>X-Sender: rohit [at] pop.ics.uci [dot] edu
>Date: Sat, 6 Jan 2001 16:47:10 -0800
>To: FoRK [at] xent [dot] com
>From: Rohit Khare
>Subject: [Baltimore Sun] Abandoned NSA theme park…
>[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
>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 itself.
>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
>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 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 ball.
>”You’ll go a long way before you find anything like that around
>anywhere else,” he said. ” … But nothing about this place is what