Ep. 346: Numbered Places: Area 51

Who knows what mysteries lurk at the military’s Area 51 complex in Nevada? Conspiracy theorists and UFO chasers think it’s a big alien coverup. But it’s probably something more boring, like advanced military aircraft. Let’s talk about what we know, and what we think we know about this infamous military base.

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This episode is sponsored by:  Swinburne Astronomy Online, 8th Light

Show Notes

  • How Area 51 Works — HowStuffWorks
  • Groom Lake — Wiki
  • Creech Air Force Base (Indian Springs)
  • A-12 Unveiled — Gizmodo
  • Aurora aircraft
  • Scramjet — NASA
  • Osprey aircraft — Boeing
  • D-21 aircraft — Lockheed
  • CIA’s Declassified Documents Reveal Secrets about Area 51 and Aliens — Universe Today
  • USAF’s Super-Secret X-37b Reaches Milestone in Space — Universe Today
  • Cleaning up Area 51 — HowStuffWorks
  • Transcript

    Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

    Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy online, the world’s longest-running online astronomy degree program. Visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.

    Fraser Kane: Astronomy Cast Episode 346, Area 52. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Kane. I’m the publishers of Universe Today. And with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Everettsville, and the director of Cosmoquest. Hey, Pamela, how are you doing?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing?

    Fraser Kane: Great. How are you enjoying your spring so far?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh my gosh. It’s – other than being filled with pollen from dogwood trees, which is evil, it’s filled with baby birds and baby groundhogs and baby sheep and baby geese. So basically spring has sprung out with baby critters everywhere.

    Fraser Kane: I always forget how vibrant and green it is here on the West Coast. You know, living in a coastal, temperature rain forest, during the rain part, the warm part, it’s so green and there’s flowers everywhere. It’s awesome. But yeah, same deal, which is the allergies. For me, the allergies [inaudible] [00:01:20] I just feel dumb. I can’t even think straight.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. Friday I – there was no thoughts capable, and I have to admit, I did take allergy medicine. So while I look a bit perkier, hopefully I’ll manage to keep the stupid out of Astronomy Cast, but if things are a little bit slower, it’s the Benadryl haze.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah, no guarantees from me.

    Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by 8th Light Inc. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides disciplined software leadership on demand and shares its expertise to make your project better. For more information, visit them online at www.8thlight.com. Just remember, that’s www, dot, the digit 8 T-H, L-I-G-H-T.com. Drop them a note. 8th Light, software is their craft.

    Fraser Kane: So who knows what mysteries lurk at the military Area 51 complex in Nevada. Conspiracy theorists and UFO chasers think it’s a big alien cover-up. But it’s probably something more boring, like advanced military aircraft. So let’s talk about what we know and what we think we know about this infamous military base. So Pamela, you put this one on the list, so you’re going to have to put this in context. Why did you decide that an episode about Area 51 was appropriate for Astronomy Cast? I’m all ears.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Because of all of the test planes that came out of there. As we start to talk about commercial space more and more, as commercial space starts to get more and more successful, understanding all of these big, essentially dry lakebed test facilities becomes more and more important. And Area 51 has been accused of many things, but the reality is, this is just one more place that really awesome spacecraft that probe the top of the atmosphere and get called airplanes, have gotten to fly out of.

    Fraser Kane: Okay, so set the stage then. Where is Area 51? What does it look like? What’s the deal?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, when you look at satellite imagery of it, and in fact, there’s really nice imagery of it in Google Maps, which kind of surprised me and thrilled me simultaneously, it is first and foremost a giant dry lakebed, one of the salt flats that’s out in Nevada. It’s located not too terribly far away from Las Vegas. In fact, the folks that worked there largely commuted by airplane from either Edwards Air Force Base to Area 51, is often called Groom Lake, or they flew out of Vegas’ McCarron Airport, to fly down to Area 51.

    So you have this great flat, flat, flat nature-provided landing area, where actually the first people who scouted it out, just landed their aircraft on the dry lakebed, realizing this is someplace that we don’t even really have to groom. And while it does have one really nice paved landing strip, there are two landing strips that are basically just painted markings on the dry lakebed, and should push come to shove, you can just kind of land at whatever angle you feel like it on approach.

    Fraser Kane: What creates a feature like this? Because I know there’s various – there’s a bunch of these around the world, right? And they’re just like this. Ultra flat, salt kind of dusty, sandy, muddy, expanse. You know, Burning Man Festival is done on one of these. So what creates these kinds of places?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I mean America dried out in that area. It’s former lake, used to be there, and it’s no longer supported by the geography. There’s no longer sufficient rain. There’s no longer sufficient runoff. And the neat thing about lakes is because they don’t have currents tearing up the bottom of them, and if they aren’t stream fed, they have no reason to now be perfectly flat on the bottom. So you have sediment settles out, and in the past, this region had a lot of salts in it, and it still has the salts, but it no longer has the salt lakes, other than the Great Salt Lake. And so you just end up with this beautifully flat bottom of a lake and remove the lake, and you’re left with this beautifully flat area in the bottom of a small valley.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah. It’s amazing how all that sediment has gone down and filled in the bottom of whatever was this geographic feature, and then has perfectly smoothed out at the bottom of the lake. And then when the lake was gone, you’re left with – you couldn’t have asked for a flatter place.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: The best way to think of it is – I don’t know about you, but out in the barn, we’ll periodically leave out a bucket and it will get filled with mud and everything else. Rainwater, dust, pollen, all settling in from the atmosphere. And you look at it this time of year, and it’s this slimy, algae-riddled mess. Come August, it’s going to be a quarter inch deep in the bottom with perfectly level grossness. But it’s going to be dry grossness at that point.

    Fraser Kane: Right. Exactly. Okay, great. So they picked this place. It was just the best place to land aircraft.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.

    Fraser Kane: And I guess it was like, what if we need something that needs an extra-long runway? Just use more lakebed. It doesn’t really matter.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And that’s actually one of the really cool things about this. It’s not the only one like it. Edwards Air Force Base is actually fairly similar in terms of nice, dry, lakebed essentially. And the problem with Edwards that is why they needed Groom Lake, Area 51, is Edwards is kind of in a well-witnessed area. And if you’re going to be flying things you don’t want anyone seeing, Edwards is out. So when they went searching for a new place, they found someplace that, from the air looked a lot like Edwards in terms of geographic characteristics.

    And when they put in the biggest landing strip, instead of having it dead end into the sagebrush, it dead ends into the lakebed, and takes a big loop so that if, for some reason you overshoot the landing strip, you just keep going and take what the pilots call the hook, and loop yourself around and sort of leave yourself marooned out in the lakebed. But that’s better than being marooned in the sagebrush.

    Fraser Kane: Right. And then, as you said, it’s fairly private. There’s not a lot of good views of the actual facility, and so you won’t necessarily be able to see the aircraft landing. Okay. So you’ve got this great facility. And so what has it been used for historically?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well it first started to get used in 1942 as Indian Springs Air Force auxiliary field. It was just a couple of painted runways. But after World War 2, and as we started realizing we need spy planes, the real reason that it really grew was the U2 program. And the U2 is why I felt okay putting this on our list of things to do because a U2 is just short of being a suborbital aircraft. It doesn’t actually get high enough up that you can call what it does a suborbital flight. But it goes high enough up that you’re sufficiently above the atmosphere that stars start to become a possibility.

    So when they started building this amazing aircraft, they needed someplace that there wouldn’t be peering eyes. The U2s got transported there in all sorts of neat and interesting hidden ways. Some of the assembly took place there. When they were originally test flying them, they’d actually herd all of the staff that didn’t have sufficient clearance into the cafeteria so they wouldn’t see the takeoffs and landings. Our spy planes is really why Area 51 came into existence. And from the spy planes, it just kind of grew, where we had some of the early test aircraft that were used to build towards the modern stealth aircraft, flew out of there.

    There was the A12 that looks a lot like a flying wedge. There’s still, I’m sure, aircraft that haven’t been declassified enough for us to know about them. One of the most frequent rumors was the Aurora spacecraft, getting seen – I’m not quite sure how you describe its flight. But getting seen doing its not-quite-normal activity out of Area 51.

    Fraser Kane: So what was the Aurora?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: It was another flying wedge technology that looked very much like a quintessential UFO. So you have a big flying triangle. Essentially Lougheed found a couple of different ways to build up the UFO lore here in the United States. There is a very rarely talked about dirigible that is triangle shaped, moves quite slowly, and is a heavy lift vehicle, that there’s been plans published here and there, that it’s fairly clear that some of the triangular sightings that you see, specifically in the part of the country I live in, in the Saint Louis region, is just this Lougheed built dirigible being mistaken for a UFO.

    And then the Aurora is essentially a scram jet that is shaped like a nice friendly little isosceles triangle, with potentially not-so-friendly capabilities. And it’s never really been declassified, but you do Google searches, you find information about it.

    Fraser Kane: All right. So you know I’m going to ask this question.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yes.

    Fraser Kane: Which is what’s with all the aliens?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: That actually, if you’re going to stick aliens anywhere, I can see why people would imagine sticking them there. Over the decades, America has managed to get its hands on a variety of different international aircraft, not always by the most legal of means. We’ve gotten various Mings from people defecting, most notably during the first Iraqi war, during Desert Storm. There is a pilot who, when asked to napalm villages, essentially said, “No.” And instead of napalming the Kurds, flew his plane to Israel, defected to America, and that airplane ended up in Area 51. And it’s not the only one that’s ended up there.

    Since World War 2, when America has acquired foreign technology, that technology has been shipped, flown, whatever means necessary to Area 51, where we actually stage war games with our own pilots flying both on the foreign technology and on the American-made technology, to see who’s going to win in a dog fight. What are the technological skills that we need to figure out, how to combat with our airplanes? What are the weaknesses we need to learn to take advantage of?

    So I’m sure there were many rumors of the alien nationals at Area 51, and as you start ending up with rumors of – well Roswell being an alien crash, as you have all of the abduction rumors running rampant, it suddenly becomes easy to imagine that Area 51, this base so top secret that they fly the staff in and out, flying them out of Burbank on Monday and back on Friday, or in and out of Las Vegas. It’s easy to imagine that someplace that top secret is also going to be where the aliens go to live.

    Fraser Kane: It’s where you would take them.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s where you would.

    Fraser Kane: I mean if there were aliens, it’s absolutely where you would take aliens and study them and study their fantastic flying machines.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And there’s been enough – I fully believe in the strength of America to build weird-ass aircraft that are going to get mistaken for this, that and every other manner of UFO.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah. I wish – I mean that’s the thing. I mean obviously you need to conduct this kind of research, you need to perform these experiments, and you need to do it in a secret manner. But it makes me sad that I don’t get to see all of the really interesting ideas and the really cool experiments and the stuff that, you know, that doesn’t work so great. But it was a really neat idea. Can we make a flying wing? Can we make a scram jet? Has anyone tried a nuclear-propelled aircraft? All kinds of stuff, right? And you just imagine all these wacky experiments.

    And I’m sure, as you said, a lot of them would end up looking to the average eye, like some kind of alien saucer. Especially when you think about some of these things – like some of these vertical takeoff and landing craft, with bit rotors and things like that. Like even the Ospreys and things like that, that have these rotors. They can go up and down and they can fly forward. Or you take it to the logical conclusion, when you look at The Avengers and you’ve got the shield hover carrier. You know? So that kind of technology certainly has been tested.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And in the 1950s, there was actually a supersonic saucer-shaped plane, and it was recently declassified. I don’t know if actually flew. It was just one of those things that I remember pictures of it cropping up, and I’m now pulling it up – it was the Averacar. And so we created saucer-shaped aircraft, and then when you start looking at drones. Drone helicopters do not look like your standard search and rescue helicopter. These are a multi-rotor, round little things that fly in all sorts of weird ways. And drones, I don’t know if those in particular got tested out of Area 51, but the D21 drone that launched off the back of a jet did get flown out of Area 51.

    And so you can start to imagine farmers, tourists, your Hunter S. Thomas completely stoned crazies in the desert, driving to Vegas seeing these low-flying, rather small circular helicoptery things, but only seeing the lights, and making them for extraordinarily distant, extremely fast-moving, much bigger vehicles.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah, yeah. I mean there’s only a few locations I know that you can actually perceive the test facility, and it’s really far away. It’s some mountain, and you have to get to the top of that mountain, you can use a telescope, and you can maybe see aircraft landing. But for most of the area around Area 51, it’s a really high security military place, that if you even set foot on it, military folks are going to show up and arrest you if you don’t get off that property. And so you can just imagine – yeah, because that’s how you keep spies out. You don’t want to let spies come in and report on what’s going on.

    So you have to have high security. But I think, for a lot of people that security is so terrifying, that it makes them feel like it must be something extra-terrestrial in origin that’s being hidden there, right?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And there’s something about the desert that just conjures up all of the haunted town – there’s some creepy about it. So you’re out in this land of tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes, with men patrolling with big guns, motion sensors everywhere, and this is also part of the country that, when the military bought up the Groom Lake facility, they had to buy up the local mining issues, so there’s old abandoned mines, and it just plays into the creativity of the terrified human mind. From mineshafts to military men.

    There’s a few episodes of Scooby Doo just waiting to be played out, where everyone imagines it’s little green men, and it’s just an everyday occurrence and imagination taking the best of everyone.

    Fraser Kane: So was there any idea – like has NASA been involved at all in doing stuff out at Area 51?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: As far as I know, NASA hasn’t, but you have to remember that there’s a very fine line between the U.S.; Air Force and its DOD projects, and what NASA’s been doing. There’s currently two space planes that are taking turns hitting endurance challenges, those are DOD Air Force, not NASA. So when we look at space exploration, well NASA’s the civilian arm, but DOD and U.S. Air Force, they have their own branches of getting toward space.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah. I know people – we’ve mentioned this a couple of times, and I know we’re going to have to do an episode on this, although the episode will mostly be us scratching our head and going, “I don’t really know very much about it.” There’s a space plane, a military space plane that’s been in orbit for like 500 days now.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah.

    Fraser Kane: Did you know that, people?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s the X37.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: There’s two of them. No one knows exactly why they’re up there. I can only surmise that they’re up there carrying something that we really want to bring back. And so you have to ask, what experiments are they doing? What data are they collecting that they don’t want to send back using normal radio signals? There’s something nifty in orbit. And the X37 program is one that used to belong to NASA. I believe the number got switched when the Air Force took over it, but this was part of a plan that was originally put in place to head towards being able to launch humans into space in a much smaller configuration, and now it’s long duration military craft.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah. And I love – I mean we talked about aliens as one of the possible conspiracy theories that’s going on about Area 51, and I love some of the other ideas. I mean people just let their imaginations run wild. People are – obviously people think that that’s where the government stores the crashed alien – all the collected alien military stuff that’s – you know, that crossed at Roswell and other places like that. But that that’s where the aliens come to have their secret meetings with, I guess, the politicians and the government. Or that they’ve got strange, exotic weaponry that they’re testing there, or weather control systems.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Hey, it’s where the Stargate portal is, isn’t it?

    Fraser Kane: That’s where – no, no, they’re in the Cheyenne complex in –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Oh, you’re right, they’re at NORAD.

    Fraser Kane: – Colorado. Yeah, yeah. But I’m sure they often go back to Area 51.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah, they do, there was episodes.

    Fraser Kane: That’s where they test the aircraft, yeah. Yeah. So then do you know if there’s a lot going there now? Because I mean the last really big development that came out of Area 51 was the whole B – what the B2 –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Environmental concern actually.

    Fraser Kane: Oh really?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Yeah. We don’t really have a good place to store nuclear waste, and one of the things that has been put forward is between the chemicals, the radioactive materials and this, that and the other thing that isn’t really good for human life, Area 51 is largely disused at the moment. The weekly flights in and out have pretty much gone away. Staffing is down to a much more skeleton level. And this is simply because it’s just not the healthiest place to be anymore.

    Fraser Kane: And so – I mean are they going to try and – like what are they going to do with it?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, what should they do with it? You have someplace that’s still top secret. It’s now a toxic place to keep somewhat secret. There’s dioxins, there’s dibenzofuran. There’s just all of these horribly evil awful things out there. So sure, we could clean it up, but isn’t it just better to the mythology of keeping people out to say, “Dangerous chemicals. You will die if you come here?”

    Fraser Kane: Whoa. That’s just part of the conspiracy theory.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, considering that it was a bunch of university professors who came forward to say, “Look. This isn’t a healthy place. We need to start thinking about this,” I think the environmental concerns are quite valid. I just don’t see a strong motivation to spend the millions of dollars to clean up someplace where you have to grant high secret military clearance to everyone involved in the cleanup process.

    Fraser Kane: Yeah, yeah. So I mean is it going to be eventually just disused? It’s just going to be abandoned and locked away, and then that’ll be that?

    Dr. Pamela Gay: I think that depends on the international political scene. For a long time, it looked like our need to have someplace to test extremely top-secret aircraft was going away. We were quite happily using drones in the Middle East. Well, not happily, but it’s safer for pilots to send in drones instead of humans. But it’s hard to know what’s going to happen in the next few years, as tensions do begin to rise in Europe again. The fact that we’re getting kicked off the International Space Station in 2020, I no longer know what the future brings.

    Had we recorded this a couple of weeks ago, maybe a month ago, prior to the difficulties in the Ukraine, I’d be like, “Sure, it’s going to get shut down.” Now I’m not so sure.

    Fraser Kane: And it’s interesting now, sort of we’re transitioning to the drone age, where in the olden days, you had a great big $200 million military aircraft, flown by a pilot great long distances. And it was a very loud and messy affair. And we’re now moving to this place where more and more of these aircraft are drones of varying sizes. Some are as big as a jet plane, and others are really quite small. And the miniaturization is going at breakneck speeds. And you can kind of imagine its future where the surveillance, even a lot of the military operations are done by these smaller, more inexpensive, less complicated, less like Manhattan Project style research projects.

    And so they can be tested in smaller areas. You don’t need to be so public about it. I mean there’s only so many places you can land a B2, right? While you can test out a quad-copter with a gun on it in a fairly small space. So that’s probably starting to change the dynamics of the battle. So it’s a new era. It’s a weird time.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: And we really don’t know where the world’s going to go next. And are we going to need suborbital military aircraft? Are we going to need someplace to build the military version of Spaceship 2? And it’s questions like that, that make the future of someplace like Area 51 more open to question.

    Fraser Kane: So you’re not saying that it’s aliens –

    Dr. Pamela Gay: No.

    Fraser Kane: – but it’s aliens.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: Well, it’s aliens from another country rather than a world.

    Fraser Kane: Right, and their hardware. All right. Cool. Well thanks a lot, Pamela.

    Dr. Pamela Gay: It’s my pleasure.

    Male Speaker: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a nonprofit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Kane and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us at astronomycast, like us on Facebook or circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on Google Plus every Monday at 12:00 p.m. Pacific, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, or 2000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at cosmoquest.org. If you enjoy Astronomy Cast, why not give us a donation?

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