What is Area 51? Everything we know about this classified testing facility

Are they really holding aliens and UFOs inside?
Rupendra Brahambhatt
A warning sign near Area 51.Wikimedia Commons

Many conspiracy theorists believe that the Area 51 Air Force base in Nevada is actually a secret research facility where the U.S. government is hiding aliens, UFOs, and other related technology. Although the Air Force authorities have rejected these claims several times, the alien conspiracy theories about Area 51 have only gained popularity over the years. Now the big question is: who’s telling the truth, the government or the conspiracy theorists?

People who believe Area 51 is a research center for alien tech and UFOs have not been able to give any solid evidence that validates their claims. On the other hand, since Area 51 is a federal government-owned, top-secret military facility, the Air Force authorities have also maintained complete secrecy on what happens inside the base. Like any other military installation, Area 51 is heavily guarded, no civilian is allowed to enter the base, and it’s even prohibited to fly over the area. 

All these factors have made this Air Force facility a mystery for the general public as well. So, here is the truth about Area 51, at least as far as we know.  

How did Area 51 come into existence?

During the Cold War era, the U.S. government was very interested in keeping an eye on the movements of the USSR (the Soviet Union, now Russia) and its military. The U.S. Navy and Air Force flew low-level reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union-controlled territory, but those reconnaissance planes were always at the risk of being detected and shot down, as they flew at lower altitudes.

To overcome this issue, the U.S. Air Force proposed the development of an aircraft that could fly at 60,000 feet or higher - which should make it safe from the USSR's MiG-17, which could only reach 45,000 feet, and from Soviet radar, which the U.S. believed could not track aircraft above 65,000 feet.

The result was the U-2 program, which aimed to develop advanced, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower gave his permission for the U-2 program to go ahead. The first task was to find a suitable and secret location to test the new espionage aircraft. Officials chose the Groom Lake desert region in Lincoln County, Nevada for the development of the new testing facility.

This desolated region had previously been used as a World War II aerial gunnery range for Army Air Corps pilots. Around 70 miles to the northwest was the Tonopah Test Range, another top-secret area used for missile testing, and it was also close to the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons tests were conducted - again, of course, in top secret. Together, the area was known as the Nevada Test and Training Range, and it covered an area not that much smaller than the state of Connecticut. 

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Annie Jacobson, author of the book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base said in her book, “They discovered the perfect fulfillment of the presidential request which was a secret base centered around a dry lakebed in the middle of Nevada that happened to be located in an already classified facility where the government was exploding nuclear weapons. There was no way that anyone was going to try to get into this facility, especially because nuclear bombs were being exploded there.”

The testing facility had a map designation of Area 51, and that is what it became known as. The facility is now spread across 2.9 million acres of land. In the early days, lead engineer Kelly Johnson named the base Paradise Ranch, to make the facility sound more attractive to the newly hired employees. 

Classified Area 51 testings and UFO sightings

To meet the needs of the military, and the CIA, for high altitude reconnaissance missions, defense company Lockheed Martin developed the U-2 aircraft, which had a flight ceiling of around 70,000 ft. These aircraft were built under the CIA’s classified program “Project Aquatone.” Flight tests for the new aircraft began on August 1, 1955, and soon after this, multiple news reports of UFO sightings started pouring in. Most of these sightings were made by commercial pilots who had no idea it was even possible for a plane to fly above 40,000 feet.

In the 1950s, most commercial planes flew at altitudes of between 10,000 and 20,000 feet, and military planes typically flew at altitudes ranging between 10,000 to 40,000 feet. At the time, even some experts believed that it was not possible for aircraft to fly much above 40,000 feet, let alone at 60,000 feet and above. Because the U-2 generally flew above 50,000 feet during test flights, it is highly likely that the pilots who claimed they saw UFOs were actually seeing a U-2.

Also, since the flight tests were part of a classified reconnaissance mission, Air Force authorities could not utter a word about advanced U-2 aircraft to give an explanation for the "UFO" sightings. Instead, every time a reporter asked the officials about UFO sightings around Area 51, they described the incidents as "natural phenomena" or high altitude weather balloon experiments. However, instead of diverting the media attention, such explanations lead to an increased interest by the general public in the activities taking place in Area 51. 

Another reason why people have come to believe that Area 51 is hiding alien UFOs, is that the facility is located near both a nuclear weapon testing site and a top-secret training range for new weapons and aircraft. As a result, there are frequent sightings in the area of craft such as high-tech drones, stealth bombers, and many other kinds of never-before-seen flying craft. These have been frequently mistaken as UFOs by the general public.  

How did Area 51 become a center point for all things alien?

In 1947, the U.S. Army Air Forces conducted an operation to collect debris from a ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico. While the army officers told the media that they collected parts of a crashed weather balloon, many conspiracy theorists and even local newspapers like the Roswell Daily Record claimed that the recovered debris actually belonged to a “flying saucer” of alien origin. 

Interestingly, The Roswell Incident, a book released in 1980, linked Area 51 with the 1947 army operation. In their book, ufologist Bill Moore and language teacher Charles Berlitz suggested that the U.S. government built vast secret military bases to hide the UFO parts and other things of extraterrestrial origin that were recovered during the Roswell incident. Although the authors didn’t clearly say it was Area 51, people who believed in the Area 51 UFO rumors took the information as a clear hint to the base.

Later, conspiracy theorist John Lear made several enticing claims about Area 51. According to Lear, the Nevada Air Force base was built with the help of aliens that he referred to as “greys.” He also believed that “greys” consumed children and livestock as food, and the government kept them as specimens for study purposes. However, the Roswell incident book and Lear’s stories didn’t popularize the Area 51 alien myths as much as the explosive TV interview that Bob Lazar gave to KLAS TV in 1989. 

Bob Lazar introduced himself as an Area 51 scientist in his interview with host George Knapp. He claimed that he worked on alien spaceships and saw extraterrestrial beings at a location inside the base called S-4. He also said that the original purpose of the U.S. government behind building this military facility was to study aliens and UFOs secretly. 

However, the Area 51 authorities rejected his claims, including what he said about his employment status at the facility. Lazar had also said in the interview that he studied at MIT and Cal Tech but there are no records of him studying at those institutions. His 1986 bankruptcy records mentioned that he used to work as a photographic processor. 

The alien technology-related claims made by Lazar made many Area 51 employees furious. In an interview with Popular Mechanics, Peter Merlin, a researcher at the base, said, “this is Earth technology. You got folks claiming it's extraterrestrial when it's really good old American know-how.”   

In 2014, Lazar told 8NewsNow, “sometimes I really do regret it, and I almost feel like apologizing to them, saying, I’m sorry. Can I have my job back? There isn’t a day that I don’t get emails and I try to get this across to them. I don’t even want to talk about this anymore.”

It has not been confirmed that everything Lazar said about Area 51 was a lie, but his 1989 interview has undoubtedly made the secret facility a center point of all the ET discussions. Later Hollywood movies like Independence Day, 51 Nevada, Alien Domicile, and shows like The X-files also played an important role in popularizing Area 51 as an alien research station.  

Before and after the “raid Area 51” event

In August 2013, the CIA released documents that revealed information on the U-2 testings of the 1950s. The CIA documents highlighted that the testings were kept a secret not because of any alien or UFO-related activities but to prevent the Soviets from knowing the U.S. government’s security measures. In December of the same year, Barack Obama became the first American president to address the base as Area 51.

But this has done little to decrease interest in Area 51 as a secret base for research on alien tech. The media’s attention was again drawn to Area 51 in 2019. A Facebook event dubbed “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop Us All” was announced on July 11 of that year. The event urged people to raid the base in large numbers on September 20 in order to force the military to reveal the existence of aliens. More than two million people expressed interest online for the event and this alarmed the authorities at the base, as well as local police, who pointed out that the remote area lacked the facilities to cater to an influx of that many people.

The event became so popular online that Air Force spokesperson Laura McAndrews had to respond. She said the base "is an open training range for the U.S. Air Force, and we would discourage anyone from trying to come into the area where we train American armed forces. The U.S. Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets.”

On September 20, 2019, about 200 people gathered outside the Area 51 entry gate for the raid. However, nobody was able to pass the soldiers guarding the facility. The Lincoln county police department arrested a couple of individuals who misbehaved or tried to come closer to the fences.  

Although the alien and UFO stories surrounding Area 51 surely sound exciting, the true feats achieved by engineers and scientists working at the site are almost more exciting. This large aircraft testing facility has been home to many exceptional flying machines like the U-2, D-12, SR-71 Blackbird, etc. Moreover, many classified and important developments are still taking place there, which could be more exciting than some alien myth.  

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