Purple-Haired Moon Women & Space Fighters
The 1960s sci-fi show ‘UFO’ predicted future weapons and style
In 1969, the Vietnam War was hot, Jimi Hendrix was cool and Star Trek was about to be canceled. The same year saw a new British TV series featuring alien invaders, high-tech spacecraft and a secret moon base staffed by purple-haired women in skintight silver uniforms.
Those lavender lovelies may be the most enduring image of UFO, which ran for only 26 episodes between 1969 and 1973.
The show deserved better. For beneath its mod ’60s sexuality gleamed the vivid imaginations of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the legendary couple who created the uncannily lifelike Supermarionation puppets in classic shows like Thunderbirds.
There were no puppets in UFO, nor simplistic good-versus-evil plots. Instead there were flesh-and-blood actors in a live-action show that often explored grim moral dilemmas.
UFO was set in 1980, just a decade after the show’s actual air date. Its premise was that a mysterious race of aliens, traveling in spacecraft shaped like saucers, are raiding Earth to steal the human organs they need to survive.
Opposing them is the secret NATO-like multinational military force known as Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization, or SHADO.
Every science-fiction show likes to boast that it predicted or even inspired future technologies. Star Trek purports to have invented cell phones and DVDs.
It’s a rite of passage, a galactic bar mitzvah to prove a show is serious sci-fi instead of just another adventure series with aliens in funny costumes. But UFO was fortunate to arrive just as the Space Age reached its pinnacle and the Digital Age glimmered over the horizon.
Humans were landing on the moon, new technologies such as the Harrier jump jet were entering service and desktop computers would soon be a reality. Gerry Anderson didn’t have to invent fantastic technologies like warp drive and tractor beams. They were happening all around him, along with war, riots, the Sexual Revolution and all the other ferment of the 1960s.
His genius was to extrapolate what seemed possible in 1969, and might still be possible today.
SHADO’s Moonbase had three vertical takeoff and landing interceptors, housed in hangars deep underground. When ordered to scramble by the purple-haired female ground controllers, the interceptors rose on hydraulic lifts to the lunar surface to the accompaniment of groovy late ’60s action music and took off on their belly thrusters to reach deep space.
Unfortunately, they were only armed with a single nose-mounted guided missile, which meant that the three interceptors could only destroy three UFOs at a time. Luckily, while the aliens could design spacecraft that traveled seven times the speed of light, they never mastered the tactic of attacking with four UFOs.
The interceptors were basically space-flying Harrier jump jets, which in 1969 were just entering service with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and later with the U.S. Marine Corps. In fact, UFO offered glimpses of a 1980s where instead of Devo and Atari, the world enjoyed civilian tiltrotor aircraft.
More than 40 years later, we indeed have the military V-22 tiltrotor and the upcoming F-35B vertical takeoff fighter for the Royal Navy and Marines Corps.
Alas, if only the late Gerry Anderson could have run the Pentagon. In his world, VTOL aircraft don’t have a tendency to crash, unlike real Harriers and Ospreys—nor do they devour budgets like the F-35.
Space Intruder Detector
An orbital satellite that looked like a cross between a Lego toy and the Skylab space station, SID could detect UFOs 10 million miles away, well beyond lunar orbit.
Despite the vast sums the U.S. has spent on missile defenses, they can still be confused or overwhelmed by Russian, Chinese or North Korean missiles. But this was never a problem for SID, which could reliably detect and report almost every alien spacecraft, even if they traveled much faster than light.
SID also offered a priceless psychological boost. Unlike most voice warning systems, which sound like the Lost in Space robot or your mother, SID announced incoming aliens in a stately British accent that made it seem everything would turn out fine.
SID watched over Earth 15 years before U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan launched his “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, which would have detected and destroyed Soviet missiles with space-based sensors and weapons with names like Brilliant Pebbles.
Indeed, with NASA and other space agencies worried about detecting comets that might devastate Earth, one solution under discussion is building space-based sensors just like the Hubble orbital telescope.
If you have to be told that an asteroid is about to wipe out life on Earth, there are worse voices to hear it from than SID’s.
Easily the coolest weapon on UFO, Sky One was the backup defense against alien spacecraft that made it past the Moonbase interceptors. It was a stubby delta-wing jet fighter launched from an attack submarine called Skydiver.
Nothing special there; aircraft were launched from surfaced subs as far back as World War I. Except that Sky One was launched from a submerged sub. The aircraft was attached to the bow section of the boat, which would lower its stern and raise its bow so that Sky One would launch at a 45-degree angle.
Shooting a missile from a sub isn’t a big deal. Simply pop it out with compressed air or eject it in a capsule and then ignite the engines. But Sky One ignited its rockets while still attached to the sub.
One has to admire the courage of a submarine crew that doesn’t mind rocket exhaust slamming into their hull. And continuing SHADO’s tradition of semi-unarmed aircraft, Sky One only carried twin pods firing unguided air-to-air rockets.
Apparently this 1980s Earth could develop underwater jet fighters, yet could only equip them with advanced weapons from 1942.
Maintaining submarine-launched fighters in mid-ocean, out of sight of land, made sense for a secret organization sworn to keep news of the existence of UFOs from a panic-prone public.
On the other hand, since SHADO apparently had no land-based interceptors, Sky One must have been capable of hypersonic speed. How else could the handful of Skydivers cover the entire Earth?
Fortunately, with their customary tactical adroitness, the aliens always insisted on landing in England.
While 21st-century subs aren’t yet launching manned aircraft from underwater, they are successfully launching unmanned ones. With several nations busy developing robotic warplanes, the F-35 and other “fifth-generation” fighters may be the last ones with a human in the cockpit.
It seems inevitable that someday, a fighter—be it manned or unmanned—will someday zoom out of the ocean depths.
There was every reason for Gerry Anderson to consider a moon base as almost-science fact rather than science fiction. In 1969, as NASA basked in the glow of the Apollo lunar landings, a base on the Moon—or even Mars—seemed at most a decade away. Unfortunately, 45 years later, we’re still waiting.
Other than the purple hair, which for some strange reason only seemed to affect SHADO women stationed on the moon but not the men, Moonbase seemed a reasonably comfortable environment, with spacious living quarters and recreation facilities.
However, militarily it seemed a bit awkward. Despite being defended by self-propelled anti-UFO weapons on tracked vehicles, a fixed base on a orbital body without a protective atmosphere would seem to be vulnerable to having any kind of projectile—even a small rock—hurled at it.
A distant outpost makes defensive sense on Earth, but why wouldn’t the aliens send in their lightspeed saucers on the opposite side of Earth from wherever the moon was?
Still, someday Earth will build a base on the moon as a launch pad for planetary exploration or to mine elements such as Helium-3. Whatever the flag or flags of those who build it, it may very well look like Moonbase of UFO.
Probably the most disappointing weapon on UFO is the UFOs themselves. These spinning tops moved much faster than light, but could not outrun sublight SHADO interceptors and missiles. Their powerful energy beams, which presumably also traveled at lightspeed, rarely targeted SHADO aircraft or installations.
The aliens had all sorts of exotic tricks, such as hypnotically turning ordinary humans into assassins with some kind of strobe light. What would the Pentagon give to have such an awesome psyops weapons?
But it fizzled, as did every other alien secret weapon. Lucky for the aliens that they only faced SHADO, because the Klingons would have eaten them for lunch.
The saddest part of watching UFO is realizing what might have been. The technology depicted on the show was often plausible if not realistic. Some of it may yet come to pass, or is already beginning to happen.
And the purple-haired Moon women? I prefer to think of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson as visionaries. Not only did they anticipate space-based sensors and sub-launched drones, but also the colorful hair of punk rock. They were ahead of their time.
The complete UFO series is available here.
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