NORAD’s Cheyenne Mountain Fortress Is Back in Business

The Pentagon reactivated its underground redoubt as backup homeland defense headquarters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

norad celebrates its 60th anniversary

  • The North American Aerospace Defense Command complex in Colorado was designed to ride out a nuclear attack . The base was closed in the 2000s but reopened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The base will take over air defense for the nation in case the primary base closes due to illness.

One of the U.S. Military’s most enigmatic military bases is open for business again because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cheyenne Mountain, an underground facility carved into granite rock, was designed to deal with a nuclear attack on the U.S. and Canada. Its first real crisis, however, is the ongoing global pandemic. The base is up and running as a backup to the primary NORAD base, and its personnel is living in isolation to prevent them from picking up the virus.

The base at Cheyenne Mountain was built in the 1960s as the headquarters for North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. NORAD is a joint U.S.-Canadian military command tasked to keep a watch on air and space, tracking objects approaching North America. The command was originally set up to track Soviet bombers, then ballistic missiles. After 9/11 it was also assigned a homeland defense mission, monitoring commercial airspace for signs of hijackings.

Cheyenne Mountain was designed to survive a nuclear attack and continue its early warning mission. The facility is carved out of solid granite and the entrance is protected by 25 ton steel doors. Buildings constructed inside sit on giant, 1,000 pound steel springs to absorb the shock of a nuclear blast. At its peak 1,800 U.S. and Canadian military personnel manned the facility, and dorm-style housing, cafeterias, food, water, and electricity made the facility self-sufficient in emergencies.

norad celebrates its 60th anniversary

Over the years thermonuclear weapons grew more powerful, making Cheyenne Mountain more vulnerable to attack. The facility became less important after the end of the Cold War, and in 2006 NORAD’s main functions were moved to nearby Peterson Air Force Base. Cheyenne Mountain was only lightly occupied, capable of being reactivated in the event of a crisis.

Well, it’s 2020 and the crisis is here. In late March, according to The Washington Post , NORAD decided that the main facility at Peterson needed a backup in case it was shut down by pandemic. The U.S. military has about 5,000 cases of the coronavirus and the possibility of NORAD being no longer able to function was a real one.

command director, lt col mitch slate, monitors activities in the command center at cheyenne mountain operation center

As the defender of North American aerospace, NORAD must keep its core functions running 24/7. The Post reports approximately 130 personnel were sent to Cheyenne Mountain to perform 12-hour watch shifts from the deep underground facility. The personnel live at Peterson and the nearby Air Force Academy. They are kept entirely separate from other military personnel, their take-home meals packed and kept waiting for them. They even use alternate entrances into the facility, apparently taking a different entrance than the one made famous by the movie Wargames and the TV show Stargate SG-1.

So 60 years after it was built, Cheyenne Mountain is finally being used in a national security crisis—just not the one its original designers foresaw.

Source: Stars and Stripes

Headshot of Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News , and others. He lives in San Francisco.

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13 secrets of NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain

visit norad cheyenne mountain

Maybe you’ve seen it in movies, maybe you’ve heard about it on the internet, but yes, Colorado is home to a top secret military facility inside a mountain.

During the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, the government decided to build a hardened command and control center as a defense against long-range Soviet bombers. That facility was built inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs. While the facility was occasionally open for tours, that stopped after Sept. 11, 2001. However, 7NEWS got a rare tour inside and learned 13 secrets of the mountain.

Secret No. 1 : Cheyenne Mountain is still open for business.

When the Cheyenne Mountain facility opened in the late 1960s, it was the NORAD Combat Operations Center. The mission was to watch for ballistic missile or air attacks against North America.

Over time, the mountain facility began housing other military operations including the U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Air Force Space Command and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM).

In 2006, NORAD and USNORTHCOM moved its main command center to Peterson Air Force Base  -- 15 miles away -- and many thought Cheyenne Mountain was closed.

However, Cheyenne Mountain’s deputy director, Steven Rose, said the Cheyenne Mountain Complex is still NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s Alternate Command Center.  And there are still more than a dozen government and Department of Defense agencies inside, some that he can’t publicly name.

Secret No. 2:   There are 15 buildings inside the mountain – 1 mile inside from the opening and 2,000 feet down from the top of the mountain. Workers can’t just walk inside to their offices, they have to take a bus.

The buildings are free-standing buildings connected by hallways and ramps inside.  The buildings are on 1,300+ giant springs, and built 18 inches from the rock walls in the mountain, so they can move independently if there is an earthquake or a blast.

“The building would bounce, but never touch the granite,” Rose said. “We would not lose operations.”

Even the utility lines going in and out of the building are made to flex, just in case.

“It doesn't do any good if the building and people survive, but then you don't have the electricity or communication lines to continue the mission.”

Secret No. 3: There were actually two possible sites for the mountain complex -- both in Colorado Springs.

The sites were picked because of Colorado’s distance from the coasts (making an attack missile fly longer), because it’s the most seismic-sound area of Colorado (no earthquakes) and the government wanted a solid piece of granite with as few soft veins as possible (so it wouldn’t split apart in a blast), Rose explained.

The government considered Blodgett Peak, near the Air Force Academy, and Cheyenne Mountain. The government chose Cheyenne Mountain because Blodgett has too many soft veins, Rose said.

Secret No. 4 : The 2-mile long main tunnel in the complex has a north portal and a south portal, but it’s not straight, it’s curved.

Rose explained that if the main tunnel had been straight, it would have gone through the gold mines in Divide, Colorado. Instead, the tunnel curves inside the mountain.

Secret No. 5: The famous blast doors inside Cheyenne Mountain aren’t on the main tunnel. They’re on a side tunnel.

Rose explained that if there was a blast, the force would pass through the main tunnel and only 20 percent of the force would hit the blast doors on the side of the tunnel.

There are two 23-ton blast doors between the main tunnel and the office buildings complex. During the cold war, one door was always closed. That meant workers had to enter through the first door, wait in a middle room for the door to be closed and sealed, then wait for the second door to be opened.

The doors were permanently opened in 1992.  However, they were closed for a few hours during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and they are closed once a day for testing to make sure they still work, just in case.

Secret No. 6: About 350 people work inside the mountain on most weekdays. That number drops to 120 to 130 on nights and weekends, but there’s room for that number to surge in war time, if needed, Rose said.

There are workers monitoring scopes and screens, but there are also firefighters, security, medical personnel and other employees working inside.

Secret No. 7: The workers in Cheyenne Mountain don’t have windows with offices, because all they would see is a granite wall. However, they do have some perks inside the mountain like a workout facility, spin gym, hospital, chapel, convenience store and more.

Rose explained that workers can’t just run out on their lunch break to get a flu shot, attend an Ash Wednesday services, get a quick workout and other normal activities so those activities are brought to them inside the mountain.

Note, if you look closely at the photo of the spin gym, you may notice hospital-type curtains on the walls. That's because the spin gym can be turned into a triage center, if needed.

Secret No. 8: There are 5 lakes INSIDE the mountain.

One lake is filled with diesel fuel and it’s sealed behind a closed wall. Cheyenne Mountain gets its power from the city of Colorado Springs. But if the complex had to be sealed off, the diesel would be used to power underground generators.

The other four lakes are water reservoirs like you would see outside. One is used for drinking water for the complex. The other three lakes are industrial lakes. The water in the industrial lakes is used during peacetime for firefighting or whatever is needed. In wartime, the lake water could be used as part of a backup heating and cooling system.

There are even two boats inside the mountain so workers can inspect the lakes, the pipes and the rock walls around the lakes.

Secret No. 9: While the complex was designed to withstand a nuclear blast, it’s also ready to handle an EMP or electromagnetic pulse.

Rose explained that an EMP won’t affect operations inside Cheyenne Mountain because the buildings are so deep inside the granite mountain.

Also, the buildings were built of Navy-grade steel which reflects impulses and shields the equipment inside, Rose said.

“We have a high level of protection,” Rose explained.

Secret No. 10: The complex was designed by the Navy and mining professionals.

Navy ship builders were brought in because the government wanted a design that could “ride out” a blast. The government also wanted to use other knowledge and Navy hardware including the Navy-grade steel.

Geology professors at Colorado School of Mines and miners from the Utah Mining Corporation were brought in to turn a mountain into a military complex, Rose said.

Secret No. 11: Where did the excavated rock go?

It was used for creating a shelf outside the mountain for parking lots, roads and more buildings.

Secret No. 12: Speaking of outside, workers have to be on the lookout for wild animals.

Cheyenne Mountain is a Colorado mountain in a forest and workers have seen two mountain lions, a momma bear and two cubs, three dozen wild turkeys and countless deer.

Secret No. 13 : Movie fans, survivalists and even doomsday “preppers” do come to the gates at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, but they don’t get in and they don’t even get to see the famous entrance into the mountain. The official, guarded entrance station is about 1.5 miles away from the famous mountain entrance.

Cheyenne Mountain did offer tours to the public. In 1997, they were giving 800 tours a year. However, the tours were canceled after 9/11. Arranging a tour for 7NEWS took five months and we were only allowed limited access and very few photos inside the office facilities.

Learn more about the history of NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain on the NORAD website .

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Got a place you want us to go inside and learn the secrets of? Email [email protected] .

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Cheyenne Mountain State Park

With an amazing 2701 acres, you can explore nature’s diversity with prairie-to-peak ecosystems on 20 miles of hiking and biking trails. The Limekiln Trailhead offers parking, restrooms, picnic tables, and a playground for the kids. There is ​​​​​​easy trail access and views to astound you!

Mapped location of Cheyenne Mountain State Park

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Posted: July 21, 2023

In 1956, General Earle E. Partridge, commander of the Continental Air Defense Command, proposed construction of a Cheyenne Mountain Colorado…

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Image of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex Sign in Colorado Springs, Colorado during winter

Cheyenne Mountain Complex – Colorado Springs

The Cheyenne Mountain Complex on Cheyenne Mountain is a Space Force installation and defensive bunker. Located 2,000 feet underground in Colorado Springs, the complex protects fifteen buildings, each three-stories, from natural disasters thanks to its design incorporating over 1,000 springs.

Once the center for the U.S. Space Command and NORAD, which has since been moved to Peterson Air Force Base , the former grounds are not open to the public for tours. Cheyenne Mountain Complex is certified to support an electromagnetic pulse, known as an EMP, and is the only high-altitude Department of Defense facility to do so.

Image of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex mountain in Colorado Springs, Colorado

Inside the complex are several tenant units and amenities such as a cafeteria, fitness center, medical building, and store as well as several outdoor recreation facilities like volleyball and basketball courts, a softball field, and picnic areas.

Address: 1, 101, Norad Rd, Colorado Springs , CO 80906 (Air Force Station)

Tours: Not available

Website: norad.mil…

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AIR & SPACE MAGAZINE

The secret world of norad.

Inside its granite fortress, the agency that has protected North America for 60 years still stands guard.

Michael Behar

A patch notes the 60th anniversary of NORAD.

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.

NORAD’s  command facility is famously housed inside a Colorado mountain.

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.

Beyond the foyer and through the second blast door, I find myself in a large grotto where wood pallets are stacked with sleeping cots, non-perishable rations known as MREs (meal, ready to eat), and a sundry of other military supplies. While I wonder what it would be like to reside here for months while a nuclear holocaust rages outside, Rose informs me, “We have everything we need for the duration of a war.”

The Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which opened in 1966, took six years to build and cost $142 million (about $1 billion in today’s valuation). When the agreement between the U.S. and Canadian governments to combine air defenses against a Soviet threat was made formal on May 12, 1958, the joint command was initially located at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. (Ent closed in 1976, and is now home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center.) Today NORAD shares the mountain with the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and 10 other tenants whose designation and purpose are classified.

It took five months to arrange my visit—security measures place strict limits on who gets inside. But finally here, what I notice first is the air. It’s warm and refreshingly moist, almost tropical. “This is probably the cleanest air in the world,” says Rose. The ventilation system is outfitted with dozens of nuclear, biological, and chemical filters along with special blast valves, all of which can sustain a safe, breathable atmosphere even if toxic fallout rains down above.

Much has changed in the six decades since U.S. and Canadian military forces began their collaborative guardianship. At first, NORAD’s role focused on monitoring North American airspace for possible Soviet incursions. The great fear was that nuclear-armed, long-range bombers would sneak over the Arctic. By the late 1960s, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology had emerged, and NORAD turned its attention toward space. (Still, the “A” in its name stood for “Air” until it changed to “Aerospace” in 1981.) After the September 11, 2001 attacks, NORAD expanded its purview to track potential intruders originating inside the United States and Canada. Today, with the increased threat of terrorism and cyber warfare, NORAD is keeping tabs on nearly everything—from reports of unruly passengers on commercial airline flights to suspicious vessels meandering from the Caribbean toward American shores.

Cheyenne Mountain houses 13 three-story buildings and two two-story buildings on five acres inside a cavern created by dislodging nearly 700,000 tons of granite with 1.5 million tons of dynamite. The buildings are roomier on the inside than one would expect. They’re also a bit humdrum, with drab, whitewashed hallways and glaring overhead lights. While the place feels like a sprawling office complex—on any given day there are between 350 and 500 people working here—there are reminders that I’m entombed in a bunker capable of withstanding a 30-kiloton nuclear blast.

As we enter Building One, Rose draws my attention to its exterior walls, welded together from solid three-eighths-inch-thick Navy-grade steel. I rap my knuckle on the surface, and it clanks like the hull of a container ship. “My job is being a captain of this aircraft carrier underground,” jokes Rose, adding that marine engineering inspired much of the interior layout and design. The steel also has a vital function: It helps deflect the powerful electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that emanates from a nuclear detonation, which fries computer microprocessors. A more recent menace is the so-called “EMP bomb,” which can cripple electronics across entire city blocks. “That is the threat du jour,” says Rose. “And this is the best protection against EMP anywhere in the world—it’s one reason that we’re still active here today.”

visit norad cheyenne mountain

Rose stops on a short gangplank that straddles a gap between adjoining buildings so he can show me their foundation: four-foot-tall white springs aligned in tidy rows. Rose explains that the entire facility rests on 1,311 steel coils, each weighing 1,000 pounds. Their function is to absorb the seismic shock waves that would accompany a nuclear explosion, which can register a magnitude of nearly 6.0 on the Richter scale. “When the mountain is shaking, we want the facility to survive,” says Rose.

As we move through the mountain, I’m glad Rose is leading the way because with no windows or geographical reference points, I’d be hopelessly lost. We poke our heads into the Granite Inn—a Subway restaurant where staff can grab a quick lunch—before reaching the NORAD and NORTHCOM command center. The first thing I see upon stepping inside is a rectangular LED sign that reads, “Unclassified Work in Progress.” It’s there to inform everyone in the room of my presence—to ensure nobody inadvertently says or does anything that would reveal who or what NORAD is tracking at the moment. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t bring my cell phone. In fact, mobile phones—for anyone—are not allowed inside the mountain due to the risk of a security breach.

I’m also not privy to the full capability of the center’s satellite-based sensor technology. The data feed from satellites is normally displayed on seven large overhead monitors. But because of my visit, five have been switched to benign cable programming—CNN, Fox News, and an alpine ski-racing event. Travis Morehen, the Canadian air force colonel who is the NORAD-NORTHCOM command center’s deputy chief, promises me that his team members aren’t chronic channel-surfers.

Except for two screens that display real-time air traffic over the continental United States, I don’t know exactly what they’re monitoring in the command center. But it’s a sure bet that North Korea is getting plenty of attention.

“North Korea has made everything old, new again,” says Brian Laslie, deputy command historian for NORAD and NORTHCOM. That’s evident in something as simple as the command center clocks. Eight of them, arranged horizontally along a low wall, display time zones around the globe—Moscow, Alaska, Pacific, Mountain, Central, Eastern, and Zulu. A new zone was added to the series recently: Korea. What compelled Morehen to include it? “Isn’t that obvious?” he replies. “The [missile] launches from North Korea forced us to reevaluate our procedures—to evolve them—and reaffirmed our mission.”

What most people don’t realize, Morehen points out, is that Canadian military personnel constitute at least a third of NORAD’s staff. “Not many people know that there are so many Canadians in charge of protecting the U.S.,” he says. “There is a very important mission here being done every day to protect both our countries.” NORAD and NORTHCOM (established in 2002, in response to 9/11) bring together 1,700 people from both military and civilian entities, including the Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Federal Aviation Administration. Says Morehen: “We’ve got many tribes working here together.”

How does Morehen differentiate the roles of NORAD and NORTHCOM? “NORAD assesses, NORTHCOM defends,” he says. For a visual example of how this works, Morehen shows me a computer simulation that tracks a North Korean missile from launch to impact. When the missile ignites its rocket engine, a so-called “overhead persistent infrared sensor” picks up its heat signature, or bloom. I inquire whether these sensors are affixed to satellites. “You said it, not me,” he quips.

As the simulation continues, the system tries to predict where the missile might be headed using a guide called an “infrared threat fan,” which is shaped like a tuning fork. The prongs bracket the most plausible targets based on what military intelligence tells NORAD about the current capabilities of North Korean missile technology. As the simulation plays out, the program homes in on the most vulnerable impact locations. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want to live in Seattle or Hawaii.

Once NORAD has confirmed an airborne or spaceborne missile, NORTHCOM steps in, alerting military commanders and the president, whose whereabouts are tracked 24/7—and who would presumably give the order to take action. How long does this entire process take, from detecting a bloom to informing leaders? The exact duration is yet another closely held secret—“minutes or seconds” is all Morehen will confirm. What he will say, however, is that whatever and wherever a situation exists, the NORAD-NORTHCOM pairing can provide an immediate response: “Whether it’s forest fires, Chinese subs, Russian bombers, North Korean missiles, cyber attacks, or pandemic threats, there is no one we cannot call.” NORTHCOM has simulated each of these scenarios, and the agency does more than 100 training exercises a year. For wildfires and other natural disasters, NORTHCOM would work through civil authorities such as FEMA. Pandemics would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, and for cyber attacks, the National Security Agency would take the lead with NORTHCOM playing a supporting role.

When I rejoin Rose to continue our tour of Cheyenne Mountain, we exit Building One and step into a vast chamber called the “industrial support area,” where the rough-hewn granite interior walls—supported by 115,000 steel “rock bolts” to prevent a cave-in—are now visible. Rose hands me a hardhat to wear. The first stop is the generator area, the mountain’s secondary power supply, which kicks in if public electric utilities are disabled. It contains six eight-cylinder generators—each the size of a locomotive engine—and 1,500 daisy-chained batteries. “They take over for a classified number of minutes until the generators are up and running,” explains Rose.

Approximately 500,000 gallons of diesel are stored in a fuel reservoir carved into the granite. Electricity is the lifeblood of NORAD and NORTHCOM. A major war, EMP bomb, or even a hacker could disable the national power grid. But inside Cheyenne Mountain, at the alternate command center, the lights and computers and essential electronics would whir away for months while the outside world imploded. The power supply is so stable and reliable that the lights inside the mountain haven’t flickered in 15 years, says Rose.

visit norad cheyenne mountain

Nobody would get thirsty, either. Farther inside the industrial support area, we come to a freshwater pool that’s the length of a football field and 45 feet deep. It, too, was dug out of the granite mountain. As a prank, somebody has set adrift two plastic decoy ducks, which look lifelike in the dim cavern light. Also bobbing on the surface is a rowboat used for maintenance. The pool contains six million gallons of water—about enough for 250 people to drink and wash with for an entire year. Even then, there will never be a drought. By sheer luck, during construction, engineers unearthed a natural spring inside the mountain that produces about 140,000 gallons of water a day.

I meet up with Morehen again later in the afternoon at Peterson Air Force Base, following his morning shift on the mountain. “As threats have evolved, our systems and sensors have been required to evolve,” he says. Four days a week, NORAD and NORTHCOM conduct drills to test how its staff would respond to various incursions. “We do live-fly training,” explains Morehen. This involves a small aircraft entering a region—Alaska, the continental United States, or Canada—that NORAD is responsible for monitoring. The pilot will deactivate the airplane’s identifying transponder and ignore radio communications while attempting to penetrate restricted airspace.

Not everyone inside the command center realizes it’s a drill, and the ruse is what makes the training effective. “When some people go to work that day, they don’t know we’re going to be flying someone against them,” says Morehen. “We will even do a real-world scramble to get fighters to intercept the plane.” If the mock intruder entered U.S. airspace, Air Force fighter jets would respond; Canadian jets are on alert for an incursion into Canada’s airspace.

Russell “Rusty” Mullins, deputy director for the 721st Communications Squadron, has been working at Cheyenne Mountain since 1984. “A typical day doesn’t really exist,” he says. “You might be looking at cyber threats one moment, and then switch to handling an exercise input the next. There are national-level exercises that might have you stay in the mountain for days, including sleepovers.”

The more things change geopolitically, the more things seem to stay the same inside the mountain. “The Soviet Union was replaced with smaller countries with nuclear arsenals,” says Mullins. “We changed our maps of the world and continued our watch. Nothing more, nothing less. There was no room for error back then, and as long as there are people that are determined to harm us, there is no room for error now.”

Today, NORAD and NORTHCOM members work primarily at the command center at Peterson. “But at least once a month we go to Cheyenne Mountain to assure ourselves we can operate up there seamlessly on a moment’s notice,” says Morehen. The Peterson command center looks similar to the one inside Cheyenne Mountain, but it’s much more spacious to accommodate the ballooning staff who are here to handle an abundance of new threats. “The decision during peacetime was to have everyone under one roof,” Rose told me earlier. “You can’t double the size of the command center [in the mountain] because there is granite behind the walls and the ceiling.” (All computing resources, however, still remain at the mountain, where they’re protected and networked to Peterson over fiber-optic cable.)

After Morehen chats with me for 10 minutes, he informs me that I’m going to have to leave the room because a scheduled rocket launch is about to occur and that requires activating the screens that display infrared tracking, which I’m not supposed to see. Suddenly, a siren blares—it’s the missile warning monitoring system. In my notepad, I jot down the exact time the alarm sounds: 1:06:11 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. “Okay, time to go,” says Morehen, who quickly ushers me into an adjoining office. “When that alarm goes off and it’s coming from a place that isn’t friendly, it really gets your blood pressure up.” Morehen won’t tell me where the rocket originated or where it’s going. “But don’t worry, they’re the good guys,” he says.

Later, I Google “rocket launch,” and I’m led to a YouTube video from the Uchinoura Space Center in Japan recorded that same day. The footage shows the liftoff of an Epsilon solid-fuel rocket carrying a radar-imaging satellite into orbit. At the instant the Epsilon fires up its engines, the official Uchinoura countdown clock and the missile warning monitoring system alarm at Peterson are synchronized perfectly—down to the second. There is zero delay between ignition in Japan and detection in Colorado. That alone is remarkable. But it’s also a splendid example of NORAD’s 60-year mission, which is summed up in a single tenet emblazoned on front-and-center banners in both command centers: “We Have the Watch.”

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Michael Behar | READ MORE

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

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NORAD

Lost Highways

The Ship Inside the Mountain: A Hidden History of NORAD and North America's Nuclear Defense

Season 4, Episode 4

On this episode, we take you inside the history of NORAD, or North American Aerospace Defense Command. AND we’ll take you inside The Cheyenne Mountain Complex, the base that has stoked the pop cultural imagination of generations with movies and shows from Dr. Strangelove to Stargate to Interstellar. As the war in Ukraine and Chinese spy balloons have brought long dormant fears of a nuclear attack back to public consciousness, we’ll look at the way the Cold War reshaped and modernized the already militarized American West as it became the stage for a global high noon with the Soviet Union. We also look at the ways NORAD’s vigilant watch for threats beyond our borders may have made us feel safe, but also left us vulnerable to threats from within and the instability of our own nuclear arsenal.

Guests:  Lance Blyth, Brian Laslie, James Ferguson, Joseph Jockel, Matt Mayberry, Peter Rayls, Eric Schlosser, Bruce Schneier

  • Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser.
  • Launch of NORAD: In Perpetuity and Beyond (MQUP) by Andrea Charron & James Fergusson
  • North American Aerospace Defense Command
  • Beyond Fear, Thinking Sensibly about Security in an Uncertain World by Bruce Schneier
  • Behind the Wings: North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) by PBS

The Ship Inside the Mountain: A Hidden History of NORAD and North America's Nuclear Defense (Script)

Lost Highways from History Colorado is made possible by the Sturm Family Foundation, proud supporters of the humanities and the power of story-telling for more than twenty years. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: exploring the human endeavor. 

[Siren sounds and panic from The Day After]

Noel: When I was a kid growing up in Colorado Springs in the 1980s, everyone knew that if there was ever a nuclear war, we were toast.  

This audio is from The Day After, a made for TV movie that I, along with more than a hundred million other Americans, made the mistake of watching on November 20, 1983 when I was just 11 years old. 

The drama follows the lives of a handful of seemingly ordinary American families and individuals in and around Lawrence, Kansas as news of a quickly escalating conflict with the Soviet Union in East Berlin unfolds on radios and television reports. 

And then: the sky is filled with missiles.

[John Lithgow says: “Those are minuteman missiles and ending with “So do theirs, right?.”]

And then…  [explosion sounds]

The images of flesh vaporizing around skeletons like molten x-rays on our little 12-inch Zenith TV screen are still seared in the back of my eyes. 

After the bomb explodes over Lawrence, the family of wholesome farmers who’ve taken shelter in their well-stocked basement outside the city face the horrifying prospect of survival. 

[Clip of dog barking and farm girl asking why it was left outside. Dad replies that “life is going to be different now. We’re alive, and we’re together.”] 

But for those of us living in Colorado Springs, we knew there was no chance. We were surrounded by military installations: Fort Carson Army Base to the south, the Air Force Academy to the North, and Schriever and Peterson Air Force Bases out east. Even if we had a bomb shelter, they’d send enough thermonuclear firepower to turn Pikes Peak into a crater. 

I was in 6th Grade that year, and spent endless hours at my desk fantasizing about what I’d do with that last half hour of my life. Would I be able to find my mom? Would I get to kiss a girl for the first time, and then go find my mom? Would we go down in the basement? Or would we go out into the middle of Nevada Avenue and fix our eyes in the clear blue above the mountain skyline and wait for the horsemen from Russia to arrive with our apocalypse. 

Maybe we would make it If only we could somehow get to NORAD, a city on literal shock absorbing springs built inside Cheyenne Mountain. It had a 25 ton, 3-foot thick blast door, a lake full of fresh water, a diesel generator, and food for months, and maybe we could even bring our dog.  

[Theme Post]

Noel: From History Colorado Studios, this is Lost Highways: Dispatches from the Shadows of the Rocky Mountains. I’m Noel Black. 

On this episode, we’ll take you inside the history of NORAD, or North American Aerospace Defense Command. And we’ll take you inside The Cheyenne Mountain Complex, the base that has stoked the pop cultural imagination of generations with movies and shows from Dr. Strangelove to Stargate to Interstellar. 

As the war in Ukraine and Chinese spy balloons entering American airspace have brought long dormant fears of a nuclear attack back to public consciousness, we’ll look at the way the Cold War reshaped and modernized the already militarized American West as it became the stage for a global high noon with the Soviet Union. 

We’ll also look at the way NORAD’s vigilant watch for threats beyond our borders may have made us feel safe, but also left us vulnerable to threats from within and the instability of our own nuclear arsenal. 

Noel: Despite the fact that I grew up just 10 miles north of NORAD, the first time I knew anything about it was from another, far less depressing movie I saw in the Summer of 1983, just a few months before The Day After aired on TV. 

[clip from War Games] 

Brian Laslie: I think a lot of people will remember NORAD from the Matthew Broderick movie War Games, and then they'll also maybe think about it once a year as the organization that tracks Santa. 

Noel: This is Brian Laslie, the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. 

Brian Laslie cont’d: And they forget that, on the daily, this is an organization that has for the last 60 plus years and still does provide for the air defense of the United States of America. 

Noel: We’ll come back to the Santa Tracker, but I should point out here one more time at the beginning that NORAD is not the same thing as the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. But it often gets used interchangeably, even by those who know better. NORAD is a command. I should also point out that NORAD is an incredibly unusual joint command between the United States and Canada. 

It all began in the early days of World War II when Canada declared War on Germany in solidarity with Great Britain and the threat of a German attack on Canada seemed feasible. Here’s Lance Blyth, command historian for NORAD: 

Lance Blyth: President Roosevelt went up to give a speech at Queens College, just as the war had broken out, and the United States is not in. And he basically says, “Look, if Canada is attacked by a foreign power, we're going to help. We're going to help.”

Noel: Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King responded to Roosevelt’s overture in kind. 

Lance Blyth: Well, you know, we have a responsibility not to allow our territory to be used to attack the United States, as a good, friendly neighbor.  And so this sets up a relationship. And they agree the United States and Canada agree to set up a permanent joint board on defense, PJBD, still meets to this day.

Noel: After World War II as the Soviet Union began to develop their own nuclear arsenal, the U.S. and Canada both realized that a nuclear attack on the Western Hemisphere would likely come over the North Pole. 

Though the world saw the horror of the atomic bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Laslie says that most military strategists believed that atomic weapons could and would be used again. 

Brian Laslie: It doesn't take long for the United States government to realize that this kind of changes the game, right? Yeah, it's a really big bomb, but this kind of changes the game. And so that gives the United States Army Air Forces its real reason for existence.  

Noel: Up until 1947, the Air Force had been part of the Army. But there was a growing sense that it needed to be its own branch, especially with the advent of atomic weapons, which were delivered in B-29 bombers. The United States had a brief monopoly on atomic weapons. But then, on August 29th, 1949…

[bomb sound followed by Russian language]

Noel: Once the Russians had successfully detonated their own atomic weapons, says Lance Blyth:

Lance Blyth: The Soviet Union is a black box. There’s, Stalin is still in power. We don't really know what they're doing.  But we look at what they have and like, oh, man, some B-29s landed during the war in Russia, and they kept them, and they copied them down to literally mis-riveted positions. And so now they have bombers. They had copies of B-29s. 

Noel: The Soviet copies of the B-29 were nicknamed “Bulls,” and they had the same long-range capabilities. 

Brian Laslie: And remember that we spent more on the B-29 program than we spent on the Manhattan Project in the creation of the atomic bomb. This was the most technologically advanced aircraft ever produced anywhere. It could fly higher, it could fly faster. It had a sealed cockpit. I mean, there were a number of firsts that went along with this.

Noel: And that meant that the Soviets could now do to us what we did to Japan at the end of World War II. 

Lance Blyth: We know they have nuclear weapons. We don't know how many. We have no way of knowing. We know also that they kept, after the war, they kept a lot of parachute units, airborne troops. People began to look at this going “Well, wait a minute, we built all these airfields going to the Soviet Union during World War II.” 

Noel: The US had built or used existing airfields in Alaska, Canada, Iceland, and Greenland to supply various military efforts in Europe during World War II. And the US recognized that those bases could be vulnerable to Russian takeover.  

Lance Blyth: Those airfields are still there. If we get into a conflict, they could use their airborne troops to seize these airfields, put those bombers there, and they could be bombing the United States.  And so we just don't really know what they're doing.  And we don't have any good way to find out what they're doing.  

Noel: Now that the Air Force was its own separate branch of the military, the Air Defense Command was created in response to the Soviet threat in 1948. And it wasn’t long before it became clear that defending American airspace would necessarily have to involve Canada. Here’s Professor Peter Rayls, a Canadian-military historian who teaches at Queen's University in Ontario. 

Peter Rayls: Everybody understood that it would be better to engage Soviet bombers farther north to prevent them from attacking either Canadian or American cities. So Canada had the airspace, but the United States had the bulk of the air forces that could, that could defend North America. So there was an idea, even by the late '40s, that Canada and the United States needed to cooperate in the air defense of North America with the growth of the Cold War.  

Noel: Initially, says Rayls, that cooperation was only focused on a joint defensive response. 

Peter Rayls: So if the Soviets attacked, both the United States and Canada agreed that they would help reinforce each other, regardless of where that was, as well as agreements on allowing air forces from either country to cross into the other country with with most people obviously realizing that the most likely scenario would be American air forces crossing the border into Canadian airspace to help fight off Soviet bombers. 

Noel: Fears of this kind of attack coming over the arctic circle and down through Canada only magnified when the Korean War broke out in 1950. 

Peter Rayls: A lot of folks really kind of saw the Korean War as potentially the start of the Third World War, and that really woke up a lot of, especially a lot of political folks, who were still kind of on the fence about funding air defense in North America. The Korean War kind of really woke them up that that needed to become a priority.

Noel: The problem, says Rayls, was how to detect the attack early enough to either scramble our fighters and intercept it, or launch our own attack. The answer: a relatively new technology perfected in Great Britain just before World War II: Radar. 

Beginning in the late 1950s, the United States and Canada jointly built a series of three radar fences or tripwires across the width of the North American continent. The first was the Pinetree line, which roughly spanned the US-Canada border and extended out to Nova Scotia.    But early radar technology was easily evaded by flying low. And the Pinetree line sat close to many of the major metropolitan areas in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States. Even if the Pinetree Line did detect an attack, there wouldn’t be much time to respond. So as the Cold War escalated through the 1950s…

Peter Rayls: That agreement then extended as Canada agreed to create what became known as the Mid-CanadaLine, which was another set of radar lines further north. And then later in the '50s, Canada agreed to allow the United States to build what was called the Distant Early Warning Radar Line, which was kind of roughly around the Arctic Circle, and those stretched from Alaska into Canada and all the way into Greenland. 

Noel: And because so much of this new military infrastructure was based in Canada… 

Peter Rayls: There was this growing sense of a need to set up a more formalized system to command and control all these different pieces, whether they were radar pieces or interceptors, as well as in the late 1950s, there was also the rise of in the development of surface-to-air missiles within North America. How do you command and control all of that? And the agreement became, by 1957 that the best way to create that would be the creation of a bi-national Air Defense command, which became NORAD, based in Colorado Springs.  

Noel: Colorado Springs was chosen as the base of operations for NORAD for many reasons. For one, it was just about as far away from Russia, from the coasts and from the borders as any other point on the US map, which would make it difficult to attack. 

Brian Laslie: When you think of defense, it's always about pushing the other guy out, right? Making sure that he can't reach you. So whether it was, you know, the creation of the bow and arrow, the use of the bow and arrow. The ability to to reach out and touch your enemy and at the same time keeping him from being able to to do the same to you. And so, you know, not to be glib about it, but the bow and arrow leads to the gun. The gun leads to the rifle. The rifle leads to artillery. And really, it is all about pushing your reach out farther and farther and attempting to make sure the other guy can't do the same to you. 

Noel: In the immediate aftermath of the war, the only arrow capable of reaching the United States was a long-range bomber – the Russian copies of American B-29’s. But American Military leadership knew it was only a matter of time before intercontinental missiles would be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. Nazi scientists had created the V-2 rocket program in Germany, which had already delivered bombs from Germany to England at supersonic speeds in the final years of World War II. 

Brian Laslie: Many of their scientists, principally led by Wernher von Braun decide to, in essence, defect to the United States of America. So we get the lion's share of these rocket engineers from the Germans. This is what's known as Operation Paperclip, where we bring all of these German Nazi rocket scientists to the United States to begin building our rocket program. 

Noel: But the Russians had also managed to capture some Nazi rocket scientists and much of the V-2 manufacturing infrastructure. And at the same time both countries were trying to build bigger and more powerful nuclear weapons, there was an equally cutthroat race to figure out how to build bigger and more powerful rockets to deliver them. 

Brian Laslie: The space race is about getting to the moon first, but it's also about rocketry and re-entry and orbiting and then being able to bring something back into Earth at a specific time, place, and location of our choosing. That's the birth of the ballistic missile.

Noel: To defend against these faster, longer-range arrows, you’d need to be as far away from them as possible, to buy as much time as possible, to decide whether or not to launch a counter-attack. And by the time the Cold War reached its zenith in the early 1980s – when the movies War Games and The Day After laid our fears bare on the surface of the pop culture – that time would be just half an hour. 

But Colorado Springs in the 1950s wasn’t just a convenient point on the map with a moat of land the size of a continent for the newly formed North American Air Defense Command. In the years immediately following World War II, almost overnight, Colorado Springs had already  become a kind of castle for the US Military. 

Matt Mayberry: Unlike most Western cities, we had no core economic base here. 

Noel: This is historian Matt Mayberry, Director of the Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs.

Matt Mayberry: We were built on this idea that we are a great climate, a beautiful setting, a place that would be attractive to people. Meaning that you always had to figure out what was going to drive your economy besides tourism. 

Noel: Founded by a teetotaling, abolitionist Civil War General and railroad magnate named William Jackson Palmer, Colorado Springs was conceived as a genteel outpost and resort for posh east coasters and English tourists in the West. When he began selling off lots in 1871, Palmer had already built a branch line off the Transcontinental Railroad that ran south down Colorado’s front range. A gold boom in nearby Cripple Creek followed soon after in the 1890s, flooding the town with money. And then…

Mayberry: We also became a headquarters for tuberculosis sanatoriums, kind of an industrialized version of TB treatment that we'd been doing for years before. 

Noel: There was a brief flirtation with the film industry, and a period of time when it could have become an arts colony after the Fine Arts Center opened in 1936. But the Great Depression left city leaders scrambling for something to anchor the economy.  

Matt Mayberry: We had, you know, I think it's fair to call it doldrums in Colorado Springs. We weren't hit as badly as other places because we had a fairly stable and small economy. But … We had vacant homes. We had, you know, people couldn't take tourism vacations to Colorado Springs. So we were feeling the impact.  

Noel: And then…

Matt Mayberry:  With the war clouds looming in Europe and in Asia, that seemed like a good opportunity to find a new way to move Colorado Springs forward. 

Noel: U.S. involvement in the war seemed increasingly inevitable. And the military was looking for something that Colorado Springs had in abundance: 

Matt Mayberry: So, we have, upstairs at the museum, in one of our exhibits the ordinance that city council passed in which they in August of 1941 committed the funds to buy a large section, I believe, 35,000 acres of land south of Colorado Springs, open range land, and offer that property to the federal government for a training base for the military. That decision that the army needed a place to train is what promoted Colorado Springs, which had never really had any kind of military connection prior to that.     Noel:  40,000 soldiers arrived in Colorado Springs shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, doubling the population practically overnight. 

Matt Mayberry: That was the beginning of our enduring connection to the military. But it wasn't by any means the end of it. 

Noel: When the Air Force began looking for a location for its air defense operations, Colorado Springs once again stepped up. With the discovery of streptomycin antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis during World War II, sanatoriums in Colorado Springs had begun to shut down. The city bought and offered the National Methodist Sanatorium just east of downtown and it soon became the home of ENT Air Force base in 1951. 

Then, not three years later, the newly formed Air Force was looking for a city to host the construction of its new training academy. 

Matt Mayberry: Colorado Springs competed against… I don't remember what the number was, I believe it was 300 communities that were interested in hosting the Air Force Academy.  And we again, actively worked in this case with the state government, to acquire land north of town and to make that available for training. But again, relied on the, you know, the Charles Tutt's and the Tutt family, the prominence and the poshness of the Broadmoor Hotel to wine and dine, you know, leaders from Washington, D.C. But the other communities were not as unified in their support of trying to recruit the military. And so, we could we could out compete, outshine them.  

Noel: In the decade after World War II, Colorado Springs completely remade itself around the military economy as America became a global superpower.  

And it was little surprise that General Earl E. Partridge chose ENT Air Force base in the once-genteel Little London as the location for what would officially become NORAD in 1958. The joint air defense command between the Royal Canadian and United States Air Forces was the first of its kind in the world.  

Noel Black: The problem with ENT Air Force Base as the command center for the air defense of the entire North American continent was that it sat right in the middle of town. And it was vulnerable. Here’s Lance Blyth again:

Lance Blyth: Partridge's concern is that his current command center is on ENT Air Force base, and it's literally at the corner of Boulder and Union. And Partridge’s looking at going, well, 1) I don’t know where I’m going to put the computer here, 2) it is really vulnerable, to anyone on the street, I’ve got no security here. And so he goes and says “I need an underground command and control center.” And his idea was what they had done up at the SAC base in Offit, up in Omaha, Nebraska

Noel: SAC is Strategic Air Command, which controls the US arsenal of nuclear weapons. 

Lance Blyth: They just basically dug a three-story hole, built a three-story building, and filled it in. That's what he's thinking.

Noel: But the soil in Colorado Springs was unstable, and it was going to be difficult and expensive to build down.

Lance Blyth: But you have all these granite mountains around here. Let's go look at those. So they proceed to look at putting it inside a mountain. 

Noel: Cheyenne Mountain looked to be the perfect location. Nearly solid granite at its base, and located just a few miles west of Fort Carson, it could also be constructed and reinforced to withstand any of the existing atomic weapons. And, says Lance Blyth…

Lance Blyth: There was a decline in some of the hardrock mining in Colorado at that time. So there were a lot of miners available to do the work. And all you really had to do was blast in a series of tunnels, blast it, dig it out, blast it, dig it out. They knew how to do this. They had not maybe have done it at the scale, you know, three stories high, effectively, but they had done it. So it only took about a year to excavate the whole thing.  

Noel: In hardrock mining, once a shaft was excavated, it would be timbered, or supported by beams, to prevent collapse. But the void inside Cheyenne mountain was too big to build an effective support structure. So the engineers drilled hundreds of massive bolts deep into the walls and ceilings to squeeze and bind all the rock together by pressure in much the same way a brick dome or an arch is held together. 

But the excavation turned out to be the easy part. Once the miners had hollowed out a space big enough to build the command center and bomb shelter…

Brian Laslie: They realized that there was a fault right above where they were going to put the command center. 

Lance Blyth: And one of the reasons that Cheyenne Mountain was selected is they didn't think there were any faults inside of it. We now know that, actually, this whole area is a fault. You know, actually, we're sitting in one here just outside Manitou Springs.

Noel: The mistake added another year to the project as they had to design, engineer, and build a concrete dome beneath the fault to further protect the massive cavern. Then they had to construct the buildings inside, which were far from conventional construction. 

Brian Laslie: They're made out of steel. I mean, they are essentially, they're made out of the same steel that you would use on a Navy ship. 

Noel: A friend of mine who worked inside the complex invited me in for a tour in the late 2000s, and this was the thing that surprised me the most. Since I was in 6th grade, I’d built up an idea of what NORAD looked like inside. There were rumors that it was like a little town in there with a Main Street — like the set of a movie where the people lucky enough to get inside during Armageddon might go about some sunless small town life without us. 

But when you get inside the complex–inside the monolithic blast door, it looks and feels more like they managed to shove an aircraft carrier inside the granite cavity. The welded steel corridors and sealable steel doors make it feel like you’re in the bowels of a Navy ship. 

Brian Laslie: Yeah. Yeah. If you, if you go in there, there's no windows, there's nothing to see. You're very much inside the heart of a ship there.  

Noel: Everything was small. There was no main street – just a labyrinth of corridors painted a yellowish-beige. There was an impressive reservoir of fresh water I’d heard about that stretched off into the darkness of a long side tunnel. The surface was black and there was a little silver rowboat on it for… I can’t remember what it was for.  I didn’t get to see the command center, but I’ve seen pictures, and even that is small compared to the massive room full of screens I saw in movies like War Games. 

The only things that were big besides the blast doors and the ceiling, were the gigantic steel springs designed to absorb the shock of a nuclear blast. And those were the only things I’d heard about that looked like I’d imagined.

Brian Laslie: Every time I gave tours, I always ask people, “What are those? What are those springs called?” And no one knew. And I said, “Well, those are Colorado Springs.” 

Noel: Oh, Brian… 

Brian Laslie: Is a very dad-joke of me, I know, but I couldn't resist.

Noel: I remember seeing a Snickers Bar sitting on someone’s office desk in one of the metal rooms when we walked by. That seemed like the most ordinary, everyday American thing about the entire place. And I remember thinking about how I’d fantasized so much about it when I was a kid as the one place on Earth where a human being might survive what felt like an inevitable nuclear armageddon, and how disappointed I would’ve been if I’d seen it then.

[Clip: “Let us face without panic, the reality of our times – the fact that atom bombs may someday be dropped on our cities. And let us prepare for survival, understanding the weapon that threatens us,” sound of bomb exploding]

Noel: This is the audio from a United States Civil Defense film from 1951. It was a kind of public service announcement that would’ve played at movie theaters before feature films. It shows a young, white couple with a young son in a cowboy outfit prepping for an atomic attack by stocking canned goods, a first-aid kit, and a flashlight in their basement. It's like an episode of Leave it to Beaver, if you’re old enough to remember that show. Everyone is calm and happy. The boy even shoots his toy pistol in the direction of the bomb exploding off screen before retreating to the basement of their suburban home.   

[Clip: “Stay under cover until you hear officially that it is safe outside. If you have been exposed to radioactive dust, wash the exposed areas. Pay particular attention to your hair. Get all the dirt from under your fingernails. If the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had known what we know about Civil Defense, thousands of lives would have been saved. Yes, the knowledge is ours, and preparation can mean survival for you. So act now. Some day your life may depend on it.”]

Noel: Cheerful public service messages like this, or the “duck and cover” campaign for children, would seem naive only a year after this film was made, when the United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb, also known as a thermonuclear fusion bomb over the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands on November 1, 1952. It was more than 700 times more powerful than the atomic bombs we dropped on Japan. 

And from there, the arms race escalated exponentially.  Bombs on both sides got more and more powerful. And how those bombs would be delivered, and how fast they would get there, got scarier and scarier, says Lance Blyth…

Lance Blyth: The bomber threat is not the primary threat anymore. It’s now, the threat is now ballistic missiles. 

Noel: The Russians successfully tested the R-7 rocket on August 21st, 1957. It was the same rocket they used to launch Sputnik into space less than 2 months later on October 4. The R-7 was capable of traveling 3,700 miles – far enough to reach from the northernmost regions of Russia to most major cities in Canada and The United States.

Brian Laslie:  We tend to think about the space race as the Soviets launched Sputnik and then they launched Yuri Gagarin and then we launched Alan Shepard, and then it was a race for the moon. But at the same time that that is going on – and that's a very publicly visible side of the space race – there is a rocket revolution going on. 

Noel: The following year, the US successfully tested its Atlas B rocket, capable of traveling more than 6,000 miles to deliver a warhead. 

Basements were no longer enough, and the United States began recommending the construction of fallout shelters, like in this 1959 animated Civil Defense film. 

[clip: “The best protection of all is the special shelter built according to specifications fo your local Civil Defense organization…” 9:07: “It would be a good idea to go right now to your local Civil Defense office and secure plans for the kind of shelter you want, and then to get busy on construction.”]

And then, on October 30, 1961,  just a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis….   … the Soviet Union detonated TSAR BOMBA. 

To this day, it’s the most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever detonated on earth. In the 16 years since the US had dropped the only two atomic weapons ever used on a civilian population in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the race between the US and the Soviet Union to create bigger and badder bombs had led to this test over Severny, the northernmost Soviet island of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the arctic ocean.

Brian Laslie: Khrushchev is to have uttered a phrase, “This is too horrible to ever use.”

Noel: The explosion was the equivalent of 50 megatons, or 50 million sticks of dynamite. It’s often said that it was equivalent to 10 times all of the bombs used in World War II including both of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. If the explosions of Fat Man and Little Boy were mushrooms in a forest, Tsar Bomba was an oak tree. And it was only half as powerful as what Soviet physicists had calculated it could’ve been if they’d added uranium-238. 

Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis – when Khruschev tried to bring medium range ballistic missiles with thermonuclear warheads to launch sites in Cuba. 

[Clip: Kennedy address on Cuba: “Good evening my fellow citizens, this government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be no other than to providing a nuclear strike capability against the western hemisphere]

For those two weeks in October, 1962,  the United States and the Soviet Union came the closest to an all out nuclear war than anytime before or since. 

Brian Laslie:  What it essentially comes down to is: you have the bomb. I have the bomb. We both have a willingness to use it. So how do we keep this from spinning out of control, right?

Noel: It was high noon on a global scale. But no matter who shot first, both were guaranteed to die. All you could do was keep staring, refuse to shoot first, and refuse to stand down. 

Ultimately, both Kennedy and Khruschev blinked. Krhuschev withdrew the missiles from Cuba in exchange for assurances that the U.S. wouldn’t invade. And secretly, Kennedy agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from sites in Turkey and Italy. 

This, says Brian Laslie, was the beginning of America’s strategy of deterrence.

Brian Laslie:  And so what you end up with the kind of the ultimate take on this in the 1960s is what we would call mutually assured destruction. So if you launch, I'm going to launch and it's going to end up very bad for both of us. So therefore, the best answer is neither of us to launch. 

Noel: NORAD’s role in deterrence would be to keep the watch without blinking from inside the mountain, ever ready to sound the alarm the moment an attack might come. That way, the U.S. would have time to launch a counter strike. As long as NORAD was watching, we were safe. And it became a kind of symbolic fallout shelter for the American mind. 

Noel: Up until Chinese Surveillance Balloons began to float into American Airspace earlier this year, most Americans likely hadn’t thought about NORAD much at all in the past few decades unless they have young kids. Lance Blyth:

Lance Blyth: Probably around Thanksgiving of 1955, there was a Sears advert in the paper to call Santa. Best I can tell, looking at the phone books I've had from that time, the number was misdialed. A child got on the phone and misdialed it. Rotary phone, he mis-dialed it. And he ended up calling the operations center. And Colonel Shoop was the guy on watch. And I guess he's a little curt with the kid. But then Shoop, he’s a savvy guy – he went, “Oh, hey, wait a minute.”  So he goes to his public event, the PR people, and they put out a press release about “Ha ha, isn't this a funny story?” And then, Christmas 1955, NORAD realizes: Hey, this is kind of fun. It's about Christmas, about kids. And so they put out a press release to be released at 8:45 of like, “Hey, we've detected a sleigh, we’ve detected something coming from the North Pole.”  

Noel: And with that happy accident, America’s first line of defense against Cold War Soviet nuclear threats, became inextricably linked with one of the world’s favorite holiday fairytales. NORAD could detect anything coming into Canadian or US air space – even Santa Claus. 

Lance Blyth: It was a sudden realization that this was a way people could be told, um,  educated a little bit about this command that was there doing these things, but in a way that would, was not, was perhaps not as threatening, not as spooky.  

Noel: In the years that followed, the NORAD band (yes, there was a bi-national NORAD band) put out a Christmas record that they sent to radio stations. 

Lancy Blyth: And on the B-side of that album, of that record would be a series of announcements to be played at specific times saying, “Hey, we've detected, hey, we think this is going on” so the radio stations could play this.  

[clip: “Radar units at the North American Air Defense Command have been tracking an airborne object for some time now. It’s been tentatively identified as a friendly, one-man vehicle, and we are almost certain the pilot is Santa Claus. However, we are required to make positive identification through radio contact with the object. Hello, hello, this is NORAD. Please identify yourself over…. Ho ho ho ho ho]

Noel: For children listening, it became a tradition – blissfully ignorant confirmation that their presents were on the way. And for adults, it became a subtle, if dark reminder that NORAD still had its eyes trained on the Soviet’s nuclear arsenal.

Noel: In the 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis, there have a few notable scares at NORAD that we’re aware of. And both of those were based on faulty information. 

On October 5, 1960, newly updated radar equipment in the Distant Early Warning line detected an attack. Here’s Joseph Jockel:

Joseph Jockel: It began to detect aircraft moving over the pole. It sent an alert of a Soviet bomber attack. And that would have been the signal for NORAD to have passed on the word to the president and Strategic Air Command that the United States was under attack and they needed to respond. But an alert Canadian general said, “Wait a minute, this is still new technology. Let's test it out.” And it was a signal off the moon that was causing this. 

Noel: Then, in the late-70s…

Joseph Jockel: There was a computer failure where NORAD did a computer system did begin to pass the message of an attack underway. 

Noel: Brian Laslie says this computer malfunction was, as least partly, the basis for the movie War Games. 

Brian Laslie: It was a NORAD computer erroneously saying the Soviet Union had launched nuclear weapons. They called Carter's Secretary of State, and that, that's literally 3:00 in the morning. Hey, you know, there might be missiles on the way. And, of course, it eventually comes out that, no, hey, this is a computer simulation. But it happened twice at NORAD, and it happened at least one time that we know of in the Soviet Union. So there is in the, especially in the early 1980s, a sense that we need to step back from the brink a bit.  

Noel: And in 1983, there was what became known as The Able Archer Incident. Able Archer was the name of a NATO war game exercise conducted every year in Europe. It simulated the kind of escalation that could lead to a nuclear war.   

Brian Laslie: But there are reports (and whether or not these these can be believed or how truthful they were) that the Soviets thought this was a precursor to an invasion. Therefore, they put their bombers and their missiles on high alert. We actually came really close to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. 

Noel: When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late-80s and early-90s, NORAD’s mission and budget came under intense scrutiny. But they quickly found a new mission. Here’s Canadian military historian James Ferguson. 

James Ferguson: After the end of the Cold War, no one in Canada realized that what NORAD started to do was assist in the war on drugs, providing surveillance input for civil authorities, policing authorities, to intercept airborne drug carriers coming into North America.

Noel: Brian Laslie:

Brian Laslie: But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and into the 2000s, there, there's a sense that…Does NORAD still have a mission? Well, obviously, yes, the Russians still have nuclear weapons. There are still other countries that that poses harm. But there is a period of the unknown in the nineties until 2001. 

Noel: But then, on September 11, 2001, NORAD found itself facing a threat it had never anticipated. 

Brian Laslie: NORAD is up and out, looking out in a way they were not looking really for internal threats on September 11th 2001. NORAD is actually running an exercise on that day. And when the FAA calls NORAD, the guy who picks up the phone says, “Hey, is this real world or is this exercise?” 

Noel: NORAD did scramble some jets that morning in response to the hijacking, and was eventually able to shut down North American air space. But, says Lance Blyth…

Lance Blyth: The protocols for hijacked aircraft were basically just: Follow. Because, previously, all hijacked aircraft were then flown somewhere and landed, and demands were made. 

Noel: Up until that point, any objects originating within the United States were considered friendly, or non-threats. 

But 9/11 fundamentally changed that. And not just for NORAD, but for the entire country. The Soviet Union had been a conventional enemy – a nation-state with nuclear capabilities that was clearly outside our borders, over there on the other side of the globe. If an attack came, it would be ordered by the political leadership. 

Joseph Jockel: NORAD had been postured to deal outwardly. Its role was to detect and respond to a Soviet or Russian bomber attack or missile attack. There was some capability domestically, but that wasn't the orientation within the entire system. So it was caught by the 9/11 hijackings unaware. 

Noel: And with 9/11, the idea of clearly delineated threats, and where those threats might come from, was completely upended. We’d gotten so good at looking outward for big, existential threats that we forgot to look inward and see that we were vulnerable to much smaller, asymmetrical attacks that could happen anywhere at any time without warning. And the  fears we once had of an apocalyptic, planet-killing event gave way to broader fears of the unknown. 

NORAD and its mission haven’t changed all that much since 9-11, says Brian Laslie. It still keeps watch over major international nuclear threats like North Korea, Russia, and China.

Brian Laslie: At its heart, it still provides a very similar service that it did in 1958. So, again, as you mentioned, it is this very large umbrella of defense of the North American continent. And the threats have changed. They've morphed. They've come back under different names. 

Noel: But one of the biggest threats – one that NORAD’s vigilant focus on external threats obscured from its beginning in the 1950s –  is America’s own nuclear arsenal. 

Eric Schlosser: My name's Eric Schlosser and I'm the author of the book Command and Control.

Noel: If you don’t know Eric Schlosser’s book Command and Control, you’ve probably at least heard of his book Fast Food Nation about the history of the fast food industry, its exploitation of low wage workers, and its impact on the nation’s health. Schlosser did much of his research on fast food chains in Colorado Springs. And while he was here in the late 90s, he visited the Cheyenne Mountain Complex and Peterson Air Force Base where NORAD is now headquartered. 

Eric Schlosser: I decided to write something about the future of war in space and started spending time with members of the Air Force, the US Space Commands. And I thought it was fascinating. But many of the people at Peterson Air Force Base had begun their careers as ballistic missile launch officers. It was sort of a logical career path to go from, you know, involvement with missiles to space command. And they started telling me stories from the Cold War about accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons. And I just had never heard anything like it. I mean, these stories blew my mind. And one of them told me the story of an accident at a Titan II site in Damascus, Arkansas, which had the most powerful nuclear warhead that we ever built on top of this missile. And I just was amazed that I'd never heard this story. 

Noel: Instead of writing a book on the future of war in space, Schlosser decided instead to write about the near-catastrophic incident in the silo in Arkansas when a rocket technician dropped the head of socket wrench that pierced the fuel tank on the Titan II missile and set off an explosion that could’ve detonated the warhead and destroyed Little Rock, Arkansas. More broadly, it’s a cautionary investigative history of America’s underreported accidents with its nuclear arsenal and weapons control systems.  

Eric Schlosser:  So, oddly enough, the book Command and Control really began in Colorado Springs, like my previous book did.

Noel: The book is terrifying. And the word control in the title comes loaded with irony.  

Eric Schlosser: Much of the book is about how this technology was out of control and difficult to control and always on the verge of catastrophe. And I mean, they weren't sure when they detonated the first atomic bomb, and later when they detonated the first hydrogen bomb…. They were not sure whether the detonation might set the Earth's atmosphere on fire and kill every living thing on Earth. I mean, they did all kinds of mathematical calculations, but they didn't really know until they did it.  

Noel: The story of the Titan II missile incident in Arkansas is the most chilling of the close calls in Schlosser’s investigation. But it's the accretion of the dozens of other near-misses that could’ve had the same unthinkable consequences that makes the book so harrowing. 

Among the details: the reckless ways the military handled the dispersal of warheads around the world; the painful number of decisions made as matters of military ego and scientific arrogance;  the almost constant need for maintenance and the increased likelihood of human error in handling that could lead to accidental detonation; the often spectacular lack of accountability; the frequent carelessness of above and below-ground testing, and the willful ignorance of the dangers of radiation. 

Eric Schlosser: When they detonated the Bravo test in the South Pacific, the explosion was like two and a half times more powerful than they had anticipated. And I spoke to someone who was on the boat, one of the one of the ships observing it, and he was a physicist. And the fireball just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And they just had no idea when it was going to stop getting bigger, that they had made some improper calculations. And it did not set the Earth's atmosphere on fire, but it created an incredible amount of radioactive contamination.  

Noel: Then there were the odds. Over the 10 year life span of the US’s entire arsenal of hydrogen bombs, the likelihood of an accidental detonation was put at 1-in-5. And those odds were considered acceptable. The military presumed that the American public would view the accidental detonation of a thermonuclear weapon as an act of god – no different than a hurricane, a forest fire, or an earthquake. 

And of course, there were the vulnerabilities in the Defense systems – NORAD being the largest and most complex. 

Eric Schlosser: NORAD is state of the art. And it's remarkable this, you know, incredibly complex system of sensors and satellites and radars. But the reality is, I mean, you mentioned, you know, when the ballistic missile early warning system was just coming online, NORAD had warnings that the United States was under attack and it was the moon rising. I think this was in 1960. And we were reassured it wasn't a nuclear attack because the head of the Soviet Union was in New York City addressing the U.N. And so they probably wouldn't kill their own leader.  

Noel: There have also been many incredibly smart and thoughtful people who’ve tried to design systems and protocols that would be failsafe. But the problem with failsafes is that they don’t exist. And, says Schlosser, the safer we feel, the more likely we are to be at risk. 

Eric Schlosser: The best way I could put it is, some software designers came up with a phrase: “The Titanic Effect.” And what it basically says is, the safer you assume the system to be, the more dangerous it's becoming. And what that means is you cannot show any sense of arrogance about a complex technological system that you've created. 

Noel: This paradox of safety and security being dependent on a constant sense of insecurity is sobering where our standing thermonuclear arsenal is concerned, and especially at a time when the growing complexity of the internet and artificial intelligence technologies add massive amounts of vulnerability to every aspect of our daily lives. 

But I wanted to know how vulnerable our nuclear arsenal could be, and how safe NORAD might actually be able to make us, from the kinds of external and internal nuclear accidents that Schlosser documents. So I called Bruce Schneier. 

Bruce Schneier: I'm Bruce Schneier, I’m a security technologist. I work at the intersection of security, technology, policy and people. I teach at the Harvard Kennedy School, and I actually just wrote a book called “The Hackers Mind,” published last month.  

Noel: Schneier is one of the smartest people in the country thinking about systems security and safety. He also coined the term “security theater” in a profile of him and his ideas that came out in The Atlantic in 2002. 

Bruce Schneier:  Security Theater  is something I coined as a security measure that looks good but is largely ineffective, right? So its value is in perception. 

Noel: In the Atlantic article, and in his book Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World that Schneier published in 2002, he points to the Transportation Security Administration and the protocols that it created at airports in the deeply uncertain years after 9/11:   Bruce Schneier: And a good example are ID checks at airports, like what are we doing here? Everyone's got an ID. Getting a fake I.D. is easy. So now it's gotten better. But, you know, the notion that we're going to look at an I.D. and use that as a proxy, whether you're an evildoer or not, is just plain ridiculous. But it's something we saw. And there are a lot of security theater measures after the September 11th attacks that, you know, made people feel better but didn't actually add to security. So now the discussion here is whether these early warning systems just make people feel good.  

Noel: ID Checks, taking your shoes off, 4 oz liquid containers. If you’ve traveled by plane in the past 20 years, you’re familiar. And there’ve been countless documented subversions of these protocols – sometimes by would-be terrorists, other times by intrepid journalists, or hackers. And the fact is that there is no security protocol that could effectively stop all threats and get the roughly 1.5 million daily travelers to their destinations from the world’s airports on any given day. 

Bruce Schneier: They want to make people feel better and they also make people feel wary, but they also want to be effective. So they're not just security theater, but there's definitely a theater aspect of them. 

Noel: In other words, the highly imperfect theatrical aspect of some security measures should only be one layer in a much larger series of security measures that add up to something much closer to perfect. Schneier likens it to a stack of Swiss cheese slices.  

Bruce Schneier: So there'll be lots of holes in your security, but they're not going to line up, right? You know, you cannot pick up a block of swiss cheese and see through it.

Noel: Designing an effective system for safety and security requires accepting that there will always be vulnerabilities in any one layer of that system, says Schneier. Two-factor authentication for email accounts, for example, is a basic form of layered security. Sure, your password might suck, but a hacker would have to have both your password and your phone to gain access. 

Bruce Schneier:  And if you're building systems that are more critical, like a nuclear system, is the most, you spend a lot of time on each one of those layers and on the fact that you have many different layers. 

Noel: In Schneier’s swiss cheese model, NORAD is just one slice of America’s air defense and overall nuclear security. The hijackers on 9-11 exploited a vulnerability in that air defense. NORAD fixed it, and now monitors both internal and external threats, not to mention naval threats. So whether its security theater or not,  NORAD continues to project its capability to detect and stop any threat to North American airspace. 

Bruce Schneier: And we are so good. We're going to detect your missile at launch. We're going to have all this early warning. You'll never get away with it. So it is in the best interests of all those systems to project that, regardless of whether or not that's true. Because if the value is deterrence, deterrence is about perception. 

Noel: But no matter how great the defenses, real or perceived, there will always be holes. 9-11 was a painful reminder of this for NORAD. And even if we could predict and prevent every threat from bad actors, the problem of accidents remains. And it’s difficult to design security around incredibly complex systems that always include the possibility of human error. You can’t hack accidents. 

This is what keeps Eric Schlosser up at night. 

Eric Schlosser: There's never been an inadvertent nuclear war. But when you look at the history, we've come close, again and again and again, to nuclear catastrophe. And so, and this isn't my view – this is a view of weapons designers and Air Force, high ranking Air Force officers I interviewed for my book. There is all this managerial skill and technological skill, but there's also been a remarkable amount of luck. And the question is, at what point does luck run out? And do you want the future of your society and of human civilization to be based on luck? 

Noel: But for as terrifying as near-catastrophic accidents like the 1980 Damascus, Arkansas incident that Schlosser recounts in his book might be, Bruce Schneier says that the gigantic stack of security Swiss cheese built around our nuclear arsenal – whether its NORAD or the layers of authorization it would take to launch an ICBM, or the many steps it takes to arm a warhead – have, thus far, worked. 

Bruce Schneier: Occasionally, you know, a bomb is being flown from here to there and it falls off the airplane. But it hasn't been armed, right? So it's designed, that if it falls off the airplane, it doesn't explode. It just falls. And everyone says, oops, and hope nobody notices it and we cover it up. But there hasn’t been an above ground nuclear explosion.

Noel: Yes, there have been close calls. And those close calls have shown us further vulnerabilities in the system. And the way Bruce Schneier sees it, even Eric Schlosser's book adds another slice of security just by bringing those accidents and close calls to public attention. But true security works by constantly seeking out those vulnerabilities, those holes in the swiss cheese. And when we find them, we add a new slice so that the failure of one will never compromise the whole stack. Schneier calls this approach failing well.

Bruce Shneier: We're going to get security because we have a lot of different systems, they failed differently at different times, in different ways, and it's really hard to get the failures to line up. 

Noel: NORAD has always been a thick slice of our national nuclear security. And Schlosser and Schneier agree: there is no perfect system. And with renewed nuclear threats not just from Russia, but the growing number of states with nuclear weapons, the well-known vulnerabilities of the internet, the ongoing threat of domestic and foreign terrorism, and the new uncertainties of A.I., the threat of both hacks and accidents only seems to grow.   

Eric Schlosser: And when you get back to the Titanic Effect, what we really need is a constant questioning of these systems. And what will keep us safe is a constant feeling of doubt. 

It’s been 40 years since I first saw the movie War Games; 39 since I saw The Day After, and I still live just a few miles north of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in this western town that the military built. It’s ironic to me that living so close to North America’s Air Defense Command, surrounded by the armed forces, I always felt less secure. Even if NORAD is a thick slice of America's security swiss cheese, we’re still in a big hole.  

I asked my friend in the Air Force – the guy who got me inside Cheyenne Mountain for a tour over a decade ago – what kinds of close calls he’d seen in the years he worked there. “You don’t wanna know,” he said. “There’s a lot of bad people out there.” He half-laughed and raised one of his arch eyebrows. Then he took a long toke off his cigar, which he smoked like an actor – with exaggerated affect. He was the kind of guy who kept secrets and enjoyed letting you know that he knew, and he’d never tell. 

“We’re inside the mountain so that when you look at the mountain all you see is the mountain,” he said like some diabolical Zen monk. 

I’d never see it that way again, I thought. Not after being inside. Not after doing this episode. 

But then, just last weekend, a couple friends invited me out to Cheyenne Mountain State Park, which sits right below the road up to the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. It was a warm Spring afternoon in the high 50s with just enough breeze to rustle the last brown leaves clinging to the scrub oak. The campsites were full of RV’s and one of the campers had just lit the coals on a barbecue. Magpies bobbed their long black tails from the tops of Ponderosas. 

For two hours, I forgot that we were hiking in the long shadow of NORAD while looking out over Fort Carson. I didn’t think about the fact that Vladimir Putin was rattling his tactical nuclear sabers in Belarus, or the fact that we were standing right there at ground zero where the thermonuclear warhead on an ICBM would detonate 30 minutes after the start of World War III and vaporize everything in a radioactive ball of fire, like a sudden sun.    

I heard a red-tailed hawk make its high-pitched Ninja squawk and looked up and followed it as it soared and circled around behind me, then banked in front of the craggy granite folds of the mountain. 

And all I saw was the mountain. 

[Theme and Credits]

Lost Highways is a production of History Colorado and History Colorado Studios. It’s made possible by a generous grant from the Sturm Family Foundation, with particular thanks to Stephen Sturm and Emily Sturm. And by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor.

If you enjoyed this episode of Lost Highways and want to support it, please subscribe, rate us, and write us a review on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. Also: tell a friend and share one of your favorite episodes. You can find links to individual episodes at historycolorado.org/losthighways.

Many thanks to our Producers, María José Maddox and Dustin Hodge, and a very special thanks to Craig Richardson, who produced this episode.

Special thanks also to Susan Schulten, our History advisor; to Chief Creative Officer Jason Hanson, to Publications Director Sam Bock; to Ann Sneesby-Koch for her newspaper and periodical research; to Tyler Hill, our story editor; and to Lori Bailey, our problem solver extraordinaire.

Thanks to our volunteer transcribers for this season, Clint Carlson, Barry Levene, Ivy Martinez, Erin Wilcox, and Sharyn Zimmerman. If you'd like to see a transcript of any of our episodes, either as a matter of accessibility, or because you'd like to use Lost Highways in your classroom, you can find them at historycolorado.org/losthighways.   Devin James Fry composed the music for this episode, and our theme is by Conor Bourgal.

Many thanks to our editorial team: Shaun Boyd Kimberly Kronwall Jose Ortega Angel Vigil and Marissa Volpe

And to our Advisory Group: Stephen Sturm Emily Sturm Thomas Andrews Jonathan Futa Charlie Woolley Susan Schulten Tom Romero and Cara DeGette

Noel: Finally, a huge thanks to the entire staff at History Colorado. And thank you for listening. I’m Noel Black.

What Is The Cheyenne Mountain Complex And Is It Still Relevant Today?

A huge entrance into a mountain

The threat of nuclear-equipped bombers from the Soviet Union flying over American cities was serious during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. This potential threat forced U.S. defense experts to realize that a concerted and integrated network of air defenses was needed to protect against such incursions and possible nuclear strikes. To make such a network viable though, a hardened and well-placed command center that could take a blow from a Soviet attack and continue operating was needed. The location that fit the bill was Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Through the planning and efforts of Generals Benjamin Chidlaw and Early Partridge, construction on such a facility began on June 19, 1961. The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC), typically referred to as the Cheyenne Mountain Complex or just Cheyenne Mountain, was a massive construction effort. Placed 1,500 feet underground, engineers removed 693,000 tons of granite to carve out a 5.1-acre complex. The space would see 15 buildings erected, which sit on 1,300 springs, 18 inches from the rock wall, so as to move with the shockwave of a nuclear attack. 

The foresight of the planners hardened it against an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which results from a nuclear detonation. Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station (AFS) deputy director Steven Rose said, "Back then, it was just part of the effect of a nuclear blast that we were designed for at Cheyenne Mountain." The facility would be deemed fully operational on February 6, 1967, at a total construction cost of $142.4 million.

Why is Cheyenne Mountain important?

The establishment of Cheyenne Mountain created a central brain for air defense command and control and not just for the United States. Thanks to the Ogdensburg Declaration of 1940, the U.S. partnered with Canada in establishing a North American air defense network, which created a web of radar networks across the U.S. and Canada. This agreement would evolve into the creation of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in September 1957, with Cheyenne Mountain as the central command center.

The complex has housed other critical agencies, including U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Air Force Space Command and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). Cheyenne Mountain and its attendant agencies are tasked with several critical missions including aerospace warning, aerospace control and air attacks (such as ballistic missiles or aircraft). These missions have and continue to evolve over the decades as has Cheyenne Mountain's role in the defense of the U.S. and North America. As of May 12, 2008, the Cheyenne Mountain Command Center has been designated the NORAD and USNORTHCOMAlternative Command Center with Peterson Air Force Base now serving as the primary lead.

Into the future...

The threats and needs of air and space defense continually evolve as does Cheyenne Mountain to meet them. Currently, the complex is designated the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station and is operated by Air Force Space Command. The facility continues to serve as an alternative command center to nearby Peterson Air Force Base, while additionally acting as a training center for various entities such as the Air Force and Space Force . This is no problem, as the complex is so large that less than 30% of its total space is used by NORAD and USNORTHCOM.

No longer faced with the singular threat of a nuclear-powered Soviet Union, Cheyenne Mountain has a more challenging job of scanning for threats from multiple fronts. Should a nuclear attack occur, the facility can close its 25-ton steel doors in 40 seconds, while continuing to respond and react accordingly. Cheyenne Mountain AFS branch chief for NORAD/NORTHCOM, Lt. Col. Tim Schwamb said, "This is where the best minds in NORAD and U.S. Northern Command are, so that we can see, predict, and counter any threats that would happen to the homeland and North American region." As "America's Fortress," Cheyenne Mountain will continue to be a critical part of both the U.S. and North America's air and space defense for the foreseeable future.

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Four things to know about NORAD, ‘the most secure facility in the world’

Royal Canadian Air Force Col. Travis Morehen speaks in the North American Aerospace Defense Command command center Thursday inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colo.

CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN AIR FORCE STATION, Colo. — A quarter-century has passed since the end of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the former Soviet Union, but the famous U.S. military command center inside Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain is still alive, tracking new threats from new enemies.

The U.S. blasted a warren of tunnels out of the mountain’s hard granite in the 1960s so officers of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, could survive a nuclear attack.

Although NORAD called off its “nuclear watch” in 1992 after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Cheyenne Mountain is still teeming with electronics and personnel watching for terrorist attacks and cyber assaults as well as missiles.

Saturday was the 60th anniversary of NORAD, a unique bi-national command created by the U.S. and Canada to protect the skies over both nations. To mark the occasion, NORAD offered a tour of Cheyenne Mountain on Thursday.

Four things to know about the complex:

1. ‘The most secure facility in world’

The bunker lies 2,000 feet under Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs, Colo. It can be sealed off by two giant blast doors made of concrete and steel, each 3 1/2 feet thick and weighing 23 U.S. tons.

“We like to say it’s the most secure facility in the world,” said Steve Rose, deputy director of the base.

The heart of the complex is a grid of six tunnels up to 40 feet wide and three stories high. They hold 15 connected buildings made of steel plates, riding on massive coil springs to absorb the shock of a nuclear blast or earthquake. The granite and steel also protect electronics from destructive pulses of electro-magnetic energy that nuclear explosions produce.

Asked whether Cheyenne Mountain is vulnerable to more powerful modern nuclear warheads, Rose answered: “I don’t think we would be open if it was.”

2. Why NORAD is in Colorado facility

The military put NORAD in Colorado because it is near the center of the continent, far from Soviet bomber bases and missile launchers, said Brian Laslie, NORAD’s deputy historian.

The first command center was at the now-decommissioned Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. By the early 1960s, it was clear Ent would not survive a nuclear attack, so work began on burrowing into the mountain, Laslie said.

The room is surprisingly small, about 40 feet square. Eight big video screens line the walls. Soft lighting, muted colors and sound-muffling surfaces give the room a hushed, somber feel.

3. Cheyenne Mountain is now the backup

In 2008, the military opened a bigger command center at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, saying Cheyenne Mountain was costly to run and that the primary threats at the time, North Korea and Iran, did not have missiles capable of reaching Colorado.

Cheyenne Mountain became the alternate command center, but operations regularly return there for a few days at a time to ensure the room and its staff are ready in the event of a crisis.

Rose, the base deputy director, rejected the notion that Cheyenne Mountain is a relic.

“Couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said, noting the mountain is fully occupied by a permanent NORAD contingent.

4. How NORAD has changed in the 21st century

After the Soviet Union collapsed, “NORAD had a bit of a slump as far as the focus of the mission,” said Royal Canadian Air Force Col. Travis Morehen, a senior command center officer. The 9/11 terrorist attacks abruptly changed that.

Before 9/11, NORAD watched only for external threats. After the terrorists turned domestic airliners into weapons, NORAD began peering inward as well, monitoring civilian air traffic for potential threats.

NORAD regularly launches fighter jets to intercept private aircraft that stray into restricted airspace.

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America's Fortress: Cheyenne Mountain, NORAD live on

Despite the common public belief that the famous facility has closed down, and that it is one and the same as NORAD, it is fully operational and packed with critical U.S. military and defense agencies.

visit norad cheyenne mountain

digg_url = 'http://digg.com/travel_places/America_s_Fortress_Cheyenne_Mountain_NORAD_Live_On_w_vid';

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.--If there are two things that drive the folks at the world-famous Cheyenne Mountain complex crazy, it's the widely held public perceptions that, for one, the complex has shut down altogether, and that it is synonymous with NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

After visiting as part of my Road Trip 2009 project Friday, I'm here to report that both perceptions are quite incorrect.

For one, the Cheyenne Mountain complex is very much still operational. In some ways, in fact, in a world where existential threats come not from the Soviet Union but from things like natural disasters, cyberattacks, and amorphous terrorist organizations on the hunt for nuclear weapons, it may today even be considered more important than ever.

In its heyday, during the height of the Cold War, it was seen as the nerve center from which U.S. military operations could still conduct business during a nuclear attack. But today, in the post-9/11 era, a whole new set of operational tenants, including U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Space Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Missile Defense Agency, have moved in.

Secondly, while NORAD does, and has always done, business inside the mountain, the daily operations of its command center moved in May 2008 to the nearby Peterson Air Force Base to form a combined U.S. Northern Command and NORAD command center. Today, the day-to-day NORAD mission at Cheyenne Mountain has combined with U.S. Northern Command and includes a number of missions including training.

Photos: Inside Cheyenne Mountain, America's Fortress

visit norad cheyenne mountain

"Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is owned and operated by Air Force Space Command," the NORAD Web site explains . "In fact, NORAD and (U.S. Northern Command) use just under 30 percent of the floor space within the complex and comprise approximately 5 percent of the daily population at Cheyenne Mountain."

It would be dishonest of me to not admit that when I first set about trying to arrange a visit to Cheyenne Mountain, I didn't understand the relationship between the complex and NORAD.

It wasn't fully explained to me until my arrival that my initial request to visit the command center--where all the real action takes place--couldn't be met. But I was able to spend a few hours meeting with Col. Brad Gentry, the commander of the 721st Mission Support Group, which runs Cheyenne Mountain, and taking a rare tour--rare because I was allowed to bring a camera--of the deep underground complex.

And after my visit, I have a much clearer picture of what goes on at the facility, and, my hosts hope, so will the general public.

Mission Support Group Gentry explained that the MSG is responsible for Cheyenne Mountain's civil engineering, its security--both physical and digital--and ensuring that it remains "America's Fortress," perhaps the most impenetrable command center on Earth. Ultimately, the job is to offer the various other agencies inside the complex "five nines reliability," meaning 99.999 percent, when it comes to power, electricity, air conditioning, water, and more.

According to a fact sheet I was given, the threats that the MSG is geared up for, in descending order of likelihood, but increasing level of consequences, are: medical emergencies, natural disasters, civil disorder, a conventional attack, an electromagnetic pulse attack, a cyber or information attack, chemical or biological or radiological attack, an improvised nuclear attack, a limited nuclear attack, or a general nuclear attack.

Preparing for the various kinds of nuclear attacks, however, has nothing to do with the U.S. Strategic Command's Cheyenne Mountain missile warning center, which, Gentry explained, connects with and collects data from missile sensors around the world.

Still, there is plenty of awareness about the potential for a nuclear explosion at Cheyenne Mountain, and during my tour of the infrastructure, much of that was spelled out.

Among the systems set up to protect the critical operations inside the complex from the most dire attacks are giant, 25-ton blast doors placed deep within the mountain, as well as a tunnel and portal structure designed to deflect a nuclear detonation (see video below).

There are also a network of blast valves set up to ensure safe air, redundant power generators on top of a huge battery bank, a massive diesel fuel reservoir, a 4.5 million gallon reservoir of water used as a heat sink, a system of giant springs designed to allow the 15 three-story buildings inside the mountain to shift up to an inch in any direction in case of an explosion or earthquake, and countless sections of flexible pipe connectors meant to ensure that significant shaking doesn't upset normal operations.

visit norad cheyenne mountain

In essence, the complex is a small city. Six hundred people work there, and as such, there's a medical center, a small store, a cafeteria, and more. Should Cheyenne Mountain be shut down for any reason--what is known in the complex's parlance as a "button up," the personnel left inside "can maintain fitness" at the gym, Gentry said.

And while top brass inside are afforded sleeping suites for use in case of a button up, lesser personnel would still be able to rest there, as the facility maintains a sizable collection of cots.

So finely tuned When entering the complex, everyone has to go through two sets of the giant blast doors. Though they weigh 25 tons, they're "so finely tuned," Gentry said, that even just two people should be able to swing them shut or open.

At the same time, the doors lock when a series of giant pistons swing forward and into large, corresponding slots. Even the piston system has a backup, though, with levers that can be manually operated to pull open or push shut the pistons.

"People will not ever be trapped in this facility," Gentry said.

That's also true because, should every other system fail, including the blast doors, there's a small trap door inside one of the tunnels that allows people to escape. That's assuming they're not claustrophobic, Gentry joked.

The series of blast valves, meanwhile, are set up so that, should there be an attack, the air inside remains breathable. That's because the valves have sophisticated filters that can clean contaminated air, and which provide a 20-second delay between entering the mountain from the outside and making it inside the blast doors.

Indeed, said Jason Cook, the civil engineering director, the blast doors and blast valves are designed to work in conjunction to protect the complex from the worst possible scenario: a blast wave. With the single push of a button, Cook added, the filters kick in to clean the air, and the doors close. The civil engineering section of the facility even has its own blast door (see video below).

What's more, the complex is set up to shield the interior against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which can fry most electronics. Cook said that, in fact, Cheyenne Mountain is the only DOD high-altitude Electromagnetic Pulse certified underground facility. Among the protections are wall-mounted EMP filters called metallic-oxide varistors, which dampen the pulse, as well as a system that allows personnel inside to break away interior electronic systems from the external commercial power systems.

Water supply, however, is something the mountain itself takes care of. While the complex maintains a 1.5 million gallon-capacity reservoir, there's actually a natural spring within the granite that supplies more water than the base uses. That means that the reservoir stores enough water to put out any fire that could break out inside the facility, Cook said.

Out of place and time In a story she wrote in 2008, the journalist Annalee Newitz wrote of a tour of Cheyenne Mountain she got with a group of science-fiction writers that, "Yesterday, I traveled back in time to the Cold War...The underground base has become the stuff of historical myth and science fiction legend. That's why I felt gripped by the surreal as I walked into its rough-walled cave entrance, then through a gleaming blast door, fully three feet thick and packed with huge, hydraulic pins that slid into place when the door shut."

Having been there now myself, I know what Newitz means. While our daily lives are no longer spent worrying that the Russians might someday launch nuclear missiles at us, there's little doubt that we do face the risks of serious nuclear, chemical, or biological attack.

So for me, while walking through the complex in the Obama era is certainly different than it would have been during the Reagan years, there's no doubt that Cheyenne Mountain is still a place where the worst scenarios have corresponding contingency plans and where the people charged with running it take their jobs very seriously.

Whether America needs a facility like Cheyenne Mountain is not for me to say. But being inside and seeing how the base is put together makes one appreciate the mindset of 1961, when ground first broke on the complex, when it seemed as though the worst could come at any time. Fortunately, that hasn't happened yet. But those involved have been as ready as possible all along.

Nobody Has Ever Been Able To Visit This Forbidden Place In Colorado... Until Now

visit norad cheyenne mountain

Annie is a freelance writer, content editor, and marketing whiz with a background in broadcasting and a passion for chicken nachos.

More by this Author

You have grown up hearing tales of a top secret place in Colorado that only the top government employees have ever seen; a place that is said to keep us safe, but sounds more like a made-up place out of a movie… do you know what I am referring to? Until recently, no one has ever been able to get close to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), but will soon be able to, as it is finally being open to the public.

visit norad cheyenne mountain

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Sarah Scoles

A Rare Journey Into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, a Super-Bunker That Can Survive Anything

CheyenneTA1.jpg

In the background of Colorado Springs, Pikes Peak dominates the sky. But just to that mountain’s southeast looms another geological ripple. Cheyenne Mountain—a rounded, rocky thing that rises 9,565 feet above sea level—looks wild and quiet. But deep inside the mountain, a crew of humans toils in one of the nation’s most secure military installations. Shielded by 2,500 feet of granite, these people gather and analyze data from a global surveillance system, in an attempt to (among other, undisclosed things) warn the government’s highest officials of launches and missile threats to North America.

Their military mole-city, completed in the mid-1960s amid Cold War worries, is—when fully buttoned-up—highly resistant to nuclear bombs, electromagnetic bombs, electromagnetically destructive behavior from the sun, and biological weapons. It’s designed to do its job, and let those inside do theirs, in the worst of worst-case scenarios. And with escalating fears about North Korean aggression and nuclear capabilities , Cheyenne Mountain’s ability to predict and survive a nuclear attack resonates more than it did just a few months ago.

As I drive up the hairpinned road toward the entrance to the mountain, made famous in fictional form by War Games and Stargate , signs warn me off with increasing aggression. But I'm allowed: I'm here for a rare tour of the mountain’s innards.

When I arrive at the visitor check-in, Fox News plays on the overhead TV. A sign beneath says not to change the channel, and a uniformed officer reads me a document that says I can't have explosives and that the employees can use deadly force to protect the site. Fair enough.

Soon, badge on blazer, fully briefed, I walk with four escorts—two men who are civilians and two women who are military officers—toward this constructed cave. It is, perhaps, the place on this planet most able to cut itself off from the rest of Earth. And the hardest part for those who work there is not spending all their time subterranean but knowing that in those worst cases—of which " North Korean nukes " is the example most used during my visit—everyone they care about will be outside the thing that’s keeping them safe.

Missile Commanders Lt.  and Lt. Col. Ken Reed c

Much of that safety comes from the complex’s very underground-ness. And given that miners had to excavate 693,000 tons of granite to make the Cheyenne Mountain Complex, you might expect its entryway to wow. But the mountain itself is so tall, so sheer, that the 22-foot, two-lane arch leading to the north tunnel looks especially puny by comparison.

Rusty Mullins—deputy director of the Air Force’s 721st Communications Squadron—is leading this tour. He walks down the edge of the tunnel’s asphalt road as he talks about the site, concrete barriers forcing him at intervals to step back onto the sidewalk. The granite makes a half-cylinder around us, bolts knocked into the rock like some kind of sadistic climbing gym.

People get used to these depths, the disconnection. “You learn to live without any sky,” he says, “without any outside but what’s on TV.” There's a lot of TV, though—sets in the work rooms that show the world beyond that arch.

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The tunnel curves ahead of us, a skew that will route nuclear (or whatever) material and send it out through the south entrance. The blast doors that lead to the complex's buildings branch off from the tunnel at around 90 degrees, so any material will glance off rather than slam into them.

We pass through one open 25-ton door—it'll get closed in the event of a potential or impending threat to the area—and enter a rock-walled room with a second such door at its far end. A slight breeze blows by. It's coming from deeper in the mountain, the result of a purposeful over-pressurization so radioactive or bio-particles won’t seep inside the complex. They’d have to make that perpendicular turn and then swim upstream. And they won’t. That’s physics.

Back when humans were cold warring, one of these doors stayed closed. When both get shut, their uber-deadbolts and substantial concreteness keep everything out. Today, these main blast doors remain open unless something truly terrible and threatening happens (like 9/11, the last time the gates shut for serious) or the employees do a drill: what they call a button-up scenario, a practice as much human as mechanical.

Because it’s not enough for the mountain’s welded-metal buildings to sit on springs that can take a nuclear or earthquake hit, which they do, or for its pipes to be bendy, which they are. It’s not enough for the managers to know they have 6 million gallons of water stored in pools carved right out of the rock, or 510,000 gallons of diesel. They have to know the humans can do their jobs—best of times, worst of times, regardless of how sad or scared they are. And the electronics that let them do those jobs have to continue functioning, even as they're cut off from an outside that, in a real emergency, might not have working electronics.

Cheyenne Mountain complex office building

Mullins points inside the second door. Everyone’s “button-up bags” (essentially sleepover kits) are already inside. Locked in, people share bunked cots. They eat MREs—meals ready to eat, whose calorie-dense contents are almost as indestructible as the complex itself. They breathe filtered air that comes in through blast valves. Their lives run on six generators, an internal 10.5-megawatt power plant (nearby, there’s a giant door that says, “Without power, it’s just a cave.”). Any supplies they need come from cabinets and cages that they call “Wal-Marts,” where they’ve stashed extra fan belts and connectors and whatever else.

Mullins leads us through that second blast door, where an awning like those fronting old apartments juts from the first of 15 buildings. “WELCOME TO CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN COMPLEX,” it says. When the employees enter this building during a button-up—real or contrived—they can’t go back out. And no one can come in.

Inside, we cross little walkways that can move independently of the buildings. These structures don't sit together in some giant cavern: They're encased in a series of tunnels. The trim color changes from building to building, so you know where(ish) you are. As we walk, we pass a regular medical clinic, a dentist, a self-checkout store, and also the world’s most secure Subway. (One assumes that in the event of a long-term lockdown, the inhabitants would not be eating so fresh.) Down one hallway is Norad’s alternate command center, where they’ll go if shit slams into fans. We do not go inside.

Mullins leads us through staircases and hallways into a gym set up for spin class. On a normal day, an instructor might be yelling about cadence over some jacked-up pop song. But if there’s a bombing or an earthquake, this exercise room morphs into a hospital. The curtains at the front, which I hadn't noticed at first, would close over medical bays. The area would fill with bleeding people clutching broken arms and medical responders to treat them—as fast as possible, so they could get back to work. “Because you have a job on the mountain,” says Mullins.

“I’m gonna depress you,” Mullins had said before we even went inside the mountain. He described his family—wife, kids. And how for his whole career here, he’s had to tell them that if there’s some kind of Event, they’re on their own. “I’m going to be in the mountain doing my job,” he says to the people he loves most, “and I can’t help you.”

That’s a big reason Cheyenne needs run-downs. People have to practice leaving their families, friends, and favorite Starbucks locations, imagining that everyone could burn up in a nuclear blast, be left in an apocalyptic electromagnetic pulse scenario, or become bio-weapon infected.

They usually hold it together. On 9/11, just a few of the hundreds locked inside wanted to go home. One was distraught enough that officials took him to the chapel so he could sit, think, calm down. The chapel—which comes with a chaplain, whose support is bolstered by mental health services—is bland, non-denominational. It’s the kind of quiet that makes your ears ring. After 10 or 15 minutes, the guy came out. He went back to work.

They all do. “No matter how bad it is outside, I’m going to do my job here," Mullins says. He says it like a mantra.

CheyenneIL2.jpg

That work all these people need to get back to—it involves computers. And their physiological aliveness wouldn't do much good if the computers were dead or cyber-compromised, would it? That's why the complex's shielding, both physical and digital, matters so much.

If an electromagnetic pulse hit near the mountain, it could knock out everything around Colorado Springs. But inside the complex, computers and the lines feeding into them stay safe. The rock sheath attenuates the electromagnetic waves, as do the metal buildings: They're giant Faraday cages.

Mullins leads us to a room where that protection matters a lot: the Global Strategic Warning/Space Surveillance Systems Center. Inside, the occupants have kindly put up simulated surveillance screens so I can't see what's actually going on with the world. A gray-haired civilian is in charge of smiley young staff sergeants. They're all standing in front of a herd of monitors, bluelit by a wall of screens showing (fake) maps, (fake) aircraft, (fake) bar graphs. It's exactly what you'd imagine would be inside a place like Cheyenne Mountain if you were going to make a movie about it, which people have.

Down here, they spend their time watching the skies they can’t actually see for evidence of missiles, suspicious space behavior, launches, tests—is that heat signature from North Korea a threat, or nah? They ingest information and determine what’s going on that’s good, bad, neutral, what should go up the chain to the decisionmakers. And it's here that they decide when it's time to shut Cheyenne's doors.

As we make our way back toward those (still open) doors, after three or so hours playing cavepeople, I ask how they isolate themselves digitally. If their whole operation relies on data from beyond the mountain’s mouth, how can they be so sure nothing else can get in?

We're outside the buildings now, in one of the rooms that just has granite for walls. Well, Mullins says, some of their systems don’t connect to outside networks, ever. That’s failsafe. For the rest, he turns to one of the uniformed personnel with us—Major Mica Myers, who’s been pretty quiet, cutting in to add details here and there to Mullins's narration. But I've felt the whole time like she was watching over this excursion. Turns out, I might not be wrong.

“I’m gonna use the 'DCO' word,” Mullins says. “OK, you think?”

She agrees.

“Defensive cyber operations,” he says. He points to Myers and says she, director of operations for the 721st Communications Squadron, leads them.

While they won’t say what, exactly, “defensive cyber operations” means for Cheyenne Mountain, the Joint Force Commander’s Guide to Cyberspace Operations gives a general definition: They “provide the ability to discover, detect, analyze, and mitigate threats, to include insider threats.” Basically, they identify and freeze attempts to infiltrate their cyber systems. Mullins and Myers say they have plans for various scenarios, and proof that the plans work. Proof , they repeat. And although they don't say what this means, it seems safe to assume they have repelled infiltrators either real or simulated.

Mullins looks around at the rocky walls that surround us as we turn back toward the tunnel, toward the outside world.

“We’re having a defensive cyber conversation in the middle of a cave,” he says. He laughs. That is, though, kind of Cheyenne Mountain’s whole thing: Protecting high-tech stuff with the planet itself, a womb around solid civil and anti-hack engineering.

Mullins steps back out into the tunnel. “Does it look any different going this direction?” he asks.

I can see actual light at the end of this actual tunnel, so yes.

When we step through the arch, the world is different from the way we left it. It has, as it always will (for better or worse or worst), gone on without us. The air feels colder, even though it’s noon now. Charcoal clouds hover over the eastern plains. There’s a beat of thunder. A fleet of military sirens goes off 1,000 feet below, back in town. This is just a test, they tell me.

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The tour will be approximately 2.5 hours & will be followed by a Happy Hour at:

Old Chicago Restaurant. $13.00 PP. This is near    I-25 & Woodmen Rd. in Colorado Springs. 
Address: 7115 Commerce Center Drive, Colorado Springs, 80919.

Please read event requirements below before logging in as a member to register.

 Registration will close March 12 th , 2017.

The requirements to be a guest in Cheyenne Mountain Complex are as follows:

Safety/Health- For safety, Children UNDER 10 yrs. of age are NOT ALLOWED. People with physical handicaps that prevent them from walking up to one mile at 7,100 ft. of elevation and up & down stairs are NOT ALLOWED. Wheelchairs, canes, walkers, & oxygen bottles are NOT PERMITTED. People who have conditions that may require rapid exit (advanced pregnancy, claustrophobia, heart conditions, etc.) are discouraged from participating. Eligible guests should wear comfortable shoes. Large handbags/purses/backpacks are NOT PERMITTED as they unnecessarily extend the search process within the security building.

Security- Guests must leave all electronic/wireless media & recording devices in vehicles as these items are NOT PERMITTED in CMAFS. Guests must carry a valid government issued photo identification card (Driver’s License, Military/civilian CAC, Passport).

The following information will be required from each guest: Legal name (Name must match their photo Identification EXACTLY- NO EXCEPTIONS) Social Security Number, Passport Number or Green Card Number for foreign nationals if SSN is not available.

You must be able to fulfill all the above requirements to register for this tour.

Individuals who are CCA Members & are chosen to attend will be notified and will be required to provide LEGAL NAME, & SSN, PASSPORT #, or Green Card # prior to the event.

This is required for security purpose & there will be NO EXCEPTIONS.

Registration is FULL! Please check out other CCA events. 

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  • Laramie County Library Hosts the Cheyenne Mountain ZooMobile

Jun 20, 2024

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Cheyenne Mountain Zoo staff taught LCLS patrons about the different classes within the animal kingdom.

Laramie County Library patrons had the opportunity to zoom in on some animals from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The LCLS location in Cheyenne hosted a ZOOmobile   event on Friday, June 14. One session was held 10:15-11:15 a.m. with another 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

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A young LCLS patron gets up close and personal with a visitor from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

It was a full house in the LCLS Cottonwood Room with over 600 Laramie County patrons attending the event. Attendees learned about the diversity of the animal kingdom and explored the diversity of the different classes within it including amphibians, mammals, reptiles, and more.

“It was so much fun! The lizard they brought had a smile on his face the whole time,” said the event’s coordinator, Lauren Johnson, the LCLS’s Youth Services Librarian.

The Laramie County Library System has locations in Cheyenne, Burns, and Pine Bluffs, all of which host events for patrons of all ages. Find out more on their events calendar .

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IMAGES

  1. Rare Tour Given Of Military Operation Inside Cheyenne Mountain

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  2. Cheyenne Mountain NORAD

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  3. A Rare Journey Into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex Super-Bunker

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  4. Photos from Inside NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Combat Center

    visit norad cheyenne mountain

  5. King under the mountain: Building Colorado’s Cold War command center

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  6. Canada Colorado Association

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COMMENTS

  1. Cheyenne Mountain NORAD

    The goal of the Cheyenne Mountain Colorado Springs complex was to have an underground combat operations center to replace the vulnerable above-ground facility at Ent Air Force Base (Fun Fact - Ent Air Force Base is now home to another popular military attraction, the United States Air Force Academy).. This complex would become the home for NORAD, which was the abbreviation for North American ...

  2. Cheyenne Mountain Complex

    The Cheyenne Mountain Division of NORAD and USNORTHCOM was re-designated as the J36 branch within the NORAD and USNORTHCOM's Operations Directorates. Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is owned and operated by Air Force Space Command. In fact, NORAD and USNORTHCOM use just under 30% of the floor space within the complex and comprise ...

  3. NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Fortress Is Back in Business

    As the defender of North American aerospace, NORAD must keep its core functions running 24/7. The Post reports approximately 130 personnel were sent to Cheyenne Mountain to perform 12-hour watch ...

  4. 13 secrets of NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain

    However, 7NEWS got a rare tour inside and learned 13 secrets of the mountain. Secret No. 1: Cheyenne Mountain is still open for business. When the Cheyenne Mountain facility opened in the late 1960s, it was the NORAD Combat Operations Center. The mission was to watch for ballistic missile or air attacks against North America.

  5. Cheyenne Mountain SFS, Colorado

    Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station is located in Colorado Springs -- a short distance from North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command headquarters at Peterson Space Force Base. At the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s, the idea of a hardened command and control center was conceptualized as a defense against ...

  6. About NORAD

    The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a United States and Canada bi-national organization charged with the missions of aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning for North America. Aerospace warning includes the detection, validation, and warning of attack against North America whether by aircraft, missiles, or ...

  7. Cheyenne Mountain Tours

    NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command): Cheyenne Mountain Tours - See 12 traveler reviews, candid photos, and great deals for Colorado Springs, CO, at Tripadvisor.

  8. NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command)

    That being said the of limits nature of NORAD is well warranted. Visit the great nearby acitation and military museums instead. Read more. Written November 30, 2014. ... Not of the famous NORAD station in Cheyenne Mountain. They permanently cut that out after 9/11. NORAD has set up a satellite office near Peterson Air Force base that you still ...

  9. Cheyenne Mountain Complex

    The Cheyenne Mountain Complex is a United States Space Force installation and defensive bunker located in unincorporated El Paso County, Colorado, next to the city of Colorado Springs, at the Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station, which hosts the activities of several tenant units. Also located in Colorado Springs is Peterson Space Force Base, where the North American Aerospace Defense Command ...

  10. Cheyenne Mountain State Park

    The Limekiln Trailhead offers parking, restrooms, picnic tables, and a playground for the kids. There is easy trail access and views to astound you! 410 JL Ranch Hghts | Colorado Springs, CO | 80926. Main: (719) 576-2016. Website.

  11. Cheyenne Mountain Complex

    Address: 1, 101, Norad Rd, Colorado Springs, CO 80906 (Air Force Station) Tours: Not available. Website: norad.mil…. The Cheyenne Mountain Complex on Cheyenne Mountain is a Space Force installation and defensive bunker. Located 2,000 feet underground in Colorado Springs, the complex protects fifteen buildings, each three-stories, from natural ...

  12. Take A Tour Of The Military Operation Inside Cheyenne Mountain

    NORAD celebrates 60 years of protecting America.

  13. The Secret World of NORAD

    Cheyenne Mountain houses 13 three-story buildings and two two-story buildings on five acres inside a cavern created by dislodging nearly 700,000 tons of granite with 1.5 million tons of dynamite.

  14. The Ship Inside the Mountain: A Hidden History of NORAD and North

    Season 4, Episode 4. On this episode, we take you inside the history of NORAD, or North American Aerospace Defense Command. AND we'll take you inside The Cheyenne Mountain Complex, the base that has stoked the pop cultural imagination of generations with movies and shows from Dr. Strangelove to Stargate to Interstellar.

  15. What Is The Cheyenne Mountain Complex And Is It Still ...

    Cheyenne Mountain AFS branch chief for NORAD/NORTHCOM, Lt. Col. Tim Schwamb said, "This is where the best minds in NORAD and U.S. Northern Command are, so that we can see, predict, and counter any ...

  16. Four things to know about NORAD, 'the most secure ...

    To mark the occasion, NORAD offered a tour of Cheyenne Mountain on Thursday. Four things to know about the complex: 1. 'The most secure facility in world'. The bunker lies 2,000 feet under ...

  17. Photos: Inside Cheyenne Mountain, America's Fortress

    On Road Trip 2009, CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman visits Cheyenne Mountain, known as "America's Fortress" and home to NORAD and a host of other critical military and defense agencies.

  18. America's Fortress: Cheyenne Mountain, NORAD live on

    "Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station is owned and operated by Air Force Space Command," the NORAD Web site explains. "In fact, NORAD and (U.S. Northern Command) use just under 30 percent of the ...

  19. Cheyenne Mountain In Colorado Is Opening To The Public

    Until recently, no one has ever been able to get close to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), but will soon be able to, as it is finally being open to the public. Dubbed the highest peak in El Paso County, Cheyenne Mountain sits at 9,570 feet and is quite possibly one of the most famous mountains in Colorado - not just for ...

  20. A Rare Journey Into the Cheyenne Mountain Complex Super-Bunker

    Cheyenne Mountain—a rounded, rocky thing that rises 9,565 feet above sea level—looks wild and quiet. But deep inside the mountain, a crew of humans toils in one of the nation's most secure ...

  21. What's Really Inside NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Complex?

    The Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC) at NORAD. To a casual observer, the Cheyenne Mountain workspaces might feel more like a submarine than a typical military office space. Hallways are ...

  22. NORAD Cheyenne Mountain Complex Tour

    Complex-NORAD & USNORTHCOM Alternate Command Center. Located at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. 101 Norad Road, Colorado Springs, 80906. The tour will be approximately 2.5 hours & will be followed by a Happy Hour at: Old Chicago Restaurant. $13.00 PP. This is near I-25 & Woodmen Rd. in Colorado Springs. Address: 7115 Commerce Center Drive ...

  23. I want to tour NORAD : r/ColoradoSprings

    Although it's NORAD and USNORTHCOM's goal to keep the public informed regarding our missions and operations through the use of the media and speaking events, the attacks on 9/11 forced us to greatly reduce the number of visits offered at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station.

  24. Colorado Experience

    Season 2 Episode 208 | 26m 45s |. My List. Cheyenne Mountain, located south of Colorado Springs, served as the command center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command Center (NORAD) from ...

  25. Laramie County Library Hosts the Cheyenne Mountain ZooMobile

    Laramie County Library patrons had the opportunity to zoom in on some animals from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The LCLS location in Cheyenne hosted a ZOOmobile event on Friday, June 14. One session was held 10:15-11:15 a.m. with another 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.