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.
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.
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.
Oh, and there were missiles.
There were Sidewinders and Zuni air-to-ground missiles. Missiles obliterated targets dropped from parachutes. F-14s flew over, firing their 20mm Gatling guns. There were bombs, dropped into the ocean. I repeat: bombs dropped into the ocean. There was simulated combat: a Seabees motorcade came under attack in front of the grandstand. Marines performed a helicopter assault. And there was a mock Vietnamese village that was attacked by "Viet Cong."
All of this took place during seven hours over two days. What made the Space Fair fun, wasn't space. Space brought them in the doors. The bombs kept them in their seats.
Not that there was no space. The Ventura Press-Courier's coverage of the 1969 Space Fair (coincidentally running beneath an article titled, "Plane Crash Injures 2") includes this anecdote:
In the hangars, exhibits ranged from space stations and space tugs to aerospace films and a popular display of 150 blown-up color photos taken by naval photographers. They included space, flood and flowers, a girl in a bikini - and, of all things, the Oxnard Plaza pagoda.
That the exhibitions were the aspect of the fair that focused on space exploration is no surprise. Oxnard's business was aerospace. Space was the domain of the sponsors, not the airbase. And a quick perusal of the program book, heavy with ads, makes that clear. There are two kinds of ads in the book. Some of the ads - small text ones, mostly - are for local restaurants and services. The others are intricate technical advertisements by major aerospace companies. The ads turn the guidebook into a time capsule capturing the moment and the place, the 1969 military factory town.
The ads are simply fantastic. Northrup (pre-Grumman acquisition) pitched its naval products. Avco Lycoming went the racial-pun route. General Dynamics, Raytheon, Hughes, Westinghouse, and Boeing all make appearances. Beech took advantage of the opportunity to compare its various missiles. TRW offered the only mention of the moon landing, "What on Earth do we do next?" The President of Kentron Hawaii shows up piloting a miniature submarine in a suit.
And IBM gives us this, perhaps the tech-geekiest advertisement that has ever been created:
Take a moment to absorb that.
To be fair, this ad may have helped with recruiting.
The 1969 Space Fair was the tenth such event held at Point Mugu and the fifth to last. By 1969, the space race had been won. In 1975, the event officially became an air show, which it remains to this day. As Vance Vasquez noted in our conversation, the transition better reflected the base's role at the time. It certainly does today. At least once, though, one more time before it became just another air show, the moon played a key role at the Space Fair. "One year, there was a moon rock on display," Vasquez recalled. "That was a pretty popular attraction." Mind you, it's no bombing run or aerial assault. But a little piece of space goes a long way.
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