It’s officially a U.S. military flight testing facility, yet Area 51 in Nevada has been associated with alien sightings and secret government studies for decades. Accounts of extraterrestrial sightings have sparked public imagination and conspiracy theories worldwide. Here are a few facts you might not know about Area 51.
The military chose Area 51 as a site to test aircraft in 1955, but didn’t admit it until 2013. According to CNN, maps and other documents created by the CIA were uncovered by Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives, who secured access to the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, the papers made no mention of little green men running around the facility.
The origin of Area 51’s name is mysterious, prompting many theories over the years: A Business Insider video suggests the name stems from the location’s proximity to nuclear test sites divided into numbered areas.
Area 51 is growing, something that true believers may attribute to the need for more UFO parking spaces. Satellite imagery of Area 51 displays significant construction taking place within the area between 1984 and 2016, including new runways and hangars. The developments may mean the B-21 Raider stealth bomber is being tested at the site.
One of the most notorious conspiracy theories related to Area 51 questions the authenticity of the 1969 moon landing and claims it was staged at the Nevada testing site. Bill Kaysing—author of We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle—believes NASA officials filmed the fake landing within the base, brainwashed the astronauts, and used lunar meteorites picked up in Antarctica as a stand-in for moon rocks.
In its early years, Area 51 was used to test U-2 planes—which flew at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet—in an area far from civilians and spies. During these tests, pilots flying commercial aircraft at 10,000 to 20,000 feet would detect the planes far above them, completely in the dark about the government’s project. Hence, sightings of unidentified objects were reported when in reality it was a military plane—unless that’s what they want you to think.
Those who work at Area 51 appear to have a pretty sweet commuter transportation program. Employees can board unmarked aircraft at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, which ferries them to and from an undisclosed location. Dubbed “Janet”—an acronym of its call sign, which some say stands for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal”—the exact destination of the Boeing 737-600s is officially unknown, though some speculate that the planes go to Area 51 and other top-secret locations. A former posting for an open flight attendant position stated applicants “must be level-headed and clear thinking while handling unusual incidents and situations,” but didn’t mention any encounters of the third kind.
Some former employees who were once sworn to secrecy about what happened at Area 51 are now free to share their stories. One Area 51 veteran, James Noce, recalled handling various mishaps that were accidentally exposed to the public eye—for example, the crash of a secret aircraft that was witnessed by a police officer and a vacationing family. The family had taken photos; Noce confiscated the film from their camera and told the family and the deputy not to mention the crash to anyone.
Noce recounted how there was no official documentation stating he worked at Area 51, and that his salary was paid in cash. He also confirmed that he never saw any alien activity at the site.
In the 1990s, Area 51 workers approached Jonathan Turley, a lawyer and professor at George Washington University, with complaints about exposure to the site’s hazardous materials and waste that was making them sick. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Turley wrote that the workers “described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as ‘London fog’ by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care.”
According to Turley, “we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base. The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime. But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy[.]”
According to known hoaxster Robert Lazar, allegedly a former employee at Area 51, there’s one spot in particular where he would bring people to see scheduled UFO flights: The Black Mailbox, an unassuming pair of mailboxes that’s apparently a hotspot for alien action (they’re located about 12 miles from Area 51). It was originally a single black box for owner Steve Medlin’s mail, but as people who wanted to believe began to tamper with and destroy that mail (and pop in letters to aliens), Medlin was forced to put another mailbox labeled “Alien” beneath it to appease visitors and to preserve his own postal deliveries.
It should come as no surprise that Area 51 is heavily guarded. Pilots who purposefully fly into the restricted air zone can face court martial, dishonorable discharge, and a possible prison sentence. Men wearing camouflage have been seen driving around the area keeping an eye out for nosey civilians. But truth-seekers beware: Signs placed outside the perimeter warn that Area 51 security is authorized to use deadly force on anyone sneaking onto the property.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.