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From Skylab to Area 51: The CIA and a Secret Photograph

Area 51 is known for many things: (A) the secret testing of highly-classified aircraft at the height of the Cold War; (B) the claims of Bob Lazar of alien spacecraft supposedly held at an off-shoot of the top secret facility called S-4; (C) the ridiculous, recent “storming of Area 51″ saga that even got the mainstream media interested; and (D) much more of a conspiratorial and out of this world nature – allegedly, of course. There’s something else too, that you may not have heard of. Namely, a weird incident that occurred  back in the 1970s and that was focused on Area 51 and NASA. It all revolves around three astronauts and NASA’s craft Skylab. NASA states of Skylab:

“Skylab was hailed as a ‘bold concept’ by Rocco Petrone, who served as director of launch operations at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida before becoming director of the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., during 1973 and 1974. The program demanded innovation and ingenuity, said Petrone in Skylab, Our First Space Station, a NASA report published in 1977. ‘Experience and knowledge gained from earlier space programs provided a solid foundation on which to build, but the Skylab Program was truly making new pathways in the sky.’ The project began as the Apollo Applications Program in 1968 with an objective to develop science-based human space missions using hardware originally developed for the effort to land astronauts on the moon. Skylab orbited the Earth from 1973 to 1979.”

It was on April 19, 1974 that trouble started brewing. On that day, the then-Director of the CIA, William Colby, received a communication from one of his colleagues, an unknown figure who wanted to discuss a certain “issue.” Colby was told that: “The issue arises from the fact that the recent Skylab mission inadvertently photographed” Area 51. Colby was additionally informed that: “There were specific instructions not to do this.”

Dwayne A. Day, of The Space Review, and who personally broke the story in 2006, said: “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.” Uh-oh. Not good. Those astronauts were Edward Gibson, Gerald Carr and William Pogue. Both Pogue and Carr had military backgrounds and Gibson had a doctorate in engineering physics. Day said of their actions: “Why the Skylab astronauts disobeyed their orders and took the photo is unknown, as are what it depicted.”

Director Colby’s informant told him: “This photo has been going through an interagency reviewing process aimed at a decision on how it should be handled. There is no agreement DoD elements (USAF, NRO, JCS, ISA) all believe it should be withheld from public release. NASA, and to a large degree State, has taken the position that it should be released – that is, allowed into the Sioux National Repository and let nature take its course.” Colby was also advised that: “There are some complicated precedents which, in fairness, should be reviewed before a final decision.” There was, Colby was told, “a question of whether anything photographed in the United States can be classified if the platform is unclassified; such complex issues in the UN concerning United States policies toward imagery from space” and “the question of whether the photograph can be withheld without leaking.”

In terms of the outcome, Dwayne A. Day said: “Nothing more is known of this Skylab incident than the fact that the photograph was not released. NASA and the State Department clearly lost the argument. But the opponents of releasing it preserved national security, as they defined it.” None of this, however, explains, why Area 51 was photographed – something that most assuredly got the CIA into a state of concern.


Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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