White men shining lights into the sky

[Image, Michael Kamber, NYTimes: Check out the rocket imagery in this wall mural, how the rocket itself appears to be part of a mosque & minaret or even Taj Mahal-like architectural complex, complete with Russian Constructivist telecommunications satellite (and is that the Eiffel Tower on the left?) – but it’s the rocket-as-minaret that really does it for me, with its theological appropriation of space exploration architecture. Retro-Futurist Interstellar Islam.]

In what is surely one of the most fascinating, if short, articles to be published recently in the New York Times, we read about a runway in Baafuloto, Gambia, once rented by NASA to act as a “transatlantic abort landing site” – one of several back-up runways, in fact, located around the world in case of emergency space shuttle landings.

The foreigners who would descend on this village… set up giant lights in the middle of an overgrown field and pointed them toward the sky. They stood in front of electronic screens powered by generators and talked hurriedly into radios hanging from their hips.
But for the local residents who saw them come and go over the years, the visitors always behaved most strangely just before they packed up and left Baafuloto. They would bustle about and then suddenly clap their hands and shout.
Sanjaney Saidy, 29, was a night watchman for the foreigners, known as tubabou in the local Mandinka language, thrilled with the roughly $2 a night he was paid, and proud of his uniform: boots, dark pants and a light blue shirt with a shoulder patch bearing the name of his employer – NASA.
“It’s a company, but I don’t know what they do,” said Mr. Saidy, who was 14 when he first worked for the Americans. “They told me to guard the lights, but I didn’t know the purpose.” The lights in Baafuloto, a mile or so from Banjul International Airport in Gambia, would help a shuttle in an aborted ascent find its way back to Earth.

And it gets better: Lasanna Saidy, the chief of Baafuloto, quite sensibly decided to go ahead and ask NASA what the lights were actually for: “‘When I asked them about the lights, they pointed up in the sky,’ the 75-year-old chief said. ‘They said there was a door in the sky and that their big plane might come through the door. They said the lights would help the plane, but I never did see it.'”

Then we read about NASA’s socio-medical reinvention of the car park (or landscape design as quarantine strategy for low earth-orbiting objects); in other words, “NASA built a parking area at Banjul’s airport to isolate the shuttle in case it came down spewing hazardous substances.”

In any case, NASA’s moved on from Baafuloto – because they have “another emergency landing site in Africa, [at] an abandoned Strategic Air Command base near Ben Guerir, Morocco.” But someone needs to send this to J.G. Ballard, because I think he’s already written that novel…

Can a novelist sue NASA for making his or her own fictional future come true?

One thought on “White men shining lights into the sky”

  1. As a young boy I attended a one room school school at Ben Guerir AFB around 1952 – 1953, Dad was in the AF and was one of the first officers assigned to that base, it was under construction by Atlas.

    I was in school, a kind of Quansant Hut that may have been called a Dallas Hut,
    the day the fuel tanks blew up, as I recall it was during a Red Alert. The blast took the top and one side out, no one was hurt. Under armed guard, us kids were rushed off to an air raid shelter. French paratroopers’ and Legionnaires’ from Marrakesh came in and took control as Arab saboteurs were suspected. Dad suspected it was the French and was sent home.

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