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Area 51: how a US military base became the heartland of alien conspiracy theories

Area 51 has become a pop culture phenomenon among alien enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists, but just how did the military base become linked to extraterrestrial activity?

Located 134km northwest of Las Vegas is a dirt road leading out from Nevada’s ‘Extraterrestrial Highway’ and down towards Homey Airport, the home of a notorious US military base.

What lies within this military base is mostly a mystery to the public. It goes by various names including Paradise Ranch, Red Square, Nevada Test and Training Range, and of course, the one most commonly used in myth and legend, Area 51.

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David Becker / Getty Images

This secret base sits in the middle of the Nevada desert and has become the subject of endless pop culture references and memes, as well as the epicentre of the world’s most famous alien conspiracies.

But just how did this air force facility become linked with extraterrestrial folklore, and are the United States really holding tea parties with alien lifeforms inside this bewitching base?

A Soviet spy station

Commissioned in 1954 by President Eisenhower, Area 51 was created in order to test spy planes far away from the public eye, with the ultimate goal of infiltrating the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program.

The area within the Nevada Test and Training Range was already used for nuclear weapon testing back in World War II, and as such, it was the perfect location to ensure the public would keep their distance. What came out of the espionage work done at Area 51 would ultimately be significant in maintaining the United States’ superpower status.

First up was the commissioning of the U-2 spy plane, an aircraft that could fly as high as 70,000 feet in the air (an unfathomable feat at the time), travel across the US without needing to refuel, and carry cameras that could spy on Soviet land below.

From its expeditions, the U-2 plane discovered that the Soviet military was not as advanced as what was claimed by its leaders, leading the United States to believe that they weren’t too far behind their military rivals. However, the plane was shot down in Soviet airspace in 1960. Both the pilot and aircraft were recovered, keeping them out of the hands of the Soviet Union; however, US authorities were forced to admit the purpose of the mission.

This lead to the creation of the Lockheed A-12, an aircraft that could fly across the US in 70 minutes at an altitude of 90,000 feet, photographing objects on the ground that were just one-foot long. With the number of A-12 flights coming in and out of Area 51, reports of unidentifiable flying objects grew in the area. The aircraft’s titanium body and bullet speed resembled nothing seen in the US before.

With the nature of these military aircraft, coupled with the secrecy surrounding these espionage missions, it’s easy to see why conspiracy theories arose around the goings-on inside the military base.

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Independence Day (1996)

A cult phenomenon

The most famous conspiracy theory, known as the ‘Roswell Incident’, came in 1947, when metal rods and debris found by a farmer in New Mexico were taken away by the US military. At the time, rumour had it they were part of an alien aircraft and had been taken back to Area 51 to be reverse-engineered.

While the ‘Roswell Incident’ theory was out there, it wasn’t until an interview with a man claiming to have worked at Area 51, that the idea of the site being the epicentre of alien activity really took off. Robert Lazar took part in an anonymous interview with a Las Vegas news station, claiming that his job was to study alien spacecraft and re-engineer the technology for the US military’s own use. He even claimed to have seen an alien himself.

In the intervening years, Lazar became a cult hero among conspiracy theorists, and while his credentials were pretty quickly discredited, it was his interview that would forever link Area 51 to the unknowns of outer space.

As the phenomena of Area 51 grew in the ’80s and ’90s, it took on a life of its own within popular culture, with science fiction television series The X-Files continually referencing the facility and the government’s agenda to keep the existence of extraterrestrial life a secret.

The existence of the base perhaps ultimately broke into the mainstream with the release of the 1996 film, Independence Day, with the film’s plot focusing on the aftermath of an alien attack on Earth. Not only was Area 51 a prominent feature of the film, but the ‘Roswell Incident’ was also heavily referenced, even acting as a key plot-point.

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Paul (2011)

More recently, the 2011 comedy film Paul follows two characters, played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who essentially embody every Area 51 conspiracist and ET nerd. On a UFO-related road trip, the characters run into an extraterrestrial fellow (played, of course, by Seth Rogan), who has escaped from – you guessed it – Area 51.

The secret base was even referenced in the iconic kids’ movie Lilo & Stitch, with the aliens in the film ironically choosing to name planet Earth, Area 51.

Area 51, while secret in nature, has a ripe presence within the media and is pretty commonly known by the public nowadays, with Barack Obama becoming the first US President to publicly acknowledge its existence in 2013. With its cult following and pop culture references, it’s not surprising that Area 51 became the subject of a world-wide meme event late last year.

Let’s see them aliens

In June of last year, 20-year-old student Matty Roberts created a Facebook event called ‘Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All Of Us’. The event, set for September 20, 2019, was posted along with a tongue-in-cheek description stating, “If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens.”

The event quickly turned into a trending meme, spreading across all platforms of the internet. With 2 million people clicking ‘going’, and 1.5 million clicking ‘interested’, what was initially intended as a joke turned into a serious issue for the US Government.

Air Force spokeswoman, Laura McAndrews told The Washington Post in a statement just days before the event, “[Area 51] is an open training range for the U.S. Air Force, and we would discourage anyone from trying to come into the area where we train American armed forces.”

The Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS), who acts as the military’s public relation office, also made a Twitter post with a photo of military personnel and a B-2 stealth bomber. The caption stated: “The last thing #Millenials will see if they attempt the #area51raid today.”

The tweet was later deleted.

Two music festivals also popped up in the county in response to the Facebook event: ‘Alienstock’ and ‘Storm Area 51 Basecamp’. However, it was estimated that only 1,500 people showed up to the festivals, while only 150 people made the actual journey to the gates of Area 51.

Unfortunately, none were successful in storming Area 51.

A public mystery

Over time, the pop culture phenomenon of Area 51’s secrecy has actually been utilised by the CIA itself, with the government agency using UFO misidentification and rumours of sightings to evolve and cover up what is really going on at the base. So, what is really going on there?

Well, apart from the creation of U-2 and A-12 aircraft and an early spy mission, we don’t officially know. However, according to Annie Jacobsen, author of the book Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, it’s a whole lot of reverse-engineering – just not of alien craftmanship.

Jacobsen interviewed over 70 people who had first-hand knowledge of the facility and claims that foreign technology captured on battlefields is often brought back to the facility to be tested and re-created. Furthermore, she theorised that Area 51 was still the location used by the Defense Department and military intelligence to create counterterrorism tactics, weapon systems, and surveillance platforms, all of which are to remain a mystery to the public.

Yet on the extraterrestrial front, for the first time ever, in July of this year, the Pentagon released three videos of UFO-like objects moving quickly through the air. They were accompanied by a report which stated the objects were “off-world vehicles not made of this world.” Since then, the Pentagon has set up a UFO task force in an attempt to discover the nature and origins of these objects, further fueling the fire of UFO-related suspicions surrounding Area 51.

While there’s been no admission of alien-activity inside the military facility, the true facts surrounding Area 51 continue to remain a mystery, and until they become public, we’ll keep our tinfoil hats sitting firmly on top of our heads.