United States

The Secret World of NORAD

Written by Michael Behar

About halfway through the tunnel, our bus driver stops beside two steel blast doors, each weighing 25 tons and measuring three feet thick. I’m traveling this frigid January morning into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex with Steve Rose, the facility’s deputy director, who greeted me in the parking lot with an earnest handshake. Rose is escorting me into the historic military bunker burrowed deep into the Rocky Mountain foothills, seven miles southwest of downtown Colorado Springs. “The mountain,” as the complex is known colloquially, is the alternate command center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

Since 2006, NORAD’s primary operations have been based at nearby Peterson Air Force Base (because the agency had outgrown the space available inside Cheyenne Mountain). But in the event of an imminent nuclear attack, NORAD personnel would evacuate to the command facility inside the mountain, where 2,500 feet of granite would shield them from impending Armageddon.

Cheyenne Mountain sits 9,570 feet above sea level. Rose and I are on a shuttle nicknamed the “In-and-Out Bus,” which transported us through a horseshoe-shape, 1.2-mile-long entrance tunnel—the north portal arch—situated 2,000 feet below the mountain’s summit. Rose is chatty, full of factoids and trivia. He rattles off a few Hollywood thrillers that have staged scenes at Cheyenne Mountain: Interstellar, Dr. Strangelove, the television series “Stargate SG-1” and, most relevantly, WarGames (much of the 1983 film, about a computer simulation that nearly triggers a nuclear war, takes place in a re-imagined NORAD command center). Above ground, the mountain’s dense woodlands teem with critters. “We have three black bears, 70 wild turkeys, two mountain lions, and an occasional fox,” says Rose.

At the blast doors, we disembark and enter into a foyer, which is empty except for a stout plastic Christmas tree festooned with silver baubles and miniature red stockings. During peacetime, both doors remain open. But they’re intentionally hinged outward, notes Rose. Should a nuclear strike occur from, say, North Korea, the explosive blast-wave would barrel through the open-ended tunnel and slam the doors shut, ensuring that whoever is inside survives.

Read more at Air and Space Magazine

About the author

Michael Behar

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar (michaelbehar.com) writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment.