Key Point: Area 51, the highly secretive U.S. Air Force test facility in the deserts of southern Nevada, is enjoying a resurgence of popular interest thanks to an internet meme—as if being featured in X-File episodes, arcade shoot’em up games and films weren’t enough.
Despite the countless dubious conspiracy theories attributed to the site also known as “Dreamland” or “Groom Lake,” there’s no doubt that for over six decades the base hosted all sorts of “black project” aircraft whose existence was not formally disclosed by the Pentagon.
Though the CIA only obliquely admitted to the site’s existence in 2013, we actually know a fair bit about how Area 51 came to be—and even how it first became a subject of juicy UFO stories.
A Private Testing Ground for Eisenhower’s Top-Secret Spy Plane
In the early 1950s, the United States was super keen on monitoring the Soviet Union’s rapidly developing nuclear ballistic missile program. As the first spy satellites remained a few years away from being launched, the only way to reliably spy on these sights was to fly above them and snap pictures with giant cameras. But by the early 1950s, the Soviet Union’s new air defense system and high-flying jet interceptors made spy flights excessively risky.
To overcome these defenses, Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson proposed a glide-liker spy plane that would simply fly too high to be intercepted at over 70,000 feet. This still involved illegally violating Soviet airspace—but as long as the spy planes couldn’t be shot down, Moscow couldn’t prove the spy flights were happening at all.