'Gee Whiz, a Space Fair!': A Trip Back to 1969

Boys and girls of all ages went to Oxnard, California to see the latest in rockets, bombs, and a girl in a bikini.

For about ten minutes yesterday, Washington, DC, came to a standstill while the Space Shuttle flew over. The sight of the Shuttle strapped onto a large plane cruising over national monuments served as a reminder that space exploration is both exceptional and cool. Even if the glimpse you catch of a spacecraft is that of a hobbled retiree being carted off to its new home, there's a magic to it. In the 1950s and '60s, that magic wasn't so far beneath the surface. In the 1960s, there was a Space Fair.

A little north of Los Angeles, just outside Oxnard, is the naval air station at Point Mugu. Farther north than much of the rest of Southern California's robust military presence, Naval Base Ventura County (as it's now known) was built during World War II as an anti-aircraft training center and evolved, after the war, into a missile development facility. This role spurred the aerospace and defense industries to set up shop in Oxnard, helping to give the base the sort of presence in the community that is unique to such installations, the military factory town.

In 1960, the base launched the Space Fair at Point Mugu. It's hard to imagine a two word combination that could spur as much enthusiasm in a twelve year-old boy. Space. Fair. And that was basically the point. According Vance Vasquez, the base's current Deputy Public Affairs Officer, the goal of the fair was recruitment, with the Navy Relief Society benefiting from money raised. In 1960, it's hard to imagine a better military recruitment vehicle than the space race.

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Naval Base Ventura County

About five years ago, I stumbled onto a program guide from the 1969 fair at a flea market. It's a thick book, some 90-plus pages, heavy with ads, outlining the schedule of events, and featuring quick write-ups of the events that occurred that November 8th and 9th. The base was then two entities: the Point Mugu Navy Complex and the Port Hueneme Navy Complex, each of which had a special section in the program book outlining its role in the Navy.

Vasquez, the Deputy Public Affairs Officer, went to the Space Fair regularly as a kid. His father was a civilian at the naval base, working as a crewmember on an EC-121 radar surveillance plane. When I spoke with him this week, the memories that rolled off his tongue were the ones you might expect a kid to seize upon: the midway, the fly-overs, the shows. Nothing really about space. Cool name aside, the Space Fair didn't really have that much to do with space. The 1969 Space Fair opened 111 days after man landed on the moon, but a casual visitor to the event would be forgiven for not realizing that.

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What Vasquez remembered were the mainstays. The Blue Angels performed regularly (here, a 1966 performance at the show), later alternating with the USAF Thunderbirds. But, compared to modern air shows, these were nearly the least interesting thing that happened. There were musical acts like the dorkily-named "Today's Generation". There was dancing. There was that midway, the carnival that, according to Vasquez, was a main thing that the Space Fair was known for. There was a dogfight with the Red Baron. There were paratroopers.

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Philip Bump is a former politics writer for The Atlantic Wire.

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