One Giant Leap for Hologramkind

In what’s easily 2019’s coolest use of AV technology, the Smithsonian is projecting a giant holograph of a Saturn V rocket onto the Washington Monument this week; on Friday and Saturday it’ll come to life and recreate the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969.  Wish I could be there to see it (especially since I’ll be at Boy Scout summer camp instead!) but it’s awesome that they’re doing it at all.  And kind of appropriate as Gen. Michael Collins was both the Command Module pilot for Apollo 11 and later the director of the National Air and Space Museum.

sv50-2

I don’t have a lot more to say about the first moon landing that I didn’t already say in my 40th anniversary post, except that in the intervening 10 years (!) we’ve seen the death of Neil Armstrong, the end of the Space Shuttle program and more promises for the human exploration of space that may or may not ever come to pass.  Hopefully we have some awesome adventures in space ahead of us, but in the meantime it’s worth pausing to remember what we’re capable of doing at our best.

It Came From Outer Space (Maybe)

A recent Boy Scout camping trip took Jason, Scott and me to a part of Virginia where I spent several years of my youth.  But then, what else is new; by now the boys are doubtless getting tired of me saying, “I used to live here.” So far I’ve used that line when visiting the Eastern Shore, Lynchburg, Middlesex, Matthews, Lunenburg and now Mecklenburg.  Sometimes I forget just how much I moved as a kid.

Anyway, in this case we saw not only Victoria, where I spent my middle school years and one year of high school, and Chase City, where my grandparents lived, but also South Hill, where I arrived on this planet right around the same time as an extraterrestrial visitor…maybe.

In a fun little museum that spotlights vintage dolls, model trains and local wildlife (!), I was admiring an enormous HO-scale train layout when I came across a display that didn’t seem to tie in exactly with any of the three themes of the museum.  Featuring a complete article from a magazine called UFOs and Flying Saucers 1968, it recounted an incident that briefly put South Hill on the national map with ufologists, curiosity-seekers and the US Air Force. Even though I’d heard the story a few times growing up, this was the first time I’d seen any documentation beyond mere word-of-mouth, so I took a photo of the display to help me search out the magazine online.

southhillsaucer

 

The only remaining piece of the cover was the title, but once again, the internet came through for me and I tracked down an image of the full cover.

 

fs-ufo68

 

So anyway, the gist is that a South Hill warehouse manager leaving work in the wee hours of April 21, 1967 saw an object more less resembling a large water tank on four legs resting in the road, and when he shone his headlights on it, the object took off with a blinding flash of white flame.  Subsequent investigations revealed a strange depression and scorch marks burned into the surface of the road where the reported object allegedly sat. Having produced physical markings, the sighting is elevated to what we’d call a Close Encounter of the Second Kind, as opposed to the more common (and more easily dismissed) visual sightings of the First kind.

Here’s a brief article that appeared back in the day:

 

ufo-south_hill

While I wasn’t able to unearth a digital version of the magazine article (with photos of officials investigating the odd marks on the road), I was thrilled to find the complete original case report filed by the US Air Force officer assigned to catalog the sighting for “Project Blue Book,” complete with witness accounts, diagrams and the works.

A decades-long government investigation into UFO sightings around the country, “Project Blue Book” also inspired a TV show I used to love,  “Project: UFO” (renamed to eliminate confusion, or because “blue book” sounds like it could be naughty, I guess).  It was a curious show; trading on the sensationalized UFO-mania of the era, it showcased “amazing” spaceship model work to draw in the Star Wars crowd, but with Jack Webb producing, it wad performed in the same no-nonsense, procedure-bound style as “Dragnet.”  Typically there were three investigations per episode, two of which would invariably end in “logical” explanations (hoaxes, optical illusions, weather balloons and the like).  After a while it got to be unintentionally hilarious, seeing highly-detailed spaceship models hovering before us as plain as day to illustrate a witness account, only to have the investigating officers declare, “What you saw was a trick of the light, caused by swamp gas.”  Ah, but then there was always a third investigation that would end up “unexplained,” just to toss us conspiracy nuts a cookie so we’d come back again next week.  The Joe Friday-like USAF officers weren’t about to admit it was a real flying saucer, but then they couldn’t definitely say it wasn’t, either.

Imagine my pleasure, then, on discovering that “Blue Book’s” final ruling on the South Hill sighting is “unexplained.”  As a kid, I lived for this kind of thing: not so much the confirmation of things extraterrestrial or supernatural (because hey, if science ever agreed Bigfoot or aliens were real, they’d just become part of the boring world of known facts, and lose their allure), but rather the admission that experts (ie: grown-ups) do not and can not know everything (“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…”).

Over the years, I mostly lost interest in UFOs.  I remember a few years ago trying to watch a nine-part series on Youtube that traced the history of UFO sightings over the millennia, and somewhere around episode six I gave up, realizing I don’t really care if they’re real or not, because even if they are, what difference does it make?  Consider: if you were writing a UFO-themed screenplay, Act 1 would revolve around spooky sightings of alien spacecraft by heroes and heroines who are disbelieved and scoffed at.  Act 2 would see their claims verified as a horde of invading saucers assault the Earth and lay waste to civilization.  In Act 3, we’d either beat them or go down fighting, but the point is  in “real life” we’ve been stuck in Act 1 since Bible times (when “Ezekiel saw the wheel.” ) It’s always  “I saw this, I saw that, I talked to aliens, aliens abducted me, aliens killed my cow, the government’s covering it up”, yadda yadda.  But it never goes any further.  After thousands of years, all the alleged ETs are doing is watching us, or at worst playing pranks on random rednecks; they’re not scouts for an invasion force or they’d have attacked by now.  And if they’re just tourists, then let ’em come.  They’re not hurting anything.

The weird part is I once experienced a sighting myself.  Sometime around 1973 in the small town of Saluda, VA, I was watching a show on TV (surprise!) when the electricity went out in our house.  A glance out the window showed the power had also failed in all the other houses on our block and across the street, as well as the traffic light at the intersection two blocks away.  There was one light, though, coming from behind the house, about 100 yards away, bright and round and hovering maybe 35 to 50 feet off the ground.  Not sure for how long, but long enough for me to notice it, get up, walk to the back window and stare at it. And then suddenly, it shot off and upwards very fast at an angle, and once it was out of sight, the power came back on.  I told the story a lot as a kid, to the point where I later decided maybe I’d made it up, but I asked my Mom a few years ago, she said, “No, that happened and I was terrified.”  So there’s that.

And that’s cool. In the end, I like my UFOs mysterious and unexplained, and it’s fun to know my birth town was once (and may still be) one of the great historical “hot spots” for ET activity.  However, I confess it’s a bit disappointing to learn the actual date of the sighting was some two years and a couple weeks after my birth.  The idea that a flying saucer and I may have showed up at the same time seemed to explain so much…

 

We Came In Peace For All Mankind

apollo11

I don’t have much to add to the hooplah over the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but I figured it was worth at least a mention.

I was just 4 years old when Neil Armstrong hopped down onto the lunar surface, so when it comes to personal memories of that “one giant leap for mankind” …well, not much. here.  But I do remember the excitement of the era, and indeed astronauts in general were my first real-life heroes.

I remember watching numerous launches, possibly including Apollo 11 but certainly the subsequent moon missions and Apollo-Soyuz. I remember climbing onto the sofa with my little brother, both of us in our footed pajamas, with our backs on the seat cushions and our legs up against the back of the sofa, staging our own countdown to lift-off. I remember my G.I. Joe with his shiny foil spacesuit and space capsule, and the accompanying 45rpm record of John Glenn’s transmissions from Friendship 7. I remember the lady across the street who gave us patches from various NASA missions (her son had collected them, but now he was off at college, or the Army or something. Wonder how he felt about it when he got back home?).

And you know what else I remember? The certainty that the Moon was just the beginning. That soon we’d be on Mars and after that, who knows? That we’d have a moonbase like on that UFO show, or Space: 1999, and that working there would be one of my career options once I grew up. Little did we know.

In fact, if you asked me what’s the most amazing thing about the future, now that we’re living in it, I wouldn’t cite the internet, or GPS in every car, or iPods or any of that stuff. The most amazing thing is what we haven’t done, and where we haven’t gone. It’s amazing that we would get so far so fast with manned spaceflight and then hang it up. Of course now we may be going back to the Moon, and for the same reason as last time; to beat the other guys there (China is aiming for 2020).

Anyway, it was pretty cool growing up in a time where something as wonderful as the moonshots could happen; looking up at the Moon and thinking, “Men have been there,” or even, “There are guys up there right now, looking back down at us.” Sometimes one of the boys will point out the Moon — it especially fascinates them to see it in the daytime — and I’ll catch myself saying, “You know, men have been to the Moon.” I’m never sure how they take that, whether it’s “so what?” or “is this another of Daddy’s jokes?” or if they have any concept of what was involved in getting there, or why it mattered. On some level, maybe it didn’t matter much, considering what it didn’t lead to. But for my generation, for those of us who grew up with the lunar landings as a fact of life from our earliest years, it was a pretty empowering thing. Kids, I think, live on the power of possibility, the infinite promise of tomorrow, the faith that what they imagine today they can someday make real. That’s what the Apollo missions did for us. I’d like my kids to have that, too.