The Conspiracy Theory That Made Area 51 Synonymous With Aliens

The general public associates Area 51 with UFOs and aliens. These conspiracy theories originated with a classified military project that had nothing to do with extra-terrestrials.
The connection between Area 51 and UFOs started with a top-secret aircraft.
The connection between Area 51 and UFOs started with a top-secret aircraft. / VICTOR HABBICK VISIONS/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty Images

Area 51 may be the world’s most famous secret military base. Established on an abandoned airfield in the Nevada desert, the facility has fueled the imaginations of conspiracy theorists scanning the skies for UFOs for decades. But the truth about Area 51’s origins, while secretive, isn’t as thrilling as alien autopsies and flying saucers.

According to Business Insider, the U.S. government intended to build a base where they could test a top-secret military aircraft without drawing attention from civilians or spies. That aircraft, the U-2 plane, needed to fly higher than any other manmade object in the skies. That way it could perform recon missions over what was then the USSR without getting shot down.

The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in flight.
The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in flight. / Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds, U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Even over the desert, the U-2 didn’t go completely undetected during test flights. Pilots who noticed the craft high above them reported it as an “unidentified flying object.” Not wanting to reveal the true nature of the project, Air Force officials gave flimsy explanations for the sightings pointing to either natural phenomena or weather research. UFO believers were right to think the government was covering something up, they were just wrong about the alien part.

The government hasn't been able to dispel UFO conspiracy theories in the decades since. In 2020, the Pentagon made headlines by releasing formerly classified videos of “Unmanned Aerial Systems” they couldn't explain. Whether the strange objects originated on this planet or elsewhere has yet to be determined.

You can get the full story of the origins of Area 51 conspiracy theories in the video below.

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A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2024.