Area 51: The name and number are enough to set imaginations aflame. What is the government really up to in this Nevada desert military base that includes a restricted area spanning more than 90,000 acres?
Here’s a look at what’s (probably) inside and what’s (almost certainly) not.
Area 51: A Quick History
In April 1955, CIA officer Richard Bissell found an ideal spot for building and testing U-2 planes: the southern Nevada desert near Groom Lake. Along with his colleagues, Bissell asked the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to add this parcel of land to its real estate holdings and, by July 1955, aircraft development is in full swing. In 1958, this parcel of land was removed from public use and, in 1978, control of the installation was transferred to the Air Force.
Officially, the facility’s name is the Nevada Test and Training Range, which falls under the auspices of Nellis Air Force Base. It also went by several nicknames including “Paradise Ranch,” “Watertown” and “Dreamland,” which were used to make the area sound more attractive to potential base staff. The name Area 51, meanwhile, is rarely used by the government and likely comes from the area’s original designation on AEC maps.
Visiting the site and taking images are strictly controlled. Facility guards are authorized to use deadly force, and pictures such as those inadvertently taken by Skylab in 1974 were reviewed by the National Photographic Interpretation Center, then removed from Skylab’s control and stored in a government vault. Combined with seemingly unexplained phenomena occurring in and around Area 51, public interest in the site has driven all manner of myths and legends.
It’s Probably Aliens!
Combine government secrecy, deadly force and lights in the desert and what do you get? Aliens! This was the common interpretation of strange sightings in and around Area 51, despite the fact that the facility is a testing ground for cutting-edge aircraft — which might just look like nothing seen before.
The notion of hidden, out-of-this-world happenings got a boost in 1989 when a man named Robert Lazar claimed that he worked on the base and saw both flying saucers and actual alien bodies. While Lazar was later outed as a fraud — he had never worked for the U.S. military or on the base — it was impossible for the public to ignore the draw of possible alien sightings. In 1994, theories about potential aliens gained even more ground when the Air Force admitted that wreckage from Roswell, New Mexico found in 1947 was not, in fact, weather balloons but part of a secret spy project code-named “Mogul.” Understandably, people were skeptical.
This skepticism came to a head in July 2019, when more than 1.5 million people signed up for an event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us,” to “see them aliens,” promising to meet in the desert and run into the site in September. Not surprisingly, the event was a colossal failure — just 200 people showed up. Two people were arrested and one person was briefly detained for almost crossing into a restricted area.
The Truth Comes Out: What Is Inside Area 51?
So what’s really going on behind closed doors? What is inside Area 51? Are U.S. military experts reverse-engineering crashed spaceships and performing autopsies on deceased aliens? In a word, no.
In 2013, the CIA released a declassified report about the site written in 1992, which acknowledges the existence of the facility and describes it as a U-2 testing site. It refers to unidentified flying objects (UFOs), but only to note that they were actually U-2 planes flying at 60,000 feet. The report also highlights the need for strict secrecy as a way to ward off Russian interference during the Cold War, rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead the American public. Still, there’s some evidence to suggest there’s more than meets the eye. For example, in 2017 the Pentagon confirmed the existence of a $22 million government program to collect and analyze data about “anomalous aerospace threats” — in other words, UFOs.
A poll found that 54 percent of Americans believe the government knows something about UFOs that it’s not sharing with the public. So, it’s unlikely the fascination with aliens will ever disappear, but chances are that Area 51 isn’t the hotbed of extraterrestrial activity that alien activists once believed. Interestingly enough, however, it may actually be in the best interests of the government to keep this mystery alive. By releasing some documentation but keeping other data classified, by not confirming or denying the existence of UFOs or aliens, it’s possible to divert attention away from other top-secret national security projects and protect critical data.
Not bad for a strip of desert in southeastern Nevada.
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