities, such and Chicago, IL and Austin, TX, are places I intend to see someday regardless. If not this trip, then the next one. More importantly, they are destinations by themselves. A year from now I could see myself flying to Chicago for a week. I can’t say the same about Niagara Falls.