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Astronauts and Area 51: the Skylab Incident

by Dwayne A. Day

Astronauts and Area 51: the Skylab Incident

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


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.

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.

Story continues:

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