About 80 miles north-northwest of the Las Vegas strip, sits Groom Lake. The smooth, flat, dry lakebed is one of several across the Nevada desert, with more than a superficial similarity to Rogers Dry Lake, next to California’s Edwards Air Force Base. These spots in the desert, hospitable to people only with great effort, served as an ideal found resource for the United States in the 20th century. On lakebeds dry enough to land planes and far from the prying eyes of civilian life, the Air Force could test new and novel planes, with secrecy baked into the dusty earth around them. If Groom Lake sounds unfamiliar, that’s because it is also known by another name: Area 51.
For decades, the Air Force operations at Groom Lake and Area 51 were shrouded in deliberate secrecy. The base was established in 1955, but it would take until 1998 for the Air Force to acknowledge its existence. Previously, it has stated tersely: “Neither the Air Force nor the Department of Defense owns or operates any location known as ‘Area 51.’ There are a variety of activities, some of which are classified, throughout what is often called the Air Force’s Nellis Range Complex. There is an operation location near Groom Dry Lake. Specific activities and operations conducted on the Nellis Range, both past and present, remain classified and cannot be discussed publicly.”
But even before that, Area 51 had already made multiple appearances in a major series of arcade games by Atari (released in 1995), as a major plot point in the 1996 blockbuster alien invasion movie Independence Day, and it remains a staple in fiction and conspiracy theories about secret extraterrestrial research. It’s second perhaps only to Roswell, New Mexico, in the imagination of people who believe the US government is covering up the existence of aliens. However, aside from its notorious reputation, Area 51 instead has a long history as the holder of far more mundane, terrestrial secrets. Keeping that aura of secrecy up was partly what allowed speculation as to the true nature of the facility to run wild. During this time, the Air Force and CIA were able to test spy planes in the open desert with some degree of privacy.
All that U-2 can’t leave behind
In the early 1950s, the United States Air Force, recently spun off as an independent wing from the Army, set out looking for a high-altitude, long-range, long-endurance spy plane. This was early in the Cold War, and previous attempts to surveil the Soviet Union with balloons had produced extremely limited success. A plane offered far more control, and the reasoning at the time was that a high-altitude plane could stay beyond the range of Soviet radar and missiles.
This plane ultimately materialized in the form of the U-2, which is still in service today (though the history of its development saw it built on CIA funding instead of Air Force money). While looking for a place to test and develop the new plane, the early U-2 design team spied Nevada’s Groom Dry Lake from the air and landed on the lake bed, proving the inherent viability of the site. Eventually, a paved runway was built. The purchase of land was made by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the boundaries of Area 51 are adjacent to what would become the Nevada Test Site, where the US would detonate nuclear warheads first in open air, then underground.
“The outlines of Area 51 are shown on current unclassified maps as a small rectangular area adjoining the northeast corner of the much larger Nevada Test Site. To make the new facility in the middle of nowhere sound more attractive to his workers, [Lockheed engineer] Kelly Johnson called it the Paradise Ranch, which was soon shortened to the Ranch,” reads a CIA history of the U-2 program, written in 1998 and declassified in 2013.
[Related on PopSci+: A CIA spyplane crashed outside Area 51 a half-century ago. This explorer found it.]
Secrecy was baked into Area 51 from the start, though it became hard to completely disentangle spy plane flights from UFO sightings. In 1947, a flying saucer panic led to public reports and inquiries into unknown aircraft, which helped make a surveillance balloon crash outside Roswell, New Mexico an enduring story. Project Blue Book, an official inquiry by the Air Force into UFOs, collected reports of official sightings, most of which could be dismissed as natural phenomena. One category the Air Force could dismiss internally, but not acknowledge publicly until 1992, was the number of U-2 flights reported as UFOs.
Open skies and closed secrets
The U-2 was the first secret plane developed, tested, and flown from Area 51—but it would hardly be the last. The A-12 Oxcart single-seat high-altitude spy plane was tested at Area 51 in the 1960s, before its short operational career in action over Vietnam. Its successor, the two-seat SR-71 Blackbird, was also tested at Area 51, marking the base as the place to develop planes for secret missions out of sight from the public.
Stealth technology, now a defining feature of jets like the F-22 and F-35 family, was developed and tested at Area 51. In 1977, the US Air Force Special Projects Office tested HAVE BLUE, a stealth demonstrator, at Area 51. The two versions of HAVE BLUE both suffered crashes in their testing, and the wrecked planes were buried in the desert. Before the crashes, enough information was gleaned such that development of other stealth aircraft could continue. The F-117, the first stealth fighter, would be first tested at Area 51, before moving to a different, larger base in Nevada that could accommodate a full squadron.
Beyond developing new technologies, Area 51 has played host to foreign aircraft, acquired at times from defectors, allowing the US military to see just what tech other countries were flying and fighting with. One such incident was the loan from Israel to the United States of a MiG-21 in 1968, flown by an Iraqi pilot who had defected. This let the US get a close look at the most widely produced jet fighter in history, and one that was at the time serving capably in the skies above Vietnam.
In March 1994, Popular Science published “Searching for the Secrets of Groom Lake,” a dive into the development and history of Area 51, spurred by an Air Force’s ultimately successful request to give the Department of the Air Force control over 4,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management-owned territory around the site. This was an effort in part to deter people on the ground from spying on their operations at a distance. That story featured both a 1968 aerial photograph of the site taken by the US Geological Survey, and a 1988 photo taken by a Russian spy satellite that was then made commercially available.
In October 2006, “New Secrets of Area 51” by Popular Science looked at the kinds of drones and other aircraft that might have been in development at the site. Among these is a sort of white whale for secret plane waters: the Aurora, a long-theorized ramjet powered hypersonic craft.
What, no aliens?
While Groom Lake and Area 51 has hosted plenty of secrets, there’s nothing to suggest it hosts the secret technology most synonymous with the name from popular culture: anything to do with aliens. Some of those claims can be traced back to a 1989 broadcast on Las Vegas television station KLAS, in which a man named Bob Lazar appeared “claiming to be a physicist hired by the government to reverse-engineer the propulsion systems of saucer-shaped alien spacecraft.”
The secrecy of such a site makes it easy for people to speculate, as does the proven nature of classified research at the location for decades. Even with known programs linked to Area 51, and with satellite footage of the base never more readily available, the simple unknowability of what, exactly, is in a given hangar is enough room for speculative fiction.
What the history of Area 51 actually reveals, for those willing to disregard baseless speculation about alien spacecraft, is decades of development around flying secrets—covert and classified until they’re announced on the news.