In The '60s, The Truly Devoted Believed Aliens Would Save Us From Nukes
If aliens were contacting us, you’d think they’d be doing it consistently. But while history has a few scattered reports of what could be interpreted as UFO sightings, pilot Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 claim of spotting a UFO is what birthed the cultural cliché we all know today. Flying saucers, extra-terrestrial beings … those details emerged from the media circus that Arnold’s claim became.
Suddenly, claims of UFO sightings and alien abductions were commonplace. The charitable interpretation is that aliens began to reach out to us once we gained the technology to control the skies. The more rational explanation is that it became a form of shared delusion, that Arnold’s honest misunderstanding beget increasingly improbable claims. Either way, it led to a man named George Van Tassel building a 38-foot-tall dome so he could commune with an alien who was warning him of an imminent nuclear holocaust.
Like many doomsayers, the first half of Van Tassel’s life was quiet. Born in 1910, as any sensible Ohioan would he left for California when he was 20. He worked as a car mechanic, then upgraded to planes, working for Howard Hughes and Lockheed Martin. As he built a family and career he got to know Franz Critzer, an oddball miner who lived in a series of caves he’d made under the Mojave Desert’s creatively named Giant Rock.
In 1942, Critzer blew himself up with the same dynamite he’d used to make the caves because he was being investigated by the government. It’s unclear why -- some sources suggest he was accused of espionage, although it probably had something to do with his cavalier use of dynamite -- but after the war Van Tassel thought to himself “Hey, that crazy guy’s underground home is available” and moved in.
This was also a professional move, because in post-war America even moving to mole man country came with new job opportunities. Van Tassel got a contract from the government to reopen and operate an airstrip near Great Rock, and over the years he added a proper house, a café, a gas station, a store, and a ranch. Oh, and he built the Integratron so he could commune with aliens.
Van Tassel had begun hosting meditation groups under Great Rock and, around 1953, his new hobby brought him into contact with disembodied voices. In his memoirs, Van Tassel claimed he awoke one night to find a man standing at the foot of his bed while the visitor’s spaceship hovered outside. This man, who politely introduced himself as Solganda from Venus, brought Van Tassel onboard and shared the Integratron’s schematics. (Nice guy, that Solganda.) More concerning was Ashtar, another alien who warned that on August 20, 1967, the southeastern United States would be wiped off the map by a Soviet nuclear strike, setting off a chain of events that would end in Armageddon. Hey, aliens give and take.
Van Tassel built the Integration anyway, despite humanity only having about 15 years left on the clock. The aliens had also brought messages of peace, so there was hope the apocalypse could be averted. And once completed the Integration would also be able to reverse ageing, which would certainly come in handy in our radioactive hellscape.
Van Tassel may have been a loon, but he wasn’t a fool. In 1953 he hosted the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention, an annual gathering of UFO-contactees and enthusiasts that continued until 1978 and at its peak brought over 10,000 people to Tassel’s home; and businesses. Van Tassel became a media darling -- he claimed to have performed hundreds of lectures across North America and completed 410 radio and TV appearances -- and the Integration became a notable roadside attraction in America’s grand tradition of driving to the middle of nowhere to look at the biggest or weirdest something-or-other.
None of that is to imply that Van Tassel was a grifter. If anything, his pronouncements became more unhinged. He compared himself to Moses, in that they were both compelled by higher powers to build. He also claimed that Jesus was an alien whose crucifixion had beamed him back into space, and that the Bible should be interpreted as an extraterrestrial intervention into humanity’s evolution. This was taught with lectures and publications produced by his church and research center, the Ministry and College of Universal Wisdom, because what kind of prophet are you if you don’t have your own Ministry?
While Van Tassel continued to warn of impending doom, the Integratron became his true obsession. The building already let Van Tassel commune with aliens, but the de-aging technology would require “a high voltage electrostatic generator that would supply a broad range of frequencies to recharge cellular structure.” Long technogibberish short, Van Tassel saw human cells as car batteries and thought routine charging would revitalize us.
Van Tassel never got to test this theory. In 1978 he unexpectedly dropped dead at 67, the static collectors, coils, and wires the Integratron needed to stave off mortality still largely uninstalled. Because Van Tassel had never shared the finer points of his schematics, the Integratron was never completed. This is why you should never put off the errands aliens have given you for tomorrow when you can do them today.
Astute readers will note that 1978 comes after 1967, the year those dang commies would set off a nuclear firestorm. So what happened? In his early alien days, Van Tassel spun a whole Ashtar mythology. Ashtar, supposedly Commander in Chief of the Ashtar Galactic Command (it’s unclear whether Ashtar had humbly named Galactic Command after himself, or if the aliens just weren’t very creative) had come to our sleepy solar system to warn us of the incredible dangers of the nascent hydrogen bomb. Van Tassel himself had been tasked with communicating Ashtar’s messages to the American government.
But, conveniently, whenever a hydrogen bomb was tested Ashtar Command secretly intervened to limit its potentially Earth-shattering damage. Van Tassel kept saying that Ashtar was predicting the nuclear apocalypse, then kept saying that Ashtar had secretly prevented the nuclear apocalypse. It was a tidy little tautology, but the constant doomsaying created doubters.
Meanwhile, the Ashtar story’s popularity among Ufologists became its downfall, as every two-bit crank could claim Ashtar was talking to them until the messages became impossibly muddled. While Van Tassel never claimed that he and Ashtar were exclusive, he had a lengthy feud with Robert Short, a man who started his own Ashtar society after Van Tassel found Short’s claims of chatting with Ashtar unbelievable. Everyone has standards.
But, if you’ve read the rest of Apocalypse Week, you know you can’t keep good nonsense down. Hippie spiritualists in the ‘50s and ‘60s claimed they were channelling Ashtar, who is apparently one busy alien. And by the time New Age movements began forgetting about him, a woman named Thelma “Tueulla” Terrill took up the torch.
In 1977, Tuella claimed she had a direct line to Ashtar Command, and a society of that name formed around her. The information she received took the form of long, rambling missives that culminated in the claim that Earth would be wrecked in 1994 and that Ashtar would evacuate humanity with millions of spaceships. Only those who listened to Ashtar would be saved, and together they would rebuild the Earth and usher forth a golden age.
The Earth, as you may have noticed, continues to exist, although that didn’t stop Tuella and her fans from seamlessly transitioning to claims that Ashtar and his ilk were indirectly helping humanity with our spiritual development. Meanwhile a woman named Yvonne Cole, who’d claimed to be channelling Ashtar since 1986, also took up the “Earth is doomed but aliens are totally going to save us in 1994” thread.
The Earth stubbornly survived, although in 1994 several believers claimed to have undergone a “Pioneer Voyage,” briefly being taken up to Ashtar’s ships in a dry run for a future mass evacuation. They went online to describe the ships and the roles they had aboard them, and hundreds of Ashtar believers took up meditation in the hopes that they too would experience the voyage.
This led to a lot of arguing on the nascent internet between Ashtar acolytes, because internet arguments have always been insane. Once again, too many people were claiming to speak for Ashtar, and if every random yahoo went around saying the Earth was about to be coated in hellfire the whole thing just starts to sound stupid. Failed prophecies were blamed on evil aliens or defectors from Ashtar Command, and guidelines were established to cull fake communications. The orthodoxy became that while Ashtar Command has a steady stream of ships observing Earth, Ashtar will never interfere unless we face total catastrophe. At this point the poor guy has probably earned a break.
If you want to keep up with the latest in Ashtar news, there are several websites that will fill you in. One, shockingly, appears to have been taken over by anti-vaxxers. Again, this all started because a guy who was really into airplanes decided to move into his crazy neighbor’s underground compound 75 years ago.
You can also visit the Integratron, if you’d like. Van Tassel’s wife kept it open, and then after a brief attempt to transform it into a disco it fell into the hands of three sisters from New York who operate it as a tourist attraction and sound bath, which is essentially meditation with windchimes.
Apocalyptic predictions never really go away—they warp and weft until they become unrecognisable to the people who made them in the first place. As long as an idea exists there will be people who believe it, and so there are still people out there waiting for Ashtar to save us all from ourselves.
Top image: Andrea Crisante/Shutterstock
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