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Area 51
Photo of secret facility at Groom Lake taken by the US Geological Survey in 1968. (credit: USGS)

Astronauts and Area 51: the Skylab Incident

Far out in the Nevada desert, miles from prying eyes, is a secret Air Force facility that has been known by numerous names over the years. It has been called Paradise Ranch, Watertown Strip, Area 51, Dreamland, and Groom Lake. Groom is probably the most mythologized real location that few people have ever seen. According to people with overactive imaginations, it is where the United States government keeps dead aliens, clones them, and reverse-engineers their spacecraft. It is also where NASA filmed the faked Moon landings.

However, for humans whose feet rest on solid ground, Groom is the site of highly secret aircraft development. It is where the U-2 spyplane, the Mach 3 Blackbird, and the F-117 stealth fighter were all developed. It has also probably hosted its own fleet of captured, stolen, or clandestinely acquired Soviet and Russian aircraft. Because of this, the United States government has gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve the area’s secrecy and to prevent people from seeing it.

This secrecy was threatened in early 1974 when the astronauts on Skylab pointed their camera out the window and took pictures of a facility that did not officially exist. They returned to Earth and their photographs quickly became a headache for NASA, the CIA, and the Department of Defense. That story has never been told before.

Shutterbugs

On April 19, 1974 someone in the CIA sent the Director of Central Intelligence, William Colby, a memorandum regarding a little problem.

“The issue arises from the fact that the recent Skylab mission inadvertently photographed” the airfield at Groom Lake. “There were specific instructions not to do this,” the memo stated, and Groom “was the only location which had such an instruction.” In other words, the CIA considered no other spot on Earth to be as sensitive as Groom Lake, and the astronauts had just taken a picture of it.

In other words, the CIA considered no other spot on Earth to be as sensitive as Groom Lake, and the astronauts had just taken a picture of it.

The third and last Skylab crew had launched into space on November 16, 1973. Onboard were three rookie astronauts: Gerald Carr, Edward Gibson, and William Pogue. Carr was a Navy commander, Pogue was in the Air Force and had flown for their elite Thunderbirds team, and Gibson was a scientist-astronaut with a doctorate of engineering physics.

The crew quickly fell behind schedule early in their mission for a number of reasons, but soon regained time. The crew repaired an antenna, fixed problems with the Apollo Telescope Mount and an errant gyroscope, and replenished supplies. They soon accumulated significant EVA time and studied the sun for over 338 hours.

What they also did was take photographs of the Earth, including photos of the secretive Groom Lake facility in Nevada. On February 4, 1974, after a record 84 days in space, they splashed down 280 kilometers southwest of San Diego. They were recovered aboard the USS New Orleans and found to be in excellent shape.

NASA had an agreement with the US intelligence community that dated from the beginning of the Gemini program. All astronaut photographs of the Earth would first be reviewed by the National Photographic Interpretation Center in Building 213 in the Washington, DC Navy Yard. NPIC (pronounced “en-pick”) was an organization managed by the CIA that interpreted satellite and aerial photography. The details of the agreement remain classified, but the photo-interpreters had wanted to see what astronauts could contribute to reconnaissance photography. During the Gemini program they discovered the answer—not much. The photographs returned during the Gemini missions had many problems, including the lack of data on what the camera was pointed at. There was no good way for an astronaut to record the precise time and pointing angle of a camera when he took a picture, and so the interpreters often had a very difficult time determining what they were looking at. This had been one of the factors that contributed to the demise of the US Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program.

But there was another reason to evaluate the astronaut photographs: to see if they showed anything interesting, or anything that they should not, like Groom Lake.

Spooky actions at a distance

There was a certain irony in NPIC photo-interpreters discovering photographs of Groom Lake, because even within NPIC’s Building 213 Groom Lake was classified. Images of Groom were removed from rolls of spy satellite film and stored in a restrictive vault. As a former senior NPIC official explained, “there were a lot more things going on at Groom than the U-2.” Not all the photo-interpreters at NPIC were cleared to know about these things, but probably included aircraft testing, including advanced reconnaissance drones and captured Soviet fighter planes. The average photo-interpreter would know that the U-2 and the Blackbird were based at Groom, but would be surprised to see a B-52 with drones, or a MiG-21 sitting on its runway.

There was a certain irony in NPIC photo-interpreters discovering photographs of Groom Lake, because even within NPIC’s Building 213 Groom Lake was classified.

In fact, in April 1962 a CIA official suggested to his superior that they consider taking pictures of Area 51 using their own reconnaissance platforms. John McMahon, the executive officer of the abstractly named Development Plans Division, wrote the acting chief of DPD: “John Parangosky and I have previously discussed the advisability of having a U-2 take photographs of Area 51 and, without advising the photographic interpreters of what the target is, ask them to determine what type of activity is being conducted at the site photographed.” He continued: “In connection with the upcoming CORONA shots, it might be advisable to cut in a pass crossing the Nevada Test Site to see what we ourselves could learn from satellite reconnaissance of the Area. This coupled with coverage from the Deuce [U-2] and subsequent photographic interpretation would give us a fair idea of what deductions and conclusions could be made by the Soviets should Sputnik 13 have a reconnaissance capability.”

Whether or not CIA ever undertook such an exercise remains unknown, but CORONA spacecraft did photograph Area 51 at least a handful of times. Thousands of rolls of film are stored at the National Archives, with the relevant negatives cut out.

The controversy

Why the Skylab astronauts disobeyed their orders and took the photo is unknown, as are what it depicted. Because they had only handheld cameras for earth observation, the resolution of the image would have been limited. The existence of the base was not a secret, particularly to an Air Force pilot like Bill Pogue—the pilots who flew in the huge Nellis testing range in Nevada referred to Area 51 as “the box” because they were under explicit instructions to not fly into that airspace. But for whatever reason, they had taken the photo and now it had created a stir within the intelligence community.

“This photo has been going through an interagency reviewing process aimed at a decision on how it should be handled,” the unnamed CIA official wrote. “There is no agreement. DoD elements (USAF, NRO, JCS, ISA) all believe it should be withheld from public release. NASA, and to a large degree State, has taken the position that it should be released—that is, allowed to go into the Sioux National Repository and to let nature take its course.”

What the memo indicates is that there was a difference between the way the civilian agencies of the US government and the military agencies looked at their roles. NASA had ties to the military, but it was clearly a civilian agency. And although the reasons why NASA officials felt that the photo should be released are unknown, the most likely explanation is that NASA officials did not feel that the civilian agency should conceal any of its activities. Many of NASA’s relations with other organizations and foreign governments were based on the assumption that NASA did not engage in spying and did not conceal its activities.

What the memo indicates is that there was a difference between the way the civilian agencies of the US government and the military agencies looked at their roles.

The CIA memo writer added that “There are some complicated precedents which, in fairness, should be reviewed before a final decision.” These included “A question of whether anything photographed in the United States can be classified if the platform is unclassified; Such complex issues in the UN concerning United States policies toward imagery from space” and “the question of whether the photograph can be withheld without leaking.”

The answer to the last question is obvious—the photo was withheld, and this fact never leaked. It has only come to light now, after the CIA declassified this document (but not the photograph itself). Obviously the answer to the first question was also positive, for the agencies involved did classify a photograph taken on an unclassified spacecraft. As for the “complex issues in the UN,” obviously they vanished if the United Nations never learned of the existence of the photograph.

Secret as an onion

A cover note to the memorandum, apparently written by the Director of Central Intelligence William Colby himself, stated that “I confessed some question over need to protect since: 1-USSR has it from own sats. 2-What really does it reveal? 3-If exposed don’t we just say classified USAF work is done there?”

Colby’s questions almost seem naïve given the debates that have raged within the U.S. intelligence community over decades over the need for secrecy. Those within the intelligence community who have asked “what is the harm in acknowledging the obvious?” have almost always lost the argument.

Government officials have frequently argued over the need to refuse to confirm even the most basic knowledge about things that have been widely reported in the press for decades. For instance, the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which manages America’s spy satellite program, first became known in a 1971 New York Times article, but arguments flared up within intelligence circles for the next twenty years over whether or not to confirm its existence. Finally, in September 1992 the “fact of” the existence of the NRO was revealed in a terse press release that never even used the word “satellite.” Even after that decision, for several years the NRO refused to confirm that it actually conducted rocket launches, another glaringly obvious fact.

This refusal to admit the obvious was only surpassed by Groom Lake itself. The existence of an airstrip at Groom was first revealed when it was actually constructed. But it was not until 1999 that the U.S. Air Force issued a terse statement acknowledging that the facility did indeed exist, even though photos taken on the ground and overhead had been available for decades. In fact, at least two U.S. Geological Survey aerial photographs of Groom taken in 1959 and 1968 had been available in public archives, but not discovered until many years later.

To be fair, there is a logic to this secrecy policy of refusing to confirm the “fact of” an organization, or even an airbase in the Nevada desert. Intelligence officials often refer to secrecy being like an onion, and each layer that is peeled off reveals a little more of what is contained within. Even if the next layer is visible in vague form, the advocates of strong secrecy want to keep all the layers in place.

This policy is usually given solid form in legal discussions within government agencies. There the concern is not so much with foreign intelligence agencies, but with American citizens and the press, and their ability to request the declassification of government documents through the Freedom of Information Act. By refusing to even acknowledge the existence of something, government agencies have erected an outer legal barrier against requests for information from their own citizens.

Intelligence officials often refer to secrecy being like an onion, and each layer that is peeled off reveals a little more of what is contained within. Even if the next layer is visible in vague form, the advocates of strong secrecy want to keep all the layers in place.

But critics of excessive government secrecy argue that such policies are often pursued unnecessarily, since no law requires the government to reveal anything further about the facilities. The onion analogy holds validity, but can also be taken too far; after all, the Soviet Union was an extremely secret society and classified things such as road maps. This secrecy was effective at limiting the ability of the West to determine what the Soviets were doing, but it came at a cost, in freedom. Clearly the United States government establishes lines where public knowledge is deemed more important than national security, but the question is occasionally asked where those lines should be drawn.

Secrecy critics also argue that there is something wrong when America’s adversaries have better information about the federal government’s actions than its own citizens. Groom Lake had obviously been photographed numerous times by Soviet spy satellites at high resolution. Refusing to release a single low-resolution photograph from a Skylab mission was taking an abstract ideal—maintaining all the layers of the onion—to an absurd extreme. They also argue that when the government fails to confirm the obvious, it both undermines governmental authority and legitimacy, and contributes to wild speculation, such as aliens and soundstages in underground hangars at Area 51. And despite the best efforts, information will still seep out. After all, while various agencies of the federal government were arguing over whether or not to put this low-resolution photograph in an unclassified government archive, nobody realized that several other higher-resolution images were already sitting in that archive.

Nothing more is known of this Skylab photography incident than the fact that the photograph was not released. NASA and the State Department clearly lost the argument. But the opponents of releasing it preserved national security, as they defined it.


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