Cold War over, but eyes still in the sky
by knight ridder
For 30 years, the intersection of Highways 101 and 237 in Sunnyvale, Calif., was widely regarded as ground zero for nuclear Armageddon.
The first target of incoming Soviet missiles, the experts said, would be the "Blue Cube" control center for military spy satellites - a windowless nine-story building once considered so secret that U.S. Air Force officials would not even acknowledge its existence.
But the Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union is gone. The Blue Cube suddenly needs to justify its existence, even if it means opening its doors to the local news media.
On Wednesday, the San Jose Mercury News got its first look inside what is officially known as Onizuka Air Force Base.
The building, it turns out, is much more intimidating on the outside, surrounded by giant satellite dishes and a tall barbed-wire fence, than inside. The Blue Cube is a maze of unadorned hallways and tile floors leading to locked doors. Behind the doors are rooms full of computer consoles that monitor dozens of Defense Department satellites and occasionally help with non-military missions such as the Space Shuttle.
Because of false floors and ceilings that conceal miles of computer cable, the Blue Cube contains only four floors. The lack of windows is simply to hold down heating and cooling bills, not for security reasons.
Of course, parts of the building are still off-limits.
Capt. Art Haubold, who became the Blue Cube's first public affairs officer last year, will talk about some of the satellites controlled from Sunnyvale, mostly those used for research, communications, navigation and weather. But he won't comment on the spy satellites that supposedly can count the number of cars in the Kremlin parking lot - by make and model.
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"We don't even discuss reconnaissance or surveillance satellites," Haubold said. Those satellites supposedly include the KH-11, built across the street at Lockheed Missiles & Space Co.
Col. Donald Hausam, installation commander, said the Air Force is willing to discuss some aspects of the Blue Cube because "the natural evolution of the space business" has made satellite technology less of a secret than it was 20 years ago. Also, he wants the public and other parts of the military to understand the value of satellites.
"Space operations are not cheap," Hausam said. "It's a 24-hour-a-day job."
The Blue Cube is run by 800 Air Force personnel, 200 civilian Defense Department workers and anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 employees of defense contractors. Many of the Air Force officers wear beepers, in case a satellite gets into trouble and needs attention while they're off duty.
"Satellite operations are like dancing with a gorilla - you don't choose when to quit," Hausam joked.
But the Blue Cube's role is changing. In 1985, a duplicate satellite control center opened at Falcon Air Force Base, 10 miles east of Colorado Springs, Colo. Falcon gradually has been taking charge of most routine satellite operations, leaving the Blue Cube to focus on special projects such as research and shake-down testing of new satellites.
On April 15, the last regular satellite system managed at the Blue Cube - the Defense Support Program, or DSP - will shift to Falcon. During last year's Gulf War, DSP early-warning satellites detected Scud missile launches by Iraq and gave crucial advance notice to Patriot anti-missile batteries in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The shift to Falcon may not be the whole story, however.
John Pike, director of space policy for the Federation of American Scientists and a longtime observer of classified military programs, said Wednesday he thinks the Blue Cube continues to operate surveillance satellites such as the KH-11.
"The reality is, Onizuka is a lot more important than they're going to tell you," Pike said.
Then why talk at all? "They don't want anyone to shut them down," Pike concluded.