"Roger, Houston . . . Er, Colorado"

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In the sometimes arcane vocabulary of the space program, the oft-repeated phrase "Roger, Houston," uttered with a kind of professional jauntiness, has always sounded reassuringly familiar. But as plans for defense-oriented space missions begin to take shape, it is apparent that future military astronauts communicating with ground control may punctuate their messages with the more mellifluous "Roger, Colorado." The reason is the Air Force's $1.15 billion, 640-acre Consolidated Space Operations Center, now rising on the barren prairie just outside of Colorado Springs.

The spartan-looking facility is designed to be the nerve center of military space activities. When complete, CSOC (pronounced see-sock) is expected to command and control most military satellite missions and space shuttle flights, jobs that are currently performed at the Air Force Satellite Control Facility in Sunnyvale, Calif., and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. According to the Air Force, the first phase of construction (a subsidiary of Bechtel Group, Inc., alma mater of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz, was awarded the contract) will be finished by the end of 1985, enabling CSOC to begin taking charge of satellite missions. By the 1990s ground control for military shuttles would shift from Houston to CSOC. To add to all this activity orbiting around CSOC, the Pentagon has selected Colorado Springs as the home of the U.S. Space Command, which will direct all defense-oriented space activities, including those at CSOC. This would make the once sleepy town at the base of Pikes Peak the military space capital of the U.S.

Founded after the Civil War by a Union general as a refined refuge for the well-heeled, Colorado Springs (pop. 259,000) has long enticed tourists with attractions like Pikes Peak Highway and the elegant Broadmoor Hotel. But in more recent years it has become a magnet for military installations. To the east of the city is Peterson Air Force Base; to the north is the U.S. Air Force Academy; to the south is the Army's Fort Carson; and buried deep in Cheyenne Mountain to the southwest, shielded behind 25-ton doors, is the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Notes retired General James E. Hill, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and former commander of NORAD: "It's not like all of a sudden we're a new glamour girl." Military activity currently provides 30,000 of the city's 187,000 jobs and about a third of the local economy. Some 12,500 retired military personnel have been drawn to the city by its mild climate (year-round golf), recreational opportunities in the Rocky Mountains and well-stocked PXs. "In Colorado Springs," says Garland L. Anneler, chairman of the United Bank of Colorado Springs, "generals are as common as dime-store clerks in other towns."

Yet it is the coming of CSOC that is helping to turn Colorado Springs into a high-tech boomtown, spurring visions of the city as a shining technopolis on a hill. Says Tony Roso, economist at the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments: "I've never seen so many people so euphoric about unbridled growth." Garden of the Gods Road, one of the town's main thoroughfares, is chockablock with business parks, housing such companies as Hewlett-Packard, the Rolm Corp., Digital Equipment Corp. and United Technologies. Some locals have taken to calling the area Silicon Mountain. During the past year or so, some 40 aerospace firms have set up offices, hoping to attract lucrative Defense Department contracts. Nonresidential construction increased 52% in 1984 over the previous year, while manufacturing construction was up 219%.

Real estate prices have taken off. Asking price for an acre near CSOC has jumped from $100 to $7,000, still piddling by the standards of Silicon Valley, where an acre generally ranges between $350,000 and $870,000, but not bad for ( grazing land 15 miles from downtown. The once empty prairie to the east is now sprinkled with housing developments for the expected invasion of new employees, military and nonmilitary. CSOC will have 2,000 on its payroll by 1986, with 1,000 more due by the early 1990s. Expansion by local high-tech firms created more than 1,500 new jobs last year. Some city officials expect the population of Colorado Springs to double by the year 2000.

The boom has engendered a kind of space mania among the locals. Dr. Martin List, who after a career in cancer research launched a real estate development business, dreams of creating an aerospace center on his 3,800 acres near CSOC. "I'm sitting on an empire," he says. "A whole city is coming up here. There's big bucks to be made here, and it's all about space." Another proposal of the Flash Gordon ilk is Port Centauri, a prospective 25-sq.-mi. facility 18 miles south of Colorado Springs. In addition to a space- port where shuttles would land and take off, the complex would house colonies of astronauts, writers and assorted high-techies. Then there is the U.S. Space Foundation, which sponsors seminars and publishes a monthly newsletter. It is headed by retired Lieut. General John F. Forrest. A John Wayne look-alike, Forrest is bullish on the militarization of space and President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars. Says he: "We think there has been a crisis of indecisiveness in this country for 25 years; to not make decisions about space policy is very damaging." Forrest, like other local Reaganauts and space boosters, is banking on Colorado Springs' becoming the Emerald City of the Star Wars empire.

But that is in the hazy distance. In the meantime, the high-tech intrusion may change the city in unwelcome ways. "Quality of life" is a virtual mantra in Colorado Springs, and some see that aspect threatened. Ironically, some of the retired officers, who discovered the city's quiet beauty while stationed there, can be found grumbling about air pollution and traffic congestion. Others have noted congressional hesitancy in funding the militarization of space and wonder whether CSOC and the U.S. Space Command are just pie in the sky. Notes Mayor Robert Isaac: "It's hard to see into a crystal ball more than a couple of years out. The farther you look, the fuzzier it gets." But for most of Colorado Springs, the future, fuzzy or otherwise, is now.