NORAD: Off the Beaten Path, but an Intriguing Colorado Feature

For decades, the simple words “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” have greeted millions of visitors, and for good reason. Colorado really is a colorful place, with snow-capped purple mountains, red sandstone spires, green forests, and rolling, golden prairies. Still, there’s nothing wrong with avoiding the tourist-trap locales you would expect to find in a travel brochure in search of places off the beaten path. Some of these spots are internationally famous yet seldom seen or visited. Others are known only to the locals. Regardless of their locale, status, or popularity, each of these places is a part of what makes Colorado such an intriguing destination of interest.

Just a short drive south of Colorado Springs is one of the most famous military installations in the world: the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Almost invisible from Highway 115, and buried under thousands of tons of granite, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex was blasted out to create a facility capable of surviving a nuclear attack.

While Cheyenne Mountain is the current “face” of NORAD, its original location was not so impressive. When it went online in 1957, the North American Air Defense Command was located on Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs (now the U.S. Olympic Training Center). In 1963 it was moved to the nearby Chidlaw Building, which is now an office for Time-Warner Cable. On October 30th, 1964 NORAD moved into the Cheyenne Mountain Combat Operations Center, and formally accepted it on February 8th, 1966, where it remains to this day. Since then, Cheyenne Mountain has been the visible symbol of NORAD’s presence.

(Credit: www.thelivingmoon.com)

(Credit: www.thelivingmoon.com)

NORAD was originally organized to coordinate American and Canadian early warning and air defense against a Soviet nuclear attack.  The Cheyenne Mountain Complex was built with this mission in mind. In the event of a nuclear attack, the base can be sealed against any external threat. Redundancy is the rule in Cheyenne Mountain, and virtually every system, from power to air filtration, has multiple backups. The 25-ton entry doors are designed to divert a nuclear blast down the entry tunnel and out the other side. A second entry-point enables supplies to be delivered even if the main entry is damaged or disabled. Fresh water is supplied by a natural spring inside the mountain, and is stored in one of two underground reservoirs. Power is normally drawn from the grid in Colorado Springs, but can also be provided by several massive nautical diesel engines. An array of batteries can provide emergency power, if necessary. To ensure continued operations, communications and electronics are hardened against electromagnetic pulses (EMP). The ventilation system can be reversed, and is capable of filtering out chemical, biological, and radiological threats. From its front door, to the air conditioning, NORAD is built to survive.

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

NORAD’s tracking capabilities are not limited to just missiles and aircraft–NORAD can also track Santa. On December 24th, 1955, a girl in Colorado Springs accidentally called the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD), NORAD’s predecessor. Sears was running an ad inviting children to call Santa, but the local paper misprinted the phone number. Colonel Harry Shoup, who was on duty that night, told his staff to give Santa’s location to every child that called. When NORAD was formed in 1958, this tradition was maintained. Today, the facility uses advanced radar, satellites, and fighters to track Santa’s flight around the world. This information is then posted on the “NORAD Tracks Santa” website, which is viewed by millions of people every year. In addition, the facility answers thousands of calls and emails from children (and adults) curious about Saint Nick’s location. From tracking missiles to tracking Santa, if it flies, NORAD knows about it. Although the site is mostly a guarded secret, it earns one’s respect for the mission it has served for so many years.