“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
That’s the motto of visitors to the Nevada city known for decades as a destination for dubious characters and debauchery.
But news of what happened on July 7, 1947, in Roswell, New Mexico, and subsequently during the 1950s at the Nevada Test and Training Range just outside of Las Vegas, did not remain confined. Towards the 1970s and 80s, rumors found their way into the collective American consciousness and took hold as definitive proof of extra-terrestrials, launching government conspiracies known as “The Roswell Incident” and “Area 51.”
According to the Smithsonian, the Roswell Daily Record reported news of a “flying saucer” on July 8, 1947. More than 75 years later, the public remains fascinated by the possibility that aliens not only crash landed in Roswell, but that the U.S. Army collected the wreckage to carry out alien experiments and cover up their existence from the American people.
And while Roswell is nowhere near Area 51, which wasn’t even active until the mid-1950s, the two are inextricably linked because of the perceived alien connection.
However, due to the top secret nature of the military testing, the U.S. government was not particularly interested in debunking UFO rumors, which spread unchecked in turn.
“[...] it was better from the Air Force’s perspective that there was a crashed ‘alien’ spacecraft out there than to tell the truth,” Roger Launius, former curator of space history at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, told the Smithsonian. “What was really going on [with Roswell] was something called Project Mogul.”
Project Mogul’s purpose was to search the upper atmosphere for signs of reverberations from nuclear-test blasts using high-altitude balloons with sensors and radar detectors.
An NSA report from 1994 seemingly confirmed that the “Roswell Incident” was indeed linked to Project Mogul, not an Army alien cover-up.
”Several surviving project personnel were located and interviewed, as was the only surviving person who recovered debris from the original Roswell site in 1947, and the former officer who initially identified the wreckage as a balloon,” according to the NSA. “Comparison of all information developed or obtained indicated that the material recovered near Roswell was consistent with a balloon device and most likely from one of the Mogul balloons that had not been previously recovered.”
The report also noted that no mention of “alien bodies” were made.
But the secrecy of additional nuclear and spyplane testing has been carried out in the American southwest over the last 75 years, fueling the rumors of alien conspiracy further.
Needing a covert place to develop aircraft, “Area 51″ was ultimately selected by CIA officer Richard Bissell, who was tasked with developing the U-2 plane program.
Because the U-2 was a covert spyplane intended to perform reconnaissance missions in the USSR, secrecy was of the utmost importance. As a result of the lack of transparency, however, sightings of UFOs by locals permeated, and all manner of alien conspiracies broke loose.
What made it worse was that the U.S. government refused to acknowledge the existence of Area 51 at all. It wasn’t until 2013, when declassified CIA documents were obtained and posted online by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, that any official mention of the site was made.
Despite more recent transparency regarding the history of both Roswell and Area 51, in June 2019, a poll conducted by YouGov found that 54% of American adults believe the government “likely” knows more about UFOs than it lets on.
But why, despite all the proof to the contrary, do so many still believe Area 51 is a hotbed for alien activity?
For one, the heavy military security around the base has contributed to an air of allure, causing prying eyes to wonder, “What don’t you want us to see?”
That question came to a head in June 2019, when a joke Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” suggested thousands amass along the Area 51 fence to storm the gates and find the aliens.
The U.S. Air Force, which took over leadership of Area 51 from the CIA in 1978, was forced by the scale of the event to note that while trespassers wouldn’t find any evidence of extra-terrestrials, the Nevada Test and Training Range at Nellis Air Force Base known as Area 51 “is an area where the Air Force tests and trains combat aircraft.”
The public affairs officer who addressed queries regarding the use of lethal force against trespassers wrote, “As a matter of practice, we do not discuss specific security measures, but any attempt to illegally access military installations or military training areas is dangerous.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.