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Still Training for the End of the World

4 minute read
Eben Harrell

In a small control room buried in a mountainside fortress high above Colorado Springs, the cold war rages on. Behind 25-ton blast doors, U.S. and Canadian soldiers work 12-hour shifts in crews of five, their sole mission to distinguish benign rocket launches from missiles traveling toward North America at 4 miles a second bearing nuclear warheads capable of destroying cities. They have a matter of minutes to make the call that could unleash nuclear Armageddon. “It’s a typical military watch,” explains their boss, Captain Steve Thompson, Cheyenne Mountain division chief. “A lot of routine punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”

The mission of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)–for which the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station was built in 1966–has changed considerably since the collapse of communism. It spends more time monitoring unexpected launches, like Iran’s recent missile tests, than watching for a sudden Soviet strike. But cold war tensions persist: Moscow greeted a proposed U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe with promises of a “military technical” response on July 8. And with thousands of Russian and American warheads still ready to launch at a moment’s notice, accidental annihilation remains a plausible threat. Reducing its likelihood has even become part of the election campaign: Senator Barack Obama vows to remove U.S. weapons from launch-ready status if elected, while Senator John McCain has pledged to review U.S. nuclear policy.

NORAD marked its 50th anniversary this year by shifting almost all its operations to nearby Peterson Air Force Base, where it has established what it calls an “integrated command center for the 21st century”–one attuned to pressing, if less apocalyptic, perils such as drug smugglers and airline hijackings.

Cheyenne Mountain is now partially open to tourists, and a shop on the base sells T shirts, hats and souvenirs, but the installation is no mere relic. Its 900 or so workers keep the missile watch going in a self-contained, 4.5-acre subterranean world. The installation has four man-made lakes holding millions of gallons of water. It has two fitness centers, a basketball court, a canteen, a chapel, a barbershop, a dental clinic and at least 30 days’ food–enough for waiting out the radioactive fallout from an isolated nuclear strike.

But the missile watch carries its own burdens. The 30-plus personnel who staff the control room–mostly midlevel officers in their 30s–typically burn out after two years, thanks to strain that Thompson says comes not from waiting for the end of the world but from the troglodytic lifestyle the job requires. During a shift, the missile watch must eat in the control room, and its members are allowed just short breaks in a sterile warren of small, tidy offices and gleaming corridors decorated only with the occasional photo of an anonymous soldier in combat gear. Maintaining a sense of connection with the outside world is difficult. All the rooms and corridors in the mountain are suspended on 4-ft. springs, each weighing 1,000 lb., designed to absorb the shock of a nearby detonation. Even the weather arrives two weeks late: when it rains or snows outside, it takes about 14 days for the precipitation to percolate through 2,300 ft. of rock into tarpaulins hung from the ceilings, a process that purifies the water.

Despite the extreme setting, there’s no shortage of new recruits for Cheyenne Mountain postings. “Most personnel serving here have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for many months,” says Thompson. “Here, they get time with their families, working a steady shift. It’s a great opportunity.” Serving at Cheyenne Mountain, of course, still means living squarely in the crosshairs of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In the highly remote event of a nuclear exchange, Cheyenne Mountain would be turned into Cheyenne Valley. “We don’t tend to talk about it much. But of course we train for it,” Thompson says. “That’s why we’re here.”

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