Area 51 is perhaps the most satisfying legend of American history. Satisfying not only because it screams covert in a way that is literally otherworldly and takes us back to a time of serialized radio stories, but because, despite the nearly-absurd notion of our government maintaining an alien-testing site in the desert, it will always be only nearly-absurd. We can’t look it up on Snopes, or drive past it. The very magnitude of its absurdity is the one thing that keeps the story alive because it is perhaps the one thing we can never be certain doesn’t exist.
Today that changes—not only has George Washington University’s National Security Archive released declassified documents that prove the existence of an Area 51, but the military facility is also stripped of any mythical glory because the documents also show that Area 51 had nothing to do with Aliens at all. In fact, it was used as a testing site for a Lockheed reconnaissance plane that was used to collect higher-resolution photographs for military intelligence. The facility was originally used as a landing strip during WWII, and after the war the disused strip became the site of operations for the Lockheed aircraft. Although the Lockheed U-2, also knows as the Dragon Lady, has been largely replaced by drones, it is still technically in service.
Area 51 was cheekily nicknamed Paradise Ranch, so that intelligence officers and government employees wouldn’t have to tell their wives that they were moving the family to a rather large fenced-off area in the desert.
Today, as we learn the unnerving truth about the extent of government surveillance, it would be nice to have a bit of levity. Why can’t we have aliens? Wouldn’t that be nice to find out aliens existed? Instead of Aliens from the 1950’s, all we get is more news about surveillance.
However, it may be easier to think that Area 51 could very well be a brilliantly-deployed smokescreen for alien operations. The government knows that we expect to learn about shady information gathering tactics. What better way to throw us off the scent of extraterrestrial goings-on than by disappointing us a bit more, and robbing us of all romantic notions about Area 51?