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Area 51 Revealed

by Steven Novella, Aug 19 2013

Area 51 is more than just a subject of UFO conspiracy mongering, it has graduated to a fixture in pop culture. Everyone knows what Area 51 is, or at least what it’s supposed to be. Mention crops up in movies, such as Independence Day.

According to the CIA this facility’s official name is the much less alluring, Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake, a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base. It is part of a 23 x 25 mile area of restricted air space. For decades there have rumors that Area 51 is a secret base where the US government has recovered alien spacecraft and conducts research on those craft.

The government denies these claims, but has never said what Area 51 is really for. It has never been mentioned in any public document, and documents obtained through any freedom of information act (FOI) request have never mentioned Area 51 (any possible mention being redacted).

George Washington University’s National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson made a FOI request in 2005 for information on the U-2 spy plane program. He received a 400 page reports entitled, “”Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and Oxcart Programs, 1954-1974.” In this document the name Area 51 is no longer redacted – it is mentioned as the base at which the U2 was developed and tested.

The document confirms what UFO skeptics have been saying for decades – sure, Area 51 exists and it is shrouded in government secrecy. However, the US must have some secret air bases where they test new aircraft and from which they launch their spy planes. There has never been any evidence of alien spacecraft or advanced technology emerging from the study of alien artifacts. Lacking any evidence for an alien phenomenon, mundane government spying is the more likely explanation.

Of course, this will not end UFO conspiracy theories, involving Area 51 or otherwise. If you believe the government is covering up aliens then no government explanation will convince you otherwise. This in itself is reasonable, once you buy the conspiracy, of course.

The need for government secrecy surrounding spy programs has likely generated a great deal of UFO and conspiracy belief. In the early days of the U2 program, this high-flying spy plane was responsible for a sharp increase in UFO sightings. The government, of course, could not explain what the sightings actually were. At times they tried to explain them away as natural phenomena – transparently implausible explanations that just lent more credence to the conspiracy theories.

At other times they allowed belief in aliens to provide the cover for their secret programs. They likely have had different feeling about this strategy over the years. I can imagine that some argued this strategy backfired when belief in UFOs became a huge phenomenon, driving thousands of curious UFO investigators to probe even further into the government’s secrets.

For example, Area 51 is a popular destination for UFO seekers. They cannot get into the restricted base itself, but they hover on the fringe taking pictures and videos, hoping to catch a glimpse of a flying saucer.

Another example of a secret government program being mistaken for a UFO cover up is Roswell. To quickly summarize this long and now famous story, in 1947 a Rancher found debris from an unusual crashed object. The government recovered all the debris and tried to cover up the incident, however an inexperienced press officer released a statement that a “flying saucer” was recovered, before the big boys showed up.

For years the Air Force had no good explanation for what they found, leading to the huge Roswell crashed saucer cover up phenomenon. In 1994, however, the Air Force finally fessed up – the crashed object was part of a secret spy program, Project Mogul, in which the Air Force was using weather balloons and modified corner reflectors to spy on Soviet nuclear testing.

The reaction to this revelation was predictable – skeptics said, “Of course,” while conspiracy theorists scoffed.


For the foreseeable future there is going to be government secrecy. They will need to keep military secrets and there will always be a shroud of secrecy surrounding their espionage and intelligence activity.

Secrecy, of course, is the enemy of science and open inquiry. I can sympathize with those who are uneasy with such high levels of government secrecy, and I can understand how it breeds suspicion.

We therefore have to keep a delicate balance between necessary secrecy and the need for proper oversight and public trust. We do have mechanisms for oversight by elected officials, and the public also has some rights, such as those spelled out in the Freedom of Information Act. But as long as the government is allowed to keep secrets, there will be conspiracy theorists imaginatively filling in the gaps.

15 Responses to “Area 51 Revealed”

  1. Jim Howard says:

    I agree with this entry, but please, there is no organization called the ‘airforce’.

    We have a U.S. ‘Air Force’, two words, capitalized since it is a proper name.

  2. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    Bogus UFO sightings were not the first Groom Lake deception.
    During World War 2, the Army Air Force secretly tested their first jet, the Bell XP-59 Airacomet, there. On the ground, they were fitted with dummy propellers. In the air, they sometimes encountered pilots from nearby bases in conventional piston-engined planes. The test pilots took to doing silly things, wearing funny hats, or gorilla masks along with big cigars, and flying inverted.
    An accidental witness would be very cautious about announcing that he was passed by an upside-down propellerless plane with a cigar-chomping gorilla at the controls.

  3. Matt Lennon says:

    The Minor League baseball team in Las Vegas are named the ’51s’ in reference to this perhaps-not-too-mysterious location. Their logo is the familiar alien head, and I understand the team has some tongue in cheek fun with UFOs, govt. conspiracies, etc. I must say, the caps look pretty cool.

  4. Max says:

    “It has never been mentioned in any public document, and documents obtained through any freedom of information act (FOI) request have never mentioned Area 51 (any possible mention being redacted).”

    Incorrect. Some of them mentioned it accidentally.
    “Richelson said he could recall at least two previous government documents in which an incidental reference to Area 51 appeared, but he assumed those were inadvertent because they were devoid of any other details or context.”

    This might be one of them, released in 2007 as I recall. See the second paragraph. It’s redacted everywhere else in that document.

  5. Max says:

    Why would the U-2 be responsible for a sharp increase in UFO sightings? I assume it didn’t have lights on at night. Was it just reflecting the sun at twilight and seemed to hover because of its high altitude? It didn’t move fast or pull maneuvers.

  6. Max says:

    There goes Annie Jacobsen’s theory, based on an anonymous source in his 90s, that the real secret of Area 51 is that it was founded in 1951, not 1955, to test the Commie Nazi flying saucer from Roswell.

    Even though an aerial photo of Groom Lake from 1952 shows no Area 51 base.

  7. Max says:

    “According to the CIA this facility’s official name is the much less alluring, Nevada Test and Training Range at Groom Lake, a remote detachment of Edwards Air Force Base.”

    But they don’t say it’s a detachment of Edwards, do they?

  8. madscientist says:

    Even if the government had no secrets there’d still be conspiracy theorists. Any trivial thing can be turned into a conspiracy.

  9. Max says:

    Amazing that the SR-71 was retired, but the U-2 is still in use and competing with the Global Hawk drone.

  10. Liam says:

    Thank you Steven for your excellent posts here; I was drawn to the site from your Great Courses class on topics such as these. I am so glad that you leave politics out of your writing, thus strengthening your argument and keeping this site respectable – unlike some of your colleagues that write here. Keep up the good work.

  11. Don says:

    In the 1990’s there was a lawsuit brought by various people connected to area 51 over chemical exposure resulting in some deaths. Why have recent articles about Groom Lake not mentioned this?