By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Rojek
Defense Media Activity
CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN AIR FORCE STATION, Colo. (AFNS) — After more than a year of planning and building, leaders here unveiled a 9/11 artifact display Sept. 12.
The construction of the display was a collaborative effort between the National Homeland Defense Foundation, civil engineers here and University of Colorado at Colorado Springs engineering students.
The Cheyenne Mountain project started through the radio. Col. Rusty Wilson, who was the 721st Mission Support Group commander here, said he was listening to the local news in his car on the way to work when he heard about the NHDF donating a 9/11 artifact to Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.
“I didn’t hear about Cheyenne Mountain (participating), and I was wondering if there was a project afoot that I wasn’t aware of,” Wilson said.
After calling Air Force Space Command leaders, he found out his base wasn’t initially considered to receive an artifact. However, NHDF had one more to hand out. Wilson said he jumped at the opportunity to place it at “the Mountain.”
“Cheyenne Mountain played a pretty important role (during 9/11); at that time the (North American Aerospace Defense) command center was still in Cheyenne Mountain,” he said. “Those were the folks that were watching our skies from a military perspective.
“It seemed like a very fitting tribute,” he said. “Not only do we have several of those folks still working in the mountain, I’ve got young Airmen and defenders who have been deploying all over the world. It will remind them not only of what the mountain had done with a tribute to the folks who have gone before us, but of the continued efforts that we have to protect our freedoms and way of life.”
Working with Don Addy, the president of the NHDF and coordinator of the artifact program, Wilson secured a 750-pound beam from one of the World Trade Center towers for display at the base. However, he had to figure out where to put it and how to display it, he said. Working with his civil engineers, they decided to get the community involved in the project. That’s when UCCS became involved.
Wilson said he invited staff members from the engineering department of the university to the base in June 2010 with the idea of first deciding on where to place the artifact. Ideas ranged from near the base gate to inside the mountain complex. When it was finally decided that outside was the best place for the display, Wilson invited base employees to submit design ideas. All of the submitted ideas were turned over to the engineering students as a “kick-off” point from which to begin the project.
To further involve the local community, the NHDF and Cheyenne Mountain leaders hosted an artifact transfer ceremony, beginning at UCCS. Local leaders and instructors, as well as Addy and Wilson, spoke at the ceremony. Even the Cheyenne Mountain High School choir performed at the event. From there, the local police provided an escort for the movement of the artifact from UCCS to the base.
“From the beginning we felt like it was really important to make sure this wasn’t just a Cheyenne Mountain event,” Wilson said. “We really wanted to reach out and get some community involvement.”
Dr. Peter Gorder, the head of the senior design program in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department of UCCS, was part of that community participation. Each year since 1999, the program brings in external customers to present real-world problems for the students to solve.
“This seemed a perfect fit for what we try to do,” Gorder said.
After agreeing to the project, Gorder offered the opportunity to his senior students. Usually, he said, the students get several projects from which to pick; however, the timeline on this project was shorter than usual. Student teams normally pick their projects by the end of September or the beginning of October.
“I presented (this project) on the first day,” Gorder said. “I said, ‘Listen, you know we’ve got 12 other projects that are going to be presented to you. I’m asking if there’s anybody who is really interested working on this knowing that they don’t even know what the other choices are.’”
Gorder said he had more than enough interest in the project and was forced to randomly pick students for the team. While the four-person team realized the significance of the project, they quickly found out there were also more aesthetic components to this than other projects, making it both art and engineering.
“With most of the other problems the students address, function absolutely overwhelms form,” he said. “In this case there had to be a marriage of both.”
The students said they were challenged by the idea that the customer in this case was “everyone.” They were forced to not just think in engineering terms, but also in aesthetics and inviting passersby to stop and look. The biggest challenge, though, was trying to capture all of the emotions and thoughts associated with 9/11.
“We had so much support up here,” said Andrew West, one of the student engineers on the team. “We were able to present our understanding of what they wanted the piece to do and what they wanted the piece to look like (based on) the designs of the Cheyenne community.”
The students began working with the 712th MSG civil engineers in designing the display. The experienced engineers helped the students think about and come up with solutions to problems such as having display that is exposed to elements like high winds and snowfall.
Local artist Rita Salazar Dickerson helped solve the problem with the elements. The beam was sandblasted to remove the rust and then weather proofed with sealant before Dickerson painted the beam to look just as it did when it was removed from the wreckage of the fallen towers. The paint she used, however, was electrostatic powder coat. After each layer of paint was applied, the beam was baked in a large oven to set the coating. The work is so convincing, people who saw the beam before it was painted did not even know it had gone through that treatment, Dickerson said.
After the students completed their design in the spring, the base engineers began actual construction of the display, completing the project August 2011.
The final design is 20-foot diameter cement platform, upon which sets four benches surrounding a pentagon-shaped pedestal. Atop the pedestal stands the artifact surrounded by a metal globe. The construction gives the viewer a chance to “step up into it,” West said, as opposed to just walking by and looking at it. The beam is within reach of the viewer, inviting visitors to the display to both see and feel the destruction caused during the 9/11 attacks, as well as to have a place to reflect upon all that has passed since.
“(Seeing the artifact is) a stark reminder of that particular day,” Wilson said. “You can see the amount of force that it took to distort that beam to the degree it’s been distorted. You got to go and think further that there was several thousand people in that building when those planes struck.
“It takes you down to your core,” he added.
It’s location on the air force station grounds was selected for maximum viewing both by visitors to the base and the people who work there every day, said Don Addy, the president of the NHDF.
“We really want it to be a reminder of, one, the tragic events of that day and then, two, our American pride and freedom and the fact that we make sacrifices to ensure that freedom,” said Col. Joe Turk, the current 721st MSG commander.
While Cheyenne Mountain is currently not open to public tours, visitors to Colorado Springs, Colo., can see the “sister” artifact display at UCCS. Designed by students who had worked on the Cheyenne Mountain display, including West and Matt Martin, the UCCS display points toward the mountain as a show of solidarity between the school and the base.
“It’s undeniable that we do our best work when we’re working on something we’re passionate about,” West said. “I can’t think of too many things that are better to drive a passion then being able to give back the military and our country and school … (This display) is nothing compared to what these guys do every day, but it’s something.”
The artifact display here is evidence that a spirit of service and unity lives on, even as the U.S. remembers the 10th anniversary of 9/11, said Lt. Gen. Michael Basla, the vice commander of Air Force Space Command.
“Time has a way of healing wounds, but it has not dulled our determination,” Basla said. “We remain vigilant … And this memorial will stand as a constant reminder of that determination and unity that 9/11 events reignited, brighter and more intense than ever in our American spirit.”