15 Far-Out Facts About Area 51
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Area 51 FactsArea 51. The name conjures an aura of secrecy, mystery, and of course, extraterrestrial happenings. Indeed, the military installation — located about 80 miles (129 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada — is the site of secretive military testing. So what do we really know about Area 51, myths and conspiracies aside? Here are 15 facts you can hang your hat on.
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What's in a name?Area 51 is just the sort of bureaucratic military jargon that sounds like the basis for a vast conspiracy. Where, after all, are Areas 1 through 50? In fact, the name comes from designations on Nevada Test Site maps from the 1950s. Area 51 is part of the Nevada Test Site (now known as the Nevada National Security Site), a remote area of desert 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of Las Vegas. It was the Nevada Test Site that hosted hundreds of nuclear weapons tests starting in the 1950s, almost 100 of which were above ground.
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Conspiracy CentralActual nuclear tests apparently aren't scary enough. Area 51's major claim to fame is as an alleged extraterrestrial technology research site. It all started in July 1947, when the Roswell Daily Record's front-page headline screamed "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region." The U.S. military claimed the unidentified crashing object was just a weather balloon; conspiracy theorists insisted it was an alien spacecraft which was then taken from the Roswell ranch property to Area 51 for reverse-engineering. And perhaps there was a large-eyed alien "gray" inside? In September 1994, the Air Force released a report with a fuller story: The wreckage was indeed a balloon, but not an ordinary weather balloon. Instead, it was an atomic monitoring balloon meant to detect far-off nuclear testing blasts.
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Delayed UFO ClaimsDespite the headline-making balloon crash in 1947, Area 51 didn't really get its extraterrestrial reputation until the late 1980s, when a man named Robert Lazar told a Las Vegas television station that he worked at a mysterious site called S-4 near Area 51 to reverse-engineer crashed flying saucers. This caused quite a stir, but Lazar was later found to have fabricated his employment not only on the base, but his entire background: He claims to have graduated from MIT and Caltech but actually went to neither, and he also claims to have worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory, which also turned out to be false.
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No visitorsArea 51 is on the map, but good luck actually getting there. It's a restricted area, with armed guards patrolling the fences around the parameter. They're colloquially known as "Camo dudes" because that's what they wear when on the job. Given the testing of stealth aircraft on the site, this kind of secrecy isn't very surprising. However, the guards may be the ones who are most affected by the military silence surrounding the site. Guards have sought compensation for breathing problems they say they've experienced since being exposed to toxic chemicals from the burning of the coatings meant to shield aircraft from radar.
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Another conspiracy?As if crashed UFOs weren't enough, some conspiracy theorists also think that Area 51 is where the moon landing was staged. In the 1974 book, "We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle," conspiracy theorist Bill Kaysing argues that NASA astronauts never made it to space and that all the footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the lunar surface was filmed at Area 51.
Of course, the moon landing wasn't faked — The six Apollo missions even brought back 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of moon rock as souvenirs. Some space equipment, like rovers and life support systems, were tested in Nevada at a nearby nuclear testing site, however.
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Air Force affiliationOfficially, Area 51 is part of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), which is affiliated with Nellis Air Force Base. According to the Air Force, the NTTR is the largest combined air and ground space for peacetime military operations in any democracy in the world. It covers a total of 2.9 million acres (1.2 million hectacres) and 5,000 square miles (12,950 square km) of restricted airspace.
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What's it really for?The Nevada Test and Training Range is used to train aircraft crews in combat scenarios and for live munitions training, according to the Air Force, as well as operational testing. In the past, the site has been used to test and develop new helicopters, airplanes, unmanned drones and other top-secret military technologies. One of these was the famous U-2 spy plane, an ultra-high altitude aircraft used for reconnaissance. This plane's very first flight took place at Area 51 (officially known as Groom Lake) in August 1955.
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Paradise in the DesertDuring Area 51's heyday as a testing site for the U-2 and other secretive military tech, engineer Kelly Johnson came up with a deft bit of rebranding to convince government workers and their families to pick up and move to the middle of the desert, according to TIME Magazine. He nicknamed the place "Paradise Ranch." It's paradise indeed — if you like desert scrubland and temperatures that regularly hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees C) in the summer.
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Secrecy yields conspiracyMany of the conspiracy theories that surround Area 51 are the result of the government's need to keep the base secret. The alleged UFO may have been "just" a nuclear reconnaissance balloon, but the Air Force didn't want the public to know much about their spy capabilities either. Many of the alleged UFO sightings around the base were known by Air Force officials to be U2 test flights, which flummoxed hobby and commercial pilots because they flew so high above regular air traffic, according to declassified CIA history. Air Force officials obfuscated what was going on with statements about "natural phenomena" and "high-altitude weather research."
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Continued activityAfter the U-2 plane program, Area 51 remained a testing ground for other spy planes, such as the Lockheed A-12 Oxcart and the D-21 Tagboard, according to NBC News. Today, the site is still used. Google Earth views show neatly kept runways and a small, orderly cluster of buildings, and in some views there is evidence of new construction over the past decade.
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Tourist TrapCivilians can drive up to the front and back gates of Area 51, but don't try to get in — trespassing can result in arrest and up to an $1,000 fine, six months in prison, or both, which bold red signs around the base parameter make very clear. Tourists can get their kicks in nearby Rachel, Nevada, which boasts on its website a human population of 98 and an alien population of "??" There's no gas station in Rachel, and the trailer that billed itself the Area 51 Research Center has shut down, but visitors can enjoy a meal at the Little A'le'Inn and stay at the conspiracy-focused Dreamland Resort.
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More MysteryIn 2016, Google Earth images revealed a mysterious mile-long landing strip in Area 6 of the Yucca Flat test site, about 12 miles (19 km) northeast of Area 51. A handful of hangars cluster at one end of the runway. Nothing is known about exactly what the is being tested at the airstrip, but the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security both use the site. Security experts told Live Science that the site might be used to test reconnaissance drones and their sensors.
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Captured AircraftThere may be no good evidence that the military captured and studied UFOs at Area 51, but files declassified in 2013 revealed that the U.S. did test "secretly obtained" Soviet MiG fighters during the Cold War of the 1970s and 1980s. These secretive projects were dubbed HAVE DOUGHNUT, HAVE DRILL and HAVE FERRY.
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Other SecretsThose same documents were the ones that revealed that Area 51 (or Groom Lake, for those who prefer the official terminology) was a testing site for the Lockheed A-12 Oxcart and the D-21 Tagboard. They also revealed that the F-117 Nighthawk, a stealth attack aircraft made by Lockheed, was tested at Area 51. That craft started operating in 1981 but was kept secret from the public until 1988. Nighthawks were flown in the Gulf War and during the war in Yugoslavia as well as in the Iraq war.
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Hillary Clinton's PromisesOh, what could have been? During the 2016 race to secure the Democratic nomination for president, candidate Hillary Clinton said she'd like to make more files about Area 51 public. "I would like us to go into those files and hopefully make as much of that public as possible. If there's nothing there, let's tell people there's nothing there," Clinton told Jimmy Kimmel on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" in August of that year. Clinton told Kimmel that her husband Bill Clinton had looked for information on government knowledge of extraterrestrials during his presidency and come up with nothing.