How Area 51 Works

For decades, a U.S. military installation located roughly 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Las Vegas had been one of the worst-kept secrets on the planet. Area 51, as it’s commonly known to UFO conspiracy theorists and aviation buffs who piece together the details of classified military spy plane prototypes, is a place whose existence the U.S. government long refused even to acknowledge.

But in August 2013, the shroud over Area 51 finally lifted, at least a bit. Jeffrey T. Richelson, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based National Security Archive, a nonprofit think tank, obtained declassified documents about the development and use of the U-2 and OXCART surveillance aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s. The documents made repeated references to Area 51 and detailed how it was selected as a testing area by the CIA, the U.S. Air Force and defense contractor Lockheed because of its remote location. They even included a map that confirmed its exact location [source: National Security Archive].

But that belated disclosure didn’t do much to quell the rumors that long have swirled around Area 51. In the murky world of Internet bulletin boards, late-night call-in AM radio programs and TV and movie science-fiction fantasies, it’s long been assumed to be the place where government researchers reverse-engineered captured alien spacecraft, tried to clone extraterrestrials, and filmed the fake moon landing in 1969 [source: Day]. The government, as you might expect, did not confirm any of that.

«Area 51 is a riddle,» author Annie Jacobsen wrote in a 2011 book on the secret installation. «Very few people comprehend what goes on there, and millions want to know.»

In this article, we’ll look at what’s known about Area 51, as well as what’s suspected, and try to piece together as much as we can. Remember, as they used to say on the classic TV show «The X-Files,» the truth is out there.

Area 51’s coordinates are 37 degrees 14 minutes north latitude, 115 degrees 48 minutes west longitude. You can get a great view of it using Google Earth. Just type «Area 51» into the «Fly To» field and the map does the rest.

For decades, the base remained hidden from almost everyone. Satellite imagery of the area was routinely deleted from government databases. In 1973, Skylab astronauts inadvertently photographed the airfield. However, according to declassified documents, the CIA managed to censor the picture and keep it from being seen by the public [source: Day].

But in 2000, photographs taken by a Soviet orbital probe were obtained and published by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The collection of photos on the FAS Web site show the facility’s growth from the late 1960s, including the construction of new buildings and a new runway [source: Federation of American Scientists]. Since then — and especially since the advent of Google Earth — the proverbial cat is pretty much out of the bag.

A dry lake bed called Groom Lake borders the base. To the west is the Nevada Test Site (NTS). The closest town is Rachel, Nev., which is 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of the base. The base itself occupies only a fraction of the more than 90,000 acres (36,000 hectares) it sits on. It consists of a hangar, a guard shack, a few radar antennas, some housing facilities, a mess hall, offices, runways and shelters. The shelters are «scoot and hide» buildings, designed so aircraft can quickly move under cover when satellites pass overhead. Some allege that what you can see on the surface is only a tiny part of the actual facility. They believe that the surface buildings rest on top of a labyrinthine underground base.

Others claim the underground facility has up to 40 levels and that it is attached via underground railways to other sites in Los Alamos, White Sands and Los Angeles. Skeptics are quick to point out that such a massive construction project would require an enormous labor force; the removal of tons of earth that would have to go somewhere and there would be a need for a huge amount of concrete and other construction material. So likely, what you see is what you get.

But nobody in the public really knows for sure, because the government goes to great lengths to conceal what it is doing at Area 51.

To say access to the base is limited is an understatement. The base and its activities are highly classified. The remote location helps keep the activities figuratively under the radar, as does the proximity to the Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site (NTS), where nuclear devices are tested. To gain access you need top security clearance as well as an invitation from the highest levels of the military or intelligence community [source: Jacobsen].

The government has gone to a lot of trouble to make it difficult for anyone to see what’s going on inside Area 51. For years, mapmakers left out the facility, and while it fell inside the borders of Nellis Air Force Range, the road leading up to the facility was never shown. Even today, Area 51 is surrounded by thousands of acres of empty desert landscape, and the Air Force has withdrawn lands from public use to help keep the base hidden from snooping eyes. For many years, observers could hike to elevated vantage points like White Sides Peak or Freedom Ridge, but those areas have been seized as well. Today, to see anything at all, you have to make the strenuous hike up Tikaboo Peak, 26 miles (42 kilometers) from the facility. From there, you may get a brief glimpse of runway lights flashing on and an experimental aircraft taking off, before the lights go out again and plunge Area 51 into darkness [source: Jacobsen].

Everyone who works at Area 51, whether military or civilian, must sign an oath agreeing to keep everything a secret. Buildings at the site lack windows, preventing people from seeing anything not related to their own duties at the base. By some reports, different teams would work on similar projects at the same time, but their supervisors would keep each team ignorant of the other team’s project. When testing a secret aircraft, officials ordered all uninvolved employees to stay inside until the test flight was over and the aircraft returned to its hangar.


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