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When NSA moves out, its mysteries remain

Surprises: Astronomers who took over an abandoned spy base find remarkable, expensive and often incomprehensible stuff at every turn.

January 05, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

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 post.

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 ball.

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