Area 51 and Gordon Cooper's 'Confiscated Camera'
By Jim Oberg
Special to SPACE.com
posted: 11:34 am ET
29 September 2000
Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, in his new book Leap of Faith,
presents a tale of government cover-ups related to spy cameras,
to Area 51, and to similar subjects top-secret subjects, based
on his own personal experiences on a NASA space mission. As a
certified "American hero," his credibility with the public is
But several space veterans who SPACE.com consulted about one of
Cooper's spaceflight stories had very different versions of the
original events. And some of them showed me hard evidence to
back up their skepticism.
According to Cooper, in 1965 he carried a super-secret spy
camera aboard Gemini-5 and accidentally got some shots of Area
51 in Nevada. Consequently,
the camera and its film were confiscated by the Pentagon, never
to be seen again. He was personally ordered by President Johnson
not to divulge the film's contents.
"One special mounted camera we carried had a huge telephoto
lens," he wrote.
"We were asked to shoot three specific targets from our
spacecraft's window because the photo experts wanted to be able
to measure the resolution of the
pictures. "That's exactly what we did: Over Cuba, we took
pictures of an airfield. Over the Pacific Ocean, we took
pictures of ships at sea. Over a big U.S. city, we took pictures
of cars in parking lots. Beyond that, we were encouraged to
shoot away at other airfields, cities, and anything else we
wanted along the way."
In an exclusive interview with SPACE.com, NASA's former chief
Richard Underwood, confirmed the existence of the experiment but
remembered details about it in a very different way than Cooper
did. Now retired in Nassau Bay, Texas, Underwood recalled the
camera was a 35-mm Questar with a Zeiss 'Contarex' lens. That is
a "cataoptic system" (folded optics), with a foot-long barrel
giving "several thousand" mm's of focal length (Cooper recalls
it was 1250mm). Mounted on the spacecraft window, it was shot at
1/50th of a second at various ground targets passing directly
below the spacecraft.
"It was the same camera that Ed White took outside with him on
his space walk in June," Underwood recalled. "We just slapped a
big lens assembly on the front end."
Considering the optical characteristics of the camera, Underwood
calculated that the theoretical maximum resolution -- the
smallest object discernable in photographs -- could be as small
as a hundred feet or so. That was what the Pentagon was hoping
Cooper, however, distinctly remembers differently about the
image quality. "After splashdown," he wrote, "and while Pete and
I were still aboard the recovery vessel, the exposed film from
that mounted camera was rushed to a darkroom and developed. I
was shown a few pictures -- including some unbelievable
close-ups of car license plates."
Absolutely impossible, retired NASA space photography experts
have told SPACE.com. "We never unloaded or developed space film
on recovery ships," Gene Edmonds told SPACE.com from his home in
LaPorte, Texas. "We always kept it safe for development in our
own specialized labs back in Houston."
Nor, say space reconnaissance experts, would license plates be
readable from a handheld camera in space -- or any other
satellite in the 1960s. Writing recently in the Washington Post,
Dr. Dwayne A. Day, a civilian specialist in
space reconnaissance, had criticized Hollywood movies for
exactly this kind of exaggeration. "The best resolution of an
American spy satellite, achieved by
an older series no longer in use, was reputed to be about 2 1/2
wrote. "This means that the smallest visible object would be the
size of a baseball, not the thin letters and numbers on a
license plate." Day also told SPACE.com that this vehicle didn't
show up until many years after Gemini-5.
According to Day and other experts space.com talked with,
Cooper's claim violates the laws of optics. "How could he even
aim it?" one asked derisively. "You can't visually make out
parking lots from orbit".
Nevertheless, NASA's Dick Underwood does recall that the 1965
Pentagon experiment's film was indeed grabbed while the crew was
still on the recovery carrier. "Cooper was really upset," he
added with a grin, confirming Cooper's account. "I was livid",
Cooper had written, "but there was nothing I could do."
But Underwood and his associates remember a lot more about what
became of the film than Cooper does. That is not surprising
since it was their specialization to handle space photographs.
As far as Cooper ever knew, the images had totally vanished, and
that's the way he's been telling the story for years.
Not so, retorts Underwood. NASA was sent a set of prints from
the roll after
the Pentagon developed it and studied it. "Nothing too exciting
showed up," he recalled. Those pictures wound up filed right
along with the other NASA-sponsored shots from Gemini-5,
Underwood continued. "The NASA shots were all on 70-mm
Hasselblads," he explained, "and the 35-mm shots in the archives
came from the Pentagon experiment."
As Underwood recalls, more than a decade later, when astronaut
Tom Stafford returned to military duty as a brigadier general
and was assigned to direct space planning at the Pentagon, as a
favor to Underwood he inquired after the original negatives.
They were nowhere to be found. "He was told they must have been
destroyed", reported Underwood.
Not at all, recalls another retired NASA photo expert. "They
sent back the original negatives later when they realized they
weren't very good," Tom Brahm told SPACE.com. "When I retired,
they were still somewhere in the archives in Houston."
And that's exactly where I found these photos when I visited the
photographic archives in Building 424 at the Johnson Space
Center. Archive director Mary Wilkerson had collected the
documentation and transparencies for my inspection.
Two rolls of 55 shots each, and 28 more from a third roll, had
been catalogued in the NASA photo system on September 23, 1965,
just a month after the flight, according to archivist David
Sharron. The original documentation indicated the shots had
never been classified, and from examining them it was easy to
Each shot covered an area several miles on a side, with
sharpness a bit better than a typical television screen. That's
equivalent to a ground resolution of perhaps 50-100 feet,
exactly what Underwood had estimated. The views showed precisely
what Cooper recalled observing: airfields, islands, even a large
US city (Dallas, it turned out). The pictures of airfields
showed runways, but aircraft and buildings couldn't be made out.
On the city shot, it was impossible to see small letters, or
even license plates, or even cars, or even parking lots at all.
A crisscross pattern of roads and city blocks could be made out,
but nothing smaller.
The catalog for the NASA archives described one other problem.
There was little if any crew documentation of where the photos
were taken. "The astronaut log is sketchy and difficult to use
for any data of value," it said.
Dr. Day had also heard of this problem when he had researched
the history of
US spy satellites. "What happened with Gemini was that the
astronauts were sloppy in recording where they took their
shots," he explained. "The guys at
the National Photographic Interpretation Center determined that
any manned reconnaissance system would still require a computer
to keep track of where the camera was pointing and when it was
shooting. People naturally started to ask 'If we have a computer
taking the photos anyway, why do we need the guys?'"
For a number of similar reasons, the Pentagon lost interest in a
manned military space station (the Manned Orbiting Laboratory,
or MOL), and cancelled the program a few years later. The poor
photography on Gemini-5 wasn't the main cause, Day continued,
"but it was one of the early nails in the MOL coffin."
Cooper, meanwhile, never learned the photographs had been
returned to NASA by a disappointed Pentagon. He later told a
story about how somebody had explained the confiscation to him.
"Many years later," he wrote in his book, "at a 1997 NASA
reunion at Cape Canaveral, a gray-haired man came up to me and
asked if I remembered him." The man identified himself as the
one who confiscated his film, and then asked, "Did anyone ever
tell you why the film was confiscated?" Cooper wrote that the
man told him, "You had the most magnificent pictures of Area
51". Cooper was
thrilled: "As for Area 51, I hope the Air Force is conducting
experiments with flights with highly unusual aircraft -- even
saucers with revolutionary propulsion systems," he wrote. "And
the first person to come home with pictures of the mysterious
Area 51? An astronaut from space."
Sadly, this may be yet another tale that doesn't stand up. It
turns out, on Gemini-5 Cooper never flew over Area 51 at all.
The spacecraft orbit always passed far to the south. It was
physically impossible for him to have taken any near-vertical
snapshots of the super-secret test range.
Even a simple check of his trajectory shows this. The Gemini's
orbital inclination was 33 degrees, and the southernmost regions
of "Area 51" are at
37 degrees north. That's a horizontal distance of about 300
miles, from an altitude of about at most 150 miles.
Anybody can use satellite tracking software widely available on
the Internet, with specific Gemini-5 trajectory measurements
(also on the Internet). They will find out that as viewed from
Area 51, Gemini-5 never got higher than about 20 degrees on the
southern horizon, barely above the mountains for only a few
seconds, once or twice a day. As viewed from his spacecraft,
that would be far out near Earth's horizon, lost in the dust and
haze of the thick atmosphere. The camera experiment
requirements, and Cooper's own memory of it, involved only
straight-down views of the nearest portions of the surface, seen
through the thinnest layer of the atmosphere. Area 51 would
never have been imaged, even by accident, except by grossly
violating the experimental procedures.
There was one intriguing item in the catalog, however: roll B
exposure 24 was called "California, north of Salton Sea," right
before another shot of the Elephant Butte reservoir in New
Mexico. That's in the direction of Area 51, at least.
I pulled the transparency out of its envelope and loaded it in
the viewer for close examination. But the picture, like most of
the others, was another disappointment. Splotchy desert sands,
covered by scattered clouds, showed only a few faint lines that
might have been roads. There were no runways, no
mystery buildings, no UFOs. Cooper's narrative -- the
prematurely developed film with visible license plates, the
forbidden peek at a super-secret installation, the cover-up from
the highest levels of the government -- is by far the more
exciting version of this incident. His sincerity and
self-confidence remains unquestioned.
His agent, Stu Miller, assured SPACE.com that the details of the
story were true. "In fact, there were numerous 35mm cameras
aboard Gemini-5, not just one as you postulated," he wrote
(presumably the NASA camera experts forgot about the others,
never listed them in the mission manifest or photo archives, and
mislabeled one of them as "DOD"). Nor did Cooper ever claim "he
flew directly over Area 51" -- the camera really "had a range of
view of about 1500 miles".
"As for the photos you say you were shown," Miller continued,
that some of them have been de-classified in the years since the
mission, but the Colonel was unequivocally told that ALL of the
film was placed under classification shortly after Gemini-5's
return to the carrier and President Johnson subsequently
acknowledged directly to the Colonel that he had personally
given the order."
But the testimony of several experts much closer than Cooper to
the actual photographic process stands in shocking -- and
dismaying -- contrast to the version in the book. So do the cold
equations of orbital motion, and the precise calculus of optics.
And so, too, did the photographs and catalogs I held in my hands
at the NASA photo lab.
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