The Biggest Area 51 Theories

Officially, Area 51 is a secretive military installation in Southern Nevada run by the Air Force (via Britannica). Unofficially, it's, you know, the UFO place (disclaimer here that the U.S. government has said sightings of UFOs in this region can be explained by tests of military aircraft).

But what is Area 51, and how have so many conspiracy theories emerged around the 38,400-acre installation (via CNN)? There's the more-or-less official story: Area 51 is used for testing new military aircraft, such as cutting-edge drones. There's the freaky theory — that it holds the remains of aliens after their spacecraft crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. There's the meta explanation: the government is using stories of aliens and UFOs to cover up the actual top-secret activity that goes on there. And there are the really out-there stories: that Area 51 is where the moon landing was faked, for instance.

Drones, or UFOs?

Area 51 was built in the 1950s but the CIA didn't admit to its existence until 2013, according to BBC. In all likelihood, this is not because it housed aliens or weather-control technology, but in fact, was made to test high-tech planes (such as the F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter) and train pilots on their use, information you'd probably want to keep locked up for national security reasons.

But the supposed UFO sightings did provide a useful cover for the government, which, according to many sources, encouraged out-there alien explanations for their more unusual aircraft. "As early as 1950 the CIA developed a UFO office to deal with the sightings of unidentified flying objects over Nevada. When people first saw the U-2 spy plane flying, no one knew what they were seeing," said Annie Jacobsen, who wrote a book on the history of Area 51, to the BBC. "The CIA used that disinformation to their benefit by fostering an alien mythology." Eventually, this might have backfired, since we now know that some UFOs really are something the government says it has no explanation for and is investigating now, per The Hill.

Aliens created by Stalin and a Nazi doctor

Most alien conspiracy theories can be traced back to Robert Lazar, who in the late '80s claimed that he had worked at Area 51 trying to reverse-engineer alien technology, according to Britannica. He even claimed to have seen photographs of alien autopsies. Reporters soon found that Lazar had fabricated his educational and employment background; Lazar later claimed that his records were removed by the government (via Vox). 

Years later, an extraordinary explanation for aliens at Area 51 came from a surprisingly credible source: Annie Jacobsen, the Pulitzer-nominated writer quoted by the BBC above. Her book, "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base," is widely used by journalists writing about the secretive site, but it contains an extraordinary and dubious claim told to Jacobsen by a single anonymous source who supposedly worked at Area 51.

The claim is that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin hired Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at the end of World War II, and put him to work performing surgeries to enlarge the heads of supposed teenagers, making them look like aliens (via NPR). These teens were supposedly given the keys to some aircraft that then crash-landed in the American desert. Stalin hoped these "aliens" would cause mass panic, but instead the U.S. government hid their remains at Area 51, according to Jacobsen's book.

The 'birthplace of overhead espionage'

A more credible claim by Jacobsen is that Area 51 was used as the "birthplace of overhead espionage for the CIA," according to her book (as quoted in Vox). Located inside of the Nevada Test and Training Range — which among other purposes, is used for nuclear weapons testing — the site was chosen for its remoteness. "There was no way that anyone was going to try to get into this facility, especially because nuclear bombs were being exploded there," Jacobsen pointed out to Vox.

Before the U.S. had spy satellites, the government relied on high-flying planes for overhead surveillance. These planes needed to fly high enough to avoid anti-aircraft missiles — at least 70,000 feet — and cover long distances without refueling. They also needed to be capable of lugging 700 pounds worth of surveillance equipment. These exigencies resulted in the development of the U-2 spy plane, tested at Area 51 beginning on August 1, 1955, according to Jacobsen. More advanced spy planes followed as Russian anti-air tech improved — the Cold War had a stealth race to go along with its arms race and space race.

Faking the moon landing

Speaking of the space race — the moon landing was real — we have proof. Even amateur telescopes can see the Apollo landing sites, according to the UK-based Institute of Physics, and the missions brought back 382 kilograms of moon rocks that independent scientists have examined.

But if you still think Neil Armstrong and company were big fat liars, you might think the moon landing was staged at Area 51. After all, the base is in a desert in the middle of nowhere — couldn't it be made to look like the moon? It's not even that far from Los Angeles if they needed to drive Stanley Kubrick out to film the whole thing. Writer Bill Kaysing popularized a version of this premise in the 1974 conspiratorial book "We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle" (via Live Science), and the theory has continued to mutate ever since, despite a lack of real proof.

The Roswell connection

Here's something that really happened, though. In 1947, several years before Area 51 was completed, a mysterious aircraft crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. Witnesses said it was a UFO, and some people even claimed to see alien bodies in the wreckage; the government said it was a weather balloon (via Mental Floss). Nonetheless, conspiracy theorists said the remains of the aircraft (including those alien bodies) were investigated at the site that later became Area 51.

In fact, the aircraft was neither a UFO nor a weather balloon — it was a stray balloon from Project Mogul, a Cold War-era project where the United States tried to fly recording devices attached to balloons into the Soviet Union to monitor nuclear test sites. This is the current account of the government, who released documents relating to the Roswell incident in 1994 (via NSA). And the mangled alien bodies? Likely test dummies that had been dropped from great heights, according to a later report by the government (via Washington Headquarters Services). At least, that's what they're telling us.