Area 51: What's really going on at the secret US base, and why people think it's aliens

Like 1.5 million other people, I've signed up to "storm Area 51" and "see them aliens".

Of course, like the vast majority of that 1.5 million, I'm not actually going to do it - considering the very real threat I'd end up dead

But the internet meme has thrust the secretive US military base back into popular consciousness, 30 years after it became indelibly linked with UFOs and extraterrestrials. 

So what is Area 51, officially?

As far as the US Government is concerned, it's called Groom Lake or - since 2008 - Homey Airport (airport code KXTA). It's a highly-classified US Air Force base located within the Nevada Test and Training Range, which sprawls across more than 11,000 square kilometres in the state's south. 

It was established in 1955 by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a remote location for testing the U-2 spy plane, which would go on to fly over Soviet and other communist territories. 

Its existence was never officially denied, but the first time it was publicly acknowledged by the military was 2013, when a Freedom of Information Act request (similar to our Official Information Act) from 2005 was finally answered, revealing the base's history of experimental aircraft and weapons testing. 

Area 51.
Area 51. Photo credit: Google Maps

Until recently, satellite imagery of the base was censored on services like Google Maps. It's now free to look at, albeit from far, far above. 

What do conspiracy theorists say it is?

A base where the US military is testing craft based on designs and technology they've procured from a crashed alien spacecraft - or perhaps even housing alien crew.

What's the origin of that theory?

In 1947, a mysterious object crashed on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. Just weeks before the wreckage was found, a pilot in the state of Washington had coined the term "flying saucers" to describe a group of unidentified objects he'd seen flying at then-impossible speeds for human aircraft.

While initial newspaper reports called it a "flying disc", the military quashed the story with lies it was just a weather balloon. It wasn't - the balloon was actually intended for nuclear test monitoring - but this project was still secret. 

Roswell Daily Record
Initial reports of the crash. Photo credit: Roswell Daily Record

More than 30 years later, UFO researchers - citing interviews with insiders and leaked documents - began suggesting the US military had indeed recovered an alien vessel, and perhaps a number of bodies too. These claims became interwoven with Area 51 in 1989 when a man, Bob Lazar, told a local TV news station he'd worked at Area 51 reverse-engineering alien technology.

"There's several, actually nine flying saucers, flying discs that are out there of extraterrestrial origin. They're basically being dismantled," he told KLAS. "Some of them are 100 percent intact and operate perfectly...the other half have been torn down basically to analyse the components."

Lazar said he had no idea where the military got the craft from. Little evidence has been found Lazar even worked at Area 51, let alone that it was housing aliens and their craft.

How did Area 51 become widely known?

Hollywood loved the premise. According to IMDB, the first mainstream show to feature Area 51 was sci-fi horror series The Outer Limits in 1995, in an episode based on a short story by Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin

That same year video of a supposed alien autopsy at the secretive site was broadcast on Fox, and would have been the first many had heard of Area 51.

In 1996's blockbuster hit Independence Day, scientists restore the craft which allegedly crashed in 1947, allowing stars Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith to sneak into an alien mothership threatening Earth and destroy it. 

An alien 'attacker' at Area 51 in Independence Day.
An alien 'attacker' at Area 51 in Independence Day. Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Contrary to popular belief, Area 51 hardly features in The X-Files. It was only in one double-episode, which saw David Duchovny's Fox Mulder swap bodies with Morris Fletcher, portrayed by Michael McKean. 

What will happen if people actually try to storm Area 51?

It's likely they will be shot dead. While there are no fences around Area 51, there are signs warning "deadly force" will be used against unlawful entrants.

"We would discourage anyone from trying to come into the area where we train American armed forces," US Air Force spokesperson Laura McAndrews told the Washington Post.

"The US Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets."

A sign near Area 51.
A sign near Area 51. Photo credit: Getty

In 2016, a BBC crew were held at gunpoint for three hours but got away with their lives and a £375 fine each after trying to sneak in with a UFO expert and a comedian.