Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, Colorado Springs
This place is something out of a 1960s James Bond movie. Inside a hollowed-out mountain designed to withstand a direct strike from an atomic bomb are 15 buildings 11 of which are three stories tall keeping track of everything in outer space and all planes flying in North American airspace. Large, backlit maps of the world display information received from orbiting spy satellites; a large video screen constantly shows the location of the president and vice-president. In case of a nuclear war, over 800 personnel could survive in here for more than 30 days completely cut off from the outside world. They once offered guided tours, but alas! had stopped doing so at the time this book was being written.
Where does one start when discussing Cheyenne Mountain?
How about the 1,319 springs, each weighing over 1000 pounds, that the buildings rest upon so they can absorb the impact of a nuclear strike? How about the 25-ton blast doors that can close in 15 seconds when a nuclear attack is detected? How about the 1,700 feet of granite that covers it?
It’s no use. Cheyenne Mountain is off the scale no matter how you try to describe it.
Construction of Cheyenne Mountain began in 1961 and finally became operational in 1966. Its elevation is 7,100 feet above sea level. The interior of the mountain was hollowed by a series of excavating explosions that delayed construction of the interior until 1963. The 15 buildings inside total over 250,000 square feet and are connected by 2.8 miles of tunnels through granite. Over 1,200 personnel work there (although not all are present at once). It has its own supplies of water and fuel plus six generators to supply electricity; it also has battery systems capable of running the facility for a half-hour. It operates without air conditioning or heaters; the natural temperature of this artificial cave is 57 degrees and recovered heat from the computer systems is used to provide additional warmth. The construction cost when it was built was $142 million. In today’s dollars, that’s over $18 billion.
Cheyenne Mountain Colorado Map Photo Gallery
Several activities are based inside Cheyenne Mountain. Perhaps the best known is the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint American/Canadian effort to defend North America from attack by missiles or aircraft. (Since NORAD is a joint effort, several members of the Canadian military work inside Cheyenne Mountain.) The Air Operations Center ties together military and civilian radar systems to track aircraft over North America; it logs over 2,500,000 flights annually. (Some of the lingering questions from the September 11, 2001 attacks concern how well Cheyenne Mountain was able to track the hijacked jets and feed any data to appropriate civilian and military authorities.) The U.S. Space Command controls all military satellites, including spy communications, and navigation satellites. The main purpose of this command is to provide warning of enemy missiles; it detects all missile launches around the world and then has to decide, in no more than two to three minutes, whether the missile is hostile. Finally, the Air Force Space Command tracks and catalogues all objects in orbit, ranging from the Space Shuttle to debris the size of a large bolt (a piece of space junk that size, orbiting the Earth at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour, could do serious damage to a satellite or the Space Shuttle if there was a collision). It also operates the global positioning satellite (GPS) network.
What’s There: Back when the Air Force conducted guided tours of Cheyenne Mountain, visitors entered via a 5,000-foot-long tunnel drilled through the mountain. The tunnel has no doors at either end, and the doors leading into the facility are parallel to the tunnel. The theory behind this design is that the force of a nuclear blast would “blow through” the tunnel and minimize stresses on the doors.
The interior buildings are constructed of steel and laid out in a grid pattern. They remind many visitors of what it feels like to be below deck of a large Navy ship, such as an aircraft carrier or destroyer. Besides strength, steel has the added advantage of being able to absorb much of the electromagnetic pulse that would be produced by a nearby nuclear explosion. Some openings in the wall allowed visitors to view the huge springs the buildings are mounted o.n and the tunnels that connect the buildings. There are no barracks or other living quarters for personnel; cots and other temporary bedding are stored in the facility in case the Big One lands.
Most visitors were surprised by how small the various rooms are, especially the various command centers. Movies like War Games have long depicted these areas as huge, auditorium-sized facilities with high ceilings, much like mission control at NASA. Those inside Cheyenne Mountain, however, aren’t much larger than the control room of a television station. There are several monitors on the walls, but workers sit close together and the ceiling is about as high as that in most houses. Instead of awe, most visitors felt claustrophobia. However, some of the command center furnishings are like a movie; generals with two or three stars are often in command, and they do have a red telephone that connects them directly to the president. Duty officers responsible for monitoring various activities (such as missile launches or aircraft intruding from south of the United States) have a beige phone at their duty station. If an officer detects something unusual, he or she picks up their phone, all other beige phones ring, and the officers at those stations respond as necessary.
Key Facilities: The main command center for Cheyenne Mountain has several large, backlit maps of North America and other areas of the world. One shows the current location of the president, vice president, the Canadian prime minister, and other senior government and military leaders. Other maps and monitors track moving aircraft (especially those approaching the airspace of North America) and display data received from spy satellites and ground-based space radars.
Secret Stuff: According to a 1999 CNN report, Cheyenne Mountain detected over 670 “unknowns” in North American airspace in 1997 and turned that information over to other government agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration. To augment these efforts, balloon-carried radar systems are being deployed along the border with Mexico. It is not known which other agencies receive information from Cheyenne Mountain or the exact degree of cooperation between this facility and civilian law enforcement organizations.
Getting a Look Inside: Until recently, the Air Force conducted guided tours inside Cheyenne Mountain. These tours began soon after the facility was opened in 1967, were discontinued in 1980, resumed in 1985, and were again discontinued after the September 11 attacks. It is not known whether public tours will be resumed in the future. When public tours were offered, reservations had to be made well in advance and potential visitors were subject to rigorous security checks. Two forms of photo identification (including verification of social security number) were required and visitors could not bring cameras, recorders, cell phones, pagers, etc., into the facility; visitors had to walk through a metal detector and all handbags, etc., were searched.
Unusual Fact: Cheyenne Mountain really isn’t nuclear bomb-proof anymore. While it can withstand a nearby blast, the Air Force admits that a direct hit from today’s more accurate missiles would likely take out Cheyenne Mountain.
Getting There: Cheyenne Mountain is southwest of Colorado Springs but can’t be accessed via any public roads; the area is highly guarded and any attempt to hike into the facility will likely result in arrest. Moreover, private landowners in the area around Cheyenne Mountain have been known to call police to arrest hikers attempting to cross their land on the way to the facility. While there are no longer guided tours of Cheyenne Mountain, there is a multimedia “General Public Presentation” about the facility offered at the adjacent Cheyenne Mountain Air Station. The presentation does include a look at the inside of the facility (or at least how they looked when public tours were discontinued; it is likely some changes have been made since then). Information about viewing the presentation can be obtained by calling (719) 474-2238. The Cheyenne Mountain Air Station is about as close as you can get these days; take Highway 115 south from Colorado Springs and take the Cheyenne Mountain Air Station exit. Merge onto NORAD Road and continue toward the west until you reach the visitor center.
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