The early years of Area 51
Area 51, taken in 1968
When the base was officially commissioned, its orignal name was Watertown, so called for the home town of then CIA Director Allen Dulles. In 1958, 38,400 acres of public land surrounding the Watertown base and the dry lakebed known as Groom lake were taken for use by the government. It was then that the shroud of mystery surrounding this storied installation first began to appear.
The primary project which the base was created to test was the U2 spyplane, which would later go down in infamy after being shot down by a Soviet anti-aircraft missile during a flyover of the USSR, a mission for which the plane was specifically developed.
Trouble with fallout
The location for the base was originally considered to be ideal, as the dry lakebed was smooth enough to be a runway even without any construction, and the area was located in a lowlying area surrounded by mountains on all sides, which restrict the view of the base to outsiders. Kelly Johnson, head of the Lockheed Martin SkunkWorks, creators of the U2 spyplane, was opposed to the choice of site as it was located in close proximity to the Atomic Energy Commissions nuclear test sites. Construction on the base went on as planned, but unfortunately for those employed at the base, Johnson's concern was not without reason. The commission planned the nuclear tests at times when the prevailing winds were blowing north and east in order to minimize the contamination of major cities, but this carried clouds of radioactive fallout to the base at Groom Lake. For this reason, the base would often have to be closed for weeks on end until the fallout cleared to a safe level.
Scheduled for Closure?
As the 1950s wore on into the 1960s, activity at Area 51 and Watertown began to lessen greatly. The base was intended to be temporary, and indeed, U2 operations were being moved out to Edwards Air Force Base. It seemed as though the base would close, but then it became apparent to those at the Lockheed SkunkWorks that the U2 would soon be vulnerable to enemy missiles. This would prove to be quite prophetic, as the U2 would later be shot down by the Soviets. This led the Lockheed scientists to begin work on a new plane, designated A12, which could fly faster than 3 times the speed of sound and higher than the U2. When it was determined that another secret base would be needed to develop the aircraft, the CIA (who was in charge of the aerial reconnaisance programs at the time) finally settled on Area 51 as the most cost-effective and secret alternative. Area 51 was here to stay.