Part of the fun of being an astronomical artist is that you get asked engaging questions. A surprising percentage of people are eager to buttonhole anyone who might have some inside info on things celestial. Often, folks want to follow-up on a news story, like the man who read about an impending collision between two galaxies and was curious how it had turned out. Some people just want reassurance that the moon landing wasn’t faked. Nearly everyone is fascinated by the possibility of extraterrestrial life. This sometimes leads to a discussion about UFOs, which makes me squirm a little, because, doggone it, I’ve seen ‘em. Two, in fact. But I don’t really “believe” in them. It’s a subject that causes some personal cognitive dissonance.
My creepiest UFO sighting occurred in 1969. In those halcyon days I often loaded a homebuilt telescope into my mom’s Falcon and drove into the Mojave desert in search of clear, dark skies. I would invariably get the car stuck in a sandpit on some abandoned road and spend hours extricating it. Eventually, in a suitably god-forsaken place, I’d set up the ‘scope, toss my sleeping bag on the ground, heedlessly bed down with the scorpions and sidewinders, and gaze at the heavens. On one occasion I was adopted by a pack of coyotes, but that’s another story.
On the night in question, I was setting up the telescope an hour after sunset. The clear sky would allow a nice view of Saturn when it rose in the wee hours. I had just finished aligning the polar axis of the telescope when something caught my eye: in the southeast, just above a ridge of hills near the horizon, was a perfectly straight, luminous line. It was about half the apparent size of a full moon, absolutely horizontal, and moving slowly west. It was clearly too thin and too straight to be anything natural. Cue X Files theme.
There was a weird scintillation to the object and, in my mind’s eye, I could see the sequentially rippling running lights on the edge of a saucer cruising over the desert, its hull cooling from the plunge into earth’s atmosphere as its pilots searched for a suitable landing spot after their journey of who knew how many light years. That line from War of the Worlds about “minds vast, cool, and unsympathetic” came to mind and I could feel goosebumps sprouting. I half-expected green death rays to blast me where I stood.
Then I noticed that the object seemed to be slightly larger. It was headed my way! Mingled terror and awe. First contact. Take us to your leader, who, God help us, happened to be Nixon. I also noticed a creamy glow developing in the east, but I knew what that was: the moon, getting ready to rise. Then I noticed something else: I had a telescope! Homer Simpson wasn’t even a twinkle in Matt Groening’s eye, but this was an early “Doh!” moment. I deftly aimed the instrument toward the object, peered through the finder telescope, and was even more mystified.
The scintillation was real. There was indeed a line of lights flashing on and off, but they were not turning on sequentially. Nor were they spaced with the geometric precision one would expect. Each light was, however, flashing with a regular pulse, and the period seemed to be pretty consistent for all the lights: about three flashes a second. I centered the spacecraft (now firmly convinced that’s what it was) in the finder’s field of view and looked at it through the 60 power eyepiece of the main telescope.
The strange green sheen of the hull betrayed the alien nature of the craft. Auroral curtains shimmering at the base of the ship hinted at the power of its advanced magnetic drive. They had come. The world was about to change forever.
Well, maybe not. What I actually saw was even stranger until my brain made the right connections. I was indeed looking at alien life forms: geese, on their way to some avian resort. The underside of their wings was reflecting the light of the moon, which was still hidden by hills at my location. Distance and perspective had blended the flock into a single line. Eventually the geese got close enough that I could see their characteristic “v” formation and hear their faint, evocative honks.
Without a telescope it would have been impossible to determine the nature of this UFO, which makes me think that most of the twenty-percent as-yet unexplained UFO sightings by sane, sober, honest people could have become explicable given a bit of optical aid or a different point of view. Under the right conditions even the most prosaic things can look extraordinary: Venus; weather balloons; swamp gas — all the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me official explanations. If investigators at Project Bluebook had suggested that I had seen a flock of geese I’d be looking over my shoulder for black helicopters even today. No way that was a flock of geese! But the telescope revealed that it was.
Item Number 2 in my UFO casebook isn’t quite so easy to explain. The desert encounter occurred when I was 18, arguably well above the age of reason (which I actually didn’t reach until 35, like most of my generation, but that, too, is another story). At least I was old enough and knew enough to eventually figure out what I was seeing. My first UFO sighting, however, happened when I was a mere lad of seven, and I thought nothing of it at the time.
The sighting lasted maybe three seconds. I was sitting directly behind the driver of our school bus as it cruised through a New Jersey forest ablaze with the colors of autumn. I was looking out the window, studiously ignoring Sharon Blake, the cute little red-haired girl across the aisle. The sky was blue and early morning sun dappled the treetops. Just ahead of the bus there was a flash of light. It was the sun gleaming off a shiny metallic disk flying over the road from right to left at maybe a thirty degree angle. I watched it for a couple of seconds until it went behind the trees. I thought it was kind of cool. Some new type of airplane, maybe, but no big deal.
I’m blessed — sometimes plagued — by the ability to retain vivid images. I remember looking out through the bars of a crib and can recall the shiny varnish that coated the top of a bannister at my grandmother’s house, viewed from the perspective of a babe in arms. This is not a particularly useful talent, but it allows me to recall details about that flying saucer that suggest the sighting was not a synthetic memory based on a dream or a misapprehended conventional aircraft such as a helicopter.
The UFO was lustrous silver and perfectly circular, sufficiently oblate that it looked basically flat, but there might have been a slight convex bulge to the bottom. As it glided across the road, a dazzling sub-solar glint slid along its edge, properly obeying the laws of optics. The most amazing thing about it was that its silvery underside reflected the orange and red treetops. I was able to see the trees as if in a mirror. This brief, bird’s-eye view is what enchanted my seven-year-old mind and it is the primary detail that convinces me I saw a real, physical object that morning.
If I were filling out a UFO report I would guess the thing was about 50 feet in diameter and 200 feet up. If it were much higher or bigger the tree reflections wouldn’t have been so distinct. It was likely moving at about the same speed as the bus, maybe 30-40 miles per hour. Given the location of the sun glint and the time of day, the bus was headed west and the UFO was traveling southwest. That should be enough to pin down the location of the saucer nest, don’t you think?
Did I see an alien spacecraft? Probably not. The least-bad explanation is that it was a test device from the nearby Picatinny Arsenal, covered with the same kind of aluminized Mylar envelope used on the Echo satellite two years later. This observation happened in 1958, post Sputnik, at the dawn of the Space Age, when America was frantically trying to catch up with the Russians. We could hear test firings of the Redstone rocket every few days, so they were doing bleeding-edge work at Picatinny. Perhaps it was an exotic balloon, like the one that supposedly went down at Roswell. Aeronautical engineers were trying all sorts of weird designs then. I’ve seen footage of a wacky flying saucer-like test craft from that time, but I don’t think it ever got more than a few feet off the ground; the computers required to stabilize such a thing weren’t around yet. The object I saw flew very gracefully.
Anybody know what it might have been?