by Donald Prothero via Skepticblog
In the past few decades, this perfectly ordinary military base in the middle of the desert in southern Nevada has taken on mythic status. Most military bases have tight security, and only authorized military personnel and their contractors are allowed on base. This particular base is top secret, with much tighter security than most military land. Not only is it surrounded by a secured perimeter and motion detectors in the ground, but the guards travel the perimeter regularly, and have video security cameras monitoring everything that comes near the fence. It is also located in one of the most remote areas of sparsely populated Nevada, more than two hours of driving north out of Las Vegas. Because there is no way to see the base from the paved road, even from the highest peaks outside the base except Tikaboo Peak (a long hard desert hike), it can only be viewed from the air or from space. Naturally, that high level of secrecy has led to all sorts of speculation about what happens there, and an entire industry of books and movies and TV shows which need only mention the phrase “Area 51” and immediately their audience assumes that there are aliens or some kinds of weird government experiments going on there.
First of all, let’s clarify one misconception: the proper name of the base. Some of the common names of the base are “Groom Lake” or “Homey Airport” on civilian aeronautics maps, or the longer “Nevada Test and Training Range” in CIA documents, but the older CIA documents do use the term “Area 51”. The name “Area 51” was indirectly named from the old grid system the Atomic Energy Commission used in the 1950s and 1960s to map the Nevada Test Site and the associated air bases. The original grid system numbering did not go as high as 51, but the Groom Lake area was purchased later and added to the secured perimeter of the base near Area 15 of the original grid; it is speculated that they just reversed 15 to 51 to get the number for the newly annexed area. The area has acquired additional security nicknames used to hide the true nature of the place, such as “Paradise Ranch”, the name that Lockheed Aircraft designer Kelly Johnson used to attract workers to project. According to Alexander Aciman in Time magazine:
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.
Other names include the CIA name “Watertown” (a reference to Watertown, New York, birthplace of CIA Director Allen Dulles), and “Dreamland Resort,” “Red Square,” “The Box,” or just “The Ranch”. After the U.S. Air Force took over the base from the CIA in the late 1970s, the name “Area 51” was discontinued, and it was called Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center (or simply Det. 3, AFFTC). As such, it was a remote operating location of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Today the official name of the Groom Lake base appears to be the National Classified Test Facility. The Test Wing (Det. 3, AFFTC) is still the primary occupant of the site.
There is also an Area 52. It is another name for the secret airfield and testing facility near Tonopah, Nevada, about 70 miles (110 km) northwest of Groom Lake. Many of the same aircraft that were developed and tested at Area 51 have their official base of operations at Area 52, especially the stealth aircraft.
For many decades, the activities in the base were top secret, so most of what was written about it was sheer guesswork or based on the reports of people who had worked there and spilled some of their information.