29 March 2018 reviews

The Secret Genesis of Area 51

Thanks to Hollywood and TV series like the X-Files, ‘Area 51’ is synonymous with extraterrestrials, alien spaceships and men dressed in black. It was in fact, as the author reliably informs us, “a clandestine base of operations in the Nevada desert” established by the CIA in 1955 “to protect the United States from a growing communist threat”. And since the author is an “Area 51 veteran”, he should know.

His story begins as early as the book’s dedication, which reveals that his family and friends “never knew for half a century that I worked at Area 51 or what I did”. In the acknowledgements section he explains that his wife used to drop him off at a secure airbase “to catch a plane on a Monday morning” and pick him up on a Friday evening without knowing that he was working “on black projects” for the CIA. Strangely, his daughters knew where he worked, because they followed him into the “black world”, but he and his wife still don’t know what they did because it is “still classified”. If that’s not ‘another world’, I don’t know what is!

In ten chapters, this book recounts the reasoning behind the development of Area 51, its Cold War genesis and its use as a test site for the Fabled U-2 spyplane. It is crisply illustrated with contemporary black-and-white photos and has a bibliography and an index. As the author points out, the CIA did not build the Area 51 facility in secrecy, although the Atomic Energy Commission “announced the construction on behalf of the CIA in the name of NASA”, citing the application as “weather research”. Perhaps being ‘economical with the truth’ covers it. It wasn’t until 1979, when the CIA turned Area 51 over to the Air Force, that the public knew that the former U-2 test facility was still operating, says the author, and “many wondered what had occurred” between the U-2s leaving and the Air Force taking over. This led to the plethora of speculation and conspiracy theories with which we are all familiar.

Returning to the designation theme, a section entitled ‘What’s in a name?’ reports that “this nonexistent flight test facility” has acquired several identities including Dreamland, Paradise Ranch and the Pig Farm. It’s good to read an inside story to something that was once a ‘state secret’, but I doubt that even a dozen books like this will tarnish the popular image of Area 51 as a hotbed of government conspiracy: “U-2 test base? Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”.

Mark Williamson, Space Technology Consultant

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