DID I BRING MY FLUX CAPACITOR? Do I have any interstellar goo on me? Have I recently visited the beta quadrant? The galactic flight attendant asks me these questions during the pre-boarding screening at Spaceport Roswell, a new virtual reality experience.
After passing the safety screening (I left my flux capacitor at home for this visit, dang it), I pull on my VR visor and am instantly transported into Earth’s orbit. I hover above an alien crew member moving through the spacecraft just as the ship gets sucked into Earth’s atmosphere and crashes in the desert in a fiery blaze.
Did the infamous Roswell Incident really happen like this? I wonder.
“Whatever the story is, it is,” Spaceport Roswell founder Jacob Roebuck says. “Our purpose is to entertain.”
The experience dramatizes an oft-told story in this stretch of southeast New Mexico: Shortly after midnight on July 3, 1947, a flying saucer purportedly crashed northwest of Roswell, near the town of Corona. The military quickly deflated news of the incident by calling it a weather-balloon crash. Believers cried government cover-up. Skeptics grew curious. Most Roswellians went about their business, even as the town and close encounters became synonymous.
Some locals and visitors enjoy the suggestion that humans aren’t alone in the universe, and the palatial rooms at the International UFO Museum and Research Center provide artifacts for ongoing investigations. The museum has been a landmark attraction since 1992, along with the town’s quirky, marquee UFO Festival, held each July.
Roswell is leaning into its identity as a UFO hot spot with new attractions for enthusiasts just in time for the incident’s 75th anniversary. Step one: Unveil a Hollywood Walk of Fame–style installation. The first two honorees will be Major (then Lieutenant) Jesse Marcel, the military intelligence officer who was dispatched to investigate the debris field, and Donald Schmitt, a UFOlogist and co-founder of the museum.
Even nonbelievers can find something to explore in Roswell, where a new fascination lies around every corner, from a museum dedicated to miniature collections to an under-the-radar art gallery in a town with a huge visual art scene.
LOCAL ARTIST BRYAN WARD BELIEVES. A flying saucer he saw while in high school in central California kick-started his fascination with aliens. His paintings and prints recall comic books from the 1950s and 1960s, when the space race invaded the national zeitgeist. Ward spent much of his career building Halloween haunted houses. He and his wife, Karen, retired to Roswell in 2019 to be closer to the UFO flash point. “I love the aliens and the mystery,” he says.
The Wards also opened the Roswell UFO Spacewalk, which evokes the fun parts of haunted houses. The experience begins with an animatronic alien announcing that I may proceed to the “probing area,” but nothing pops out at me in the black-lit rooms.
It reminds me of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, in Santa Fe, on a smaller scale. I feel a sense of awe as the glowing galaxy tunnel segues into other sci-fi scenes, one with a lurking Swamp Thing.
Not all of Roswell’s residents are as passionate as Ward. Roswell’s skepticism toward the incident may be rooted in its down-to-earth history. In the 1860s, cattle drives along the Goodnight-Loving Trail brought Anglo ranchers into territory that the Mescalero Apache frequented and the Spanish settled. Artesian water flooded the area with farmers in the 1890s. Agricultural and dairy operations remain community cornerstones.
The town began to take flight even before the Roswell Incident. It was once the stomping grounds of rocketry pioneer Robert H. Goddard, who sought more space and a better climate for his experiments. The Roswell Museum re-creates Goddard’s workshop in one of its halls, and its planetarium draws its name from the scientist, whose work influenced NASA rocketry.
In 1941, the Roswell Army Air Field’s flying school began training crews, including that of the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that unleashed the first atomic bomb used in war. The Walker Aviation Museum pays homage to this past with artifacts signed by crew members. Walker Air Force Base (the airfield’s successor) closed in 1967, but a military presence stands tall at the New Mexico Military Institute’s shipshape campus and its McBride Museum.
AS THE MILITARY BASE closed out, the arts flowed in. The town’s oil and gas industry drew Renaissance man Donald B. Anderson to town, and his artistic pursuits led him to establish the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program (RAiR) and the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. The two institutions have proven to be wellsprings of international talent and have given Roswell a deep bench of local creatives.
Jacob Roebuck, for one, was writing, producing, and directing films for Netflix before he and his wife permanently relocated to her hometown. “It’s quiet here,” he says. “There’s nothing like quiet for creativity. In California, we also spent all our time worrying about how we were going to pay rent. It’s hard to be creative if you’re stressed about your life.”
Since landing in Roswell, the two have created Spaceport Roswell and will launch another venture this summer: Bricktown, a space with themed displays made of 400,000 Lego bricks. The “Alien Attack” section features a 25,000-piece mother ship and a miniature attack force with pieces Roebuck has been collecting for years.
Roswellians envision the type of place they want to live and then create it, says Nancy Fleming, director of the Anderson Museum and co-founder of the Miniatures and Curious Collections Museum. “Creativity is the idea that anything is possible,” she says. “Participation is key. The more you participate, the more you think things are possible.”
Fleming and co-founder Elaine Howe opened their museum in 2018 to display a growing collection of rescued miniature houses and rooms (single-scene display boxes). “Elaine got the call about the first homeless miniature,” Fleming recalls. “I had the van.” Many of their miniatures hail from the Pocos Locos, local hobbyists whose tiny works risk being sold off, dismantled, or lost as the members age and pass away.
As I gaze at the miniatures, I try to refocus from the vastness of the universe and the lives that may inhabit it to the tiny paintings and thimble-size pots (aka Poco Pots) that Roswell artist Julie Hinkle threw on a wheel. I’m not alone in this perspective shift.
In the museum’s Curious Collections section, The Macrocosm of the Microcosm, running through September, features a thousand objects that retired Roswell therapist Susan Voight amassed over her career to use in sand-play therapy. Shelves upon shelves display the tiny worlds her clients created—plastic dinosaurs, army men, and snakes. Buddhas, trees, and gargoyles. “As a collector,” Fleming says, “you dream about seeing all of your collection out of storage and sharing it with friends and family.”
The collections prove what RAiR artists often say: Roswell gives you the time and space to go deeper. Howe’s daughter, Miranda, returned to her hometown in 2013 for RAiR. The accomplished ceramicist had traveled the globe and completed other artistic residencies, including one with the prestigious Archie Bray Foundation, before coming home. “This was never a place I thought I’d come back to,” she says. “I’m very community-minded, and I’ve had many experiences I can bring back here to add to the offerings.”
After her residency, Miranda’s search for a studio space led her to a Continental Oil Company building near the railroad tracks, where her vision expanded. In 2018, she opened Bone Springs Art Space, with a sophisticated gift shop, a gallery for solo shows, and a basement teaching space where she hosts after-school classes, summer youth workshops, and adult ceramics classes.
Miranda’s vision was grander than she knew. Her property abuts a new project that, over the next several years, will transform the downtown railroad corridor into a pedestrian-friendly space for outdoor concerts, food trucks, and other gatherings.
As I head toward home on US 285, I gaze for miles to the horizon. Only the towering skeletons of wind turbines interrupt a view that extends into space. Am I a believer or a skeptic? The creatives and characters I’ve met here dance through my mind, and I think, Why not here?
Terrestrial Touch Points
Space Race. Learn the full story on the Roswell Incident, explore other possible encounters, and get briefed on sci-fi pop culture at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. Blast off with Spaceport Roswell virtual reality experiences. Bricktown is slated for a limited summer run (through September) at the reimagined gas station next door to Spaceport Roswell. Get glowing at the Roswell UFO Spacewalk.
The Roswell UFO Festival runs July 1–3, with events all over town. Check out the UFOlogist Invasion, Galaxy Fair, a concert by country band Midland, a 5K race, laser shows and sci-fi movies in the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium, a costume contest, a pet costume contest, and more.
Visit the town’s UFO-themed McDonald’s for a photo op in a play area built to resemble a flying saucer.
Fuel Up. The best cup of joe (or matcha) in town is at Stellar Coffee Co. Pair a witch-themed ’wich with an “alienade” at B’wiches. (Try the Galaxy—it has edible glitter.) A retired local firefighter founded Backdraft Barbecue at Third Street Station, where you pass the smokehouse on the way to enjoy fall-off-the-bone ribs. Sip local wines and those from around the state at Pecos Flavors Winery & Bistro.
Art Walk. See the works of former Roswell Artist-in-Residence participants at the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. The Roswell Museum features RAiR works and a sophisticated collection of Peter Hurd and Henriette Wyeth paintings in a grand WPA-detailed room. Plan time to explore the Miniatures and Curious Collections Museum, open Fridays and Saturdays. Check the schedule or call ahead to see the latest works and gift shop at Bone Springs Art Space.