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Past & Present: Plains, Asteroids & Aliens

A recent road trip included a visit to Roswell, New Mexico.  I welcomed a chance to see the place that turned an event from 1947 into a cottage industry involving UFOs and aliens.

I am not going to comment on what did or did not take place back on that isolated ranch nearly 70 years ago. What interested me more was how a community on the edge of the Great Plains has so thoroughly embraced UFO kitsch. Restaurants advertised how aliens were welcome and even used the now familiar flying saucer as a marketing image.  Street lamps sported almond eyes painted on them to look like “greys.” There were stores selling all manner of t-shirts and trinkets as well as “museums” and “exhibits” that both reinforced the views of confirmed believers and bemused skeptics.   

The wide open spaces of the plains seem to lend themselves to looking up. Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, grew up on a farm near Burdett, Kansas.  The Brenham pallasite meteorite has been just the most famous of a series of meteorites that have come from Kansas.  The connection between the plains, asteroids, and aliens also provided the basis for Joseph J. Millard’s science fiction pulp novel, The Gods Hate Kansas. Kansas provided the adopted home of Krypton native Kal-El (better known as Superman) while Enterprise captain James T. Kirk is said to hail from Iowa. Both in terms of science and science fiction, the vast expanses of the prairies and plains really are something of a portal to outer space. After all, let’s not forget that the first half of the Kansas state motto is “To the Stars.”

Jay M. Price is chair of the department of history at Wichita State University, where he also directs the public history program.