SOCORRO, N.M.--Roswell gets all the glory. It has a UFO festival, a UFO museum, and a prominent place in the national mindset. Roswell happened back in 1947, but it wasn't really popularized until the late 1970s.
Before Roswell got famous, Socorro, N.M., made national news in 1964 after a very peculiar incident on an April evening.
Socrorro gets its own UFO
Police officer Lonnie Zamora was chasing a speeding car near the outskirts of town when he turned off to investigate a loud roaring sound and a flame in the sky. What he initially thought was a car turned over in an arroyo turned out to be what he described as a shiny whitish object, shaped like an "O" with legs.
Two figures the size of small adults were near the object, he said. As he got closer, the object rose up and flew away. Indentations and burn marks on the ground marked the spot to corroborate his report. You can read the full report from Zamora, copied from the U.S. government's Project Blue Book files.
There are plenty of theories about what he saw, but everybody seems to agree that Zamora was a well-regarded and reliable officer who spotted something mysterious. Some people believe it was an alien visitation, others that it may have been a hoax.
The landing site today
It's 2012 and I'm standing above a dusty, scrub-filled arroyo with Dave Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, a nonprofit that aims to promote science and critical examinations of extraordinary claims. He holds a folder labeled "Socorro UFO X-File" in one hand and a GPS device in the other.
We are at the location where Zamora saw the mysterious object. Wind blasts over the mesa and the only sign that something happened here is a human-built pile of rocks meant to mark the spot.
An alternate explanation
So, did Zamora witness the landing of a craft from beyond the stars? Thomas believes what Zamora saw that day was actually a test of a lunar surveyor destined for a moon mission.
"The White Sands Missile Range was testing a surveyor," Thomas said. "To test it, they had to support it. They used a Bell helicopter that was very small, not your ordinary helicopter at all. The combination of the lunar craft and the helicopter would have presented an object that looks sort of white and round."
The figures Zamora saw could be explained as workers on the project or astronauts in suits who were along for the testing. Zamora also famously saw a red symbol painted on the side of the craft. His description bears a resemblance to a period Hughes Aircraft logo.
Socorro's place in UFO lore
The lunar surveyor theory sounds pretty good to me, but there will always be UFO enthusiasts who point to Socorro's experience as one of the strongest eyewitness accounts of an alien landing.
Socorro hasn't put the marketing power into its UFO sighting that, but a stop at the visitor's center reveals that the city council is considering placing a marker at the site.
As a blasting wind pushes me around, I look south to where thelies nearby. I'm thinking, "Only in New Mexico can you hang out at a UFO landing site with a physicist holding an x-file."
As much as I would love for aliens to come on down for a visit, I have to side with science and reason on the Socorro incident. I know the next time I look up and see something strange in the New Mexico sky, I'm going to think "weather balloon" or "military test," rather than "UFO."