What is most likely going on in Area 51? A national security historian explains why you won’t find aliens there

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What is most likely going on in Area 51? – Griffin, age 10, South Lyon, Michigan

One of the reasons people can never be entirely sure about what is going on at Area 51 is that it is a highly classified secret military facility. It was not until 2013 that the U.S. government even acknowledged the existence and name “Area 51.”

This information came out as part of a broader set of documents released through a Freedom of Information Act request, which is something regular citizens and groups can do to ask the U.S. government to provide details about government activities. In this case, the request made public formerly classified CIA information regarding the historical development and testing of the U-2 spy plane. The information also revealed where it was tested: Area 51!

As a national security historian, I know there’s a long history of secrets at Area 51. I also know that none of those secrets have anything to do with space aliens.

The place

The base commonly referred to as Area 51 is located in a remote area of southern Nevada, roughly 100 miles (161 kilometers) from Las Vegas. It is in the middle of a federally protected area of the U.S. Air Force’s Nevada Test and Training Range, now known as the Nevada National Security Site, which is inside the larger Nellis Air Force Range.

a map showing the city of Las Vegas in the bottom right corner and an inset of the United States in the bottom left corner with Southern Nevada highlighted

Area 51, the yellow rectangle in the center of the map, is tucked in the middle of the much larger Nellis Air Force Range.
DEMIS BV via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Area 51 is the secret code name for the site. The airfield at Area 51 is called Homey Airport, and the overall facility is often referred to as Groom Lake. Groom Lake is a salt flat, or dried-out lake, adjacent to the airport.

The history

In the early years of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, both nations sought new technological developments that might give one country more power than the other. A great amount of information about scientific achievements, such as on rockets or weapons – but also even on ways to grow more food or make fuel more efficient – was kept secret as an issue of national security.

A key part of not fighting another world war was, and still is, developing technologies to see what the other side is doing – that is, surveillance technologies that can spy on the enemy. The information gathered by new and improved surveillance technologies about new innovations with planes and weapons was very important to governments.

This meant that both the surveillance information and the technology to get it were closely held national security secrets. Very few people in the governments of the U.S. and Soviet Union knew about the secrets from the 1940s all the way up until the end of the Cold War in…

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