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Former NC Spy Base Becomes Astronomy Classroom

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“Apparently there were two padlocks, each opened by a separate key so that no one person could gain access,” he said. Once the padlocks were removed, another deadbolt had to be turned.

Redundancy was a hallmark of the former NASA and NSA site, Alexander said.

“We have four wells, we have a fire-suppression system – all of this is from the days when the place was filled up with computers,” he said. “We have generators that can go about a month before we have to refill the diesel tank. It was designed so they could operate 24/7 without the benefit of public power.”

According to PARI’s website, Defense Department workers removed 19 of 23 antennas from the research station before they vacated in 1995, along with “most of the instrumentation and electronics.” But they left behind a dish antenna nicknamed “Smiley,” its concave face adorned with two eyes and an upturned mouth.

“They put a little smiley face on it so when the Russian spy satellites went over, we could say `Hi!”’ said Alexander, himself a former satellite engineer. “I know that they did that to us because I was taking pictures of them, and they’d mark things out in the snow. Some of the words weren’t very nice.”

A cluster of trailers on PARI’s campus, connected by a covered walkway, used to house intelligence officers who would produce a special report every Monday morning, Phillips said.

“It would be taken up to a car, driven to Asheville and flown to Washington to be on the president’s desk that afternoon,” he said. “We don’t know why those are covered. Probably just to keep people out of the rain. But there are no other covered walkways here, so a lot of the old employees have told us it was covered so the Russian satellites couldn’t tell when people were going in and out of the building.”

Nowadays, the former spy base is home to a collection of meteorites, NASA memorabilia and classrooms that allow everyone from summer campers to college students the chance to gain hands-on practice in radio astronomy. The sensitive antennas that once listened for Soviet secrets now track stars.

“What I hope you’ve seen is that this is a national treasure,” Alexander said. “It’s probably under-utilized, but it’s a national treasure just waiting to be tapped.”

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Posted by FanSite on Oct 1st, 2012 and filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response by filling following comment form or trackback to this entry from your site

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