Back in 1955, according to a recently declassified CIA report, a trio of secret operatives scouted the western U.S. for a remote place where the government could test the prototype of the U-2 spy plane. One day, they flew over the Groom Lake salt flat in Nevada, and found exactly were looking for — an old abandoned Army Air Corps airstrip that was just 100 miles (161 km) from Las Vegas, yet so far off the beaten path that it didn't even have a name. On government maps, the place was designated nondescriptly as Area 51 of the Nevada Test Site. For decades, officials tried to avoid even acknowledging the top-secret base's existence, let alone revealing anything about the secret military aerospace research that took place there [source: Stuster].
Nevertheless, it was hard to keep things totally hush-hush after airline pilots started reporting mysterious sightings of UFOs [source: Stuster]. Area 51 gradually evolved into what a 2009 Los Angeles Times article called "the most famous military institution in the world that doesn't officially exist" [source: Jacobsen]. Amateur investigators camped, methodically scanning the sky with binoculars in hopes of catching a glimpse of the secret goings-on [source: Ball]. In 2010, after some declassification, former Area 51 employees were able to publicly talk about some of the exotic projects they'd worked on [source: Lacitis].
But the actual, documented secrets of Area 51 turn out to be pretty ho-hum compared to the pop-culture mythology that has developed around the place. Area 51's classified nature made it the perfect blank slate for generations of conspiracy theorists. Here are 10 of their more outlandish assertions.
The Government Reverse-Engineers Alien Spacecraft There
Back in 1989, a man named Bob Lazar claimed that he'd been hired to work briefly as a researcher at a part of Area 51 called S-4, which was so secretive that he and other workers were taken there in a bus with blacked-out windows, so that they couldn't discern the route.
In the hangars at S-4, Lazar claimed, he saw flying saucers, apparently extraterrestrial in origin. They were powered by antimatter reactors, fueled by a mysterious reddish-orange substance called Element 115. The device generated a "gravity wave" so powerful that if you threw a golf ball in its direction, the ball would bounce off, Lazar recounted [source: Patton]. The government was attempting to reverse-engineer the UFOs, in an effort to use the technology for military purposes. Lazar said he was fired from the job after he was caught taking friends out into the desert at night so they could watch test flights of the captured saucers [source: Birnes]. Lazar's Area 51 credentials later came into question [source: Patton].
But the larger notion that the Pentagon is actually stealing all its fancy gadgetry — from stealth aircraft to Kevlar — from alien inventors is just too deliciously conspiratorial to go away [source: Time].
It's an Interrogation Center for Captured Aliens
In the imaginations of conspiracy theorists, one of Area 51's functions is to serve as the equivalent of the prison for accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. The difference is that the detainees are extraterrestrials, and they don't have to wear orange jumpsuits or listen to loud heavy-metal rock when they're trying to sleep. This thesis is burnished by another of self-described Area 51 scientist Bob Lazar's revelations. He has recalled that while being guided down a hallway at S-4, he momentarily glanced through a small window and caught a glimpse of a small, gray extraterrestrial standing between two men dressed in white coats. Before he could get a better look, he was pushed by a guard who told him to stop looking and keep moving [source: Jacobsen].
Another self-styled whistleblower, "Victor," who also claimed to have worked at Area 51, said in a 1997 radio interview that he had witnessed an alien interrogation, and even provided a grainy video which supposedly shows a human officer trying to communicate telepathically with an diminutive extraterrestrial pilot who'd been shot down by the U.S. military [source: UFO Casebook].
Autopsies of Dead Aliens Take Place at Area 51
This idea has been percolating in popular culture since the mid-1990s, when a 17-minute black-and-white film surfaced which purported to show a team of humans in white bio-hazard protection suits cutting open and removing organs from what appeared to be a tiny alien corpse [source: Corliss]. The footage aired on TV in multiple countries and copies became a popular mail-order item, even though skeptics noted that the team performing the dissection seemed to be incredibly clumsy with their surgical tools. Years later, the film's producers released a documentary sequel, in which they admitted to faking the autopsy — though they claimed to have done it only to replace genuine footage that had been damaged [source: Nickell].
But believers can draw comfort, perhaps, from other purported Area 51 autopsy videos that have since surfaced, such as the 2012 DVD "Alien from Area 51: The Alien Autopsy Footage Revealed" which entices the curious with a "Warning: Graphic Material" label [source: IMDB]. Another bit of suspect footage surfaced in 2014, purportedly showing a partially dissected 4-foot-tall (122 cm) alien with a severed, insect-like head [source: Shammas].
It's the Headquarters of the Secret One-World Government
If you're into conspiracy theories with a truly grand sweep, Area 51 is a convenient place to pull all of the threads together. That's why some speculate that the test range is the logical place for the location of Majestic 12 [source: Cook]. The latter, if you buy the narrative laid out by an anonymous author on the conspiracy site Educate-Yourself.org, is a secret government committee that has been laboring in the shadows for more than six decades to work out an arrangement for a one-world government in which the planet would jointly be ruled by human and extraterrestrial elites.
MJ-12, as conspiracy junkies refer to it, supposedly started as a blue-ribbon panel of scientists and military leaders created by President Harry Truman in 1947, shortly after the crash of an alien spacecraft near Roswell, New Mexico. As the story goes, MJ-12 somehow eventually made contact with the aliens and brokered a meeting between them and President Dwight Eisenhower. That, in turn, resulted in a deal in which the U.S. government got extraterrestrial technology, in exchange for looking the other way when UFO crews mutilated cattle and abducted humans to conduct weird experiments on them [source: Jacobson].
The 1969 Moon Landing Was Staged at Area 51
In a scenario proposed by conspiracy writer Bill Kaysing, NASA scientists discovered in the late 1960s that it would be impossible to send astronauts to the moon because of lethal radiation risks. But instead of going through an embarrassing shutdown of the costly Apollo program, officials designed an ingenious hoax. They staged an actual rocket launch, but once the spacecraft was out of sight, the Apollo 11 crew secretly was transferred to a military aircraft and flown to a movie stage. A few days later, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin play-acted the lunar landing in front of cameras, and the phony event was then transmitted by NASA to millions of unsuspecting viewers.
Pretty slick, huh? One problem with that premise: Where could the government stage possibly such a conspiratorial event, without risking the political catastrophe that would come from having the deception exposed? They probably wouldn't have wanted to shoot the fake moon landing in a Hollywood studio. It would have made more sense to film at a remote top-secret military installation, one that general public didn't even know existed. Area 51, of course, would have been perfect for that purpose [source: Griggs].
It's Got a 40-Story Underground Bunker and Other Crazy Buildings
For decades, the government went to great length to conceal any evidence of what actually had been built inside Area 51, even blocking release of a 1974 orbital photo of the area inadvertently taken by Skylab astronauts [source: Day].
The paucity of verifiable information about Area 51's architecture has fueled the feverish imaginations of conspiracy theorists. Some have suggested that the base has fake "scoot-and-hide" buildings, designed so that aircraft can be slid underneath them and hidden when a satellite is scheduled to pass overhead. Others have claimed that most of the base itself actually is hidden from view, and that a massive underground facility with as many as 40 levels lies beneath the surface [sources: Darkgovernment.com, Levy]
That subterranean infrastructure supposedly is protected at ground level by layers of security measures, ranging from sensors that can detect both the motion and scent of intruders, to black helicopters equipped with stealth technology [source: McConnachie and Tudge]. The underground hangars that contained captured UFOs, according to Lazar, were actually carved into the base of a mountain. Each had an entrance with a giant door with a simulated sand texture to blend into the landscape [source: Maloney].
It's the Home of the Black Helicopters
In conspiracy theorist lore, Area 51 is the manufacturing site of the government's infamous black helicopters, which supposedly are used to conduct sinister missions such as spraying clouds of toxic chemicals over suburban neighborhoods. There even have been people who've claimed they've been abducted by government black helicopters and turned over to flying saucer crews for examination, which suggests a link between the extraterrestrials and human elite who are out to forge a one-world government and intermingle the two species. It's great how all of this stuff actually fits together so neatly, isn't it? [sources: Belzer, Lewis].
It turns out, surprisingly, that there may be at least a tiny bit of truth at the bottom of this theory. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in 2011, the radar-evading stealth technology used by the MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound actually was developed in the early 1990s at Area 51 [source: Rogers].
Additionally, Area 51 has tested other aircraft with amazing abilities. Perhaps the prime example is the SR-71 Blackbird, the Cold War spy plane, which regularly exceeded speeds of 2,000 mph (3,220 kph) at a height of 80,000 feet (24,390 meters) [source: Hsu].
They're Breeding Human-Alien Hybrids
Though the U.S. government ostensibly controls Area 51, many conspiracy theorists suspect that the secret base has been co-opted by extraterrestrials, and that the little gray beings now are either sharing authority or even running the show. And why would they do that?
One suspicion is that they've set up laboratories in which they're working, possibly alongside government scientists, in an effort to breed a race of human-alien hybrids. Theorists' feverish minds offer varying explanations for this project. An article on the website Collective-evolution.com, for example, explains that the goal is to create a cadre of fifth-column agents/future leaders of the New World Order, who look exactly like the rest of us but secretly possess "the mental/psychic capabilities and social cohesion of the aliens" [source: Estep].
Others think the aliens have an even creepier purpose. The alien-human hybrids, who are under alien control (through some sort of electronic implants) are being created as a supply of organs that the extraterrestrials need to replenish their own bodies [source: Darlington].
Weather-Manipulation Weapons Are Being Tested
When you combine two popular objects of conspiracy theories — Area 51 and the assertion that government scientists are secretly trying to manipulate the atmosphere in an effort to develop a weather-control weapon — you get a combination that's almost as irresistible as, say, chocolate-covered bacon. The Las Vegas Tourism Bureau's official Area 51 page even tries to lure visitors to the area by mentioning that the weather control experimentation is "rumored" to take place there. .
This conspiracy theory may spring from an actual truth: According to a National Science Foundation report, the U.S. military did actually engage in Project Cirrus, a research effort in the late 1940s and early 1950s to find a way to modify clouds and use rain — or perhaps the lack of it — as a weapon. And between 1962 and 1983, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ran a project called Project STORMFURY, in which scientists tried to use cloud seeding to slow hurricane winds, though without much success [source: NOAA]. While there's no evidence that such research continued at Area 51, weather modification does sound like just the sort of trick that government scientists would try to pick up from captured aliens.
Nothing at All Happens There
If you're inclined to really, really distrust the government, this might be the ultimate Area 51 conspiracy theory. What if all those mysterious goings-on at the site — and the official refusal to admit the base's existence — actually were part of an intricate misdirection hoax? It could well be that the government long ago moved its secret research to other, even more remote, locations, while subtly encouraging public curiosity about Area 51 to keep us all looking in the wrong place [source: Stooge].
But that's not all. British journalist and filmmaker Mark Pilkington has argued that the entire UFO-believer subculture has been the victim of an elaborate, ongoing propaganda operation. Over the years, he claims, the U.S. Air Force and the intelligence community quietly have worked to spread the belief that UFOs have crashed on American soil and that the government has been concealing and stockpiling advanced alien technology. It was all intended to divert attention away from the actual experimental spy aircraft and other gadgetry that the government actually was developing. The Air Force, he says, collected reports of UFO sightings and then compared them to the schedule of U-2 spy plane flights, in order to gauge whether the aircraft was visible to ground observers [source: Kingsbury]. Now, how's that for being devious?
HowStuffWorks finds out about the Hawaiian legend of the night marchers, ghostly warriors striding through the jungles.
Author's Note: 10 Area 51 Conspiracies
This was an interesting assignment because I've been fascinated by the conspiracy subculture for decades — from the old-school doubters of the Warren Commission that I encountered as a newspaper reporter back in the 1980s, to the new generation of 9-11 "truthers." But Area 51 enthusiasts, to me, seem especially fervent. That may be because it's possible to use the bits and pieces of Area 51 lore to spin a grand, overarching conspiracy meta-theory, one that provides an all-purpose alternative explanation for our entire recent history.
More Great Links
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