NASA Gets Weird

Granted, mock spaceships, latex aliens and UFO floats are unusual subjects for an exhibit, but stranger still is the fact that all this can be found at Space Center Houston, a place usually devoted to serious human exploration of the stars, in its new exhibit, "Roswell and the Alien Invasion." Ask astronomers if they give any credence to a UFO crash landing in Roswell, New Mexico, and you'll get an emphatic no. "It is strictly entertainment as far as we are concerned," says Dr. Pat Hartigan, an astronomy professor at Rice University.

With the public increasingly reluctant to fund any research that doesn't lead directly to the development of better food additives or higher baud modems, one might think there is a danger in catering to this kind of pop science. After all, this is an age in which shows such as Unsolved Mysteries pass for serious documentaries. Hartigan, however, does not see NASA's embrace of the Roswell landing as a threat to a legitimate search for sentient life. "I don't think most people have too much trouble separating myth from reality, but perhaps I am mistaken."

Celinia Ducceschi, exhibit manager for the center, agrees. She found the inhabitants of Roswell to be more caught up in the zaniness of their otherworldly association than in any serious consideration of whether life exists outside our solar system. On the anniversary of the crash, the people of Roswell reinvent themselves as earth-bound aliens for their annual parade: They dress up in kitschy sci-fi costumes straight out of '50s pulp magazines and trot out fantastical mechanical creations that would never see the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. Much of this paraphernalia is part of the center's display, including a smoke-spurting, 6,500-pound vehicle made from 500 car bumpers, faucets and an airplane ejector seat, modeled after the submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The Space Center will re-create the parades at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily during spring break (Saturday, March 11, through Sunday, March 19). Joining the aliens will be characters from Nickelodeon and Disney on Ice, among others. An alien-building center will also be available for children to create their own toy extraterrestrials, and there will be an "Area 5 & Dime" gift shop hawking plenty of otherworldly trinkets.

UFO enthusiasts tend to be a bit more skeptical about NASA's intentions. Despite concerns that the government was tapping his phones and "probably" monitoring his email, Dennis Balthaser, a researcher/ lecturer on the subject of Roswell and underground bases, went on record to claim the exhibit is another bit of NASA propaganda used to make believers look like kooks. Balthaser is practically compiling a list of suspects: A previous volunteer at Roswell's UFO Museum, which contributes items to the exhibit, Balthaser was eventually forced to leave because, he believes, he was putting out too much information. "My gut feeling is that they're part of the cover-up," he says. Fred Woods, vice president of the Houston UFO Network (who stresses this is his own personal view, not HUFON's), echoes Balthaser's concern in an e-mail response. Woods says that if NASA is making light of what "might have been" the greatest event in human history, "THEY are 'probably' deeply involved in the cover-up."

James Oberg, who spent 22 years at NASA before devoting his time to writing about and debunking UFO sightings, sees at least a potential value in this type of exhibit. "There is plenty of public interest in the UFO mythos that would be a legitimate area for Space Center Houston to examine." A small wall is reserved for photographs of UFOs that turned out to be hubcaps, and there's a mention of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast that incited a panic when people mistook it for a real newscast. Still, Richard Allen, president and CEO of Space Center Houston, insists there is no agenda other than a wacky good time for children during spring break. "As the No. 1 attraction in Houston, we try and do fun things to engage people to come here."

That cynical sound you hear is the groaning of real NASA scientists.

Roswell mayor Bill Owen will fly in for the opening ceremonies on Friday, March 10. Spring break hours will be from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is $13.95, $9.95 for children four to 11. Call (281)244-2100 for more information.

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Dylan Otto Krider