Mystery in the Desert: The Shadow of Area 51

Area 51

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

In July of 1947, a foreman at a homestead in New Mexico found a pile of debris some miles from his home. He took his son to go look at it, finding a bright wreckage of tinfoil, rubber strips and various paper and sticks. It seemed of little consequence to him, but he returned a few days later with the rest of his family to collect the material. The next day, the foreman heard reports from an army base about a so-called “flying disk” crash and, thinking that perhaps this was the debris he had picked up, went to the Sheriff immediately. The situation was handled in a confidential but polite manner. The U.S. military assured the citizens that the crash was a simple conventional weather balloon. The residents of the small town nodded and returned to the buzz of their normal lives, the story fading to the back of any and everyone’s mind. The military had always been a little secretive and looming, but they were the government and could be trusted, of course. It wasn’t until decades later that anyone would be back asking questions about Roswell, New Mexico.

The military base known today as Area 51 is a remote link of the Edwards Air Force base in Nevada. It is referred to by the Central Intelligence Agency as “Groom Lake” – the nickname “Area 51” originally coming from reports during the Vietnam War. It is known in popular culture to be a place of great mystery: UFO sightings, government conspiracy, and withheld information litter the history of the base. Over the decades, Area 51 has been accused of the storage and reverse engineering of alien technology, the study of those aliens alive and dead, and the development of time travel and teleportation equipment. Seeming to feed these nationwide suspicions, the current purpose of Area 51 remains unknown to the public. In fact, it wasn’t until July of 2013 that the CIA openly admitted to the existence of the base. Some history was offered to the public, and then the case was abruptly closed. It would seem that the most likely purpose of Area 51 is the development and testing of confidential air and spacecraft weapons systems, otherwise known as Black Projects. Though it has never been declared a secret base, all research conducted there is labeled Sensitive Compartmented Information.

However, there are a great many secret bases across the nation and the world, and even more UFO sightings, so what draws theorists and government officials alike to this empty area of the desert? Surely the plain factor of mass hysteria cannot be overlooked, but it is most definitely balanced by a series of dubious occurrences. The first of which, on a mainstream scale, was a sighting in 1955. Ordinarily enough, the first UFOs spotted were not of a blatant extraterrestrial nature, but rather new weapons testing. The site was being used by the CIA for the development of the Lockheed U-2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft. What the locals who reported these strange aircrafts didn’t know was that three years earlier, in 1952, Project Blue Book had paid a visit to the base.

Project Blue Book was a study conducted by the United States Air Force with two goals: the first was to determine if a unidentified flying object could be a threat to national security, and the second was to scientifically analyze said UFO data. Of course, this all seems to have a funny smell to it. A military program making judgments and final calls on the safety and legitimacy of its own operations is perhaps not the most reliable situation. Unsurprisingly, Blue Book reported no threats to national security and, interestingly enough, no UFOs that contained extraterrestrial life. In 1952, this response left no questions screaming for answers, and the matter was put to rest. Coincidentally, five years prior, in 1947, a small town foreman and his son found a pile of debris in Roswell, New Mexico. These stories become perpendicular at this point, for the wreckage of that mysterious aircraft in New Mexico was transferred to where but Area 51.

Suspicions continued to rise following another incident, this one related less directly to the hiding of extraterrestrial technology and more to the missteps of the military. In 1994, five resident contractors (who insisted on remaining anonymous in official reports), and the widows of contractors Robert Frost and Walter Kasza sued the United States Air Force and the Environmental Protection Agency. They claimed  that immense amounts of unknown chemicals were being burned in open trenches at Area 51- more specifically, Groom Lake. Tissue samples were taken from the petitioners, and their body fat revealed high levels of dioxin (a highly toxic organic chemical), dibenzofuran (a chemical derived from coal tar), and trichloroethylene (a compound often used as an industrial solvent). They argued that these chemicals had harmed their health and, in the case of the widows, killed their husbands. They sought knowledge about the chemicals so that they could take precautions to prevent future injury. However, they were denied. Citing the State Secrets Privilege, the base claimed that releasing information would be a threat to national security and would discharge military secrets. The judge on the case rejected this argument, siding with the petitioners. At this point, dramatic measures were called for. President Bill Clinton signed a Presidential Determination protecting Area 51 from environmental disclosure laws, and the case was henceforth dismissed due to supposed lack of evidence. Whatever it was that was burning at Groom Lake, the military had just sacrificed human lives for it.

Outside of popular culture gags about UFOs and conspiracy accounts, the deeper history of Area 51 seems to present a serious question about the power of the military in our nation and what it is exactly that they constitute as “national security”. Whether you believe in the government’s possession of extraterrestrial science or just think Groom Lake is a spooky place, one thing is clear: it is of utmost importance to the Unites States Military that we do not find out.

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