martedì 20 maggio 2014

50 years ago: The Kubrick-Arthur Clarke UFO incident

May 17, 1964. After a day of hard work on the 2001 script (the project was still known as "Journey Beyond The Stars") Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke took a break in the veranda of Kubrick's penthouse in New York.

They had just reached an important agreement: reluctantly, Clarke accepted to push back his return to Ceylon in order to polish the last treatment of the movie for its crucial presentation to MGM. After shaking hands, together with Kubrick's wife Christiane, they wanted to catch some fresh air and went  out in the veranda; the sky was clear and there was a full moon.

Kubrick and Clarke with the director's Questar 3.5 telescope (1964?) Photo source: Catalogue of the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition

One of the most debated topics during their first month of their acquaintance was the real existence and true nature of UFOs. Clarke had persuaded Kubrick, in their initial conversations, that they were simply that - yet unidentified flying objects - and had nothing to do with outer space and extraterrestrials. In Clarke's own words, from his biography Visionary:
Stanley was in some danger of believing in flying saucers. I felt I had arrived just in time to save him from this gruesome fate.
Imagine the surprise of the writer when, at 9 p.m., an object brighter than the surroundings stars appeared high in the sky. Kubrick and Clarke rushed to the director's Questar 3.5 telescope and moved it to the roof, to have a better view of the object. Again, Clarke's recollection, from Visionary:
"I can still remember, rather sheepishly, my feelings of awe and excitement, and also the thought that flashed through my mind: This is altogether too much of a coincidence. They are out to stop us from making this movie."
Kubrick and Clarke both continued to stare at the bright object. It appeared to come to rest at the zenith, remain in that position above Manhatthan for about a minute, and then sink down to the north.
It looked like a brilliant satellite to Clarke, possibly Echo (the first passive communications satellite experiment, a concept Clarke himself had proposed back in 1945) yet the listing of satellite passes in the New York Times included no such transit at nine in the evening, but one at 23.03.

What could it be? Clarke (that in his life had seen at least ten UFOs) kept on arguing that there was a simple explanation, but he couldn't come up with one - even his friends from the Hayden Planetarium he called a couple of days later were unaware of a satellite passing at such time. Reluctantly they contacted the Pentagon (reluctantly because the Air Force was still smarting from Kubrick's acclaimed satire on the military, Dr.Strangelove) and a month later, on June 16, 1964, Kubrick filled out and submitted the standard sighting form, "U.S. Air Force Technical Information" :

The standard UFO sighting form from USAF compiled by Kubrick, and his original drawing with his reconstruction. Photo sources: Catalogue of the Stanley Kubrick Exhibition ; Antony Frewin's book Are We Alone?

When the USAF answered, it turned out the simplest answer was the right one. Kubrick found out that the New York Times was in error when they listed only the 23.03 of Echo over New York, and that might have got the Hayden Planetarium wrong as well. It was Echo all along, as its highly reflective aluminium surface caused it to shine more than any star on the night sky; in his first appearance, his curious behavior was caused - just as Clarke had suspected - by his azimuthal position over New York.

Echo inflation test, 1960 (source)

Antony Frewin, Kubrick's longtime assistant who recounted the story in his book Are We Alone, put it this way (my translation from the Italian version of the book):
The mystery was solved, but as Kubrick observed, if he and Arthur had not pushed hard to find the solution, they would have spent the rest of their lives talking about UFOs or even an extra-terrestrial spaceship, fostering popular beliefs in it.
Clarke came back on the topic years later in his book Greetings, Carbon-based bipeds:
I'm embarrassed to say that the brilliant light we watched moving across the sky turned out to be the ECHO balloon satellite, seen under rather unusual circumstances. Also, Stanley and I were in a rather exalted mood, and perhaps not as critical as we should have been.
Kubrick did not abandon his suspicion that there was something out there; never too prudent, shortly before the Mariner IV Mars fly-by in June 1965 he contacted Lloyds of London to price an insurance policy against Martians being discovered before the release of his film in 1968 (such a discovery would have rendered the plot of the film outdated in an instant). Always the pragmatist, he dropped the idea when he found out how much the premium would be. "Stanley decided," wrote Clarke, "to take his chance with the Universe".

Stanley Kubrick, circa 1967 (source)

Nevertheless, regarding the true nature of UFOs, Kubrick kept an open mind about it, as this passage of the famous 1968 Playboy interview reveals:
PLAYBOY: Although flying saucers are frequently an object of public derision, there has been a good deal of serious discussion in the scientific community about the possibility that UFOs could be alien spacecraft. What's your opinion? 
STANLEY KUBRICK: The most significant analysis of UFOs I've seen recently was written by L.M. Chassin, a French air force general who had been a high-ranking NATO officer. He argues that by any legal rules of evidence, there is now sufficient sighting data amassed from reputable sources—astronomers, pilots, radar operators and the like—to initiate a serious and thorough worldwide investigation of UFO phenomena. Actually, if you examine even a fraction of the extant testimony you will find that people have been sent to the gas chamber on far less substantial evidence. Of course, it's possible that all the governments in the world really do take UFOs seriously and perhaps are already engaging in secret study projects to determine their origin, nature and intentions. If so, they may not be disclosing their findings for fear that the public would be alarmed—the danger of cultural shock deriving from confrontation with the unknown which we discussed earlier, and which is an element of 2001, when news of the monolith's discovery on the moon is suppressed. But I think even the 2 percent of sightings that the Air Force's Project Blue Book admits is unexplainable by conventional means should dictate a serious, searching probe. From all indications, the current government-authorized investigation at the University of Colorado is neither serious nor searching.

One hopeful sign that this subject may at last be accorded the serious discussion it deserves, however, is the belated but exemplary conversion of Dr. 
J. Allen Hynek  since 1948 the Air Force's consultant on UFOs and currently chairman of the astronomy department at Northwestern University. Hynek, who in his official capacity pooh-poohed UFO sightings, now believes that UFOs deserve top-priority attention—as he wrote in Playboy [December 1967]—and even concedes that the existing evidence may indicate a possible connection with extraterrestrial life. He predicts: "I will be surprised if an intensive study yields nothing. To the contrary, I think that mankind may be in for the greatest adventure since dawning human intelligence turned outward to contemplate the universe." I agree with him.

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