June 24, 1997
Ever since an unidentified object crashed by a army base near Roswell, New Mexico, the government has insisted that America did not experience a close encounter of the extraterrestrial kind. Today, the government tried to end speculation once and for all; Air Force Colonel John Haynes said the crash involved a military balloon, not UFOs. Following a background report by Charles Krause, Jim Lehrer leads a discussion.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
June 24, 1997
A backgrounder on the Roswell Report.
View the NewsHour's military coverage.
Browse the official Air Force report on the Roswell incident.
Roswell: Anatomy of a Myth supports the government's claims that no UFOs crashed in the desert.
The International UFO Museum & Research Center
JIM LEHRER: Richard Berendzen is a professor of physics and astronomy at American University. Don Berliner is author of a book on Roswell and a board member of the Fund for UFO Research. Mr. Berliner, is the case closed?
DAVID BERLINER, Fund for UFO Research: No. I think the Air Force has just opened it even wider. The colonel who was just open failed to account for the discrepancy of six years in the bodies. He referred only to the wreckage that was found at Roswell in 1947. He didn't explain how test dummies that were used in ‘53 could have explained what witnesses say they saw six years previously.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Berendzen, how do you feel?
RICHARD BERENDZEN, American University: Well, I think from the standpoint of the Air Force it probably is closed. I imagine they're a little exhausted with it. From the standpoint of the UFO believers like Don, no, it is not, nor will it ever be. I think it's an article of faith. It'd be impossible for the Air Force to produce any document that would be compelling, I think, to the real believer. From the standpoint of scientists, it was never really an issue to start with. We are searching for life in the universe all the time, but we simply found no compelling evidence that it's ever been here.
JIM LEHRER: In Roswell or anywhere else?
RICHARD BERENDZEN: Anywhere else.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Berliner, is Dr. Berendzen right, that no matter what the Air Force said today about dummies seven years, six years, whatever evidence they showed, you'd still believe, you and others would still believe that that was a spaceship that crashed in Roswell 50 years ago?
DAVID BERLINER: Some people would. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a believer in UFO's.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
DAVID BERLINER: I don't base my position on belief, on faith. It's on information that I've gotten from witnesses, firsthand witnesses in most cases. If I saw enough evidence to convince me that nothing of consequence happened at Roswell, that would be it. I'd like an answer of some sort but I really don't care what that answer is.
JIM LEHRER: Where--where could--where could the answer come from now?
RICHARD BERENDZEN: Well, I think the question is being posed backwards, if I may say so.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
RICHARD BERENDZEN: The real issue is that whenever anyone proposes any hypothesis, the burden of proof is on that person. So if someone wants to say that UFO's--which certainly exist--I mean there are unidentified things in the sky if you keep to the strict definition of the word--
JIM LEHRER: Let me stop you. Define that. What do you mean?
RICHARD BERENDZEN: Well, a UFO really means "unidentified flying object," which ultimately they will end up being identified. It may be identified as a bird, a plane, a hoax, a--
JIM LEHRER: A piece of a satellite, something--
RICHARD BERENDZEN: Whatever it may be, exactly. Okay. Now the real question then is: Who is going to defend the case? It is not the burden of the critic. It is the burden of the person who's putting forward the hypothesis. I might tell you, Jim, that driving over here tonight I saw a green unicorn. You can say I don't believe that, but the burden is upon me to prove it, not upon you to disprove it.
So the real question is: Can the people who really believe in UFO's after a half century--and this was not the first sighting--there have been others--in fact, in the Bible there are things reported in the sky--in the 1890's there were things reported because heavier than air aircraft people were experimenting with--can they prove that any of these things came from elsewhere? Where is it? Can we test it? Can we send it to a lab?
DAVID BERLINER: I don't claim to have any proof. If we had proof, we wouldn't be discussing this right now. It would be another matter entirely. But I see a lot of evidence pointing toward the possibility that some UFO's may well be alien craft.
JIM LEHRER: What is the most compelling piece of evidence that you have seen, examined, or in some way believe?
DAVID BERLINER: If you're talking about hardware--
JIM LEHRER: Anything. You define. You tell me whether it's hardware, software, whatever.
DAVID BERLINER: Well, I could relate it directly to the Roswell case. Dr. Jesse Marcelle and his father, the late Major Marcelle, who was the intelligence officer at Roswell Army Air Field, who was one of the first two government people on the scene at Roswell, described in great detail the materials they found, extremely lightweight, extremely strong, and not the least bit like balloon materials. Dr. Marcelle, who is not only a medical doctor but an aircraft accident investigator in those wreckage, makes it very clear that what he saw is not like anything known to be in current aircraft or spacecraft or anything of the sort 50 years ago.
JIM LEHRER: So what does that mean that it is? We know what it isn't. What is it?
DAVID BERLINER: Well, you can't get much beyond what it isn't, unfortunately, but what it isn't is anything familiar. And so it's easy to jump to the conclusion that it may be extremely unusual and from elsewhere. I think that's unreasonable. We're only at the point where we can say that there are things going on that we cannot explain and that suggest alien origin.
JIM LEHRER: Do you buy that?
RICHARD BERENDZEN: No, I really do not. I think what you really have to understand is that first of all we're not sure that this gentleman's account is accurate. I've witnessed accounts which superficially seem so compelling any prosecuting attorney will tell you are sometimes unreliable.
The problem is the person can say well, the robber was five foot nine, turns out to be six feet tall. People's sense perceptions can simply be off. How did this individual know that this was particularly strong material? Did he take it into a metallurgical lab and test it? I don't think so. Where is the material? Can any lab test it? If there was independent judgment and real examination, then it would be compelling. Otherwise, it's hearsay.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Berliner, let me ask you this. This is 50 years ago now, that the Roswell incident occurred. I read a report today that 100,000 people are going to be there for kind of--a hundred miles away you can't get a hotel room.
DAVID BERLINER: It's going to be a circus.
JIM LEHRER: It's going to be--why does it matter so much to so many people?
DAVID BERLINER: Well, if it turns out that aliens have landed in one piece or in a lot of pieces, it's terribly exciting. It's the biggest news story in history. And it's very glamorous, adventurous. You can let your imagination roar and a lot of people, unfortunately, are highly unscientific and want this to be the case. They're a pain in the neck for us, frankly.
JIM LEHRER: Is it a harmless kind of thing to believe in?
DAVID BERLINER: Oh, I don't think it's very harmful. As I say, it's unscientific, and it really gets in the way, it distorts things, but I don't know that anybody really suffers from it.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, no harm in this?
RICHARD BERENDZEN: Well, they did in San Diego, but maybe that was an extreme situation.
JIM LEHRER: Explain what you mean.
RICHARD BERENDZEN: Well, the cult that committed suicide.
JIM LEHRER: Certainly.
RICHARD BERENDZEN: And I think that there is something about critical thinking. What our young people need to learn is critical thinking. It's not a question of whether you believe the astronomers or believe the Air Force or believe others. Believe your own reasoning power. As Don just said, it would be the most powerful story of all time.
Why haven't good reporters ferreted this out and won the Pulitzer and become the greatest reporter of all time? Why haven't scientists after a half century revealed it and got the Nobel Prize? Why haven't the American industrial complex gone after this and after all, earlier in your program, you talked about China and the large corporations that want to do business there, what about all the corporations that would love to build munitions to protect us for the alien invasion? And if there really were alien bodies here on Earth, remember "Andromeda Strain," the Michael Crichton story, what about the potential threat, not just to the United States but to the world. Where are the other 200 nations in the world and their concern?
JIM LEHRER: So you're saying it just doesn't add up, just simple common sense?
RICHARD BERENDZEN: It doesn't.
DAVID BERLINER: I think we're dealing with a matter that is very highly classified, and also--
JIM LEHRER: Meaning that--if, in fact, that's an alien spacecraft that crashed there 50 years ago, that it's so classified that nobody knows about it, so nobody can talk about it?
DAVID BERLINER: Obviously, people who are working on it, trying to understand it, would know about it. But as far as the general public is concerned, as far as the general scientific community is concerned, as far as the legitimate press is concerned, it could be kept from them.
JIM LEHRER: Well, a NASA official, one of our reporters interviewed a NASA official about this today, and he said, associate administrator of NASA, he said, wait a minute, we can't keep secret, you know, something that we're trying like hell to keep secret, you know, it's just a major thing, and no conspiracy like this could ever be pulled off for 50 years.
DAVID BERLINER: Well, we know about the secrets that haven't been kept; we don't know about the secrets that are still being kept, and there are plenty of them. We don't know what's really going on in the Air Force's test bases in Nevada, the advanced aircraft; they're classified, legitimately, and so we can't describe them.
JIM LEHRER: You think it's conceivable then that the U.S. Government could keep this real story under wraps for 50 years without a substantial leak?
DAVID BERLINER: Yes.
RICHARD BERENDZEN: No way in the world. I live in Washington, and I don't think the President of the United States can keep something secret in the Oval Office for two weeks. In addition to that, I think you have to realize some other matters here too. You know, this whole case really is a whole lot of circumstantial evidence. It would not make it to the court of science or to the court of law. It would all be dismissed. It's only in the court of public opinion, where there is no review, there is no peer examination.
JIM LEHRER: And it's big out there, right, Mr. Berliner?
DAVID BERLINER: It's what?
JIM LEHRER: It's big out there in the court of public opinion.
DAVID BERLINER: Oh, yes. And getting bigger, and I hope we can cope with it.
JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you both very much.