I remember some bright, colorful cloud formations rising over the western end of the Valley when I was a kid. Do you? What were they?
Vegas kids of a certain age share many points of reference when it comes to memories. For some of us, it was having a parent boasting a security clearance at the Nevada Test Site, and (perhaps not coincidentally) being powerfully intrigued by the possibilities of ETs and UFOs. I checked out so many UFO books from the Howard Wasden Elementary School Library that I probably should have ended up heading the X-Files myself. So imagine my excitement one balmy summer afternoon when, after moving from 7-Eleven to Circle K to 7-Eleven, trying desperately to imprint my initials on every Asteroids high-score board within biking distance, I looked up and saw a twisting, curving, multicolored cloud rising above Red Rock Canyon like a shining Chinese dragon.
Breathless, I pedaled my 10-speed home at Breaking Away velocity. There was no internet then (well, there was, but civilians couldn’t access it), so I hoped the next best thing—Mom—could help. With visions of last night’s episode of Project Blue Book still rolling through my head, I threw my bike down and rushed inside. “Mom! You have to see this!” She came outside with me and peered west down our street, where the cloud, no longer coiled, had now spread and lost much of its shape. But the colors, intensified by the setting sun, were even more spectacular. “Oh, that’s a missile test. From Edwards,” she said. And back inside she went to finish the Shake ‘N Bake. After all, the bus from Base Camp Mercury was due soon, and dad would be hungry.
I later learned that Edwards was an Air Force base in the vast high desert of Southern California. The base has long played a significant role in flight and aerospace development, due in part to its isolation, but also thanks to its neighbor, the massive Rogers Dry Lake, a National Historic Landmark and convenient runway extension. Not only did Chuck Yeager first break the sound barrier in a flight based at Edwards, but this was also where multiple Space Shuttle missions touched down. Both NASA (remember them?) and the Air Force continue to conduct flight research and development here, and the base is also a site for commercial missile launches.
None of that, however, is as sexy as the potential for alien aircraft and extraterrestrials that overwhelmed my brain that summer afternoon. So when Dad came home, I asked him about it. “Well,” he said. “They say it’s a missile test at Edwards…” The truth, as they say, is out there.
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