Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve no doubt noticed that Area 51 has been back in the news again lately. However, it’s not because of anything weird going on there; it’s because a Facebook event encouraging people to “Storm Area 51” went viral recently. But although the whole thing is just a joke that got quite a bit out of hand, it does make you realize that there’s still a lot we don’t know about Area 51 — mostly because the government has never answered the vast number of questions that have been floating around about it for years. The silence doesn’t necessarily mean that there are, y’know, alien autopsies or whatever going on at the facility (in all likelihood, there probably aren’t) — but it does kind of make you… wonder. Just a little bit. Doesn’t it?
Located in the desert of Lincoln County, Nevada near the extremely tiny town of Rachel, the military facility frequently referred to as Area 51 is a part of the Nevada Test and Training Range, which is itself a part of the Nellis Air Force Base. Area 51's official names include Homey Airport and Groom Lake; in the past, it’s also been referred to as “Watertown Strip,” “Paradise Ranch,” and simply “the Ranch.” Very little is known about the base, though — and even though that’s to be expected of a military facility, the secrecy surrounding the place that has stoked conspiracy theories about it for decades.
The mildest of these theories suggest that the base has been used for the development of advanced technology and air crafts that have never been proven to exist — like, for example, the so-called “Aurora” aircraft. The more outlandish theories frequently have to do with ideas surrounding the existence of extraterrestrial life: That aliens have been traveling to Earth for years; that material from alien crafts crash landing on Earth have been taken to Area 51 for study; that autopsies of actual aliens have been carried out at the facility; and so on and so forth. Again, none of these theories has ever been proven to be true — but they persist all the same.
The U.S. government did finally acknowledge the existence of Area 51 in 2013; that’s when a report written in 1992 about the development of the U-2 spy plane — which was carried out at Area 51 — was declassified thanks to a FOIA request and released to the public. Many, many questions about the place still remain, though, a lot of which might continue to go unsolved for the foreseeable future. Here are just a few of the questions we still have about Area 51 the government has never directly answered:
1. What Does The Phrase “Area 51” Even Mean?
It’s unknown exactly why Area 51 is called Area 51. Per Dictionary.com, diagrams dating back to the 1960s identify the facility as such; the designation is thought to have been connected to the numbered grid system the former Atomic Energy Commission used to identify the various parts of the Nevada Test Site (now known as the Nevada National Security Site). The problem, though, is that this grid only went from one to 30 — not all the way up to 51. Plus, Area 51 doesn’t border any areas numbered 50 or 52; it borders Area 15. Although some have speculated that the 51 comes from flipping the 15, it’s still not clear where the term “Area 51” comes from or precisely when it was first put into use.
2. Exactly How Big Is The Facility?
The actual base appears to be quite small — on the surface, at least. Although it’s situated on more than 90,000 acres, according to How Stuff Works, all you can really see is a hangar, a guard shack, housing, a mess hall, offices, shelters, radar antennae, and some runways (it is an airport, technically speaking). But many folks believe that the base is actually massive; we just can’t see it — because the rest of it is underground.
This theory has never been confirmed.
3. Who Are The “Cammo Dudes?”
The security guards who patrol Area 51 and the surrounding Nellis Air Force Base aren’t military. We know that much. That’s why they’re colloquially known as “cammo dudes” — they wear desert camouflage gear and they’re heavily armed, but they’re not actually soldiers. They’re probably defense contractors, but we don’t know for sure. Indeed, according to Area51.org, they’re actually not allowed to tell you who their employer is even if you ask. As the New York Daily News pointed out in 2016, they’re “shrouded in nearly as much secrecy as the… military testing site they protect” — and, of course, no one’s talking.
4. What’s The Meaning Of The “Janet” Planes’ Name?
People who work at Area 51 have an unusual commute: They’re flown in from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on a fleet of planes operated for the U.S. Air Force that fly under the name “Janet.” But although “Janet” is said to have a number of meanings — options range from “Joint Air Network For Employee Transportation” to the jokey, more colloquial “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal,” according to Business Insider — it’s never been made entirely clear exactly where the name comes from. Personally, I kind of like to think that there’s a The Good Place-style Janet running the fleet, but that’s just me.
5. What The Heck Is Area 51 Even FOR?
Exactly what the government uses the facility for remains unknown. Thanks to the declassified report, we do know that in the past, experimental aircraft testing was carried out there; the testing of the U-2, for example, is probably the most well-known. But although the facility is still active today, no one really knows what’s going on there right now. Experts and historians such as Peter Merlin and Chris Pocock have some ideas — Merlin told Popular Mechanics in 2017 that he suspects it has something to do with “improved stealth technology, advanced weapons, electronic warfare systems and … unmanned aerial vehicles,” while Pocock thought it was more along the lines of “classified aircraft, more exotic forms of radio communication, directed energy weapons, and lasers” — but they’re just theories for now.
6. What’s The Deal With Bob Lazar?
Despite the Roswell UFO incident having occurred in 1947, Area 51 didn’t capture America’s collective imagination until Bob Lazar stepped forward in 1989 claiming to have worked on projects involving reverse engineering alien technology while employed at the facility. The story itself was controversial enough, of course; even more controversial, though, were his qualifications: He claimed to have attended both Cal Tech and MIT and to have worked at the Los Alamos laboratory, but no records of his having attended Cal Tech or MIT have ever been found. Additionally, Los Alamos “denied [Lazar’s] testimony that he worked there” and said they had “no records at all” of him, according to the Daily Beast — but other evidence was located that seems to suggest he was telling the truth: A 1982 phone book for the lab included his name “among the other scientists,” while a newspaper clipping also dated 1982 described him as “a physicist at the Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility.”
For his part, Lazar has never wavered from his story. But, uh… what gives? About… everything here?
7. What Kind Of Aircraft Was Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schultz Flying When He Crashed In 2017?
On Sept. 5, 2017, Schultz crashed while flying an aircraft at the Nevada Test and Training Range. He died from injuries sustained in the crash. But the U.S. Air Force didn’t make the crash public until three days afterwards — an uncommonly long time, as Popular Mechanics pointed out: Other, recent, similar incidents were reported after just a day.
Plus, the government has refused to identify the kind of aircraft Schultz — an aerospace engineer with six degrees who became an experienced pilot later in life after receiving corrective eye surgery — was flying when he went down. (Their exact words were, “Information about the type of aircraft involved is classified and not releasable," per Popular Mechanics.) The lack of transparency surrounding the crash and Schultz’s death has led many to believe that the aircraft was of foreign origin and had been… uh… acquired by the U.S. government.
8. What’s Up With All Those UFO Sightings Reported By Navy Pilots In 2014 And 2015?
According to a New York Times report from May 2019, Navy pilots reported seeing “strange objects, one of them like a spinning top moving against the wind,” with “no visible engine or infrared exhaust plumes” reaching “30,000 feet and hypersonic speeds” with almost daily frequency from 2014 to 2015 — and we still don’t know what the objects actually were. To be fair, these sightings occurred on the East Coast — just about as far away from Area 51 as you can get without leaving the United States — but, as NPR observed recently, the sightings “[stoked] anew theories about extraterrestrial life hiding at Area 51.”
Will we ever really know the deal with Area 51? Probably not. In the meantime, though, let's, uh, not storm it. No amount of Naruto running will get you past all the security there. Just sayin'.