Boredom, punctuated by terror: the real 'War Games'
April 20, 1999
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (CNN) -- I don't want to sound braggadocios, but in the course of doing my job, I do get to do -- and see -- some pretty cool things. Yet every now and then, expectations for a story don't jive with reality.
Take the fabled and fascinating Cheyenne Mountain Air Station. Of course that's a bit of a misnomer, as nothing flies at this Air Force Base. The officers and enlisted personnel are more akin to moles than eagles. As you know, they burrow under the mountain to keep a constant watch for a nuclear attack aimed at North America.
When you think of Cheyenne Mountain, you probably conjure up the same image I did: a cavernous place replete with DEFCON warning lights, wailing Klaxons, red phones, ominous PA announcements issued by an eerily impersonal voice, heavily armed MPs with suspicious glares and a lot of top Air Force brass wearing blue suits and medals.
You know, just like "War Games."
You -- and I -- guessed wrong. The place looks nothing like the Cheyenne Mountain facility Matthew Broderick hacked into. Matter of fact, the producers of that movie, asked for and received permission to scout out the real thing before they built their set. It was a quick visit. The real thing just would not do. "Call in artists!"
The trip down-under 1,700 feet of solid granite begins as you might imagine: After we and our equipment got the once-over (no full body cavity searches), we were driven up toward the tunnel entrance. The tunnel goes all the way through the mountain and has no doors on either end.
The 25-ton blast doors (check out the IPIX image I shot there) are perpendicular to the tunnel. The idea: The force of a nuclear explosion would pass through the tunnel -- and not impact directly on the entrance to the facility.
But when I asked our guide, Air Force Col. Gary Shugart, if Cheyenne could withstand a direct hit by a nuke, his simple, candid response was "no." But their job here -- to confirm the attack and notify the president -- should be done by then.
Anyway, once you pass through the impressive portals, you enter a labyrinth that is reminiscent of being below deck on a big ship. It should come as no surprise since the Navy built the all-steel structures. The idea is to protect the computers and communication systems from electromagnetic interference.
You can peek through a few openings in the walls and see the granite tunnels which enshroud the structure, as well as the springs. That's right, springs. This "ship" in a cave sits on 1,319 springs -- each of which weighs 1,000 pounds.
They were installed because the first generation of computers used here -- Ford Philcos -- contained sensitive vacuum tubes that needed a smooth ride (understandable for a machine made by a carmaker, I suppose). In any case, today's silicon-laden machines don't need the springs.
Cheyenne became 24/7 operational 33 years ago today. It is home of the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Battle Management Center and the U.S. Space Command's Space Control Center. At the nexus of all this information is the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (check out the IPIX image I got there).
The room is much smaller than you might guess. The CNN newsroom is probably four times bigger (but size isn't everything, of course). The personnel -- drawn from the U.S. and Canadian armed services -- wear fatigues and flight suits. The man in charge while we were there was Navy Capt. Dave Hawkins. You get the sense his piercing blue eyes would rather be watching the controls of the military version of the 707 that he used to fly instead of the computer screens he now presides over.
They do a lot of drilling here. And that should make us all feel good because there isn't much margin for error in this game. Hawkins ran us through a simulation that depicts a Russian missile launch detected by infra-red satellites. The response and nomenclature is very formalized and precise as they navigate through what is called a "decision tree."
All of it is designed to check and re-check the information from multiple sources before picking up the phone that rings in the White House. In this simulation, the crew determines (in short order) that the launch is a test firing.
You get the sense the job here is one that can be described as long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of stark terror. I came down from the mountain very impressed with the dedication and professionalism of the men and women who work there -- albeit slightly underwhelmed by the facility. Not what I expected but not a disappointment either.
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.
U.S. Army Space Command
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