Few places are as well-known in America’s cultural mythology as Area 51, said to house remnants of crashed alien space ships. A new declassified CIA history of Area 51 hints that high-tech spy craft, including forerunners to unmanned drones, sparked American imaginations.
A moonscape corner of Nevada known as Area 51 became synonymous with cold-war spy craft and intrigue – home to Project Aquatone and Operation Baby Face – but also gave rise to a whole body of UFO literature after a durable seed was planted in the American imagination: Could the truth about whether we’re alone in the universe be “out there”?
The National Security Archives on Thursday released a blockbuster CIA history that for the first time officially acknowledges the existence of “the facility at Groom Lake.”
The CIA, of course, managed to redact enough paragraphs to keep the debate about the facility’s role alive for a subculture of alien and UFO believers who say the site has been used by the government for everything from achieving the means of weather control to reverse-engineering spacecraft.
But the report, "The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974," also gives new details about what the government was really doing out there – developing new breeds of military aircraft, many of them unusual looking and unmanned – the secrecy around which fueled conspiracy theories that, in some cases, helped mask what the Americans were really plotting in the deep desert.
Established in the mid-1950s as a test site for a new breed of highflying bombers and spy planes – including the S-71 Blackbird and U-2 reconnaissance aircraft – Area 51, known among spooks as “Paradise Ranch,” became headquarters for risky games of cold-war intrigue as the Americans surveilled its enemies and rivals from more than 60,000 feet, establishing an unreachable and implicit threat from the high skies. Shootdowns and crashes of the new birds led to some of the most anxious moments of the cold war.
The secrecy around the facility and the daily test flights, the new report does acknowledge, led to an “unexpected side effect,” including “a tremendous increase in reports of unidentified flying objects.”
The area became notorious in America’s cultural mythology in 1989, as the cold war wrapped up, when a Las Vegas man who claimed to have worked at the facility told a fantastical tale about witnessing crashed alien space hardware.