The plan was to launch a flying saucer. NASA's supersonic braking device—technically known as the Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator, less technically an enormous inflatable disk—was designed to deliver heavy payloads to the surface of Mars. Payloads, the thinking went, that could include humans. The experimental craft was meant to launch last week; this weekend, that launch was postponed because of a very earthly impediment: uncooperative winds.
That the LDSD would be so subject to environmental vagaries explains in large part why its broader category of craft—the flying saucer—has figured relatively rarely in NASA's engineering repertoire. So what, then, accounts for their ubiquity—in our imagination, if not in our airspace? Why are the spaceships of Star Trek and Star Wars and Independence Day shaped the way they are?
Why, if saucers are relatively rare in science, have they been such a long-standing element of science fiction?
Nine Flashes of Light
If you wanted to put a precise date on the origins of our obsession with saucers, the most-cited contender is June 24, 1947. That was the day that Kenneth Arnold, an amateur pilot from Idaho, was flying his little plane, a CallAir A-2, over Mineral, Washington. The skies were clear; there was a light breeze. Arnold, who was en route to an air show in Oregon, was doing a little exploring on the side, near Mount Rainer: A Marine Corps C-46 transport airplane had gone down in the area recently, and there was a $5,000 reward for the person who found the wreckage.