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Sunday Book Review: Area 51

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This is a guest post by Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica

A couple of weeks ago, there was quite a bit of press about a new book, ‘Area 51 – An Uncensored History‘ by Annie Jacobsen. As a self-respecting plane nerd, especially one that grew up reading too many Dale Brown books, it wasn’t a hard decision to read it. Sadly, what looks at first glance to be a readable and well-sourced history of secret aviation projects based at Groom Lake, NV ends up making such ludicrous claims that a reader with even the slightest grasp of 1940s science (or reality, for that matter) will find impossible to swallow.

In the late 1940s it became apparent to the US atomic weapons program that being able to conduct nuclear tests somewhere more convenient than remote Pacific atolls was probably a good idea. Thus was born the Nevada Test Site, an expanse of desert, mountains, dry lake beds, and other stuff that wasn’t important enough to prevent the government from detonating nuclear weapons there.  The test site is bordered by the even bigger Nevada Test and Training Range (nee Nellis Air Force Range), and Groom Lake is a dry lake bed that belongs to one or the other, depending on where you look.

In 1955, the CIA wanted somewhere they could test and develop a new spy plane, the U-2. Groom Lake offered them the privacy and security they wanted, and was designated Area 51 (fitting in with the naming convention for the test site). Development of Project Oxcart, the CIA’s A-12 plane that eventually became the SR-71, also happened at Groom Lake, as (presumably, since it’s not declassified) all the more recent work on stealth technology. Jacobsen recounts a history of these programs, based on published memoirs as well as interviews with people who were there, and if that were all the book dealt with it would be a welcome addition to the plane nerd’s library.

But no, Jacobsen couldn’t leave it at that. My first inkling that something was off was the first chapter and the story of Bob Lazar, who allegedly worked at Area 51 and gained notoriety for claiming that he saw alien technology being reverse engineered there. Thanks to its veil of secrecy, the nature of the weird planes that are tested there, and people like Bob Lazar, the gullible are happy to believe that Area 51 is where the US keeps all its crashed flying saucers and the like. Jacobsen evidently isn’t that gullible; even she rightly regards the idea of a secret lair full of alien technology as patent nonsense. For many of the following chapters this streak of nuttiness is absent. But later in the book it begins to creep back in, and end with such a preposterous claim that ultimately everything in the book has to be suspect.

After the war, the west and the USSR scoured up as many Nazi scientists and engineers as they could. The US program was called PAPERCLIP, and gave us Werner Von Braun and rockets. According to Jacobsen, the USSR got their hands on the Horten brothers, or at the least their flying wing research, and that what crashed at Roswell NM in 1947 wasn’t alien, but marked with Cyrillic script. So far, so relatively implausible, but it gets worse. You see, Stalin also got Joseph Mengele, according to Jacobsen, and Mengele allegedly created a crew of ‘grotesque, child-sized aviators’ who piloted this craft and whose bodies were recovered in the crash. Yes, you did read that correctly.

Obviously this is all complete bollocks. She alleges that Mengele used organ transplants and genetics to create these poor buggers, but organ transplants weren’t feasible until the development of immunosuppressive drugs in the 1960s. As for the genetic engineering, it’s even more risible. Thanks to Stalin’s patronage of Lysenko, Soviet science had been, and continued, down the wrong tracks for decades. Watson and Crick only worked out the mechanism behind DNA in 1957, and genetic manipulation started in the 1970s. Futhermore, we’re supposed to believe that in 1947 the USSR had advanced flying hover planes that could cross continents, but which somehow utterly failed to influence postwar Soviet aviation as we know it. Oh, and despite the fall of communism, not a single word of this has managed to leak out of Russia? Um, yeah…

The story about soviet child pilots isn’t even a new one. Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week recounts that it was the plot of a 1956 story by James Blish, and in his review gives a possible explanation as to why Jacobsen went down this ludicrous alley:

I know exactly why this happened, from personal experience. A couple of times I have taken Area 51 ideas to agents and had the same response: You need something that will make headlines.

As a form of disinformation, Jacobsen’s book works brilliantly; the batshit insane stuff does enough to poison the credibility of everything she alleges that hasn’t appeared in other, more respectable sources. I’m reminded a bit of Nick Cook’s book, The Hunt for Zero Point, in which a respected reporter at Jane’s makes the case that zee Germans unlocked the secret of antigravity and that the US got hold of this technology. Except that, if anything, I find Cook’s book slightly more plausible.

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