In this 2011 Ask an Expert talk, Dr. Roger Launius explores the 1947 Roswell Incident, an event that entangled the United States Army in UFO conspiracy theories that persist to this day.

To understand the series of events that unfolded in the summer of 1947, Launius cautions that it’s important to remember context. At the time, the U.S. was in the early stages of the Cold War.

“There was great concern that we were going to be head-to-head with the Soviet Union in a competition that could last a short or a long time, but may well end in nuclear annihilation,” he said.

It is in this Cold War context that the Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) is truly born.

It began with Kenneth Arnold, an amateur pilot and businessman. He reported seeing a flying saucer while piloting an aircraft around Mount Rainier in the summer of 1947. This singular sighting kicked off a craze, and hundreds of UFO sightings began pouring in.

So when rancher W. W. “Mac” Brazel found something odd on his property, he immediately took the news, and parts of what he discovered, to the sheriff. The sheriff called up the local military base, the 509th Bombardment Group—the same group responsible for dropping the atomic bombs at the end of World War II.

The local newspaper ran the headline:

“RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region”

While the news sets off the world in a UFO-induced buzz, the Army quickly dispelled the rumors. What they found was actually a high-altitude weather balloon.

At least, that’s what they wanted the public to believe at the time. It wasn’t until years later, Launius explained, that the world truly knew what Brazel found that summer.

Declassified government documents revealed Project Mogul, a program under the War Department, now the Department of Defense, that aimed to find out if the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons. Sophisticated balloons and instruments that could detect the sound waves from an atomic bomb test were sent aloft in the upper atmosphere and floated toward the Soviet Union.

But for many, this was not the end of the story. What do you think?

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