Our ride started on a bright spring afternoon, with Colorado Springs sprawling away to the north and east from our elevated vantage point. Not even two minutes later, we stepped off the bus at the dimly lit entrance to America's most mysterious, iconic symbol of military defense — Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station.
Or, as the world has known it for nearly a half-century, NORAD.
The still-busy complex inside the granite mountain looks remarkably unchanged from the oldest photos before its opening in 1966. You first pass through two 25-ton doors, closed only once since the 1970s in a state of alarm — during the initial uncertainty as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 unfolded.
Then you come to the main steel-walled buildings, filling caves carved and blasted to create room for 13 three-story structures, two more with two levels, all sitting atop more than 1,300 coiled springs, massive enough to withstand the shock waves of a nuclear detonation. You see those springs and touch the buildings' outer walls that look and feel more like parts of a battleship.
They call it an underground city, with its own water-storage lakes even farther down. The five-acre complex includes a mini-hospital, always staffed, just in case; a dining facility, aptly called the Granite Inn; a workout area named Gould's Gym in honor of Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, the Cheyenne Mountain commander during 9/11 (now wrapping up his career as Air Force Academy superintendent); a chapel with regular services and its own chaplain; and much more that visitors can only wonder about.
About 742 people work there, we're told: 173 active duty, 183 civilians, 222 contractors and 164 "partners" with different missions. But as all of them know, it's not luxurious. Super-clean, functional and fascinating, yes. Yet nothing extravagant. And, of course, there are no windows. The only apparent connection to everyday life outside might be the flat-screen TVs in the dining area, where workers watched cable networks, the NASA channel and sports during our visit.
Since moving to Colorado Springs in 1977, I'd always wanted to go inside — but conflicts and postponements always got in the way. Then came an invitation to a "media roundtable" at Peterson Air Force Base, followed by the tour of Cheyenne Mountain and the "original," yet still very active North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD's actual name).
Our contingent of seven, from local newspapers and TV, was briefed on all Peterson operations, how the idea of missile defense and monitoring the air above us now includes watching everything in orbit, the cyber world and what's going on inside our borders, not just heading our way from other countries. Cheyenne Mountain no longer serves as NORAD's epicenter, with those headquarters at Peterson. But the mountain still is on "warm standby," along with many separate functions including defense intelligence, training and monitoring. Actually, we couldn't go inside the main operations center, depicted in movies such as WarGames, because it was back in its prime-time role during renovations at Peterson.
But if you're thinking — as most of us did — that something as important as Cheyenne Mountain AFS and the U.S. Space Command should be immune from defense budget cuts, think again. Col. Joe Turk, the mountain's installation commander, admits that he had similar thoughts as the sequester became reality. He confirms that, after hearing the Pentagon might make exceptions, he sent some requests up the flagpole.
The response, says Turk: "They were all denied." So, just as at Peterson and Schriever bases, Fort Carson and the Air Force Academy, all civilian and contract personnel inside the mountain are preparing for mandatory furloughs: They have to take off one day every week through September, without pay.
"And they can't come in and work for free on their own," Turk adds with a grimace, "because that would actually be breaking the law."
The off days will be staggered as much as possible to spread out the impact. Active-duty military will have to cover the civilians' duties.
Yes, all that would change in case of emergency. But it's sobering to learn that the military budget cuts of 2013 have no limits — even reaching 2,000 feet underneath Cheyenne Mountain.
That shouldn't make you feel less safe. But it might anyway.