But the hype around Area 51 rapidly grew to be about aliens and UFOs. Instead, it was a more typical Cold War tale. President Eisenhower had signed off on a secret reconnaissance plane and the military wanted it flown from a secret location.
The plane became the well-known U-2 and a CIA official, an Air Force officer and the now legendary Kelly Johnson, first team leader of the Lockheed Skunk Works and the guiding hand behind the P-38 and later the U-2 and the SR-71, flew over Nevada to find a location.
And they did. Johnson initiated construction of the secret airbase at Groom Lake, Nevada, known as Area 51 by the Atomic Energy Commission when it was added to the Nevada Test Site in 1955. That part has been known for decades but newly unclassified documents push the first mention of the site back and have some previously unseen photographs. What changed? The redactions from the early 1990s are removed. The National Security Archive submitted the FOIA request for a review of the redactions in 2005 and it was approved June 25th 2013 and now they have it up on the site.
Credit and link: George Washington University National Security Archive.
The military knew no one wanted to move to a place that was called Area 51 and was owned by the Atomic Energy Commission, so they picked the more elegant "Paradise Ranch" name. But that bit of marketing launched the fame of the facility for conspiracy theorists. In the Atomic Age, science fiction was big and so alien sightings became common. It was no great leap to believe the government was working on them somewhere.
But the truth is more corporate - and about individual initiative. I mentioned one of my favorite engineering heroes, Kelly Johnson. The story goes that while Lockheed, like all large companies, needed Board of Directors approval for large expenditures, though Johnson actually had a boss he was exempted from having to get approval for any requisitions. He was also able to bypass the whole company, it was said, and the documents show that.
They show that the CIA mailed Johnson a check for $1.25 million dollars - to his house. The government was about to give Lockheed a contract for $22.5 million to build 20 U-2 aircraft but the company didn't have the cash to start after the prototype work. So the CIA used their initiative, and some 'unvouchered funds', to get the work going before the government finalized the deal.
Johnson with an early variant of the U-2. Credit and link: Wikipedia
Johnson repaid their handshake trust by filling the contract for $18,977,597 - yes, a military contractor came in under budget. We can lament those days are long gone but so is that 1950s government. Any government contract costs millions of dollars just filling out paperwork and politicians are waiting for the chance to make some political theater. The Board of Directors would go to jail if an employee has the authority to do what Johnson did.
The document will clear up a few remaining mysteries but, really, the unknown is always more exciting than the known. And conspiracy tales never die - The Atlantic Wire has already fed the conspiracy world by titling their article "The Government Now Admits There's an 'Area 51'", even though the last book I read on that topic, including what the government had never denied, was in 1996.
They're no dummies. Their title will get them approximately 360,000 ore readers than mine will.
But more information is always a good thing, hype and blatant misinformation aside. The archive notes, "the newly released material provides a combination of significant new material, official confirmation of — or corrections to — what has been written, and official acknowledgment that permits researchers to follow up the disclosures with FOIA or Mandatory Declassification Review requests that may produce even more information. Moreover, like any historical study, the CIA history may include errors that will require further scrutiny by researchers in the field."
Read: National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 434 Edited by Jeffrey T. Richelson Posted August 15, 2013