Land of the Sky Spies

Jonathan Walker, a senior computer-science major at UNCA, is tinkering with his robot. It’s a shoebox-sized contraption made of gray, green and yellow Legos, mini-motors and a tiny camera, and Walker looks a bit like a kid on Christmas morning as he lines it up with an assortment of neatly spaced glass lenses.

But this isn’t child’s play — it’s cutting-edge education. When Walker and his collaborators on the project are done, science students from around the world will be able to log onto a Web site and, from wherever they’re sitting, remotely assemble and use a microscope or telescope built to their own specifications.

“It’s not really that complicated of an idea,” says Walker. And to prove it, he quickly demonstrates how users will instruct the robot to select and place a given lens.

Simple or not, projects like this one are all in a day’s work at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, where hands-on experience renders complicated science clear. Founded in 1999, PARI has already become a prominent center for studies of the great beyond. The 30-building complex is spread across a 200-acre, bowl-shaped clearing in the Pisgah National Forest six miles north of Rosman, a small town just down the road from Brevard.

And despite its newfound public purpose, the facility where Walker now works once ranked among the most secretive locales in the United States. A former full-fledged spy base, “Rosman station” is no ordinary mountain hideaway. Over the past four decades, the site has quietly carried out a series of remarkable missions, from tracking the first U.S. space flights to monitoring Soviet satellite communications. Its history is steeped in obscure acronyms and official secrecy, and even today an aura of espionage surrounds parts of the facility.

With its array of huge, stark-white antennae, transmitters, dishes and radomes, all fenced into a pristine stretch of mountain terrain, PARI seems surreal at first. “It’s like you’re driving onto the set of a movie,” says Walker. He’s right: PARI still looks like a stage set for The X-Files or a James Bond flick.

To get there, visitors must drive past an old guard booth where a leftover sign declares, “WARNING: RESTRICTED AREA.” But these days, they don’t even need to slow down: The booth is empty, and the gate is raised.

NASA: A Space Age facility

“One of the fabulous facilities of this Space Age is being established in beautiful Pisgah National Forest.” So began an Associated Press report that appeared in North Carolina newspapers on July 1, 1963. It was big news for sleepy Transylvania County.

Two years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had announced that the United States would put men on the moon, piquing the national interest in space exploration. And now, Western North Carolina would play a direct role in the endeavor, because the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had selected Rosman for a major new satellite tracking station.

It was a scenic, if remote, locale. The mountains around Rosman are rife with rivers, streams, exposed rock formations and thick groves of trees and rhododendrons. NASA, though, chose the spot not for its natural beauty but for its geography and isolation. With no large towns, transmitters, neighborhoods or airline routes close by, it was sheltered from radio and light interference. In short, it was quiet and dark, two crucial criteria for scientists eager to peer at and listen to space with electronic eyes and ears. (And then-NASA Director James E. Webb, a North Carolina native, probably didn’t mind that the facility would be established in his home state.)

The Rosman Satellite Tracking Station conducted its first mission in November 1963, following the orbit of Explorer 18, an unmanned craft sent up to check radiation levels in space. Shortly thereafter, the station collected data from the first generation of weather and atmospheric satellites, which helped pave the way for manned space flight. Later, the Rosman facility assisted the historic Gemini and Apollo missions.

Although the station played a key role in the space program, NASA kept it surprisingly accessible. Dozens of locals worked there as guards, groundskeepers and technicians, and public visits were welcomed, as a NASA pamphlet produced in the 1970s noted. “None of the station’s operations are concerned with national defense; and, therefore, no classified activities take place,” the pamphlet said. “The station is open every day for casual visitors.”

And so it was for 17 years. Over time, however, Rosman gradually became less useful to NASA. In the late 1970s, a new fleet of so-called “super satellites” took over the tasks formerly conducted at the station. Unlike the ground-based station, the satellites moved around, so they could handle the job better and cheaper.

In December 1979, the bad news came from Washington: NASA would pull out of Rosman in 1981. But the government had invested millions there, and it seemed both a shame and a sizable waste to let the facility lie fallow or be destroyed. The closing also threatened the local economy, since large employers were in short supply in and around Rosman.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Gudger sounded the alarm over his district’s impending loss of jobs and lobbied for the government to find a new use for the station. Gudger suggested such functions as astronomy and forestry studies, but he found no takers, either public or private.

Rosman station was in desperate need of a new tenant. But who, besides NASA, could use a remote, high-tech communications base?

NSA: Big Brother in the backwoods

Just as it had outlived one government mission, the facility unexpectedly found another. Only this time, officials wouldn’t be boasting about it or maintaining an open-door policy. Rosman station was about to go top secret.

The Defense Department acquired the property in 1981. But the Pentagon brass had nothing to say about their plans for the facility, and in fact, the military ownership was just a cover. The real new occupant was the super-secret National Security Agency.

One of the best-funded but least-known intelligence agencies, the NSA conducts the government’s most advanced espionage, making and breaking codes and intercepting (mostly foreign) communications. The agency tracks, records and analyzes everything from phone calls to e-mails to faxes to satellite transmissions. In recent years, it has become controversial both at home and abroad due to concerns about privacy in personal communications.

Back then, the agency’s target was the country’s main Cold War adversary. In the early 1980s, the NSA established listening posts to monitor the Soviet Union’s most advanced satellites. According to subsequent news reports, Rosman’s was the second installation in what would become a global network of similar eavesdropping bases. The first was built in Alaska; the third in Australia.

Rosman’s new resident proved to be as private as NASA had been public. The NSA cloaks its work in such extreme secrecy that it’s often called “No Such Agency.” Only in the past few years has substantial information about its covert operations become public, thanks largely to the work of investigative reporter James Bamford, who wrote the definitive history of the NSA, Body of Secrets (Doubleday, 2001).

Before Bamford’s book, only the contours of the NSA’s clandestine work were publicly known. And in Rosman and environs, the new purpose of the facility (innocuously renamed Rosman Research Station) was kept decidedly hush-hush. Some 200 locals were hired to work security and maintenance, and the NSA moved in dozens of its own specialists, according to the sporadic news reports that gently probed the site’s purpose during the 1980s.

By all indications, the local employees stayed true to their secrecy oaths. When questioned by reporters, many responded with a grin and a polite “no comment.” In 1985, one employee, who requested anonymity, did say this to a Charlotte Observer reporter: “It’s a research station. We make chocolate pudding, and I research it.”

That same year, the Asheville Citizen-Times found a military spokesperson who identified the facility as simply “a [Department of Defense] communications research station.” But the government’s alarmed response to a little digging by local journalists hinted that something more sensitive was afoot. After a staff photographer had stopped near the station’s gate and snapped a few pictures, FBI agents paid a visit to the Citizen-Times office, according to a June 20, 1985 article in the paper that rightly concluded the station was now “shrouded in secrecy.”

One media outlet that prowled around Rosman did manage to uncover the essential facts, despite encountering resistance. NBC Nightly News sent reporter Robert Windrem to investigate in the mid-1980s, an experience he recounted in a 2001 post to the Cypherpunks online bulletin board.

“I spent several days in Rosman and nearby Asheville researching Rosman and shooting it from the ground and the air,” Windrem wrote. “We included it in a two-part series we did in 1986 called ‘The Eavesdropping War’ — NBC having refused to kill the story, as requested by then-NSA Director William Odom. Odom threatened legal action if we ran the piece. They [were] particularly concerned about Rosman.”

Windrem had crossed paths with one of the most ornery and secrecy-minded officials to serve the Reagan administration. “Odom, stern, abrasive, and humorless, was widely disliked at NSA and was considered by many the most ineffective director in the agency’s history,” Bamford reported in Body of Secrets. “He also developed a reputation as a Captain Queeg of secrecy, claiming that intelligence leaks to the news media had resulted in ‘paralysis’ and ‘major misadjustments’ in U.S. foreign and military policies and could lead to war.” No surprise, then, that Odom took a dim view of a national news show poking around his North Carolina acreage.

Despite the official stonewalling and attempted suppression of the news, the NBC series spelled out the essentials of the NSA’s activities. “We determined that Rosman had several missions,” Windrem recalled in 2001. “One was intercepting communications from Soviet geosynchronous satellites, the Gorizont and Raduga.” These were used to relay messages to and from both Russian troops in Cuba and Soviet missile sites in Europe. “The other mission was intercepting signals from the agent satellite network the Soviet Union maintained to communicate with its agents worldwide.” (The operation to intercept Soviet signals was code-named Project LADYLOVE, according to historian Jeffrey Richelson‘s 1989 book, The U.S. Intelligence Community.)

If not for such reports from nongovernmental sources, the public would still know very little about Western North Carolina’s significant place in the history of international espionage. Even today, the NSA, which moved out of the Rosman facility nine years ago, won’t comment on what it did there. The NSA’s public-affairs office did not respond to numerous Xpress inquiries about the agency’s activities at the site.

PARI: A star is born

Eventually, the NSA, like NASA before it, deemed the Rosman station obsolete. After the Soviet Union fell apart, the spy agency underwent a massive overhaul, closing and consolidating many of its listening posts. In 1995, the NSA shut down its Rosman operation, taking away its computers and ripping several of its surveillance dishes out of their concrete bases. (Much of the high-tech equipment was relocated to another U.S. eavesdropping base in Sebana Seca, Puerto Rico, according to Windrem.)

Once again, the Rosman station’s fate was uncertain. The U.S. Forest Service took control of the land and began planning to raze the structures. But then Don Cline of Greensboro, an astronomy buff with some money to spare, stepped in. Having recently retired from a successful career in telecommunications, he was trying to drum up interest in astronomy among N.C. universities when he heard about the government’s Rosman real estate.

“I found this was going to be torn down, and that was very sad,” he told Xpress during a recent interview at his PARI office. “Your tax dollars, my tax dollars, several hundred million dollars have gone into the facility. Some of that was taken away, but a lot of it is still here. And it would be a shame to have all that bulldozed over.”

So in 1999, Cline bought another piece of mountain land and swapped it for the Forest Service’s Rosman property. Then he and a small group of scientists, engineers and former station employees went to work on creating the facility’s next phase. Together, they built PARI — or rather, they are building it, since the institution seems to grow with each passing month.

With a full-time staff of 16 and some 200 volunteers, PARI today is a hotbed of scientific (and thoroughly public) research. The nonprofit institute has attracted grant moneys from the National Science Foundation and other august institutions interested in advancing the cause of grassroots astronomy. “We’re trying to provide an opportunity for young people to have an exposure to science,” Cline explains. “I think there are a lot of students who have the capabilities to participate in science that never get the opportunity to do it.”

PARI is now providing those opportunities. The site is abuzz with students, from kindergarteners to graduate-level researchers. Using PARI’s unique collection of space-probing radio and optical telescopes, they’re doing everything from basic research to highly advanced scientific exploration.

Still, for those who work there, the irony of pursuing public science at a once-secret facility is ever-present. Vestiges of PARI’s classified past are everywhere: underground tunnels, panes of bulletproof glass, and an advanced security system complete with intrusion alarms and infrared sensors in the ceilings and under the floors. Even a leftover trash can in the employee cafeteria, spray-painted with the words “UNCLASSIFIED WASTE ONLY,” hints at the level of secrecy once maintained here.

“I’ve lived next door to the site all my life, and I always wanted to come up here, but it was kind of closed,” says Lamar Owen, PARI’s 36-year-old director of information technology. “You’d be walking up above the house and take a wrong turn at the top of the ridge, and all of a sudden here you are. And then here would come the guards, and they were armed. I was always able to beat a hasty retreat. It was serious stuff.”

Owen spent his youth wondering about what lay within the site’s clandestine confines, and he managed to pick up a few clues along the way. “There was a man who was a member of our church, and he worked out here, and you couldn’t get anything out of him. And it was so bad that, when he went to go find another job somewhere, he couldn’t get a reference from them. They wouldn’t admit he worked for them. ‘Them’ is one of those three-letter acronyms. If you can think of the three letters, they were here: DOD, NSA, CIA, FBI, the whole works.”

When the intelligence community cleared out of Rosman in 1995, Owen and other current staffers say, it left behind a remarkable and mostly salvageable technical infrastructure. To begin with, the site’s electrical and water systems are all redundant — there are two of everything, from the generators to the pumps to the water lines, evidently to ensure that the facility would never suffer interruptions if one system broke down. The air-conditioning system is unusually powerful, a testament to the NSA’s need to keep rooms full of supercomputers cool and dry. And several of the larger buildings have raised flooring; in the 18 inches of space below them run miles of premium communications cable, which has proven especially useful for several PARI projects.

This is the first documented case of a former NSA base being converted to civilian use, however, and along with the benefits of that advanced infrastructure have come some unprecedented problems, reports Technical Director Charles Osborne. For example, reconfiguring the site’s two largest radio telescopes — which each measure 85 feet in diameter and weigh 300 tons — proved to be a major chore.

“Looking at satellites is much easier than trying to look out several billion light years,” Osborne explains. “We were trying to use the antennae initially at about 1 to 2 percent of the speed that they were designed to work at, so it was very difficult. We needed to be able to make tiny corrections to accurately track stars, and so we had to go through a big retrofit to get that kind of control for fine-tuning the speed.”

Despite all the modifications, though, the site’s former mission has remained on many people’s minds. Michael Castelez, PARI’s director of astronomical studies and education, says the station’s past is often an unavoidable topic when local schoolchildren visit. “The whole mystique of the site is passed on from parents to their kids,” he says. “I had a group of third graders that came through, and we were walking around the facility on a beautiful day and looking at the antennae. I noticed that they were very quiet, so I stopped and said, ‘Please, ask questions.’ And no sooner had I said that than one little kid blurts out, ‘Are you a spy?’ I said, ‘No,’ and then another one said, ‘Where are the spies?'”

PARSEC and beyond

With the spies long gone, what lies ahead for PARI? If recent events are any indication, the facility is primed to become one of the country’s pre-eminent centers for astronomical studies. Students from more than 40 schools and colleges have been involved with PARI, and last October, the 16 member schools of the UNC system signed up to form the Pisgah Astronomical Research Science and Education Center (PARSEC). The UNCA-based initiative opens up PARI to the 200,000 students in the UNC system.

When the arrangement was announced, UNCA Chancellor Jim Mullen called it “a win for our place in the knowledge-based economy.” Cline elaborates on what it means for this area to host a world-class science draw: “The western part of North Carolina does not have a strong science base. It’s nice that UNC-Chapel Hill has been one of our best supporters; but now, instead of people here traveling four hours to go to Chapel Hill, people from Chapel Hill have been traveling four hours to come here.”

Though Cline is excited about PARSEC and his institution’s other recent successes, he also makes it clear that the future of Rosman station is still not secure. So far, he says, he’s invested more than $10 million in the site, and the $100,000-a-month operating costs are mounting faster than the donations and grants are coming in. To continue on a secure footing, Cline believes, his ambitious science project needs a sizable endowment — say, $30 million or so.

Such a sum may seem wildly out of reach. But so, at first glance, do the planets, stars and galaxies that PARI’s scientists and students are bringing down to earth with their instruments. By now, they’re used to thinking that the sky’s no limit.

For more information about PARI, visit

[Freelance writer Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]


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About Jon Elliston
Former Mountain Xpress managing editor Jon Elliston is the senior editor at WNC magazine.

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One thought on “Land of the Sky Spies

  1. Edward J. Barnell

    This is a beautifully written account of the history of the Rosman Satellite Tracking facility. I”m writing this for my husband (Edward J. Barnell) who is in the sixth year of Alzheimer’s Disease. In the 50’s he worked as an engineer for AIL (Airborne Instruments Laboratories) and helped design and make some of the equipment used on the antennas. He made several trips to Rosman to service and update the equipment. He loved the area. After living in NY, MA, and FL we moved to Graham County, NC. (God’s country!) In the 90’s we read that PARI was having an open-house and we drove over to join in the celebration. My husband was given a PARI cap that he wore proudly until it disappeared. What a perfect use of that site and we both hope that it can continue as an educational and inspirational facility. Oh that we had a few million dollars to spare. We send everyone there our best wishes – Audrey & Edward Barnell
    Silver Spring, MD

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