Area 51 is strange for a number of reasons, but one of the most glaring reasons it’s odd is so obvious we often can’t see it. It’s known as a secret, but it’s the opposite. It hasn’t been a secret since the 1950s, and even then it was a bit of a open government secret shrouded in mysterious coverups that have now been blasted apart.
Still, we like the idea of exposed secrets, and we’ve used the presence of Area 51 as a stand in for unknown plots that have yet to be uncovered. It’s a symbol of conspiracy and paranoia, and the thrill of a good story. And there are also some who believe Area 51 has a link between our life and some alien lifeform from another planet. Whether you are a believer in alien stories or not, Area 51 has definitely invaded our imaginations to stay.
Rachel, Nevada, the town closest to the U.S.’s infamous Area 51, had a population of 54 in 2010. Most of these residents are Ufologists and/or operate a small tourist industry that includes alien knick-knacks, themed inns and restaurants, and tours out to the legendary military base. The lore of the United States space alien, and their fondness for this particular spot of American soil is tangled up in a web of suspicion, paranoia, and real government secrets and coverups.
Even after the plans went fully dark, from 1955 until the early 1960s about 50% of suspicious activity in the sky reported to air traffic controllers was attributed to these planes. Because the nature of the mission, the real information couldn’t be released. Instead, the Air Force had to lie about them. The branch assigned to Unidentified Flying Objects had to call a special Washington, DC number when they couldn’t explain activity in the sky. More often than not, someone at that DC number would confirm to the Air Force that they had a record of the activity. That’s all the information that was exchanged between the two government offices, and the Air Force asked nothing more after the confirmation. Instead, they made up their own stories, some of which inspired even greater suspicions and sent the interested public’s imagination barreling down any number of paths.
Any paranoia that resulted was valid, no matter how misguided some of the speculation has been. There was something being covered up, and the government was lying about something. That something was pretty exciting and terrifying, but still pales in comparison to the possibilities of dentless space metal or shiny alien bodies.
The name Area 51 doesn’t come from any secret military code, it’s named that based on its “area” markings on a 1950s map. A nuclear testing site right to the north of Area 51 is known as Area 13. It was first built in 1950s under the control of the new CIA branch of the U.S. government. The purpose was to test spy planes to be sent to Russia in an attempt to uncover their progress in building an apocalyptic nuclear bomb. Faced with the dueling objectives to veil the place and its operations while also attracting the best and brightest of the U.S. Air Force, they named the place “Paradise Ranch.” It also came to be known as Groom Lake, for the desert oasis on it’s premises, or “Water Town.”
Groom Lake was named for English Groome Lead Mines Limited, which financed Conception Mines in the area in 1870 because gold and lead were discovered there. The mines became fruitful in the early 1900s, and they were in operation up until the CIA began their spy plane training nearby.
The film Bridge of Spies, based on the engaging book of the same name by Giles Whittell, tells the story of U.S. spy Francis Gary Powers, a pilot who trained at Area 51 before flying an unsuccessful mission into Russia. His black U-2 was tracked and shot down by a Soviet missile, and his capture was a catalyst that propelled the Cold War to epic proportions. Sticking to their secrets, the United States first denied that Francis Gary Powers was a spy, but as events spiraled out of control his status and mission had to eventually be acknowledged.
The Virginia-born Powers had been married only nine months when he abruptly told his new wife he was going away. He couldn’t tell her where he was going or why, and this lack of knowledge essentially severed their marriage. He and many young pilots at the time simply vanished from their own lives, leaving their loved ones perplexed and often feeling abandoned. Because they could disclose nothing, it felt like they were simply running away.
The planes were being flown 60,000 feet higher than any other plane at the time in air thin enough to be deadly. The pilots were put through rigorous tests to see if they could physically and psychologically deal with any life-threatening and/or uncomfortable changes that could occur during the flight and spy missions. One test involved sitting very still and silent for two hours, another involved keeping an arm in a bucket of ice for as long as possible. They were spun in centrifuges and forced to purposefully hyperventilate until their deoxygenated arms became frozen and pinned to their chest. Special helmets and life-supporting suits were designed by David G. Clark to help them survive these special circumstances.
These suits were precursors to astronauts’ spacesuits developed just a few years later. This is the only link between Area 51 and outer space, but it’s still resonating one. Since we’ve not yet met any other lifeforms like ourselves, we create ones in our image. We dream of some being discovering us on this planet, but we are the ones reaching out. We fantasize not only about being visited by aliens, but about being aliens ourselves.
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