“I have a distinct memory that James Richard Smith, better known as J.R., watched the 4 June balloon train through a theodolite on a clear, sunny morning …”
–Charles B. Moore, in Saler, Ziegler and Moore, UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth (1997)
The devil is in those “distinct memories,” isn’t it? Glenn Dennis’s distinct memory of encountering an agitated nurse in the base hospital of Roswell Army Air Field, almost overwhelmed by the stench of the non-human corpses at whose autopsies she’d been called to assist. Gerald Anderson’s distinct memory of stumbling upon a crashed UFO in the desert of western New Mexico, its pilots dead or dying. Charles Moore’s distinct memory of the flight of a balloon train that, according to a contemporary diary, was never launched.
It may seem strange to put Moore–“renowned researcher on atmospheric physics,” star witness for the skeptical orthodoxy about Roswell–on the same footing as crashed-saucer witnesses like Dennis and Anderson. But decades-old memories are subject to the same vicissitudes, whether they’re of once-youthful physicists like Moore or once-youthful morticians like Dennis. And Moore’s memories raise questions which I’ve never seen satisfactorily answered.
I’m not saying the answers are likely to be anything sinister, or to provide any Open Sesame to Roswell’s multiple enigmas. But the questions need to be raised.
Moore’s obituary–he died in 2010, at the age of 89–describes how in 1947 he was “recruited for Project Mogul by New York University, which conducted the project for the U. S. Army Air Corps. … Project Mogul involved launching balloons to carry microphones up to the base of the stratosphere, where the temperature of the atmosphere is highly effective at refracting sound waves. At the time, 1947, the United States was concerned with listening for nuclear testing by other countries, especially the Soviet Union, so the microphone-bearing balloons were launched to listen for the sounds.
“The experiment succeeded in detecting U.S. nuclear tests in the South Pacific, 6,000 miles away, but it also added an important footnote to American cultural history. A balloon launched by Moore in June of 1947 later proved to be the item that is enshrined at Roswell as a ‘UFO.’ Moore didn’t realize the part he had played in the drama until he happened to see a newspaper picture of the pieces of the ‘UFO’ in the 1990s.”
The account is not quite precise. Moore, according to himself, initially never heard the name “Project Mogul” and had only a general idea of what the experiments of the “New York University balloon project” were supposed to be used for. The NYU team’s job was to figure out how you get a balloon to ascend to the border between the troposphere and the stratosphere and stay there, without either going higher or coming down. In this they were more or less successful, at least after they switched from neoprene to polyethylene balloons at the beginning of July 1947.
(Project Mogul, however, turned out to be a flop. It was impractical for monitoring long-distance explosions, and in the early 1950s, after better ways had been found to detect Soviet nuclear testing, it was scrapped.)
It’s not clear from Moore’s account how or when he first heard about the Roswell debris. “There was much excitement nationwide about flying saucers in the last week of June and early July 1947,” he wrote 50 years afterward. “Rewards were even being offered for the recovery of any flying saucer debris. During that period, the radio station at Alamogordo received many calls about saucer sightings from local residents around Alamogordo who saw our balloons in the sky over the Tularosa Valley. We recognized that our balloons were responsible for these local radio reports, and later we guessed that some of the polyethylene balloons were the basis of the so-called Roswell Incident. But as far as we were concerned, it was a funny example of how the flying saucer furor could get the press excited about a research balloon incident” (p. 176).
“Later we guessed”–how much later? Since 1947, according to the previous page. “I had long held the opinion (from 1947 to 1992) that the debris from one of the new polyethylene balloons we had launched from Alamogordo in early July 1947 probably was responsible for the press flap about the ‘flying saucer.'” Moore only changed his mind in June 1992, when a UFOlogist named Robert Todd sent him a copy of a story from the Roswell Daily Record of July 9, 1947. The description of the debris given in this story, by the rancher who found it, persuaded Moore that it was the remains of one of their older neoprene balloon trains. But by his own accounting, Moore had known about Roswell from very early on, and had believed that one of the NYU project’s balloons was responsible.
So then why, in 1979, did Moore tell UFO writer William L. Moore–whom, to avoid confusion, I’ll call “WLM”–what he did?
The conversation is described in the earliest of the Roswell books, The Roswell Incident (1980) by Charles Berlitz and WLM. “Considerable information about the construction and purpose of weather and other scientific-purpose balloons used in the late 1940s was obtained in a series of interviews with C. B. Moore, aerologist and physicist currently with the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology at Socorro. In the summer of 1947, Moore (no relation to the author) was directly involved in a New York University-sponsored high-altitude-research balloon project based out of the North Field of White Sands, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, a project which, he said, he believed was responsible for ‘at least some of the flying-saucer reports in the area.’ …
“When asked whether the Roswell device might have been a weather or other scientific balloon, Moore replied: ‘Based on the description you just gave me, I can definitely rule this out. There wasn’t a balloon in use back in ’47, or even today for that matter, that could have produced debris over such a large area or torn up the ground in any way. I have no idea what such an object might have been, but I can’t believe a balloon would fit such a description.'”
These are astonishing words, coming from a man who’d long taken for granted that the Roswell debris was a balloon, and who from 1992 onward actively campaigned for this idea. I’d have expected Moore to protest that WLM had misquoted him, or quoted him out of context. He never did. Instead, explaining his remarks away, he found a loophole in the wording: “based on the description you just gave me.” WLM had given him an inaccurate description. There were no furrows left in the ground in the vicinity of the debris. This misinformation had led him astray.
Technically, this is possible. But the language Moore used with WLM, which he never disclaimed, doesn’t feel to me like the reaction of a man whose long-held understanding of the Roswell incident–which he’d previously dismissed as “funny”–has just been challenged. (“Well, I’ve always thought that was one of our balloons, but now that you tell me it tore up the ground I guess I’ll have to change my mind. Are you sure about that detail?”) His explanation does not persuade me. I suspect that prior to 1992 Moore was far more ambivalent about Roswell, far more open to seeing it as something genuinely extraordinary, than he was afterward willing to admit.
(According to Karl Pflock, who draws heavily on his interviews with Moore in his 2001 book Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe, Moore himself “had made one of the most impressive–and still unexplained–early UFO sightings, near Arrey, New Mexico, on April 24, 1949.” Surely he didn’t brush aside his own experience as “funny.”)
So what do we learn from this? Possibly nothing. Certainly it’s no ground for dismissing a balloon explanation, “Mogul” or otherwise, for what came down near Roswell.
But it does suggest that Moore’s memories, when they impinge on Roswell, have something of the elusive, shifting quality that we’ve noticed in the testimonies for the “believing” side. His “distinct memory,” for example, of the “4 June balloon train”–which there’s solid reason to believe never flew–“on a clear, sunny morning.” Or another memory of which I haven’t yet spoken, of the New York University team having used pink and purple flowered tape to construct their balloon trains, a detail that turns up in the accounts of the Roswell witnesses and is a key bit of evidence for the “Mogul” explanation.
I’ll talk about this in part 2 of this post.
by David Halperin
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