The 60th birthday party for the Colorado Springs-based North American Aerospace Defense Command started Thursday nearly a half-mile underground in the bowels of Cheyenne Mountain.
A rare tour of the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center came ahead of a formal ball Friday and a ceremony Saturday morning at Peterson Air Force Base that will include a full contingent of military brass and a series of demonstration flights, including a display by the Canadian Snowbirds flying team.
But it started in the nuclear-proof bunker that has become the symbol of the bi-national U.S.-Canadian command, thanks to movie thrillers and science fiction hits.
"We are letting you peek inside one of the highest-security facilities in the Department of Defense," said Steve Rose, a civilian who for eight years has been the No. 2 leader of the cave complex that was built to survive a Cold War apocalypse.
While it now serves as an auxiliary facility for NORAD, the mountain remains America's most important hub for missile warning and air defense, a role it has filled since it became operational in 1966.
Most Americans also know it's the home of NORAD's annual mission to track Santa Claus, a holiday tradition that has brought joy to children around the planet who call the command to determine the Chief Elf's position of radar.
In recent years, the site has gained new high-tech missions, tracking satellites and processing data for America's cybersecurity efforts. The mountain is also now home to computer work for the nation's intelligence agencies.
The mountain fortress gets its greatest measure of security from Rocky Mountain granite. It sits more than 2,000 feet below the summit of Cheyenne Mountain in a series of tunnels bored and blasted into the mountain during five years of construction.
Getting inside means getting a background check and going through airport-like security. It also requires getting permission - while the mountain hosted tours for years, those have mostly gone away since the 9/11 terror attacks.
"Coming to the mountain is an amazing opportunity," said Navy Capt. Scott Miller, NORAD's chief spokesman. "The door was opened by the 60th anniversary."
Inside, after a third of a mile walk into the mountain, the true security of the place becomes apparent in the form of two 23-ton blast doors, which would seal the place in a nuclear blast.
"It's pretty impressive when you walk through that tunnel," admitted Canadian Air Force Col. Travis Morehen.
Past the blast doors, the place doesn't look that much different from other command centers in Colorado Springs. Big screens show threats around the world while workers labor at consoles and in cubicles.
While no longer staffed full-time, the NORAD command center is still used several weeks out of the year, and is kept ready for activation at a moment's notice if it's needed in an attack.
The NORAD mission, inside the mountain and across the continent, remains detecting and deterring threats in the air and in space. Until 9/11, that mostly meant tracking rival nations to ensure they weren't sending bombers or missiles toward U.S. and Canadian targets. After 9/11, NORAD began looking in as well as out, tracing all aircraft in the United States and Canada to make sure they weren't off their flight plans or venturing into restricted air space.
Now, NORAD's job has gotten an even wider scope and a vast increase in its intensity.
Morehen. a deputy command center director described what his colleagues faced Wednesday evening: A passenger on a Canadian passenger jet became unruly enough to trigger a NORAD alert.
NORAD workers tracked the plane, ensuring its safe arrival at an airport in Toronto where the passenger was arrested for making death threats and other misdeeds.
But that was just one piece of the global mayhem NORAD faced Wednesday night. At about the same time the passenger was raising a ruckus, American satellites began detecting missile launches in the Middle East.
It was later determined that Iranian forces in Syria were trading shots with Israeli defense forces.
The command watches missile launches around the globe to determine if they're a threat to the continent.
Amid the mayhem, the command center stayed calm.
"There was a guy on his first day in the hot seat," Morehen said.
NORAD also watches the sealanes approaching the continent. It is the key signal post that will alert the military to threats.
"We're sort of like the brain stem," Rose said. "It bundles all those nerves together."
And after 60 years, with rising tensions with nuclear-armed rivals including Russia and China, it's a job that keeps growing.
"Russian submarines, nuclear missiles and Santa Claus," Morehen said. "We do it all."
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240