As Seen On TV

by wjw on August 19, 2008

So here we are at Cheyenne Mountain, NORAD’s once-super-secret underground headquarters.

While some people were innocently enjoying the Denver Worldcon, or leaving their bleached bones in the cavernous convention center after foolishly trying to hike to the dealer’s room without bringing their own supplies of food and water, we— a select few of your favorite science fiction writers— were exploring this glorious epitome of 1960s Cold War Technology.

The tour was arranged for us by writer Jeff Carlson and Colonel Brian Lihani, who happens— along with his wife Christine— to be a science fiction reader. (Sometimes SF will make you friends in high places.)
After divesting yourself of cameras and cellphones and other electronic apparatus, you enter through the famous tunnel, which is U-shaped and very long and comes out elsewhere on the mountain. From thence you go through a kind of airlock between two blast doors, of which you see one in the photo above. The door is two and a half feet thick, made of solid steel, and is balanced so as to be able to be closed by a single person if the electronics are, for some suspicious reason, not working. As you can see in the nifty photo, the back of the door features numerous shiny steel bolts that are slammed into place by hydraulic rams. Only one bolt is rammed home at a time, and the bolt seems to be chosen randomly. This action, as Howard Waldrop would say, is “really neat.”

If the electronics are out, you can manually pump up the pneumatics by jerking a big stick back and forth, but my guess is that it takes a long time and you might have a heart attack before the last bolt goes home.

During the Cold War, one of the two blast doors was kept closed at all times. Now they both stand open unless it’s, like, 9/11 and an airplane goes missing over Colorado Springs, which actually happened. (The aircraft wasn’t taken by terrorists, it had a communication failure.)

There is a third blast door farther down the tunnel, where it’s used to bring supplies into the facility.

The command post is set in a 5.5-acre artificial cavern blasted out of the mountain in the early Sixties. Most supervillains would set up all their gear right in the cavern, but NORAD wasn’t like that— they built big steel buildings inside the cavern, some of them three storeys tall. The buildings are made of hull-grade Navy steel, and the Navy also did the pipes for fuel, water, and electricity according to Navy standards, which are very explicit about what is in which pipe and in what direction the material is supposed to flow. (The Air Force did the electronics themselves, apparently.)

The steel buildings sit on enormous one-ton steel springs— you can see them— so that if for some unfortunate reason the mountain is rocking and/or rolling, the buildings will remain stable. (You can see these springs in places. They look surprisingly like you’d expect big steel springs to look.) There are also flexible gangways between the buildings, so they can sproing in different directions if necessary.

Inside, the buildings are relentlessly mundane. Bare walls that haven’t been painted recently, functional furniture, exposed pipes, safety notices and reminders to support the troops. It was like a shabby academic building from the same period, but without the corkboards and the notices from academic journals.

I very much enjoyed the email, labeled SECRET, that had been taped to a wall for anyone to read.

We didn’t get to see the Command Center. We had been cleared to go in, but we were revoked at the last minute because NORAD needed their headquarters right then more than we did. Possibly there was an exercise going on, but I suspect the Russians had just invaded Georgia, and we needed to know who else they might be shooting at.

I saw a picture of the Command Center, though. It looked as relentlessly mundane as everything else— rather than the cool NASA-looking set in War Games, it was just a buncha desks with a buncha computers and flatscreen monitors.

They really need to hire an interior decorator to give it some style. I’d like to suggest Doctor Evil.

He could also add a red button labeled, “Press Button to Destroy Planet.”

We got to look at the huge reservoir of cooling water, so big that you navigate it by rowboat, and sealed from the facility by a proper Navy bulkhead. There’s a duck floating in the water, but why it’s there is a long story and really not worth telling.

We also got to see the generator room, with six huge diesel generators that can provide power to the whole facility. (When they’re not closed off, they just draw power from the grid, like everyone else.) The diesels are about twelve feet tall and are all, for some reason, labeled Enterprise.

We also got to look at the control room for the diesels, and that really was a trip into our collective pop culture past, like something from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. There are lots of old 1960s dial gauges next to LED gauges next to plasma gauges, all dating from various refits. (The personnel seem to prefer the old dial gauges.)

If something Really Bad happens, Cheyenne Mountain has a thirty-day supply of MREs and a more or less infinite supply of fresh water coming from an 800,000 gallon-per-day spring. There are, however, no beds— if the mountain is sealed off, personnel will have to sleep on the floor. Which, come to think of it, is probably a better place to sleep than the people outside.

Because I know you’re going to ask, let me just say that they did in fact once have a door that read, SG-1 AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, but they had to take the sign down because, y’know, stupid people thought it was real.

Since the end of the Cold War, most of NORAD’s command functions have been moved to nearby Peterson AFB, but Cheyenne Mountain remains a principal backup facility, and it’s crewed 24/7.

By the way, the facility has a convenience store, where you can buy soft drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. The Pepsi sign is at least thirty years old, and features a logo that Pepsi doesn’t use any more.

You can also buy postcards, all of the tunnel entrance. I urged them to add a logo saying, “Greetings From the Free World’s Secret Underground Headquarters,” but they probably won’t listen.

I bought a shotglass and a teddy bear, which between them should get me through any emergency.

After the tour, we went to Kevin Anderson’s nearby not-so-secret headquarters for BBQ. Kevin’s place, which is built to resemble a castle, is also worth a tour.

All told, it was a day of extraordinary hospitality. Thanks to everyone involved.

And now— to the shotglass!

Ralf the Dog August 19, 2008 at 3:13 pm

“There’s a duck floating in the water, but why it’s there is a long story and really not worth telling….”

My guess is it relates to “Duck and cover.”

Rebecca S. August 19, 2008 at 3:37 pm

Wow, that all sounds extremely cool, especially the sproingy walkways. And the piquant mix of high-tech and 60s-era mundane.

And yes, I was gonna ask, so thanks for not making me do it.

John Goodrich August 19, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Love the details and the description. Always interesting to be at one of those places that everyone has heard about.

Chris McLaren August 19, 2008 at 5:53 pm

“Because I know you’re going to ask, let me just say that they did in fact once have a door that read, SG-1 AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, but they had to take the sign down because, y’know, stupid people thought it was real.”

This is the funniest thing I’ve read all day.

Ted August 19, 2008 at 6:34 pm

I’m envious. If I’d known about the NORAD tour ahead of time, I’d definitely have gone to Worldcon.

Carrie V. August 20, 2008 at 4:47 pm

I toured NORAD a couple of times when I was in high school (I was a local). It really is striking just how 1960s the whole thing is.

And I LOVE it when people tell me, “You mean Cheyenne Mountain is real? I thought it was just in Stargate!”

Christina August 20, 2008 at 10:50 pm

I enjoyed reading your blog! I always thought the tour was too long but it was worth going again and reading what you and other authors wrote about it afterwards. I certainly see it with a far more creative eye.

Peter D. Tillman August 21, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Re: Air Force art

I humbly submit:

Public domain, so feel free to run it. Hot stuff.

Sounds like a fun visit. Your tax dollars at work!

Cheers — Pete Tillman, finally in (or near) Taos

George M. Ewing August 22, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Do they still have the NORAD back-up…back up, at North Bay, Ontario, Canada? It was supposedly in an old nickel mine near Sudbury, and duplicated all the functions in Colorado, eh?
Just wondering…George M. Ewing,

Elizabeth Hensley August 23, 2008 at 5:11 pm

Please for pity’s sake let us in on the secret about the duck!

Don’t doooo this to us!

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