Magazine article Workforce

A Higher Cause

Magazine article Workforce

A Higher Cause

Article excerpt

On The Contrary

I'm standing outside the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain, the US. military's nerve center for all space-based monitoning and defense. (Slogan: If you're not in space, you're not in the race.) Next to me, three Air Force officers in matching blue uniforms are talking shoes.

"How do you guys get the scuff marks out of these?" asks Second Lieutenant Jennifer Tribble, as she points to her black patent-leather lace-ups.

"I use nail polish remover," replies Captain Warren Neary.

"Not me," declares First Lieutenant Virgil Magee. "I buy a new pair every six months."

The three of them continue looking down, talking shoes, until someone calls, "Lieutenant!" and they snap to attention.

Lieutenant Tribble laughs. "That's a problem around here," she explains. "Someone yells lieutenant and five heads turn around."

The officers and I are waiting for clearance to enter Cheyenne Mountain, which is a 5.1-acre complex built 2,000 feet inside a cool granite mountaintop next to Colorado Springs. The complex, which opened in 1966, is designed to provide uninterrupted military command and control in the event of a disabling attack on the United States, up to and including a 30-megaton nuclear blast one to three miles from the facility. The complex has its own power and water supply, air-filtration system, sewer lines, and enough resources to support up to 800 personnel for at least 30 days.

Cheyenne Mountain is a serious place. An Al Qaeda, World War III, nuclear holocaust kind of place. A place where phones automatically connect you with the President. A place where highly trained specialists work 24/7 to "validate, assess, characterize, and advise" our leaders on incoming space-based threats to our security. It's not the kind of place where you joke about having plastic explosives in your purse. Not that I test the theory. Sometimes, you just know things.

As the Air Force officers and I wait, I ask them if Cheyenne Mountain is anything like the space command center depicted in the movie War Games, wherein the fate of the nation relies on Matthew Broderick's teenage ability to break a computer code. They look at me, look at each other, and roll their eyes.

Once our entry is approved, we board a bus and travel through an enormous granite tunnel a third of a mile into the mountain. We get off the bus and walk through two 25ton blast doors that in the event of an attack can seal the mountain within four minutes. Since Cheyenne Mountain opened, the only time the blast doors were closed because of attack was on 9/11. Like I said, Serious.

Behind the doors is a maze of tunnels that connect 15 white steel buildings, 12 of which are three stories tall. It's impossible to see any building in its entirety, but you can see the 1,000-pound steel springs they are built on. The springs are designed to help the buildings absorb the shock of nuclear attack, our guide explains, as if this is the kind of feature we should all consider when planning our dream homes.

As the guide leads us deeper into the complex, he tells us about the fitness center, chapel, medical center, barbershop, and a restaurant known as The Granite Inn. "Since the generals eat there, the food is pretty good," he says. "And it's cheap. A hamburger and chili cheese fries cost just three bucks. " Maybe it's me, but ordinary concerns like the cost of lunch seem oddly out of place inside the mountain.

We arrive at the Command Center, and our guide checks his watch. …

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