Aliens, Spaceships, and Conspiracy Theories: Area 51 Explained

There are a million things that come to mind when you think about Area 51. Conspiracy theories, alien encounters, and secret, semi-legal government experiments are just the tip of the iceberg.
Getty Images Photo By MyLoupe
Getty Images Photo By MyLoupe
There is so much mystery surrounding this place, it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fiction. Lucky for you, we rounded up some facts to help you with just that.

Mapping It out

Area 51 is located in the Nevada deserts, not far from Las Vegas (just 83 miles northwest if you want to be specific).

 

If you ever find yourself wandering around the area (highly unlikely, but still) you’ll see the nearby Groom Lake. You won’t be able to take a dip in that lake, though, as it is currently dry and enjoys the status of a salt flat.

Naming Names

The number one theory as to why the place is called Area 51 is so basic we almost wanted to come up with a more exciting one ourselves.

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The theory has it that the place was included in a map of the  AEC (Atomic Energy Commission). The map was divided by a grid, and the place fell under number 51. Nothing mysterious here. Move along.

All the Way to California

Area 51 is located in Nevada, that much we know. But you’d be surprised to learn that the big bosses in charge of the place actually sit a long way away from there in California.

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The facility where these administrators are located is the Edwards Air Force Base.

Nuclear Experiments

Area 51 and the Nevada Test Site Yucca Flat Region share a border. For those of you who don’t know, the test site is where the US Department of Energy performed hundreds of nuclear tests.

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So far, we don’t know of any mutants living in the area, nor a Godzilla-like being about to terrorize us all. (Though it could be just a matter of time.)

Capitalizing on Conspiracy

Though people can’t take a casual stroll to Area 51, neighboring towns make the most out of the area’s reputation. Tourists who visit the place would do well to stop by Rachel, a small nearby town who knows all about monetizing the rumors circling the place.

 

Nevada has been even more shameless and called State Route 375 (the nearby highway) the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” People driving on that road would do well to look out for any irregular lights in the night sky.

Historically Speaking

The Area 51 airfield was originally established during World War II in 1941. At first, it was named the “Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field”, which is not half as cryptic as Area 51 if you ask us…

 

This initial airfield was pretty humble. It only had two runways, which were unpaved and 5,000 feet long each. Modern airports would laugh and point at these baby runways if they could.

Change Your Name Change Your Life

Over the years, Area 51 has been experimenting with lots of different names, some better than others.

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“Watertown” was one of the more mundane names, but the ones we liked best are “Paradise Ranch” and “Dreamland”. Giving a military base a name befitting of a candy factory? It doesn’t get better than that.

Behind Paradise Ranch

The man behind the suggested name of “Paradise Ranch” is Kelly Johnson. This man is one of the few people who were lucky enough to see the inside of Area 51. He worked as a designer on the first Area 51 projects — the Lockheed’s U-2 aircraft.

 

He suggested the name “Paradise Ranch” as a way of making the place sound more appealing to potential workers so they would agree to relocate and make the place what it is today. Honestly, a military base does sound a little better when you give it the name of an amusement park.

Fighting Boredom

Today’s layout of Area 51 is a monster comparing to what it used to be in the 1950s. Back then, other than two unpaved runways, the perimeter had a control tower, three hangars, a few shelters, and trailers for the staff to live in.

 

This glorified campsite was later added a couple more attractions to keep the live-in crew at least somewhat entertained. Among those attractions are a volleyball court and a movie theater. We wonder if the cinema only features alien films…

Fences — Out, Signs — In

You would think that a place with such an aura of national security would be a little more… well, secure.

 

As it turns out, Area 51 doesn’t have any walls or security fences around its perimeter. There are plenty of signs warning you not to go any further or take any pictures, but that’s about it.

The Absurdity

Just for the sake of covering the subject of conspiracy theories, here are a few of the most absurd ones we’ve heard about Area 51.

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While you probably won’t find any reptilian overlords here, some people believe that this is where the government studies alien spacecraft, controls the weather control, and develops time travel. We doubt any of it is true but we would love to hear more just to be humored.

The Cinematics of It All

The mystery, rumors, and conspiracy theories circling Area 51 have inspired numerous filmmakers, especially American ones.

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References, parodies, and artistic depictions of the place can be found in decades of cinematic history. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, “The Signal”, and “Escape From Planet Earth” are just a drop in the bucked of Area 51 films.

Flying Under the Radar

Back in the 1950s, when Area 51 served as a home for the Lockheed program, the crew that worked on it had to be regularly flown in and out of the perimeter. Those many flights were problematic in terms of secrecy.

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They then developed a stealthy flight schedule to keep them from being noticed: the crew flew into the facility on early Mondays and left it late on Fridays. The general assumption was that people are generally too busy with weekend plans to notice suspicious flights happening overhead. Do you not look up on weekends?

The Makeover

1959’s Project OXCART met different conditions than it’s predecessor, the Lockheed A-12. Among other things, the OXCART was meant to test the Lockheed A-12 aircraft and train with it. It was made possible thanks to a new and improved 8,500-foot runway.

 

Before this new runway was introduced, the base had runways that were unpaved and thousands of feet shorter. Talk about an extreme makeover!

The 1961 Renovations

In 1961, the Area 51 perimeter went through extensive renovations. Many of the old buildings were replaced or repurposed, and some new buildings were added to the party.

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The facility was also introduced to three surplus Navy hangars and a reservoir pond surrounded with trees. The staff housing was upgraded from a handful of trailers to 130 Babbitt duplexes. How luxurious!

Joking With Google

In September 2019, Google Maps jumped on the internet joke calling on people to storm Area 51. No, Google didn’t encourage people to threaten national security, but it did add a little easter egg.

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Those who tried to find Area 51 on Google Maps’ satellite view, were surprised to see that the cursor hovering over the place has turned from an arrow into an itty-bitty spaceship!

The Stephen King Angle

Among the many films inspired by Area 51, there is an old TV movie called “Trucks”. The film is based on one of Stephen King’s short stories and features aliens. Obviously.

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The aliens in the story land in the deserts of Nevada and threaten mankind by turning all of their cars into blood-thirsty monsters. Sounds like a cinematic masterpiece.

Growing Bigger

Area 51 has come a long way since it was first established way back in the 1940s. What started as a gravel field with an airplane or two, is now so much more than that.

 

The most expansive additions and renovation projects happened in 1983, 1995, and 2015. As of the next project planned — we could tell you but then we would have to kill you.

More Land

The 2015 expansion included Area 51 taking over more land. The land in question used to be in the possession of a local family from Nevada for more than a century!

 

Since the land was close enough to see the base, it was deemed a national security threat by a federal judge. The family had to sign over the ownership to the US Air Force and look for other military bases to spy on.

Oh, the Horror

Remember the film “The Blair Witch Project” from 1999? Of course you do. Did you know that a similar horror film by the unoriginal name of “Area 51” was made in 2015? Probably not.

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The film tells the story of a group of friends who infiltrate Area 51 (shocking, right?) to find answers about the abduction of one of them. Are there any little green men making an appearance? We’ll live it to you to find out.

The Angry Video Game Nerd

Nobody calls James Rolfe by his name. Well, maybe his mother does, but that’s not the issue. Most people know him as the Angry Video Game Nerd. His videos have a collective view count of more than 1.5 billion!

 

So what does he have to do with Area 51? Well, Rolfe used the money he made online to create an Area-51-themed movie involving his online persona. Critics weren’t exactly unanimous about “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie”, but it enjoys an insane amount of online fans.

A Fateful Memo

In 1974, William Colby, The director of the CIA at the time, got a panic-inducing memo. According to the memo, astronauts on the Skylab space station took pictures of a location that is sensitive to the CIA.

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Obviously, the CIA wanted the pictures classified right away for national security reasons. The Agency debated over the issue with Skylab at length, in what became known as the “Skylab Incident”, but no one knows the ultimate results of the debate. We’d like to see the pictures and decide for ourselves if you don’t mind.

Putting Two and Two Together

Dwayne A. Day is a space historian. (Apparently, it’s a thing.) He took a special interest in the mysterious pictures taken from Skylab space station. The debate around the subject never mentions Area 51 by name, but he was convinced that this is what’s shown in the astronauts’ pictures. At the time of the Skylab Incident, the government didn’t even confirm that Area 51 even existed!

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Day ended up publishing an article titled “Astronauts and Area 51: the Skylab Incident” in an online magazine called “The Space Review” in 2006. Such determination!

Mining Away

Before Area 51 occupied the land currently housing it, there was occupied by the Groome Lead Mines Limited. This English mining company mined silver and lead around what we know today as Groom Lake. (Can you guess how the lake got its name?)

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Groome Lead Mines Limited was a key player in the mining industry during the 1870s.

Just Like Monopoly

The mines around modern-day Area 51 were active for nearly a hundred years, during which the ownership changed hands. After Groome Lead Mines Limited, the next owners were J. B. Osborne and his partners.

 

Apart from a temporary shut-down in 1918, the mines had a pretty steady run. They closed permanently in the 1950s, making way for Area 51 and a plethora of conspiracy theories.

“Independence Day”

In 1996, the sci-fi film “Independence Day” came out and became a pop-culture staple. The film triggered renewed interest in Area 51 and the alien theories circling it.

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In the film, the White House is destroyed by ill-intended alien invaders, and the good guys use Area 51 as their new home base. Not exactly a documentary, but still thoroughly entertaining.

Not Going for the Obvious

The sci-fi drama, “The X-Files” is a TV show that ran from 1993 to 2002. It was a huge hit at the time and featured a couple of FBI agents dealing with anything mysterious and out-of-the-ordinary.

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Still, despite extensively dealing with paranormal activity, the show didn’t deal with Area 51 like you’d expect it to. It did, however, feature a poster of the film “Independence Day” at some point. They were probably trying to steer clear of cliches, and judging by their cult following — it worked out in their favor.

Area 51 and the Cold War

Nowadays drones are practically toys. In 1960, however, Area 51 was only starting to discuss unmanned aircraft as a possible project.

 

The idea was suggested after a U-2 aircraft was downed by the Soviets, along with pilot Greg Powers inside it. This tragedy escalated the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. If only they knew how common these little gadgets are now…

Bob’s Your Uncle

One of the main people who can take credit for alien-related rumors about Area 51 is Bob Lazar. In 1989, Lazar came out claiming he worked in Area 51 as a physicist and can vouch for the existence of aliens.

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In fact, Lazar claimed to have seen government documents stating that humans on Earth have been interacting with aliens for more than 10,000 years. We want to believe him. We really do.

Alien Documentary

Believe your conspiracy theories or not, the fact is that Area 51 is completely ingrained into pop culture by now. And while people can talk all they want about mysterious lights in the sky, the thing that triggers our curiosity the most is the fact that the US government was refusing to acknowledge the place even existed. (Sure, that will make the place less interesting…)

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Bob Lazar’s tell-all documentary about what he claims to have seen as a physicist in Area 51 came out in 2018. The film is called “Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers” and is narrated by Mickey Rourke. You decide if it adds credibility or not.

Area 51? Never Heard of It…

An official CIA acknowledgment of Area 51’s existence came in 2013. The CIA released a 400-page document to George Washington University’s National Security Archive and people could finally point their fingers at it and say “I KNEW IT!”

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Still, the document doesn’t confirm any of the alien-related rumors or conspiracies around the place. But think about it — would you tell people if you had an alien encounter? Probably not…

The Video Game

In 2005, Area 51 was given the highest degree of respect when Midway Games designed a game after it. (And aptly named it “Area 51”.) Those who play the game can fight aliens and other creatures that aren’t 100% human. Sci-fi fun for all!

 

Interestingly, this game isn’t the first of its kind. In 1995, ten years prior, a similar game of the same name was released and even had celebrities voicing the characters! Among those famous names, you can find Powers Boothe, Marilyn Manson, and David Duchovny from “The X Files”.

Stop or I’ll Shoot

Area 51 may not be fenced in, but it wouldn’t be smart of you to venture in past the warning signs. The perimeter is secured with armed guards who won’t hesitate to use their weapons on trespassers.

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These aren’t just rumors — a former guard of Area 51 said he had full authority to do that when he worked there. We wonder if aliens are affected by bullets in the same way people are…

An Internet Craze

In July 2019, the internet was insanely buzzing over Area 51. It all started with a little joke calling people to storm the facility, and somehow it reached global proportions.

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People all over the world expressed their satirical interest in invading the base. There was even a Facebook event scheduled and everything! They even got a response out of the US military: “The US Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets.” Not very exciting, but still good to hear.

Not an Invasion Per-Se

While no one really invaded Area 51 in the summer of 2019, the issue did turn into a huge event. Nevada has seen 1,500-3,000 people showing up at local festivals, some of which traveled great distances to be there.

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About 150 people actually got near the gates of Area 51, including a group of 40 people who had to get dispersed by authorities. Thankfully, no one got hurt, but five people were arrested.

Cracked the Code

Getting into Area 51 may prove difficult, and not only because of the armed guards around the perimeter. The desert roads around the place are often empty, which makes you wonder how the workers of the base commute there.

 

Well, they don’t use cars, we can tell you that much. All employees travel in and out of the base do it on planes that shuttle them to and from a restricted terminal in McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. The code name for the restricted terminal is “Gold Coast”. Sounds fancy!

The Non-Existent Airline

So the Area 51 employees travel in and out of it via airplanes that go to a restricted terminal. But did you know the airline they use is also confidential?

 

The top-secret planes of this airline have no identifying marks on them but a single red stripe along their side. The airline also enjoys a fun code name: “Janet”, which stands for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal”.

Soviet Secrets

Area 51 became highly active and important during the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union were constantly trying to one-up each other and learn about each other’s technological developments.

 

When the US managed to capture a Soviet aircraft, they would immediately take it to Area 51 and study it. This was done on other military bases too, but then again, other military bases don’t have alien rumors buzzing around them.

U-2, but Not the Band

The Lockheed U-2 is one of the most famous aircraft designed in Area 51. Kelly Johnson is one of the key designers to work on it and is still famous for it in his field.

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The dry desert air is very good for aircraft maintenance as it helps prevent corrosion. This is why Area 51 was the main training and testing ground (well, air, but you get it) for the Lockheed project.

New Superheroes?

There are way too many superheroes whose story begins at their encounter with a mysterious chemical. We were pretty close to having some real-life superheroes like that in 1994, only their encounter with the chemicals had different outcomes.

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That year, five contractors who worked at Area 51, plus two widows of two more contractors, filed a lawsuit against the US Air Force and the US Environmental Protection Agency. They claimed that during their work on the base, they were exposed to unknown chemicals which badly affected their bodies, causing skin and liver diseases, and respiratory problems. Sadly, there were no superheroes there.

The Demand

The plaintiffs of the lawsuit from 1994 demanded financial compensation for the health issues and deaths caused by the protocol the employees were forced to follow.

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Other than that, they wanted to know more about the classified chemicals so they could better treat their side effects. The Air Force, on its end, argued that releasing such information would be a national security threat.

Settling the Lawsuit

The matter of the contractors/US military lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. The reason was lack of evidence, and the case has even seen direct intervention from President Clinton!

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The then-president decided to exempt Area 51 from disclosing such environmental information. This exception hasn’t changed since, and keeps being is renewed once a year by the US president.

It’s Simpler Than You Think

The U-2 aircraft was often used for tests and training around Area 51 when it was first developed. Back then, in the 1950s, a plane that could fly at a height of 60,000 feet was pretty unusual, as it was so much higher than any other aircraft around.

 

When flying that high around sunset, sunbeams reflect off the plane’s metal wings… See where we’re going with this? Those lights in the sky are the reason for all the UFO sightings around the area!

The U2 Connection

Okay, so one of the major projects to have happened at Area 51 is the U-2 project, which developed the U-2 Lockheed aircraft. The project is pretty famous, although not as famous as U2 — the rock band named after it.

 

Apparently, the band can’t get enough of Area 51, and has another connection to it: the Tikaboo Valley, which is located on the Area 51 perimeter, is the only place in the world where you can find two types of the Joshua tree. Ring any bells? That’s because the band named its fifth studio album “The Joshua Tree”!

Airplanes’ Paradise

Area 51’s location makes it ideal for an airforce base. The Nevada desert enjoys a dry climate that keeps the aircraft from getting corrosion, but that’s not the only reason.

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When Kelly Johnson was looking for a testing ground for the Lockheed project, he flew over Groom Lake and couldn’t believe his luck — the lake was naturally smooth enough to be used as a landing ground. As Johnson put it, the lake was “as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it”.

Guardians of the Area

The guards patrolling around the perimeter of Area 51 might remind you of the Queen’s guards. Well, only if you try to speak to them, that is. Locally known as “cammo dudes”, they will not answer any of the questions you might have.

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Visually, they couldn’t look more different than the guards at Buckingham Palace. They drive around the perimeter in pickup trucks and wear camouflage uniforms that the Queen’s guards wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Going Under

You would expect an airforce base to have most of its operations… well… in the air. Surprisingly, though, a lot of Area 51’s operations are actually done underground.

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All that underground activity resulted in some more conspiracy theories. Some of the wildest ones include the existence of a transcontinental underground railroad system (which would be pretty neat) and the secret storage room containing alien spacecraft or bodies.

“Dreamland”

In 1996, a documentary titled “Dreamland” was released. The film was directed by Bruce Burgess and featured an elderly mechanical engineer who says he used to work at Area 51 in its early days.

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The man mentions an outer-space creature named J-Rod who used to work with him, as well as an extraterrestrial spacecraft he worked on. According to him, he and J-Rod communicated through “telepathic translation”. Next time you see J-Rod, give him a telepathing high-five from us, will you?

Science or Fiction?

The alien named J-Rod is mentioned in more than one testimony. In 2004, Dan Burisch (later known as Dan Crain) claimed to be a former Area 51 employee. According to him, he cloned alien viruses at Area 51 as part of his job, and one of his coworkers was J-Rod the alien.

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Many have doubted Dan’s credibility as his academic background was… let’s call it inconsistent. Apparently, in 1989 he was both working in Las Vegas and studying for a Ph.D. in New York. Maybe J-Rod taught him how to teleport?