[What an excellent find. Nice place for a .com :-) -- Rohit (PS. This
crossed both I-P and TBTF-Irr; GeEK is probably next :-)]
NSA abandons wondrous stuff
Surprises: Astronomers who took over an abandoned spy base find
remarkable, expensive and often incomprehensible stuff at every turn.
By Laura Sullivan
Sun National Staff
Originally published Jan 5 2001
"There are things on this site you will never see anywhere else."
TRANSYLVANIA COUNTY, N.C. - Along the long, twisting road through the
Pisgah National Forest, the first sign that something is out of the
ordinary is a line of giant transformers. Then, around the bend, a
barbed-wire fence, guard shack and surveillance cameras protect what
looks like nothing more than another hill of trees and dense
It is anything but.
This is the entrance to one of the National Security Agency's former
spy stations, a place shrouded in secrets and denials, the source of
local lore that seems right out of "X-Files."
What is inside that giant geodesic dome that looks like a golf ball?
Where do the tunnels snaking beneath the 202-acre site lead? Why are
the rugs welded to the floors of the windowless buildings?
Few people have been beyond these gates, deep inside the Appalachian
Mountains, 50 miles southwest of Asheville.
The NSA abandoned the site to the U.S. Forest Service five years ago,
leaving behind a deserted minicity in the middle of nowhere. Now,
some of the secrets are being revealed.
Last year, with the base boarded up and close to demolition, the
property was transferred to a group of astronomers in exchange for a
piece of land in western North Carolina. Over the past year, they
have begun piecing together the site's past.
"There are things on this site you will never see anywhere else,"
said site manager Jim Powers. "I've never had someone come here that
wasn't blown away."
The astronomers, who formed the Pisgah Astronomical Research
Institute, were attracted by two 85-foot satellites dishes on the
site - some of the largest in the country - which could be
repositioned to catch deep-space radio signals and allow them to
study the life and death of stars.
When the group arrived in January 1999, they expected a basic, albeit
large, government facility, but as the weeks passed they realized
little about the site was what it appeared.
As they began to install their computers, they found hundreds of
miles of top-of-the-line cabling running under every floor. They
discovered that the self-contained water and sewer treatment plant
could handle tens of thousands of gallons of water at a time and the
generator could produce 235 kilowatts of energy - powerful enough to
light up a small city.
In a basement room of one of the larger buildings, they found the
entrance to a 1,200-foot tunnel system that connects two of the
site's main buildings.
Every inch of floor in more than four buildings was covered with
two-by-two-foot squares of bleak brown carpet. When the astronomers
tried to replace it, they discovered it was welded with tiny metal
fibers to the floor. The result, they eventually realized, is that
the rugs prevent the buildings from conducting static electricity.
Even the regular lighting looks different, covered by sleek metal
grids that prevent the light bulbs from giving off static
interference. The few windows are bulletproof.
But what fascinated the astronomers was the still-operable security
system that, among other things, sounds an alarm in the main building
any time the front perimeter is crossed. The group can watch on
monitors as cars approach from miles away.
Inside the site, the agency had taken further measures. One area is
in a small, sunken river ravine surrounded by barbed wire and an
additional guard post. Steps, with reflective metal paneling to
shield the identity of those walking beneath, lead down a small hill
and wind their way to two small buildings with conference rooms
inside - both of which once emanated "white noise" to prevent
What Powers and several others in the group find remarkable, though,
is not just the expansive network of buildings and security, but the
extraordinary cost of all they items they have found - items the
He said the extensive fiber optic cabling that runs for miles under
the floors and through the tunnel system is the most expensive on the
When a state regulator came out to issue a permit for a massive
underground storage tank with a double lining, the astronomers said
he told them he wished he had a camera. He wanted to take a picture
to show his co-workers because he had never seen a system so
And the agency didn't just install one water tank; it installed two.
In a basement room, beneath a system that pressurizes wells, is
another system just like it.
"You see this kind of thing everywhere here," Powers said. "They
never have just one of something."
Even most of the heavy bolt locks - which every door has - are
covered by black boxes locked with padlocks.
Despite the site's stark appearance, there are some human - and
humorous - vestiges. A bright happy face is painted on the smallest
of the four satellite dishes on the site, something one former
employee said was done so that they could "smile back at the
Inside the tunnels, too, are chalk drawings of animals and warriors
resembling those found in caves thousands of years ago.
Aside from the rustling of deer and the wild turkeys that run rampant
across the hundreds of vacant parking spaces, everything about the
place is now eerily quiet.
Paperwork in the guard shack is held in place by a stapler though no
one has been inside the small building in years. Security cameras
still work and alarms all still sound, though no one is listening.
When the agency withdrew in 1995, some of the 300 workers, especially
those who grew up locally and got hired on as groundskeepers and
mechanics, returned to the nearby towns, though many say they are
still forbidden to talk about their work.
Most of the others - the security officers, military personnel and
cryptologists - left the area for their next Department of Defense
The site dates back to the early 1960s, when a scaled-down version
was carved out to support the space program. It was operated at first
by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and scientists
used the early satellite dishes to track the flights into outer space
and kept the door open for school groups and visitors who wanted to
learn more about space missions.
But suddenly in 1981, the NSA took over from NASA. Local hikers and
hunters who stumbled onto some of the agency's acreage would be
suddenly surrounded by armed guards who appeared as if from nowhere
to escort them out of the woods. Vans with darkened windows shuttled
past the local coffee shops, fueling rumors.
The agency's presence was hard on the local employees as well.
Don Powell began working on the site in 1967 as a car mechanic and
spent the next three decades learning the mechanics of every inch of
the satellite dishes for the Defense Department. He also learned to
avoid questions about his work and to lie to his neighbors.
For 15 years people would approach him and the few other local
workers, asking what was out there, what they did and, of course,
what is that golf ball?
"The kids would always ask, what's in [that] giant dome?"
He would tell them it was "filled with chocolate pudding," he said.
"I couldn't even tell my wife. I couldn't tell anyone."
The 1995 closure appears to have caught the agency by surprise. It
had recently cleared several more areas and laid the foundations for
additional smaller satellite dishes that were never built. One newly
built satellite dish, which one insider says was never turned on, was
dismantled and shipped to England.
The Forest Service tried unsuccessfully to engineer a land trade for
three years, hampered by a site that posed many problems for the few
interested parties - from the remote location to the expense of
removing satellite dishes embedded 80 feet into the ground.
The agency was about to return with a bulldozer when the astronomers
group, headed by benefactor J. Donald Cline, a scientist and former
computer executive, offered to buy and trade 375 acres along the
French Broad River in North Carolina for the spy station.
What made the site, shielded from interference in a natural
bowl-shaped terrain, so perfect for the NSA made the site perfect for
the astronomers as well. They plan to use the satellite dishes to
read the characteristics of elements given off by dying stars.
"This area is free of light pollution," Powers said, as he stood in
the middle of a vast, empty parking lot. "It's also clean in terms of
electromagnetic interference like cell phone towers or things that
create electromagnetic noise.
"And we can be sure there won't be any in the future because the
Forest Service owns everything around here. ... It's easy to see why
they liked this place."
Recently, in one of a dozen large empty rooms in one of four mostly
empty office buildings where the group decided to set up shop, four
scientists stood around a portable panel of monitors and computers,
watching the results of a test appear on a screen.
"It's stardust," said the site's technical director, astronomer
Charles Osborne. "This stuff is just floating around out there. It's
the building blocks of life."
In order to use the satellite dishes, they had to spend months trying
to slow them down. Both of the 85-foot dishes swing on two axes, an
extravagance the astronomers suspect allowed the agency to swing the
face around swiftly to catch up with satellites orbiting Earth. The
astronomers need the dishes to move no faster than the speed of Earth
But there is much on the site that the astronomers don't know what to
do with, such as the paper-shredding building up on one hill, the
large helicopter pad on top of another, and down in a valley of
well-manicured grass, that giant golf ball, similar to those seen at
NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.
Close up from the outside, the ball is a circle of triangles, no two
identical, that feel like Gore-Tex to the touch. When one triangle at
the bottom is pushed, several triangles around it gyrate, letting off
a low grumbling sound of bending metal echoing throughout the ball.
Inside, past a small door less than 4 feet tall, the ball glows
white, lighted by the sunlight outside reflecting and bouncing inside
from one triangle to another.
In its center is a 40-foot satellite dish, cleaner and smoother than
any of the others. It looks new, though it has been there for years.
There are unusual numbered patterns on the dish's white panels, laid
out like a cheat sheet to a jigsaw puzzle. The astronomers believe
that the triangles vary in size as a clever way to minimize the
effect of interference that comes from patterns.
Enclosing the dish under such a surface, they speculate, would
protect it from the weather, and prevent anyone else from seeing it
or reading the direction it is pointed.
For the astronomers, though, this curious dish is somewhat
irrelevant. They need dishes with large faces, like the two bigger
ones, to read the radio signals of stars millions of light-years from
From far above on the perfectly level, perfectly painted helicopter
pad with a view of miles of mountains and green trees, Powers laughed
at the differences between the previous owners and the astronomers, a
group short on staff and scraping for funding. He studied the golf
"You'll go a long way before you find anything like that around
anywhere else," he said. " ... But nothing about this place is what
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Fri Apr 27 2001 - 23:18:10 PDT