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Why We Can't Stop Obsessing Over Flying Saucers

What is it about this simple shape that captivates us so?

[Image: UFO via Shutterstock]

NASA's new Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is about to be deployed. The goal, in brief: Hit NASA's speed and altitude targets, to see if similar launches would make it to Mars safely. The near-term goal of this particular mission is 180,000 feet and Mach 4.

It's essentially a test flight—to lay the groundwork for more ambitious flights to come. (This is considered "near-space.") It's all pretty cool. But what's even cooler is that the LDSD is obviously a flying saucer.

The BBC has a great little history of the flying saucer, starting with its debut in 1947 when a pilot insisted he saw several flying saucers near Mount Rainier. Something about that shape resonated with the public; within two weeks there were flying saucer sightings in Roswell, New Mexico, and hundreds more across the country.

What is it about this simple shape that captivates us so? Partly it's the unreality of it—the improbable nature of a disc-like shape that can fly. In 1947, when the flying saucer sightings began, flight was already a well-understood concept. We already knew which kinds of shapes and designs could help sustain flight: tubes, wings, propellers, noses, and tails. Airplanes look like robotic birds; they are complex, but they look familiar.

A flying saucer, on the other hand, is inscrutable, and therefore scary. Its uniform shape has no front and no back; it barely has a top and bottom. We fear and are captivated by the unknown, and what could be more unknown than a flying object that doesn't make it obvious how it takes off, lands, or stays airborne?

The LDSD has been delayed multiple times due to weather problems at the launch site in Hawaii. We're eager to watch it get off the ground soon, and to marvel as the oddball flying saucer propels itself up into the sky.

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