Area 51: Aliens, or Just a Simple Myth-Understanding?


Secluded in the Nevada desert, the military base has long been associated with alien and UFO sightings. Here’s the real history behind the conspiracy theories.


UFO believers look for suspicious spacecraft during a UFO and Vortex Tour in Sedona, Arizona. This composite image is a combination of six photographs taken in 2017 through night vision goggles.

Photograph by Composite Jennifer Emerling

Each year, Area 51’s mythology draws tourists from around the world. People come to the air base near Rachel, Nevada, in hopes to catch a glimpse of otherworldly spacecrafts.

The legend of Area 51 has been discredited for years—but some of its history is based on true events. Here’s what you need to know about Area 51.

Where is Area 51?

About 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, somewhere between mile markers 29 and 30 along Nevada’s “Extraterrestrial Highway” (State Highway 375), lies an unmarked dirt road. Although no buildings are visible from the asphalt, the track leads to Groom Lake or Homey Airport—as it’s called on civilian aviation maps.

For those in the know, this road leads to a military base with many unofficial names: Paradise Ranch; Watertown; Dreamland Resort; Red Square; The Box; and The Ranch; Nevada Test and Training Range; Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Centre (Det. 3, AFFTC); and Area 51.


Earthlings are welcome at the restaurant and bar Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel, Nevada—a popular stop on the pilgrimage to Area 51.

Photograph byJennifer Emerling


The UFO Research Center library opened to the public in 1992 as part of the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico. The library holds an extensive collection of reference materials on the history of extraterrestrial encounters and related phenomena.

Photograph byJennifer Emerling


The UFO Research Center library opened to the public in 1992 as part of the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico. The library holds an extensive collection of reference materials on the history of extraterrestrial encounters and related phenomena.

Photograph byJennifer Emerling

Before World War II, the area near Groom Lake was used for silver and lead mining. Once the war began, the military took over the remote area and began conducting research: mainly nuclear and weapons testing.

Why build a secret base in the desert?


About 200,000 people visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico each year.

Photograph byJennifer Emerling

When the CIA started developing spy reconnaissance planes during the Cold War, then-CIA Director Richard Bissell, Jr. realised a private base was needed to build and test prototypes.

In 1955, he and Lockheed aircraft designer Kelly Johnson selected the secluded airfield at Groom Lake to be their headquarters. The Atomic Energy Commission added the base to the existing map of the Nevada Test Site and labeled the site Area 51.

Within eight months, engineers developed the U-2 plane, which could soar at an altitude of 70,000 feet—much higher than any other aircraft at the time. This allowed pilots to fly well above Soviet radar, missiles, and enemy aircraft.

After a U-2 was shot down by a Soviet anti-air missile in 1960, the CIA began developing the next generation of spy plane at Area 51: the titanium-bodied A-12. Nearly undetectable to radar, the A-12 could fly across the continental United States in 70 minutes at 2,200 miles an hour. The plane also was equipped with cameras that could, from an altitude of 90,000 feet, photograph objects just one-foot long on the ground.

Aliens and UFOs become part of Area 51 lore

Area 51 became forever associated with aliens in 1989 after a man claiming to have worked there, Robert Lazar, gave an interview with a Las Vegas news station. Lazar claimed that Area 51 housed and studied alien spacecraft and that his job was to recreate the technology for military use.


The world’s only spaceship-shaped McDonald’s attracts UFO tourists in Roswell, New Mexico.

Photograph byJennifer Emerling

However, Lazar’s credentials were soon discredited: according to school records Lazar never went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or California Institute of Technology, as he claimed. At the time though, engineers at Area 51 were studying and recreating advanced aircraft—just aircraft acquired from other countries, not from outer space.

Nevertheless, with all of the high-tech flights out of Area 51—including more than 2,850 takeoffs by the A-12—reports of unidentifiable flying objects skyrocketed in the area.


An alien face is woven into the chain link fence outside a shopping center in Roswell, New Mexico.

Photograph byJennifer Emerling

“The aircraft’s titanium body, moving as fast as a bullet, would reflect the sun’s rays in a way that could make anyone think, UFO,” sources told journalist Annie Jacobsen for her 2011 book on Area 51.

Is the truth out there?

The government formally acknowledged the existence of Area 51 for the first time in 2013 when the CIA declassified documents about the development of the U-2 and A-12. Previously, locals knew something odd was happening in the desert but details were scarce and hard to verify.

Area 51 is still an active base—but the purpose it has served since the 1970s is a top-secret mystery. It will be a few more decades, at least, until current work is declassified and available to the public.


Two humans and their backseat stowaway drive to Roswell, New Mexico, famous for a supposed alien spaceship crash in 1947. Some conspiracy theorists believe remains from the Roswell crash were taken to Area 51, a secret military base near Rachel, Nevada, to study.

Photograph byJennifer Emerling

The site continues to be a pillar of U.S. alien mythology. A 2019 interview with Lazar on a popular podcast inspired a “Storm Area 51” event, in which about 6,000 people showed up in the desert to look for evidence of aliens. (It ultimately morphed into a festival celebrating all things alien.)

Even today, Area 51 draws believers and skeptics who frequent the small but thriving trail of alien-themed museums, restaurants, motels, parades, and festivals—all in hopes of discovering that the truth really is out there.

Photographer Jennifer Emerling has spent time photographing UFO culture in the American West. See more photos from the project on her website Welcome, Earthlings and her Instagram.

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