Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Daryck. Daryck Wonders, “Where is Area 51?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Daryck!

Have you ever been to Las Vegas, Nevada? The bright lights of the big city draw many people in. Others are more interested in the dark secrets of the deserts outside the city. For miles and miles, the only sights are empty roads and sprawling ranches. In many parts of the region, there seems to be nothing but dirt and sand in every direction.

However, things aren’t always what they seem. Somewhere in the desert, there’s a dusty, unmarked dirt road. It leads to a place called Groom Lake. Miles before reaching that landmark, however, you’ll be stopped by an intimidating set of warning signs. They’ll make it clear that you’ve gone as far as you’re going to go down this road.

What lies beyond those warning signs? Surveillance cameras, security guards, and several more miles of road. They all lead to one of the most mysterious places in the United States: Area 51.

For over 50 years, no other place in America has been the center of as many myths and legends as Area 51. Does it really exist? Is it a top-secret military base? Does it house 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. It even remains active today. Contrary to many urban legends, however, it doesn’t have anything to do with aliens or unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

Still, it’s easy to see how those myths got started. Area 51 was built in 1955 as part of the much larger Nevada Test and Training Range complex. It was built in a valley surrounded by mountains that are off-limits to the public. It’s also right next to Groom Lake. This large, dry lake bed is perfect for use as a runway for large aircraft.

Area 51 was built to serve as a test facility for a top-secret aircraft. Now, we know this craft as the U-2 Spy Plane. It could fly special spy missions at altitudes of 60,000 feet or higher. That’s much higher than other airplanes at the time. They usually flew at heights between 10,000-20,000 feet.

Soon, people started to spot the U-2 Spy Plane at these high altitudes. Many, including commercial and military pilots, were naturally puzzled. The plane’s development was top-secret, and sightings were rare. Those who did see the plane from a distance, though, could easily have thought it came from another world!

That’s how the UFO and alien myths grew. 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 rumors. It preferred to keep 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. People interested in UFOs and aliens regularly drive the E.T. Highway. They hope to catch sight of strange creatures or spacecraft in the sky.

These people are unlikely to see aliens or UFOs. But they could get a glimpse of some other aircraft being tested at Area 51. After the U-2 Spy Plane, several other craft were tested there. This includes the A-12 “Blackbird,” the F-117 Stealth Fighter, and the B-2 Stealth Bomber.

What is going on at Area 51 today? Who knows! It remains a top-secret testing facility. 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 the base 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 land north of Las Vegas. Within its borders, the Nevada Test Site covers over 1,600 square miles. Parts of the region are still contaminated with radiation from testing nuclear bombs.

How did Area 51 get its name? It’s from old maps of the Nevada Test Site. They designated the area around Groom Lake as Area 51. When the U-2 Spy Plane project was started, they called the area Paradise Ranch. This was an attempt to attract workers to the project. Today, Area 51 appears to be known as the National Classified Test Facility.

The U.S. government released a good deal of information about Area 51’s history in 2013. Still, conspiracy theories continue to spread. What do you think about Area 51? Is it simply a top-secret military base? Does it have anything to do with life from other planets? This theory seems unlikely, but many still hold it to be true.

Standards: CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1

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