The government admits it studies UFOs. So about those Area 51 conspiracy theories.

A car moves along the Extraterrestrial Highway near Rachel, Nev., April 10, 2002. The ET highway was established by the Nevada Legislature in 1996 and runs along the eastern border of Area 51, a military base on the Nevada Test Site that the U.S. government has admitted exists. [Associated Press]
A car moves along the Extraterrestrial Highway near Rachel, Nev., April 10, 2002. The ET highway was established by the Nevada Legislature in 1996 and runs along the eastern border of Area 51, a military base on the Nevada Test Site that the U.S. government has admitted exists. [Associated Press]
Published Dec. 18, 2017

For decades, Americans were told that Area 51 didn't really exist and that the U.S. government had no official interest in aliens or UFOs. Statements to the contrary, official-sounding people cautioned, were probably the musings of crackpots in tinfoil hats.

Well, score one for the crackpots.

The Pentagon has officially confirmed that there was, in fact, a $22 million government program to collect and analyze "anomalous aerospace threats" — government-speak for UFOs.

As The Washington Post's Joby Warrick reported, the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program was a rare instance of continued government investigations into a UFO phenomenon that was the subject of multiple official inquiries in the 1950s and 1960s.

For a specific segment of the population that doesn't need to Google the terms "Paradise Ranch" and "Cheshire cat airstrip," it was a eureka moment - the first (of presumably many) alien-related secrets that have slipped out of the clenched jaws of the government.

The non-Googlers have it easy, it seems: The admission - and the fact that the government spent $22 million on UFO research - gives any out-there theory a patina of credibility.

But what about the rest of us who have not fully jumped onto the tinfoil-hat bandwagon? What are we to make of 70 years of bizarre stories centered on a secret government base an hour's drive from the Las Vegas Strip?

In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower "approved the addition of this strip of wasteland, known by its map designation as Area 51, to the Nevada Test Site," according to a CIA history of a spy plane declassified in 2013. The area was near the Atomic Energy Commission's vast, desolate proving grounds and was used to test the high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance plane.

A parade of top-secret aircraft was tested in the area, according to Reuters, including the A-12 aircraft, a spy plane that flew faster than the speed of sound, and the angular F-117 stealth ground-attack jet.

But Area 51 quickly became a wire frame for not-quite-verifiable musings about alien life, secret technology and supernatural behavior.

Gaping holes in out-there theories had an easy explanation: The government is working diligently to keep the real story under wraps.

The biggest working (conspiracy) theory is that Area 51 is where the U.S. government stored aliens and spacecraft that crash-landed on Earth, particularly the unidentifiable debris discovered by William "Mac" Brazel.

Brazel, a farmer, discovered metallic rods, pieces of plastic and silvery paper scraps in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. He called the sheriff, who called the military, who carted the debris off in armored vehicles. But the secret was out, and it captured the imagination of the American public.

The government, the theories go, experimented on the aliens and tried to harness the technology in their ship to manufacture interstellar spacecraft and produce powerful energy weapons. Lab-coated Area 51 scientists also were said to be mulling ways to manipulate or weaponize the weather, travel through time and teleport.

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For decades, people reported seeing strange lights in the desert around Area 51 — presumably alien aircraft taking off or being tested at the government facility.

Adding fuel to the alien theories, Ray Santilli released a video in 1995 that purported to show an alien autopsy after the Roswell crash.

The crowd that believed something wasn't quite right at Area 51 was buoyed by a lawsuit filed by workers at the facility. They reported rashes, respiratory ailments and even deaths related to their jobs.

Of course, the alien aspects of those theories has crumbled under decades of scrutiny. Some have been explained away by declassified documents; other theories have been outright fabrications.

The debris Brazel found on his farm was part of a government cover-up, for example. It just didn't involve aliens.

The Air Force claimed it was using high-altitude balloons to try to detect Soviet nuclear tests. The Air Force said as much, about 50 years after the debris was found, in a 231-page report. Other officials have speculated that the debris came from a crashed nuclear bomber that had broken up over New Mexico. Roswell was, after all, the home of the 509th Composite Group, the atomic weapons unit that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

"We do believe that something did happen at Roswell," one source close to the investigation told Jack Anderson and Michael Binstein in 1995. "Something big. We don't know if it was a plane that crashed with a nuclear device on it . . . or if it was some other experimental situation. But everything we've seen so far points to an attempt on the part of the Air Force to lead anybody that looks at this down another track."

Santilli's autopsy footage was easier to debunk. He admitted that it was a fake (though he maintains that it was based on actual footage).

And the space around Area 51 was where the United States tested several of its more experimental aircraft as the Cold War raged, adding to its mystery.

Incidents such as the crash on Brazwell's farm or the sighting of several bright lights were shrouded in secrecy and half-baked excuses that became fodder for people who believe "the truth is out there."

The experimental aircraft may have had something to do with the injuries suffered by the workers, as The Post's Richard Leiby reported in 1997. They claimed materials, including anti-radar coating and other classified substances, had been burned in open pits on the base.

Filmmakers took notice of the intrigue. Over the past 70 years, Area 51 has been cemented as a popular science fiction trope.

Experiments on aliens and their spacecraft was an important plot point in the 1996 summer blockbuster "Independence Day," in which a U.S. resistance force converges on Area 51 to launch a final battle.

In the movie "Super 8," the train crash that motors the plot involves material being transported from Area 51.

But in the real world, government employees had been poring over their own film, captured by fighter pilots, of possible UFOs.

Chris Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence who once worked for the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program, said investigators had interviewed pilots who claimed they saw weird things in the air.

Mellon, who now works with UFODATA, a private organization, described one video of an encounter with an unidentified object to Politico:

"It is white, oblong, some 40 feet long and perhaps 12 feet thick. . . . The pilots are astonished to see the object suddenly reorient itself toward the approaching F/A-18.

"In a series of discreet tumbling maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics, the object takes a position directly behind the approaching F/A-18. The pilots capture gun camera footage and infrared imagery of the object. They are outmatched by a technology they've never seen."

The Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program generated at least one report, a 490-page volume that describes alleged UFO sightings in the United States and numerous other countries over multiple decades.