Area 51: From Roswell rumours to the present day

Sign saying 'Area 51' on a chain-link fence
Image: Shutterstock.com

Area 51. The name itself immediately conjures images of aliens, armed personnel guarding the perimeter of a facility deep in the desert, and bunkers filled with who-knows-what. So much about this large region of Nevada, northwest of Las Vegas, is a mystery. With any movement there completely under government control and the area resolutely closed to the public, all kinds of theories - some wild and some not-so-wild - have sprung up about what has taken place over the past 65 years. Most of the theories involve alien life forms and extraterrestrial research - but what is the actual truth?

It has been approximately nine years since the US government acknowledged Area 51’s existence for the first time, so it’s time to take a look at the timeline of events surrounding the US Air Force’s most mysterious military installation.

The story begins in 1954. President Dwight Eisenhower called for a confidential location to be established for aircraft to be developed and tested for espionage purposes. At that point, the possibility of nuclear war was driving the American military, and creating effective spy planes was a high priority so that the security forces could understand how much of a threat Russia’s weapons capability posed to the West.

Work had already begun in the area - the U-2 reconnaissance plane had been created by 1955 - and then later, under Public Land Order 1662, the 38,400-acre land area that comprises the area was withdrawn from public use by the US Atomic Energy Commission in 1958. Public entry was strictly prohibited and armed guards prevented those who were curious from breaching its borders.

Whilst the US was preparing these specialised aircraft and flying them deep into Russian territory without detection, theories about alternative operations happening deep within the facility began to surface. Rumours had previously abounded that a UFO had crash-landed in Roswell in 1947 and many speculated that the wreckage was being re-engineered in the bunker known as Area 51, deep inside the Nevada Test & Training Range. From there, the extraterrestrial theories began to grow for decades to come.

Throughout the rest of the late 1950s, further developments were made which resulted in the A12 aircraft being created, as well as the F117 stealth jet.

Things became quieter on the topic until the 1970s, with the speculation over other-worldly research being something of a niche interest in the interim period. In that decade, it was determined that the location wasn’t secure enough, with Deputy Director of Central Intelligence E.H. Knoche to General David C. Jones declaring that the facility should be moved from management by the CIA to the Air Force.

Once again, things went a little quiet. Then, in 1989, what was once a niche interest truly became public domain when an individual named Bob Lazar exposed details about Area 51, claiming that he had worked there to reverse engineer “a downed alien spacecraft” - though the veracity of his claims couldn’t be confirmed. At this point, Area 51 became a watchword for government secrecy and the existence of alien life on Earth.

Possibly as an attempt to reverse swelling interest in confidential affairs, the US government released a statement in 1994 claiming the wreckage in Roswell in the 1940s came from Project Mogul - a very much terrestrial weather experiment. However, these claims only reduced public trust in the government’s statements on the subject, and the theories continued to spread.

Conjecture on the true purpose of Area 51 was only made more vigorous when President Bill Clinton exempted the facility from laws surrounding the movement and disposal of hazardous waste in 1996. Naturally, UFOlogists wondered what that hazardous waste might be - and whether it was of this planet. This continued to be an issue until the early part of the 21st century when in 2003 President George W Bush once again signed off on exempting it from the hazardous waste laws.

There was little news on the facility for nearly 10 years and then, in 2012 - a year prominent in the mind of many conspiracy theorists due to the end of the Mayan calendar - the confidential Pentagon department known as the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was shut down. The following year in 2013, the CIA finally admitted that the area was indeed a secret government facility.

In the following years, ex-Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spoke casually of their interest in the topic in public, on talk shows, and at public engagements. Hillary Clinton also expressed her curiosity during her failed Presidential campaign, but no new details emerged from anywhere official.

The most recent events surrounding Area 51 occurred in 2019 when public interest reached a sudden fever pitch. An event was arranged online, jokingly referred to as “Storm Area 51, They Can't Stop All of Us", with Facebook users signing up to take part in a civilian rebellion to “find them aliens”. Thankfully this resulted in little more than a skirmish, with only two arrests for disorderly conduct.

Since then we’ve seen a dip in interest in the secretive Air Force base once again. However, this quiet period is unlikely to last long as public curiosity regarding this byword for clandestine government operations is never far away. People truly do seem to believe that, as far as Area 51 is concerned, the truth is out there.