Mar 15, 2010

NORAD, our biggest local oddity

Since moving to Colorado Springs, I've become (re)enchanted with some of the local oddities. We have a fake cave dwelling, Santa's Workshop (a north pole-themed amusement park), a castle-like shrine to Will Rogers, a cog railway that takes tourists to the top of Pikes Peak where a donut shop and other curios await. There are thousands of attractions within a day's drive of Colorado Springs and countless festivals (like the annual Coffin Race in Manitou Springs or the famed Fruitcake Toss) to entertain and amaze. Getting its start as a resort town, Colorado Springs has always thrived on tourism. We have one of the only 5 star hotels in the state, one of the best zoos in the country, and ready access to astounding parks, views, mountain drives, waterfalls, historic towns, and much more.

One of the weirder (yet nearly invisible) oddities in Colorado Springs is NORAD, which is essentially a military base inside of Cheyenne Mountain. North American Aerospace Defense Command was built in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War to protect the Arctic from attack. It has since been repurposed to fight the drug wars and the war on terror, but was decommissioned as a military base in 2006.

Although it is supposedly unused today, it still boasts a crown of blinking red lights atop Cheyenne Mountain, creating an ever-present constellation in the night sky. If you live in this town, you've wondered about NORAD at one moment or another. Its scale is hard to determine and public access is forbidden. The power of NORAD may have something to do with satellites and lasers, but it is also empowered by collective imagination. As children who grew up at the foot of NORAD, we used to speculate what it was like inside and what sorts of activities went on therein. I imagined that NORAD filled up the entire underside of Cheyenne Mountain, that cities on giant springs housed millions of radars and maps and men who never saw the light of day. At one point I feared that NORAD could read my mind, that it was tracking my thoughts or watching me through the light fixtures.

One of my new favorite things about Colorado Springs is a program on Radio Colorado College called The Big Something. I've started receiving their daily email posts because they include free songs, local announcements, public interest stories, newsy tidbits and more. Its another local oddity that makes me proud to live here.

This week The Big Something notified readers that Popular Science Magazine has recently made their entire 137-year archive available online and although the collection is not yet searchable, the editors of TBS found an illustrated article about NORAD just before construction was completed in 1967. I suggest you read the article yourself as it discusses the massive bomb-shelter still housed inside our "lumpy" mountain. You still can't pass through its 43-ton steel doors, but this article will give you entry into one of our nation's strangest Cold War oddities and the logic behind the continent's "most elaborate and important" defense installation. Read it here

I like to imagine a new future for decommissioned NORAD. What might it become? With numerous military bases being repurposed as parks, artist residency centers, historic landmarks, and more, I wonder what can be done with one of the world's largest and most outdated bunkers? Perhaps NORAD -- the inter-mountain luxury hotel, the artist commune, the underground farm, the world's largest movie theater, the greatest planetarium ever -- will become another favorite local oddity. Even though NORAD is now defunct, this village inside a mountain still conjures the imagination.


  1. So interesting! I actually toured NORAD in 9th grade on a field trip... those huge springs were incredible to see. The whole place was eerie! On another note- didn't C Springs get its start as a TB treatment center, turning into a resort town as it began to draw rich clientel? I love our town.

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