A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does the U.S. government keep alien spaceships at Area 51?

August 23, 1996

Dear Cecil:

As an X-Files junkie and conspiracy freak, I was watching the blockbuster Independence Day, and I got to the part where everybody goes to Area 51 and there's a big spaceship and Brent Spiner says they've been studying aliens there since Roswell. I thought, what's the deal? Area 51 was on an episode of the X-Files, it's got a video game, a band — what the hell do they have in there? Biological weapons? Plutonium? Cold fusion? The body of Jimmy Hoffa? Or the bodies of hundreds of dead aliens? I'm starved for info.

Cecil replies:

Oh, yeah, if it's on X-Files and there's a video game you know it's gotta be legit. The Pentagon always notifies the entertainment industry when it gets in some fresh aliens.

In fact what we've got here is a showcase example of the American genius for hype. Officially, at least, there's no such place as "Area 51." The name refers to a six-by-ten-mile section numbered 51 on an old grid-type map of the Nevada A-bomb test site.

Now part of the Nellis Air Force Range, Area 51 is the home of a used-to-be-secret-but-everybody-and-his-dentist-knew-about-it airfield at Groom (dry) Lake. The Pentagon reportedly has used the airfield to test spy planes and more recently the F-117A Stealth fighter.

For years the military didn't acknowledge the existence of the Groom Lake facility, and even now it speaks only vaguely of "testing ... technologies and systems" there. This of course made Area 51 the perfect place for UFO buffs to store hypothetical alien spacecraft.

What really put Area 51 on the map, so to speak, were the revelations of an enigmatic character named Bob Lazar, who operated a photo lab in Las Vegas. In 1989 Lazar told a Las Vegas TV anchorman that he was a physicist who'd been hired to "reverse engineer" one of nine alien spacecraft stored at a facility supposedly near Groom Lake that Lazar called "Area S-4."

Lazar claimed he had a top-secret security clearance for this job. So what did Mr. Trustworthy do? After only a few months he took some UFO enthusiasts to a spot near the secret base so they could see the alien spacecraft fly. On the last such visit guards caught them, and Lazar claims that shortly thereafter his employment at S-4 ended.

Lazar's description of the spacecraft was filled with enough technical mumbo jumbo about antimatter propulsion systems to persuade people he knew what he was talking about. But the key academic credentials he claimed didn't check out, he'd earlier filed for bankruptcy, and he's since been convicted of pandering.

Yeah, I know: presidential material. But even a lot of people in the UFO community now think Lazar's a flake.

Not that it matters. State highway 375, which runs past Nellis Air Force Range, has now become a sight-seeing stop for UFO buffs hoping for a glimpse of a flying saucer. (Supposedly the primo viewing spot is a certain "black mailbox." Where the aliens get their welfare checks, I bet.)

Some nights you can see lights. Glenn Campbell, a well-known researcher of Area 51 mysteries who's skeptical about flying-saucer sightings, says they're "meteors, flares, aircraft lights, and many manifestations of the bombing runs and war games" at Nellis. But sure, they could be emissaries from beyond the stars.

Now the state of Nevada has declared the road "Extraterrestrial Highway" and promotes it as a tourist destination. Larry King's been out there. So have the networks, Hollywood, the New York Times. In case you missed any of the coverage, Campbell keeps copies on his wonderfully informative Web site (www.ufomind.com/area51). Just shows you the impenetrable veil of secrecy the Pentagon has been able to draw over the whole affair.

Legal action may eventually pry a few more facts loose. Some workers at Groom Lake have sued the U.S. Air Force, saying they were injured by toxic waste burning at the site. Site? What site? the feds said initially. (They finally caved on that point.) Dismissed on national-security grounds, the case is now being appealed.

But why wait? You want to see beings from another planet, go out to the black mailbox. There are bunches of 'em, looking up.

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