Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Daryck. Daryck Wonders, “Where is Area 51?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Daryck!
If you drive north out of Las Vegas into the barren Nevada desert, you'll find what seems like a whole lot of nothing. For miles and miles the only sights are empty roads, sprawling ranches, and dirt and sand in every direction.
If you know where to turn off the highway in the middle of nowhere, you can drive for miles down a dusty, unmarked dirt road that's supposed to take you to a place called Groom Lake. Miles before reaching the waterless salt flat known as Groom Lake, however, you'll be stopped by an intimidating set of warning signs that make it clear that you've gone as far as you're going to go down this road.
What lies beyond those warning signs? In addition to surveillance cameras and security guards, there are several more miles of road that lead to one of the most mysterious places in the United States: Area 51.
For over 50 years, no other place in America has generated as many myths and legends as Area 51. Does it really exist? Is it a top-secret military base? Does it contain the bodies and spacecraft of aliens that have visited the U.S.?
The answers to those questions are yes, yes, and no, respectively. Area 51 is indeed a top-secret military facility that remains active today. Contrary to many urban legends, however, it doesn't have anything to do with aliens or unidentified flying objects (UFOs).
It's easy to see how those myths got started, though. Area 51 was built in 1955 as part of the much larger Nevada Test and Training Range complex. Area 51 is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains that are off-limits to the public. It's also situated next to Groom Lake, a large dry lake bed that's perfect for use as a runway for large aircraft.
Area 51 was built to serve as the test facility for a top-secret reconnaissance aircraft we now know as the U-2 Spy Plane. Unlike other airplanes at the time, which usually flew at altitudes between 10,000-20,000 feet, the U-2 Spy Plane could fly spy missions at altitudes of 60,000 feet or higher.
When people — including commercial and military pilots — spotted the U-2 Spy Plane at such high altitudes, they were naturally puzzled. The plane's development was top-secret, and sightings were rare. Those who did see the plane from a great distance, though, could easily have thought it must come from another world!
In this way, UFO and alien myths began to grow. In fact, many of them seemed to have credible sources. After all, why would commercial and military pilots make up bogus stories? The government did not discourage these stories, since it kept the public's focus on something fake — aliens and UFOs — rather than what was really going on at Area 51.
An interesting tourist trade focused on aliens grew up around Area 51. Nevada even renamed the highway that leads to Area 51 (State Route 375) the Extraterrestrial Highway. UFO and alien enthusiasts regularly drive the E.T. Highway hoping to catch sight of strange creatures or spacecraft in the sky.
Although they won't see aliens or UFOs, they could possibly get a glimpse of some other aircraft being tested at Area 51. After the U-2 Spy Plane, several other aircraft were tested at Area 51, including the A-12 "Blackbird," the F-117 Stealth Fighter, and the B-2 Stealth Bomber. What is going on there today? Who knows?
Area 51 remains a top-secret testing facility, and the government doesn't want the public anywhere near it. The closest you can drive to Area 51 still leaves you about 15 miles away. Restricted airspace above Area 51 forms a rectangle with an area of 575 miles. And that's just Area 51.
The entire Nevada Test and Training Range sprawls over 5,200 square miles of Nevada desert north of Las Vegas. Within its borders, the Nevada Test Site covers over 1,600 square miles that are still partially contaminated with radiation from testing nuclear bombs.
As for its name, Area 51 comes from old maps of the Nevada Test Site that designated the area around Groom Lake as Area 51. When the U-2 Spy Plane project was started, Lockheed called the area Paradise Ranch to try to attract workers to the project. Today, Area 51 appears to be known as the National Classified Test Facility.