Prophecies aside, the first news of the apocalypse will appear on a giant monitor screen in a small control room deep inside Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. Here, in a fortress dug into a mountain high above Colorado Springs, the trip-wire that would once have turned the Cold War very, very hot remains taut, ready to alert America's commander in chief of any incoming missiles. The outlook at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has changed considerably since the collapse of communism dramatically reduced prospects for thermonuclear war although security remains tight, Cheyenne Mountain is now open to tourists and school groups, and a shop on the base sells T-shirts, hats, commemorative coins and other tchotchkes at its visitor center.
On May 13, in apparent confirmation of the facility's obsolescence, NORAD the joint American-Canadian command for which this structure was built in 1966 marked its 50th anniversary by moving almost all of its operations to nearby Peterson Air Force base. There it has established what it calls an "integrated command center for the 21st century" one attuned to more plausible, if less apocalyptic, perils such as drug smugglers, suspicious ships and airline hijacks.
Cheyenne Mountain has not been mothballed, however. One of NORAD's original missions missile watch remains in force, and has once again entered the national conversation as America's nuclear readiness has become part of the presidential campaign debate.
Behind its 25-ton blast doors, the 900-odd residents of Cheyenne Mountain live in a self-contained, 4.5-acre world. It has four man-made lakes holding millions of gallons of water. It has two fitness centers, a basketball court, a canteen, a chapel, a barber shop, a dental clinic, and enough food to survive for a minimum of 30 days.
The entire complex is designed to support the 30 NORAD personnel on the grim nuclear-watch detail. They work in crews of five behind a door that reads in gold letters "North America's Command Center of Excellence," and their sole mission is to distinguish benign rocket launches from missiles traveling toward North America at 4 miles a second, bearing multiple, independently targeted nuclear warheads, each capable of destroying an entire city. They have a matter of minutes to make the call that could unleash nuclear Armageddon.
"It's a typical military watch," explains Captain Steve Thompson, Cheyenne Mountain Division Chief, who oversees the crews. "A lot of routine punctuated by moments of sheer terror."
Even now, Russia and the United States maintain thousands of nuclear warheads on hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to launch at a moment's notice. With so many weapons on hair-trigger alert, and with both sides retaining the option to "launch on warning" of an incoming attack, critics warn that an accidental nuclear war remains a plausible danger. Senator Barack Obama has pledged to remove America's weapons from launch-ready status if elected President; Senator John McCain has been more cautious, saying only that he will review U.S. nuclear policy. For now, however, the missile-warning detail in Cheyenne Mountain carries a heavy burden.
The typical burnout rate for personnel in the high-stress missile-watch postings is two years. Captain Thompson says the strain comes not from waiting for the end of the world, but from the troglodytic lifestyle it requires. After three months of training, the missile watch usually mid-level officers in their 30s works 12-hour shifts on a four-day rotation. They go home when not on shift; no one sleeps in Cheyenne Mountain. During their shift, the missile watch must eat in the control room and its members are allowed only 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 can be difficult inside Cheyenne Mountain. All the missile-watch rooms are suspended on four-foot springs, each weighing a ton, designed to absorb the shock of any nearby detonation. Even the weather arrives two weeks late: When it rains or snows outside, it takes around 14 days for the precipitation to percolate through 2,300 feet of rock into tarpaulins on the ceilings.
Despite the extreme setting, there's no shortage of new recruits to Cheyenne Mountain postings. The clammy security offered by U.S.-Russian nuclear parity provides a welcome break from the asymmetrical combat of America's current conflicts. "Most [personnel serving] here have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan for many months," says Captain Thompson. "Here, they get time with their families, working a steady shift. It's a great opportunity." To serve at Cheyenne Mountain, of course, is to be placed squarely in the cross hairs of Russia's nuclear fleet in the event of a thermonuclear showdown, one of the first orders of business for Moscow's missiles would be to turn Cheyenne Mountain into Cheyenne Valley. "We don't tend to talk about [an actual attack] much. But of course we train for it," Thompson says. "That's why we're here."