SCI FI Wire took part in a VIP tour of the top-secret NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) facility located at the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, just outside of Colorado Springs, Colo., on Aug. 7. I’d like to tell you more, but sorry–it’s classified, and, well, you just don’t have clearance.
Actually, although Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is a top-secret facility, there’s much the general public is allowed to see. But before I describe those things–let me remind you of why you might recognize the name Cheyenne Mountain.
If you’ve seen the film WarGames, then you might recognize Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station as the home of the chess-loving supercomputer Joshua, who nearly destroys the world with a game of Global Thermonuclear War.
If you remember the post-apocalyptic television series Jeremiah, you may recall that Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station was the home of the Thunder Mountain group that was attempting to unify the survivors of the Big Death. Or if you’re a fan of Stargate SG-1 you know that Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is the home of Stargate Command.
The tour was not allowed to go into the Command Center (or see the Stargate–which, in fact, they denied existed), but other than that I can say without hyperbole that the tour was totally awesome.
In addition to myself, a select group of SF authors went along on the tour, including best-selling writers Kevin J. Anderson, Walter Jon Williams and Robert J. Sawyer, among others.
After the group’s arrival at the station, we were escorted into a large office foyer that proudly displayed mementos from previous VIP visitors–inside Plexiglas cases were items such as autographed basketballs and hockey paraphernalia, and there was even a single glove from an astronaut’s flight suit, which was donated after it was made expendable when its mate was lost in space.
From there, we entered a classroom-like room, in which our tour guide, Lt. Ryan Lally, gave us a primer on the facility, with the help of a PowerPoint presentation. We learned that NORAD–which is a joint military venture between the United States and Canadian governments–once had its primary headquarters in the facility we were touring, but that the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station now serves as an Alternate Command Center. Primary NORAD headquarters is currently located at nearby Peterson Air Force Base.
The Cheyenne Mountain Division became operational in 1966 and is located more than 2,400 feet below Cheyenne Mountain. Its current mission includes providing warning of ballistic missile or air attacks against North America, and it assists the air sovereignty mission for the United States and Canada.
Once our lecture was finished, we boarded a bus and traveled into the heart of the mountain. We rode for about 10 minutes through a long tunnel with not much to see outside the windows other than tunnel wall. After our bus ride, the walking part of our tour began.
Our guide led us through a cavernous, well, cavern, whose walls were punctuated throughout its length with gigantic bolts, used to reinforce the rock to keep it from collapsing in on itself. Covering most of the walls and ceilings of the cavern was chain-link fencing to help keep any stray rock from falling on passersby. Similarly, certain areas of the cavern walls were also covered with tarps to keep water from dripping on workeres as they walk through. Lt. Lally informed us that for many years, before the tarps were installed, people would carry umbrellas when walking through the cavern.
At the end of the cavern was the entrance to the base proper, which appeared to be a number of interconnected buildings, all of which were built atop a series of gigantic springs to account for any shifting of the rock. Adjacent to the base entrance was a large, welded-shut auxiliary entrance, where the gigantic supercomputers of yesteryear (sorry, Joshua, but micro is the new humongous) were once brought into the facility.
Once we got inside the base, I realized that the strangest thing about this subterranean facility might actually be how normal much of it seemed. I mean, there were cafeterias and stores inside it. Not to mention offices and gyms and rec rooms and the like.
The store sold NORAD T-shirts, shot glasses and even NORAD T-shirt-wearing teddy bears. The checkout clerk there might not have the most interesting checkout clerk job in the world, but it would certainly be the best one to have should World War III start during your shift.
So that’s the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in a nutshell–remarkable oddness juxtaposed with unremarkable normality.
Coordinating the tour for NORAD was retired Lt. Col. Brian Lihani, a former Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station Air Warning Center commander. The idea for the tour came about because Lihani’s wife, Christina, was a fan of SF author Jeff Carlson’s novel Plague Year.
“I bought and read Jeff’s book while on vacation,” Christina said. “I saw from the back cover that this was his first novel and decided to look at his Web page. … He replied and noted that my area here in Colorado Springs might figure into one of his future novels, something about NORAD or Cheyenne Mountain. I forwarded his e-mail to Brian and suggested that maybe someday he might like to tour the mountain.”
The timing of the trip was due to the 66th annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), which was held in Denver this weekend, where writers and fans met to celebrate science fiction and fantasy in all its forms. In addition to myself and the aforementioned writers, several other writers (and some of their spouses) went on the tour, ranging from award-winning authors such as Robert Charles Wilson to newcomers David J. Williams (The Mirrored Heavens) and Paolo Bacigalupi (Pump Six). I asked a few of them to share their thoughts about the tour.
“It was like venturing into some kind of timewarp: a journey to the place from which the apocalypse would have been monitored,” David J. Williams said. “But the most surreal part of it was to see on what hard times the place has fallen: civilian contractors doing most of the work, all the main operations transferred elsewhere, and the base itself now on standby. Even so, the whole thing was nothing short of awesome. … It was worth it just to ride the bus into the heart of mountain and see those gigantic blast doors.”
As Bacigalupi walked through NORAD’s tunnels, it struck him how successful we are at responding to tangible threats. “We understood nuclear attack and the weapons that might be deployed against us and built NORAD to look out for them,” he said. “But it also highlighted to me how ineffective we are when the problem is more diffuse. I write a lot about threats like unraveling ecosystems, energy depletion and global warming, and I can’t help wondering if those might turn out to be our real blind spots. It’s a bit of a pity that we never built a NORAD equivalent for environmental collapse.”
Walter Jon Williams, who is a member of the SIGMA think tank–a group of SF writers working with the Department of Homeland Security to apply science fiction to critical thinking and benefit the nation in preparing for future events–said that the facility was “the pinnacle of ’60s engineering” and described it as “relentlessly prosaic.” “It was built by practical people for [a] very practical reason,” he said. “There’s very little frills in there. It’s mostly machines on desks. And a lot of plumbing.”
Jeff Carlson, who–with some assistance from your intrepid reporter–organized the tour with Col. Lihani, said that he was especially impressed not only with the engineering required to excavate the NORAD complex deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, but also with the bizarre and innovative construction within the confines of the base itself. “Our guides explained that the infrastructure was designed and built by the U.S. Navy, and it shows,” Carlson said. “Many of the sections within NORAD looked much like the inside of a submarine–or a space station. They maximized the available room with thin rooms and hallways across multiple levels.”
Carlson also noted that the complex is simultaneously claustrophobic and impressive. “The compact, well-engineered spaces are thought-provoking,” he said. “Lifetimes of man-hours were invested in the NORAD superstructure to deter Soviet bombers that never came. Today, the mission has evolved, but it continues. The tradition, the dedication and the sense of honor are palpable. I was proud to be there even for a few hours.”
Col. Lihani explained that setting up the tour was no easy task–as a top-secret facility, it is not accessible to just anyone. To arrange a private VIP tour, Lihani had to get approval from the NORAD Commanders Chief of Staff office, which determines if the group warrants the time and effort for a tour. “I [told them] how this group has written about NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain in many novels and stories and [that] many of the writers were known worldwide,” Lihani said. “Needless to say, it got approved overnight!”
After the tour, the writers, along with Col. and Mrs. Lihani, adjourned to author Kevin J. Anderson’s house–he lives in nearby Colorado Springs–for a barbecue, where they surprised the Lihanis with a number of signed books as a way of saying thank you for all their efforts to put the tour together. The Lihanis were grateful and delighted. Afterward, I asked them to share their thoughts about the group’s visit to the facility.
Christina Lihani said that the comments from the authors were an interesting mixture from diverse perspectives. “It was amazing to hear snippets ranging from what would happen if zombies or vampires were loose in Cheyenne Mountain to speculation on which floors were safest from electromagnetic pulses from the sun,” she said. “The truth is that tour can be very long and very technical, but somehow the group managed to be both entertained–and entertaining–the whole time.”
Col. Lihani has shown many groups and individuals the Mountain, but he said this tour was something special. “[It] was one of the most fun and interesting groups I have ever had the pleasure to show the Mountain,” Lihani said. “It was an honor having them come for the tour. Their questions and comments were so awe-inspiring that I am still fascinated! I think that due to the subjects these authors write about, their interest was much higher than a typical tour group. That’s a major reason for the tour’s success. Seeing many notepads being used, I can only imagine the upcoming stories that will have NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain mentioned in them. I wish all tours were this enjoyable.”
News article courtesy of Sci Fi Wire