Watch the Skies!
A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth
by Curtis Peebles, Smithsonian, 368 pages, $24.95 . CODE: SIP-2
In 1947 a private pilot reported seeing nine objects moving “like a saucer would if you skipped it” as he flew over Mount Rainier, in Washington State. A rash of similar reports followed, prompting an Air Force investigation, and a craze was on.
In Watch the Skies! Curtis Peebles, an aerospace historian, makes a fascinating attempt to explain how the belief in flying saucers took hold in postwar America. The more common explanation for the sightings was not that Martians had invaded but that the Russians or our own military must be up to something. If the development of atom bombs could be kept secret, people thought, so could much else. Peebles catalogues weather balloons, meteor displays, and swamp eruptions that were taken for spacecraft and introduces a memorable cast of characters. Among them are the editor of Amazing Stories , Raymond Palmer, who lucked into the craze and founded its bible, Fate , and the investigators and reporters who thought they were on to the story of their lives.
Later chapters follow flying-saucer myths decade by decade. Most recently a lunatic fringe labeled AIDS as a genocidal weapon of space aliens, and Louis Farrakhan described a visit to a bright orange “Mother Wheel.” As Peebles writes, “We watch the skies seeking meaning. In the end, what we find is ourselves.”