The Flying Saucer, Communism, and Nuclear War: A Brief History
NASA is launching a UFO-style saucer-shaped spacecraft (the LSDS) with the hopes that it will land on Mars.
In honor of this momentous occasion.... A throwback to the origins of the flying saucer.
From real-life sightings in the sky to classic movies, the flying saucer is a sci-fi and cult icon that has become ubiquitous in many unrelated areas as well; for example, designers have borrowed its template for as long as people have been reporting UFO sightings. "It has become an absolutely universal trope," says Michael Starr, an expert in sci-fi pop culture at the University of Northampton.
The flying saucer, as commonly recognized, can be dated back to June 24, 1947, with the infamous Mount Ranier sighting. Pilot Kenneth Arnold described the object that he saw in the sky as either crescent or disk shaped, flying with the motion of a saucer skimming on water. The case attracted an enormous amount of media attention. As newspapers quickly coined the term "flying saucer," the craze took off, particularly after the infamous Roswell sightings occurred only two weeks later.
At this time, the inordinate amount of interest in flying saucers partially stemmed from the fact that these supposed alien intruders tapped into the fear of an attack from communist enemies.
The shape itself is evocative of many commonly known and identifiable symbols. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung viewed flying saucers as a mythical archetype, comparing their shape to that of a mandala, a ritual circle symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism. He also described them as "technological angels," archetypal beings upon which people could project their anxieties about technological advances, especially nuclear technology. Starr added that "the sleek uniformity of the shape, the shell containing something unpleasant" also helped connect them back to communist imagery.
Next came the big screen, as 1950's Hollywood capitalized on the widespread popularity of this new concept. From a technological standpoint, the saucer was easy to create - "you just need a plate and a piece of string."
Today, however, flying saucers are not nearly as popular. In the 1960's, the phrase was replaced in the hearts and minds of the American people, by one borrowed from the U.S Air force - U.F.O (unidentified flying object). Over time, UFO sightings began to involve saucer shapes less frequently. As modern technologies advanced, crafts resembling stealth bombers and other angular shapes became more common - a transition that was mirrored in the evolution of sci-fi film tropes.
Thus, flying saucers became all but obsolete in everyday life. But, for governments and militaries around the world, the disk-shaped craft hasn't seen the end of days. The new LSDS is not the first of its kind.
German engineer George Klein told the CIA that he worked on a Nazi flying saucer for the Luftwaffe in the 50's - a claim which prompted the American military to start trying to create their own version of the craft.
"Project Y," a British-Canadian flying saucer program, was taken over by the US Navy in 1955, and all efforts were directed to getting it off the ground. In theory, a flying saucer with the classic 1950's design would be quite aerodynamic, as it travelled within the Earth's atmosphere. But the problem was the propulsion system, which no one could get to work quite right, and it never launched.
Now, NASA is hoping that the LSDS will succeed where Project Y failed. At the very least, they should be able to get it off the ground this time.