Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Seth Shostak
Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute
From SETI Institute Journey eNewsletter,
1 August 2019, used by permission
More than a million people say they want to scale the fences and assault Area 51, a top-secret Air Force installation hunkered down in the Nevada desert. Their hope is to see the aliens who are supposedly warehoused within. The blitz is scheduled for September 20, so mark your calendars.
Or not. The idea for this effort was birthed on Facebook, and it was clearly intended as a joke. But so was Johnny Carson’s 1973 claim that the U.S. was running out of toilet paper – an offhand attempt at humor that triggered a real shortage. So joke or no, the hordes might really show up at the closely guarded federal facility.
BookMaker, an Internet betting site, is already weighing the odds of a tsunami of citizens storming the chain-links and, if they do, the chances that they’ll find any aliens mothballed inside.
It’s all good fun (unless, perhaps, you’re a security guard for the Air Force.) But should you go? And, really, is there any reason to believe that extraterrestrials are stacked up at Area 51?
The Air Force says a citizen assault would be “dangerous” – a description perfectly chosen to encourage those who believe that what goes on at this hush-hush base is both suspect and probably malevolent. Signs posted around Area 51 somberly note that trespassing will be dealt with harshly, and that deadly force is authorized – as if you’d care whether or not it’s authorized when they winch your body out of the sagebrush.
Of course, secret things do go on at Area 51 – the testing of new military aircraft, for instance. The Air Force is not keen on people making photos. So trying to scale the Area’s ramparts is about as advisable as storming Fort Knox. And even if camo-clad guards aren’t enough to dissuade you, there’s always the desert itself. Daytime temperatures, even in late September, could hover around a sweaty 90 degrees. Refreshment will be hard to find, and the expected crush of people will more or less guarantee you’ll be sleeping in your car or under a creosote bush.
OK, but maybe you’re thinking that pulling the wraps off some aliens would be worth the discomfort. Which, indeed, it would. And Internet jests aside, a lot of people are convinced that the federal government really keeps evidence of extraterrestrial visitors – dead or alive – somewhere. Surveys show that one-third of the American public is convinced that aliens are visiting Earth, and a majority say that the government knows.
However, crashed saucers or broken bodies aren’t on display at the Smithsonian or Roswell’s UFO Museum. So that lack of obvious evidence encourages true believers to take another tack: Namely, claiming that the feds, thanks to their hi-tech equipment and cloak-and-dagger talents, are the only successful gatherers of alien artifacts. And of all the places they could squirrel away this evidence, they’ve chosen southern Nevada.
Frankly, this is a poor argument. Wayfaring aliens are unlike new missiles or Mach 3 fighter jets. Alien spacecraft would, one presumes, be routinely noticed by many of the billions of people who are not employed by the U.S. military, nearly all of whom have cell phones with cameras. Sure, the recently released videos made by some Navy pilots are suggestively mysterious. But they’re ambiguous. And what about the one-hundred thousand commercial flights that take off every day, apparently without the slightest concern with – or notice of – extraterrestrial craft? Does the International Airline Pilots Association offer training on how to deal with aliens in our airspace?
It beggars belief to think that the thousands of employees and contractors who’ve worked at Area 51 in the 7 decades since the celebrated Roswell incident have been capable of keeping news of stockpiled aliens under wraps, despite the fact that it would be the biggest story ever. The oft-repeated argument that secrecy is necessary in order to avoid panicking the populace doesn’t wash. Folks already believe E.T. is here, and they still go to the office every morning.
If nothing else, the suggested blitz of Area 51 demonstrates Nevada’s continuing success in cornering the alien market. In 1996, state officials christened route 375 as the Extraterrestrial Highway. This 100 mile stretch of straightaway, which parallels the northern border of Area 51, might have qualified as the world’s most boring two-hour drive if it weren’t for the fact that some people have seen strange objects in the sky while en route.
It’s also noteworthy that the Nevada Commission on Tourism, which promoted the highway re-branding, didn’t point to the fact that, three years earlier, state senator Richard Bryan had introduced an amendment to cancel the NASA project to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial intelligence. But then again, those aliens would have been light-years away and of little benefit to the Nevada economy.
As for Area 51, the truth may not be out there. But some high-speed aircraft and a lot of prickly pear probably are.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
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this page last updated 17 August 2019
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