Today we’re going to learn about a place that has been a mystery to people all over the world. Places like this one become mysterious because not much is known about what goes on there, so people start to imagine what might happen there and share their ideas until the place becomes more and more intriguing to those who don’t know about it. This particular place is called Area 51. Area 51 is one section in a large territory of land located in the deserts of Nevada in the United States, which is now officially called the Nevada National Security Site. Area 51 is owned by the government and only the people who work there are allowed to know what happens on the base. For a very long time, no one outside of the base knew what was going on there, but in recent years more of its history has become known. So in this episode we’re going to talk about some of the histories we do know about Area 51 and also the things we don’t know and for that reason have become mysterious.
After World War 2 ended, the Cold War began. The Cold War was a conflict between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union (not Russia). It was called a Cold War because there was very little fighting and instead lots of spying. Both countries were worried the other country would use nuclear bombs, which were invented during World War 2, on each other. The United States needed an area for testing nuclear bombs that were far from humans, so they used the land in Nevada and called it the Nevada Testing Site. Some of these bombs were tested above ground but many of them were tested below ground. They drilled holes deep into the earth and dug tunnels to place the bombs into before detonating them. They did this because the fallout from nuclear bombs above ground can be very harmful when it moves through the air. I did a little research using Google Maps and today you can still see the craters created by the testing of these bombs at the Nevada Testing Site.
So to keep an eye on each other’s nuclear bombs, the United States and Russia trained spies to live in each other’s countries, trying to figure out what their enemy would do next. Another word for spying is espionage. The agency in the United States for gathering intelligence was called the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA. Intelligence is information about other countries, such as Russia at the time. Besides just sending out agents, the CIA had the idea to use jets to photograph possible nuclear weapons in Russia. These jets would need to fly VERY high to avoid enemy radar and have very powerful cameras to take photos of the land below. And the program to develop the spy plane would have to be TOP SECRET. This means no one could know about it besides the people working on the spy plane.
The new spy plane was called the U-2 and once the work started on it, the designers needed a place to test it out. The chief designer of the U-2, named Kelly Johnson, was flying over Nevada one day when he saw the flat desert and mountains of Area 51 and thought it would be perfect for testing out his new spy plane. Soon, work started on the airfield and runways around Groom Lake at the section of the Nevada Test Site named Area 51. Airplane hangers to keep the spy plane out of view. Fences were added all around Area 51 so no one but those working on the U-2 spy plane could see what was being done. Guards were posted at all of the entrances to make sure no one entered the base. Anyone who worked at Area 51 had to swear an oath of secrecy to promise that they’d never speak about the work they were doing. Houses were built for the people who would live there. Soon, the area around Groom Lake was a small city where engineers and pilots could live and work and test the spy plane. A gym, movie theater, and baseball diamond were even built to make life more enjoyable at Area 51. Kelly Johnson even called it “Paradise Ranch” to attract people to work on the top secret projects.
During the day, engineers worked on the aircraft. Then at night, highly trained pilots flew the advanced aircraft high around the Nevada desert to test them and make sure they were working well. The U-2 spy plane was black, had long slender wings and could fly up to 70,000 feet, which was extremely high for a jet at the time. Testing the U-2 was very dangerous and the pilots who flew it had to be very skilled and brave to take it up again and again until it was ready to use. Many talented engineers also had to work long hours to make sure the U-2 could fly high, take photos, and not be detected by enemy radar.
Before the U-2 was put into service, the next top-secret project began on a new spy plane that would be designed to fly even higher and faster than the U-2. It was called the A-12 Oxcart. It was long, black, sleek, and eventually able to fly Mach 3, which is 2,000 miles per hour and faster than the speed of sound. It still holds the record of flying at 85,000 feet, which is incredibly high for a jet. The A-12 was also the precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird, which looked very similar.
So as you can imagine, when jets like the U-2, the A-12, and other top-secret aircraft flew at night, they moved at incredible speeds; and when their fuel burned it created bright streaks across the sky. This made people living nearby Area 51 very suspicious about what was going on. They saw objects that were moving higher and faster than anything they’d ever seen. Also, when passenger jet pilots flew nearby, they saw objects moving high above them and very fast. Stories started to emerge from people on the ground and in the air who saw these objects. Science Fiction was becoming popular in comic books, movies, and TV. Could the objects people were seeing be spacecraft from another world? They started calling these “Unidentified Flying Objects” or UFOs. Another word they used to describe beings from other planets was “extraterrestrials.” They wondered if Area 51 had UFOs.
Of course, it didn’t help that Area 51 was so top secret. Everything was classified, which means not public knowledge, and everyone working there was flown in by plane and had to receive top-secret clearance. You can imagine what kind of rumors started!
All the while, new projects continued at Area 51 and the surrounding test site in the deserts of Nevada which included the D-21 Tagboard, one of the first aircraft flown without a human pilot. You might know these as drones but officially called UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Later, UAVs like the Predator, Sentinel, and Reaper drones were tested at Area 51. These are now in use by the military today and used in places like the Middle East. A pilot on a base in Nevada flies these drones remotely in place all over the world using satellite communication. There has also been debate about whether aircraft like this should be used in other countries and when they should be used.
Over time, the history of the aircraft tested at Area 51 and nearby became public knowledge. In 2013, the CIA even shared documents about the work done there. The documents about the U-2, the A-12, and F-117 became declassified. Later, it became known that astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin who completed the first Apollo Moon mission trained there. They put on their spacesuits and walked around the desert as if they were on the moon.
Of course, today whatever is being tested and created at Area 51 is once again top secret, so we can only guess what is happening there. Because it’s unknown it becomes mysterious to those who don’t know and people like to use their imaginations to think about what might be going on there. Like we said before, the base is guarded by fences and soldiers on patrol so currently only people with top-secret permission can go in. It’s likely that the most advanced aircraft is being tested there and things we won’t know about until they are revealed at a future date. That said, you can look at Area 51 on Google Maps, and my kids and I had fun looking at the different airfields, mountains, roads, and testing sites. And we do admit it’s fun to guess at what might be going on there today.
So, back to UFOs and extraterrestrials since it can be such an intriguing topic. Many people wonder with our universe being so big, there should be other life out there in the galaxy. And if so, why haven’t we made contact with this other intelligent life yet. There are a lot of questions here which are fun to explore. The SETI Institute is one organization with the goal to find extraterrestrial life in the universe. SETI stands for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. They use powerful radio telescopes to observe faraway places in the galaxy that might contain intelligent life. They search for planets that might be habitable, which means be the right temperature and have water.
At times, the government and military have also done studies on UFOs and intelligent life that may have visited earth. Project Blue Book was the name of one of these studies. They interviewed witnesses and researched what might explain what people were seeing. In most cases, what people saw corresponded to aircraft flying in the area or other explainable things.
One of the most famous UFO stories in the United States happened in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 when something crashed in the desert there. With all of the talk of UFOs familiar with Science Fiction, the newspaper was quick to report it was a UFO. Did they do this just to get people to buy their newspapers? Or did someone see something that made them think it was a spacecraft from another planet? The military quickly came to the scene to clean up the crashed aircraft and this led to people speculating that whatever did crash in Roswell was top secret. Stories about what happened at Roswell then began to spread and ever since it has been a topic of much debate. Later, the military said it was in fact a top-secret project, a high-flying weather balloon used to spy on enemies far below. During World War 2 they hoped to use it to listen for bombs exploding to know where the enemy might be testing nuclear bombs. But as you can imagine the rumors still abound about what happened at Roswell, New Mexico. Later, people wondered if what was being tested at Area 51 was connected to the crash at Roswell. Did the government know something about UFOs that the general public didn’t? Were they testing their own UFOs? We do know they were testing top-secret aircraft like the U-2 and A-12. It can be fun to speculate and wonder but the fact remains that there is still much that we don’t know about Area 51 and the surrounding Nevada Test Site.
What is being tested at Area 51 today? The best guess is the same work of advanced aircraft that can fly fast and is stealthy, which means avoiding being detected by enemy radar. There may also be advanced weapons systems being tested which the military is always developing. If you try and visit Area 51 today you’ll only see lots of “No Trespassing” signs and surveillance cameras, but interestingly, people interested in UFOs like to drive down the road now called the Extraterrestrial Highway and all of the shops, hotels, and other businesses which are UFO and Extraterrestrial themed and which sell t-shirts, books, and other souvenirs.