Deep Inside NORAD, with Only a Felt-Tip Pen and Twenty Science Fiction Writers

Yesterday, I traveled back in time to the Cold War: Along with 20 science fiction writers here in Denver for WorldCon, I got a special tour of NORAD, the fabled military command center located in a vast cavern dynamited into the base of Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain. The top-secret base, protected under 2000 feet of solid granite mountain, was built to be an emergency command center in the event of nuclear attack. Featured in movies from WarGames to Stargate, 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. I was inside NORAD, with only my reporter's notebook, a bevvy of SF writers, and two tour guides: Lt. Ryan Lally, and Lt. Col "Bear" Lihani (Ret).

NORAD stands for North American Aerospace Defense Command, and its primary task during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s was to detect any airborne (or spaceborne) threat over the U.S. or Canada. A joint operation between the two nations, NORAD's walls are peppered with images of the US and Canadian flags flying side-by-side. NORAD's most spectacular and mythical feature is that the 5-acre facility is actually a tiny city, complete with enough food, water, and fuel to protect essential personnel after nuclear attack. When the site is "buttoned up," its blast doors closed and locked, it becomes one of the most hardened command centers in the world.

Or so we thought. That was the first myth to be busted when we arrived at NORAD and Lt. Lally gave us an introductory presentation about the facility. It turns out that it only ever had enough "button up" supplies to house essential personnel for 30 days (correction: Maj. Thomas Veale has written to say that 30 days is the minimum, but the maximum amount of time is "classified"). So there went all our images of a City of Ember style situation, with a generational city existing for hundreds of years underground while the Earth slowly decontaminates and the atomic mutants kill each other for tins of spam.

Plus, NORAD is no longer really all that hardened. Smart nukes mean that any hits on the U.S. would be precise and direct. "A direct hit would turn this into Cheyenne Valley," joked Lally. This is one of the many reasons why most of NORAD's essential functions have been relocated to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to the north. Today NORAD is like the Battlestar Galactica, a once-great military facility built to withstand threats of the past and slowly morphing into a museum. Still, like the Galactica, NORAD still has plenty of muscle.

Deep Inside NORAD, with Only a Felt-Tip Pen and Twenty Science Fiction WritersS

Beyond the blast doors, we entered a high-ceilinged cavern, its walls dotted with rusting bolts driven deeply into the rock to maintain structural integrity. Water seeping through thousands of layers of the Cheyenne Mountain oozed down the walls. At the cavern's far end, a white steel box with an unassuming doorway marked the entrance to NORAD city proper. Once swarming with personnel, the place is now a kind of ghost town. Only a few hundred people work here at any given time.

Immediately, we saw the weirdest part of NORAD: The entire city is built on springs. Housed in a series of boxy steel buildings, some three stories high, the facility has to withstand the shaking of bomb blasts. A huge crawl space beneath the city is packed with giant 1000-pound springs that form the foundation for the entire facility. It was the first place all of us thought we'd want to hide if we were sneaking in. There are crawl spaces between each building, too, and a wily intruder could snake underneath the town, squirm around those springs, and inch up the side of the cement-encapsualted command center at its heart to gain access.

The city's interior had been designed by the Navy, and you could tell. It felt like being on a large submarine, with cramped metal corridors, exposed pipe, and a mess hall that smelled of frying donuts. As we approached the legendary command center in building 2, we were met with a reminder that NORAD is still alive and kicking. Apparently a general had called for a classified meeting in the command center, and so all we'd be allowed to do was gaze hungrily at its boxy body through some windows in the third floor.

The command center, where generals would coordinate with the president to deal with a space or air attack, is housed in a 60-foot capsule of smoothed concrete. From inside it, you can see the domed ceiling though windows in the top. From where we stood outside, we could see just the edges of that dome stretching over the straight-edged roof of the center, streaked with the water that continuously seeps out of every wall in the NORAD facility.

Instead of of the command center, we saw the snack shop and bought t-shirts. Lally told us the number of people the facility could support was still classified, though he did let slip that you had to have a "mission essential" badge to be on the safe side of the blast doors. "They won't let any mouth-breathers who aren't productive stay inside," he joked.

Perhaps the best part of our tour came next. We descended into the basement, to see the generator and cooling facilities that keep the entire NORAD facility running. "Without power, it's just a cave," read a sign stenciled into a door in the dim cavern packed with pipes and mysterious, locked rooms. We walked through a maze of caves where raw outcroppings of rock looked ready to crush the ubiquitous white steel boxes of control rooms and fat, blue pipes. Because the facility had been designed by Navy, all the pipes were marked in the colors that would be used to identify air, water, and fuel pipes on a navy ship. A riot of blue, red, and green pipes sprouted from every wall. Now the generators and other equipment are run by government contractors rather than military personnel.

The floor was pitted with holes where water from the ceiling had been leaking continuously for fifty years, and after squeezing between two huge tanks we came upon a sight straight out of a Dune novel. It was a long, underground reservoir of pure mountain water, completely black beneath a low rock ceiling. Enough light touched its surface to illuminate a single duck floating on its surface. For an instant, that duck gave me my first sense of claustrophobia. What was it doing here, 2000 feet beneath a mountain, breathing piped-in air and living in the deepest, most confined part of the facility?

Of course, it was just a decoy, a joke of a marker put there to orient anyone who was doing work in the reservoir. It sat perfectly still, staring at the dark area where the cavern sank down to meet the water, reminding me that nothing but artificial life could live down here. Or life artificially preserved.

As we left, we passed through another blast door and into mile-long escape tunnels that plunged deep into the mountain, lit only by a line of light in the ceiling. Like the rest of the facility, they seemed ghostly without anyone in them. Even the smoking area, located weirdly across the tunnel from one of the main air vents, was entirely abandoned. We waited for a bus to take us out from underground, smelling diesel on the air and imagining the end of the world.

So what did the other visitors think?

Pyr publisher Lou Anders was excited by pretty much everything. "So this is what the Batcave would really be like!" he exclaimed when we walked beneath the high, damp ceilings into the reservoir area. "It would be all wet and covered in crap." He also noted that the engine room looked like "a Doctor Who set." When we left, he mourned, "I'm sad that they can't live in there forever, in that realistic Batcave."

Others thought it was instant inspiration for fiction. Jeff "Plague War" Carlson enthused, "It was completely phenomenal, and pretty much made for action scenes with Bruce Willis. Especially the space underneath the buildings full of springs. Of course, you'd need even deeper caves underneath the ones we saw. A vast catacombs."

Robert "Rollback" Sawyer said, "It was great fodder. I was disappointed that we didn't get to the control center, but that means I'll always see it the way it was in WarGames. It was [also] surprisingly steampunky."

David "Mirrored Heavens" Williams commented, "I liked the plumbing. If you're going to be monitoring World War III, you also have to go to the bathroom. I liked those escape tunnels too."

Paolo "Pump Six" Bacigalupi added, "The world runs on springs. That's what I learned at NORAD. I would definitely want to be the person with 'mission essential' badge, as opposed to the mouth breather who gets kicked out."

"Into the nuclear wasteland," joked Sawyer.

Bacigalupi had done a little sociological research, too: "I wrote down all the magazines they had for sale in their shop: Playboy, Field and Stream, Runner's World, Cosmo."

Erin Cashier describes the castle we visited after NORAD, where Blake "Spellwright" Charlton mused:

The fiction was more important than the function — when you lock down, you only last for 30 days! So it was all about making it seem like we had this facility during the Cold War but it wasn't really that big of a deal.

Kevin J. Anderson, author of several Star Wars and Dune novels, said he was intrigued by NORAD as a symbol:

I'm fascinated by what it signifies about our mindset from fifty years ago. It was a time when you had to have big, powerful responses to a single monolithic enemy. So you could build a big facility like that. We don't have those monolitic enemies anymore. NORAD wasn't designed to fight an opponent like a terrorist — it designed against a rational villain.

David "Counting Heads" Marusek quietly noticed a lot of telling details. For example, the facility is largely run by government contractors now, and he figured out that the main contractor is an Alaskan company called Aleut, which he speculated (based on its name) is probably run by Natives. There's a certain irony in the idea of a Native-run company taking charge of operating one of the most iconic U.S. military installations. That in itself could form the basis of a short story or novel. Marusek also commented on the "tremendous naval influence" over NORAD's design. "There was a real ship feel to it."

NORAD, a ship city slowly drifting to sleep underground, is perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of the Cold War. Hewn out of the rock in a frenzy of space age paranoia, it's a technological marvel whose value was always more symbolic than strategic. But that's what makes it such a pure product of the U.S.: Here, we have faith symbols can offer as much tactical advantage in war as functioning technologies can. But symbols, like technologies, will obsolesce. And that's what's happening to NORAD, bit by bit.

Top image via US Navy; image of our group in front of the blast doors via NORAD; image (below) of NORAD being built in the late 1950s via NORAD.

Deep Inside NORAD, with Only a Felt-Tip Pen and Twenty Science Fiction WritersS