This aerial view shows the Watertown Airstrip at Groom Lake in 1959. The paved runway is 5,000 feet long.
In 1954, Lockheed and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) needed a secure test site for the secret U-2 spyplane that was nearing it first flight. Test pilot Tony LeVier and Lockheed Skunk Works foreman Dorsey Kammerer scouted the deserts of the southwestern United States, looking for remote dry lakebeds. Skunk Works chief Clarence "Kelly" Johnson selected a site, but it was rejected by Richard M. Bissell, Jr., of the CIA and his Air Force Liaison, Col. Osmond J. Ritland because it was too close to populated areas. Ritland recommended Groom Dry Lake, Nevada, on the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range. At first, Johnson objected to Groom Lake because of its proximity to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) nuclear proving ground at Yucca Flat. Not only were atomic bombs being detonated above ground just 12 miles to the southwest, Groom Lake was also directly downwind of the radioactive fallout clouds. Johnson relented when he realized that the military and AEC restrictions on the surrounding area would help provide security for the U-2 operation. Nevertheless, atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons plagued the secret base with radioactive fallout and other hazards for many years.
The history of fallout in the Groom Lake area was well documented (starting with the 1951 test series), according to John G. Fuller's book The Day We Bombed Utah, which describes the effects of fallout on the populations of eastern Nevada and western Utah. Fuller relates the story of the Sheahan family who operated the Groom Mine, overlooking the dry lakebed. According to Fuller, the AEC monitored radioactive contamination at the Groom Mine through