Tuesday, April 18, 2000 | 11:10 a.m.
On the Internet
The website to look at the latest photos of Area 51 and order them is found at www.terraserver.com.
A website created by Glenn Campbell is located at www.abovetopsecret.com.
Area 51, the super-secret Test Site sector whose existence was long denied by the U.S. government, is real.
Now pictures of the area that has been central to extraterrestrial conspiracy theories are available on the Internet, thanks to a team effort of U.S. companies and a Russian satellite.
"No little green men. This is the real McCoy," said John Hoffman, president and owner of Aerial Images Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., the company that posted five aerial photos Monday night.
The photos show long runways and buildings in stark rows on the top-secret military base.
Aerial Images worked with Microsoft, Kodak, Digital Equipment Corp., Autometric Inc. and the Russian agency Sovinformsputnik to get and post the photos, Hoffman said.
The companies launched a Russian satellite from Kazahkstan in 1998 to map the Earth's surface. Area 51, the Nevada Test Site and the Tonopah Test Range are all visible in the photos shot in March 1998. The satellite could fly over once-restricted airspace because of an open-skies agreement signed by 24 nations, including the United States and Russia in 1992.
Hoffman described the Russian optics as "absolutely phenomenal."
The Nevada Test Site, where more than 1,000 nuclear weapons exploded above and below ground, shows up as a pock-marked moonscape.
"The whole Nevada Test Site is available," Hoffman said. "It will surprise you how much is out there."
The news caught the Department of Energy, manager of the Test Site, by surprise. "Is that so?" asked DOE spokeswoman La Tomya Glass said when notified of the satellite photos.
The area covers 12,000 square miles in the five black-and-white images, ranging from Tonopah to the Southern California border, Hoffman said.
As to rumors that military officials spirited away sensitive projects from the Nevada site to someplace in Utah two years ago, Hoffman scoffed.
"That hasn't happened," he said. "There's stuff out there that is strange."
For example, he said, "There is an aircraft on one of the airfields -- not Groom Lake -- covered in some kind of fabric."
The Air Force knew when the Russian satellite was overhead, so "Why didn't they take it inside?" Hoffman asked.
The Air Force refused to acknowledge the secret Area 51 existed until Washington, D.C. attorney Jonathan Turley sued the government in the 1990s on behalf of Robert Frost, whose widow said he was exposed to toxic fumes from open burning along with five other unidentified workers. The workers are appealing their court losses, but the federal government offered a slight admission.
The Air Force sends a short message to anyone asking about Area 51's existence: "Training and testing activities take place at the Groom Dry Lake Bed."
Renewed fascination with space travel and sci-fi films such as "Star Trek," "Alien," "Men in Black" and "The X-Files" in the 1980s spurred interest in the remote base.
Legions of UFO followers traveled the dusty miles from Las Vegas to an overlook called Freedom Ridge during that time with Area 51 watcher Glenn Campbell to watch for strange lights in the sky. That ended when the Air Force acquired the land from Congress in 1995.
Also in the 1980s John Lear, a former commercial pilot, was a staple on talk radio with his claims that the U.S. military was covering up its research on UFOs at Area 51. He claimed that experiments on alien body parts were conducted in underground laboratories.
Then Robert Lazar, a former Los Alamos laboratory researcher, claimed in a KLAS-TV Channel 8 interview shortly afterward that he was helping to unravel the advanced technology of an alien spacecraft.
With those revelations, the remote desert site became the Air Force's worst-kept secret.
Area 51 was founded in 1955 as a top-secret base where the Air Force could test the U-2 spy plane. The base became known as "The Ranch," and although planes crashed near the lake and into Mount Charleston in the mid-1950s, its secrets remained intact.
"There will be those who will look at the images and be more convinced than ever of UFOs," Hoffman said. "But all this time they -- the government -- kept it secret."
Hoffman and the people who have reviewed the photos don't believe a word of hidden alien life forms.
The Russian lenses captured strange designs on the desert floor, such as target areas and laboratory facilities. Yet the images are typical of a military site.
"Area 51 demonstrates the power of this technology," Hoffman said. Publishing the images on the Internet bolsters the First Amendment rights of Americans to know more about the history of the Cold War, when the U.S. was locked in a nuclear battle of nerves with the former Soviet Union. Now there are no more secrets, unless you believe what you see on television.
Secret military digs in the desert are a staple on "The X-Files," created by Chris Carter. An "X-Files" film crew in North Carolina urged Hoffman to call Carter after they learned what he was doing.
When Hoffman reached Carter, it was clear he didn't believe that Area 51 was coming to the Internet soon, Hoffman said. "He went, 'What? That's impossible,' and hung up."
Mary Manning covers environmental issues for the Sun. She can be reached by phone at (702) 259-4065 or by e-mail: [email protected]