Captain Aura Rhanes
The saucer was captained by an incredibly beautiful Space Sister called Aura Rhanes, and hailed from an unknown planet called Clarion – unknown because it remained invisible in orbit behind our moon, a scenario deemed highly improbably by most experts in celestial motion and mechanics. The Space Brothers were human in appearance and manner, with the majority exhibiting Nordic or Aryan characteristics (later this type of alien would be classified as “Nordic” after the Greys and Reptilians started to make the scene.) The space travellers were fundamentally like us, but far more spiritually advanced and peaceful. They were concerned about the fate of humanity, particularly in the light of the recent development and deployment of nuclear weapons. In this sense, the Space Brothers followed closely after Klaatu from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still; they sought to save us from the widening chasm between our Space Age technologies and Stone Age mammalian mentality. However, whereas Klaatu threatened the human race with robot-lead extinction if we didn’t mend their ways, the Space Brothers took the somewhat more benevolent and circuitous route of illuminating marginal and obscure characters like Adamski and Bethurum. In either case, in the immediate aftermath of humanity’s discovery of destructive powers hitherto unimaginable, a kind Jungian suger-ego was asserting itself in the guise of visitors from space.
In antiquity, a great many seers and prophets consecrated their divine authority by a means of an astral flight into the heavens. Such miraculous ascents were incorporated into the legendry surrounding Zoroaster, Mani, St Paul, Enoch, and Ezekiel; Cicero’s Scipio flew to the heavens in the Dream of Scipio, as did Dante the Pilgrim in the Paradiso. The contactees followed suit, after their own fashion. Daniel Fry, a former employee of White Sands Proving Ground, claimed to have been taken on a modest trip over New York in an “oblate spheroid” operated remotely from a mothership 900 miles above the earth. Farmer Buck Nelson, then 63, claimed a trip to the moon, Venus, and Mars, the guest of pair of aliens named Bucky and Bob. The aliens gave Nelson the gift of a gigantic, 400 pound dog named Bo, whose hair fell off due to cosmic ray exposure. (The dog proved too shy for public exhibition, but Nelson sold tufts of its hair along with his pamphlet My Trip to Venus, the Moon, and Mars.) Having thus communicated with the Space Brothers, and in many instances flown in their saucers, it was then customary for a contacee to produce a book or a pamphlet. Gradually, a vast literature grew up, often self-published and now largely out of print. Book after book with tales of the contactee experience: Adamski and Desmond Leslie’s Flying Saucers have Landed, Van Tassel’s I Rode a Flying Saucer, Bethurum’s Aboard a Flying Saucer, and the best title of all, Calvin C. Girvin’s The Night has a Thousand Saucers.
Perhaps the most remarkable expression of contactee culture, however, was an annual event which was the brainchild of George Van Tassel: the Giant Rock Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention. In the years prior the contactee boom, the Van Tassels were leading a modest, isolated, surreal kind of existence. George opened the Giant Rock Airport and Café, and a trickle of planes buzzed in while the Van Tassels were housed in nearby tents. There is something magical about the scene to me: a giant boulder out the desert, the little airstrip and family-run café an incongruous intrusion on the arid landscape, like the end of a Twilight Zone episode where the astronaut finds out that that the putative alien world he had crash-landed on was earth all along. Howard Hughes drops by most weekends in his airplane to get a slice of Miss Van Tassel’s pie.
George Van Tassel’s earliest contact experiences apparently occurred as a result of meditation sessions conducted in the hollowed-out cave dwelling Critzer had constructed under Giant Rock. In 1951, Van Tasssel claimed that he was transported astrally to a massive alien mothership orbiting the earth, where he first encountered the benevolent, space-spanning intelligence of the Council of Seven Lights. (In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ theosophy-flavoured A Princes of Mars, John Carter makes a similar astral journey to Mars from a cave in Arizona.) On the 21st of August, 1953, a jumpsuit-clad figure appeared at the foot of his sleeping bag, and declaimed I am Solganda and I would be pleased to show you my craft. It was during this tour of Solganda’s craft that Van Tassel received the two great missions that would preoccupy him until his death in 1978 – the spreading of the contactee message of peace and cosmic brotherhood to his fellow man, and the construction of the mysterious Integration.
A year later, Van Tassel held the first of the legendary Spacecraft Conventions. Whatever strange energies had drawn the Indians to the foot of the stone generations ago, and after them Critzer and Van Tassel, now served as a beacon to all the major prophets and acolytes of the new religion of the Space People. Every year in increasing numbers they braved the heat of desert to hear new channelled revelations, buy the latest books and pamphlets, socialize with fellow believers, and scan the dusk and night-time skies for the evidence of the miracle crafts whose invisible proximity had transformed all their lives. All of the giants in the diminutive field of contact with Space People showed up at some point or another, giving speeches and convening group channelling sessions like so many jazz men jamming. Truman Bethurum married his third wife at the Convention, his second having apparently divorced him due to his continuing infatuation with the unforgettable Captain Aura Rhanes. With its quasi-Biblical setting and uniquely American cast of losers, dreamers, and oily salesmen, there is a great Robert Altman verite style movie to be made out of the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention, like Nashville in The Twilight Zone:
Photographs by Ralph Crane for Life Magazine, 1954.
Meanwhile, Van Tassel continued working on the construction of the Integration, the mysterious dome-shaped fibre-glass and plywood structure whose “formula” had apparently been vouchsafed to him by the Venusian Solganda. What precisely was the Integration? According to Van Tassel himself, “the Integration is a machine, a high-voltage electrostatic generator that would supply a broad range of frequencies to recharge the cell structure.” The Integration drew on several occult theories regarding earth energies and Sacred Geometry; the idea, for example, that certain archaic structures such as the Giza Pyramids were designed according to principles of geometry which allowed them to channel and focus these hypothesized natural earth energies. Van Tassel believed that the Integration was built atop a rich energy vortex, and by harnessing this energy the structure could effectively rejuvenate and recharge the human cellular structure, as though it were a battery. The Integration will remind some readers of the controversial orgone accumulator boxes of Wilhelm Reich. However, whereas Reich’s ideas resulted in him being jailed and his books burned, Van Tassel was left largely free to pursue his strange dream in the desert. Financed by proceeds from the Spacecraft Convention and donations from supporters, construction on the Integration was largely completed by 1959, but Van Tassel continued to tinker with it until his death in 1978. This kind of labour of love devotion would lead one to wonder what exactly went on the private minds of characters like George Van Tassel. Did he really believe that he had been on-board a flying saucer?
The Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention ran for 23 years. Interest in the Contactee phenomenon peaked in 1959, when an estimated 11,000 people travelled to Giant Rock. At the end of that decade, the weird chapter of American cultural and religious life that was the era of the Space Brothers was largely at an end. The story of the contactees was to some degree a continuation of the occult and theosophical currents which had emerged in opposition to the dominant ideology of modernity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The contactees, like the theosophists and occultists before them, sought an Enchanted Way Out of the materialistic values and ideology of the modern world. And yet, to facilitate this, they created a fantasy that was itself steeped in the idea of technological utopianism. In wake of America unleashing the devastating destructive power of the Atomic Bomb, the contactees imagined the arrival on earth of a benign, redemptive advanced technology whose image might restore a sense of wholeness to modern man: the gleaming, perfect mandala of the flying saucer. Paradoxically, they sought to escape modernity by refashioning the timeless story of contact with higher beings in a language of science and technology; but science moves fast, and technology becomes obsolete overnight. The anthropomorphic and astronomical naivety of the contactees made their tales subject to rapid abeyance; and yet there remains a certain archetypal appeal in their visions of saucers and angelic beings landing in the desert, the place where all gods seem to have first stirred, and spoke to solitary men.
George Van Tassel died suddenly on February 9th, 1978. His epitaph, emphasizing the electrical mysticism underlying the idea of the Integration, reads: “Birth through induction, death through short circuit.”
On February 23th, 2000, the High Desert Star newspaper reported that Giant Rock had split in two, apparently fulfilling an old Hopi prophecy that a new era would begin when the great rock finally cracked.
Americans searching for a different kind of America still make an annual pilgrimage to the desert, this time to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, to the frenetic temporary autonomous zone of the Burning Man festival. To contrast the sensory overload of Burning Man with the Spacecraft Conventions of the fifties would give us a vertiginous sense of the extraordinary drift of history; the unrelenting passage of time that only the desert itself remains untouched by.