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8.4.11: Astronauts, Angels and Pigeons

Space Needle History: Thursday at the Needle

Knute Berger, Writer-in-Residence

It's been quite a week at the Space Needle in terms of flight.

On Monday, Aug.1, I went to the press conference where the Needle announced it was going to send a private citizen into space as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. The Needle was born to reflect the aspirations of the Space Age, and is still doing so. I had a chance to meet astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two men on the Moon. He compared a trip up the Needle to a trip into space: "You get to go up and see something that you haven't seen before." It was Aldrin's first visit and he pronounced the view from the Needle "wonderful."

With Aldrin was a civilian astronaut, Richard Garriott, a computer-game millionaire who has been to the International Space Station. He made this observation about space travel based on his 10-day trip: "Going into space once doesn't satiate the desire." Everyone who has been wants to go back.

Today, I'm on the Observation Deck with visitors and we're watching the Navy's Blue Angels jets fly over Seattle, practicing their stunts for Seafair. It's amazing to see them in formation against Mt. Rainier, then fly below eye level behind Capitol and First Hills leaving only a trail of drifting smoke to mark their path before they emerge, rise, then turn over downtown. The Needle is an amazing place to watch them perform.

The Needle has many connections with flight, and two others come to mind as I sit here. On September 15, 1962, the World's Fair had a single-day record attendance of 106,860 visitors. One of the huge draws was another, Blue Angels flying team putting on a show overhead: The Royal Canadian Air Force Golden Hawks. All of this was part of a Canadian military pageant the Canadian Tattoo that drew tens of thousands of people to the fair to watch military bands, bag pipers and Mounties on horseback perform in Memorial Stadium. It was a great show above and below.

Two days later, a jet landed in Seattle carrying trained homing pigeons that were going to be released by a former Playboy Playmate who worked at the fair, Christa Speck (she was hostess at an adult puppet show on Show Street). What was called the World's Fair Unlimited Pigeon Rally would start from the top of the Needle. The idea was that the pigeons would race back home to Minnesota carrying microfilm messages as a way to commemorate the role of carrier pigeons in wartime. In fact at Woodland Park Zoo lived Geronimo, the last surviving WWII pigeon, who was turning 20. The promotion was champagne fueled. Half of the 51 pigeons released were named after local media personalities.

When the pigeons were released on Sept. 20, they surprised the champagne-soaked observers. ""Instead of heading east, the birds circled the Space Needle for a moment and then flew west to disappear over downtown Seattle. 'Back to Pioneer Place' someone quipped."

The Blue Angels seem to have better radar.

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