There’s been an observatory on a 9,200-feet peak in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains since 1947. Today the peak hosts the Sunspot Solar Observatory, and as you’d guess from the name, it carries out research into our sun. But when it closed abruptly in September 2018 without clear explanation, social media went wild. Why? Because it’s just 85 miles from Roswell with its notorious UFO connections.
It was in 1947, coincidentally the same year that the observatory in the Sacramento Mountains was first established, that the Roswell story burst upon the world. Actually, most of us might believe that shared date was a coincidence. But undoubtedly there are conspiracists out there who would be only too happy to make something out of that.
In any case, it was the sensational story on the front page of the Roswell Daily Record on July 8, 1947 that started the whole Roswell UFO and alien circus off. “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region,” the Record headline screamed – the RAAF being the Roswell Army Air Field.
RAAF officials had told the press that they’d salvaged “a disk” that had landed on farmland near the town of Roswell. This news traveled around the world, and journalists actually found a local couple, the Wilmots, who claimed to have seen this UFO in flight.
The Roswell Daily Record reported what the Wilmots said they’d witnessed. They’d seen a flying object that had looked like “two inverted saucers, faced mouth to mouth.” The Wilmots said that this flying saucer had been speeding through the sky at an altitude of about 1,500 feet and at a speed of 400 to 500 mph.
This sensational story had its day and then disappeared from sight for more than three decades. But it seems that UFO – and alien – fever gripped the public again in the 1980s. Authors Charles Berlitz and William Moore seem to have kick-started this renewed interest with their 1980 book The Roswell Incident.
The bare bones of Berlitz and Moore’s story were that the UFO that flew over Roswell in 1947 was actually on a mission from outer space to gather information about the U.S. nuclear weapons program. But the alien spaceship had crashed in the New Mexico desert after a lightning strike.
The spaceship crash ended the lives of its alien crew, the tale continued. And that was when the U.S. government sprang into action to hide the bodies and other evidence of the UFO from the sight of the general public. And all of that evidence was concealed, it’s alleged, at Area 51.
Area 51 is a highly secret detached section of California’s Edwards Air Force Base. Area 51 is actually located in the Nevada Test and Training Range. That’s some 700 miles from Sunspot as the crow flies. But a detail like that is seldom enough to discourage a determined conspiracist.
In any case, Roswell, where the aliens had allegedly crash-landed, was only some 85 miles distant from the mysteriously closed observatory at Sunspot. And both Sunspot and the Roswell UFO are connected to outer space. That’s easily enough material to get a good conspiracy story going.
And in a vivid illustration of how deeply conspiracy theories are woven into our everyday lives, even Barack Obama was on one occasion dragged into the whole Roswell and Area 51 discourse. In an interview with GQ magazine in 2015, the president was asked if he’d peeked at highly secret files when he had the opportunity.
His response was light-hearted, although perhaps tinged with a hint of world-weariness. “I gotta tell you, it’s a little disappointing,” Obama replied. “People always ask me about Roswell and the aliens and UFOs, and it turns out the stuff going on that’s top secret isn’t nearly as exciting as you expect. In this day and age, it’s not as top secret as you’d think.”
And you don’t have to go as far back as 1980 to find books by conspiracy theorists about the Roswell incident. Self-described extra-terrestrial researcher Raymond Szymanksi published his book about Roswell and Area 51 as recently as 2016. In it, he rehearses the idea that the U.S. government concealed the truth about Roswell from America’s citizenry.
In a 2017 interview with British tabloid newspaper The Sun, Szymanksi reported what he claimed a colleague at the Wright-Patterson Air Force in Dayton, Ohio had told him. He stated, “He said that in 1947 there was a crash down in Roswell and they brought the machines and the aliens here for inspection and said they keep them in secret tunnels under the base.”
But back to the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The star of the show there is the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope, which has been operating since 1969. It’s capable of producing high-resolution images of the surface of the Sun. It’s a monster of an instrument, with a length of 329 feet, with 193 of those feet actually underground.
In fact the Sunspot facility is home to five telescopes altogether. And despite its remote location – there’s only one road in and out – it’s also something of a tourist attraction, with its own visitor center. So when it closed without warning on September 6, 2018, people sat up and took notice.
At first, information about the reasons for the closure virtually didn’t exist. Even Otero County Sheriff Benny House seemed to be in the dark. His office is in Alamogordo, an hour’s drive from Sunspot, making him the nearest lawman. House spoke to the Alamogordo Daily News after the closure.
“The FBI is refusing to tell us what’s going on,” House explained. “We’ve got people up there (at Sunspot) that requested us to standby while they evacuate it. Nobody would really elaborate on any of the circumstances as to why. The FBI were up there. What their purpose was nobody will say.” The sheriff continued, “There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers but nobody would tell us anything.”
Then the real reason that the observatory had closed its doors and evacuated its staff came to light on September 19 with the release of previously unseen federal court papers. And it was nothing to do with aliens, although it was certainly unpleasant, to say the least. A janitor at the center had allegedly been distributing child pornography from a laptop at the facility. After a tip-off, the FBI seized a computer.
The janitor noticed that the machine was gone and started to act strangely, telling colleagues that there was a serial killer loose in the area, and everyone at the observatory could be in danger. In light of this erratic behavior, the observatory director decided closure and evacuation were the safest options. And who could blame him? FBI investigations continue, and it has laid no charges yet.