Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado is steeped in history. According to one legend, the mountain was formed from the body of a dragon that saved an Ute Mountain tribe from a flood by drinking all of the water. In the legend, the dragon fell asleep and became petrified, forming the mountain.
In the 1950s, the Department of Defense began constructing the military installation within Cheyenne Mountain to monitor and defend against Soviet bombers. Declared fully operational in April 1966, the incredible bunker — today known as the Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station — has been continuously operated for 50 years.
Pulling information from numerous satellites and sensors around the country, the complex’s crucial role in intelligence makes it a likely target. So, it was built to withstand a direct nuclear attack.
“We are the brain stem that’s pulling it all together, correlating it, making sense of it, and passing it up to the brain — whether it’s the commander at NORAD, NORTHCOM or STRATCOM — for someone to make a decision on what that means,” said Steven Rose, Cheyenne Mountain AFS’ deputy director. “That is the most critical part of the nervous system and the most vulnerable. Cheyenne Mountain provides that shield around that single place where all of that correlation and data comes into.”
The complex comprises 15 buildings set beneath about 2,000 feet of granite. The entrance sits about 7,000 feet up in the air, and it’s nearly a mile journey into the mountain to reach the 23-ton blast doors.
With hydraulics, the battleship-steel doors take about 20 seconds to shut and seal. With manpower alone — in the event of cut power — that time doubles to 40 seconds. Due to the doors’ interesting earplug-like shape, an explosion would seal the doors tighter, rather than rupture them and leave the fortress vulnerable.
To provide wiggle room in the event of nuclear blasts or earthquakes, the buildings sit 18 inches away from the mountain’s walls and are built on 1,300 springs. In addition to being able to withstand a nuclear attack, the bunker is also the nation’s best-protected site against electromagnetic radiation.
Today, the Cheyenne Mountain complex — made famous by films like Terminator and Interstellar — continues to monitor threats around the clock.
“I would describe it as the nerve center of our homeland defense operations,” said Lt. Col. Tim Schwamb. “This is where the best minds in NORAD and U.S. Northern Command are, so that we can see, predict, and counter any threats that would happen to the homeland and North American region.”
(All images courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)