Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review: Area 51

Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen (2012)

As an aviation/space buff, I wanted to like this. As someone who has written aerospace history, I could only be dismayed by the way a ton of research was undone with careless misreporting (constantly referring to a Horten "flying disk" when it was a flying wing), exaggeration (no nuclear "Mars-bound" rocket was ever overheated, because nothing close to a space-going nuclear rocket, as opposed to a ground-bound reactor demo, was ever built), and the sheer incredulity of seeing a previously respected journalist discuss the a "Soviet/Mengele" Roswell crash theory as if it might be true. The section on atomic testing has been disputed, but I'm not an expert there, so I won't comment on it. (And is "escorted by destroyer battleships" a typo? One hopes so.

The author does better on the airplanes, with some interesting stories of Oxcart and the SR-71. Oddly, there is no mention of the reports from the past few years the might indicate really unusual test aircraft/UAVs.

I appreciated the thick bibliography and the many sources provided, but I couldn't get past the UFO stuff: if an author would report that as even possible fact, how does the reader know whether to trust anything else in the book?

The idea that Mengele created some kind of child-mutation for Stalin is absurdity layered on falsehood. Mengele never could have produced such prodigies because Mengele had no idea how to do science and there were no results from his barbaric wartime experimentation. The evidence of contact between Megele and high-level Soviets is zero. The chances Stalin had a flying disc with a totally unknown propulsion system, far beyond 2012 technology let alone 1947, is zero. The chances Stalin would have risked a superweapon that could have dropped a nuke on Washington on a demonstration of fake alien contact, where a malfunction would mean the US captured the craft and learned all its secrets, was zero. The chances the discredited Bob Lazar knew anything about real alien contact is zero. (I detect a trend here.) The Russians made a saucer to fake an alien spacecraft, sent it to the US, and left Russian writing on it in plain view? What happened to the author's instincts and practices as a journalist when presented with this tale?

It's one thing to relate that someone who claims he once worked in the area told her this story. It's another to refer to it throughout the book as a possibility, when it just isn't. Did she ask independent aerospace engineers and biomedical researchers to comment on the plausibility of the story? If not, why not? This book would have value if she'd left this story out or treated it as the fantasy it is: implying there is something to it ruined the rest of the book for me.

Matt Bille, lead author, The First Space Race (Texas A&M, 2004)
(NOTE: As holder of a current DoD security clearance, I should add that I speak only from open sources: I've never seen classified material on these particular topics.)

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