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Land of the Sky Spies

Former espionage base near Brevard now opens outer space to the public eye

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Jonathan Walker, a senior computer-science major at UNC-Asheville, is tinkering with his robot. It's a shoebox-sized contraption made of gray, green and yellow Legos, mini-motors and a tiny camera; 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 website 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 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, NC, a small town just down the road from Brevard.

Despite its newfound public purpose, the facility where Walker works was once ranked among the most secretive locations 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 US 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 at first seems surreal. "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 nation's 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, didn't choose the spot 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. (Also, 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 a shame, not to mention 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.

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