Tucson, Arizona

Titan Missile Museum

The Cold War has been an intense historical interest of mine. So I decided to pay a visit to what is probably the preeminent Cold War relic around, an entire intact Titan nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile silo, along with missile rendered inert in its missile bay. The most powerful ICBM ever operated by the United States, the Titan was deployed in three squadrons of 18 missiles each in the three states, with only one launch site preserved as a museum, the one near Tucson that I visited. This missile had a nine megaton yield and could take out an entire metropolitan area. The missile was programmed with three target options, various Russian cities.

This is a cutout diagram of the eight stories below ground silo, the lowest level is some 60 meters or 140 feet deep, with it reaching even further when concrete reinforcements are taken into account.

I took this photo of the missile, which of course now has a fake warhead on it. Truly a terrifying piece of machinery, that could kill millions, and be launched without any way to stop it once it was set in motion. Going up into space, and heading toward Russia, this very artifact could have easily been part of a potential World War 3. And the only reason Australia never developed its own nuclear weapons is because we always relied on the blanket of nuclear protection our alliance with the United States gave us.

A Titan missile launched from a silo.

One of things that is immediately noticeable down below is that everything is on springs. From the light fittings to the computers, it is all on springs. This was really what amounts to American nuclear missile silo engineering’s best guess as to how to protect the facility in the event the Soviets sent one of their missiles within half a mile. Our tour guide was a retired commanding officer of this facility. It was fascinating to ask this Missileer many questions, such as ‘what did they say when you met people at parties and you told them you were the commanding officer of a nuclear missile silo?’. He said it was a show stopper. This man was prepared to, if the President’s orders came down the line, to turn the key that would result in literally millions of deaths. I of course asked him what procedures where in place for rooting out Misileers with drug habits, or personal problems, I had already read extensively about this issue, but it was interesting to hear what the job was like from a person with first hand experience. No Missileer was or is to this day, allowed to be alone, there is always a two man crew, and the most important safeguard is that Misileers never know the launch codes, until they are given in the event of launch from up on high.

Launch sequence lights lit up. The most important safeguard in nuclear missiles is what is called the butterfly valve. A valve that allows or prevents fuel from entering the engines to launch. This valve is fitted with an advanced version of a lock, set to a code, and this code is changed regularly by persons other than the launch Missileers. The Missileers are never told the code until the event of a launch. The ‘Red Safe’ filing cabinet containes the sealed authenticators that have to match up with the authenticator codes issued from higher up. It gets very complicated, but there are a number of failsafe protocols in place. The two Misileers on duty in the silo must turn their keys in unison, and for demonstration purposes I volunteered to turn the key along with the former Missileer tour guide. It was a heady, thought provoking role play experience.

This is the Red Safe, the go-to safe when it hits the fan.

3 ton blast doors attempt to protect the Missileers in the event of a retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union after a Soviet first strike attack across the United States. Essentially, the components of these silos where the best guess for protection, they could only ever be tested in war. It was suspected that enough of the US silos would remain intact to decimate most of the cities in the Soviet Union in response to a first strike.

This was our tour guide. He worked for decades in these kinds of silos, working 24 hour shifts and then taking a break for a day or so. There were moments, like when Reagan was shot, where technically the Vice President was in charge of launching nuclear war. This was a workplace where even a man’s wife and kids would not be able to visit. I asked him if he would have time to call his family to tell them to get out of town of he found out the Soviets were trying to take out his silo, he told me ‘that was a good question’. A very intersting fact is that this missile had three target options, labelled 1, 2 and 3. He was not told which cities in Russia they were trained on, that info was kept to the top brass, for fear any Missileer could have family ties to a foreign city and lose their nerve at the last moment. So if ‘target 2’ was Moscow, or Vladivostok, he did not know, for it was his job to turn the key, regardless of where the destruction was to take place.

Video by me, brief look into the control room.

Missile as seen from perhaps the fifth floor down, I forget.

All in all some serious business. With tens of thousands of nuclear warheads deployed throughout the last couple of generations, it is truly, absolutely truly remarkable, that none have gone off in anger or accidentally since the strikes on Japan in 1945. And I speak not just to the United States’ seeming restraint, but to all the world’s nuclear armed governments. It seems all people recognise the awesome power and responsibility of this technology. The threat of nuclear strikes remains real though. I would not be surprised if one or two go off in my lifetime in middle east. There are several missing nuclear weapons in the world, lost in air crashes. One hydrogen bomb is submerged in an unknown location near the Georgia coast in the Atlantic, and one in buried somewhere in the ice in Greenland come to mind. It can only be assumed the Soviets lost some too. This is true, and chilling, and you can google it.

I think if I was going to see America, nuclear weapons are big part of America’s history. I have turned the key of nuclear missile silo control panel in Arizona, and stood feet away from the bomb hatch doors of the Enola Gay bomber aircraft that dropped the bomb on Japan as seen in the Washington D.C. section (click top right hand side). All in all, I think I had the American nuclear weapons tourism experience, and it is some heady, thought provoking stuff. Let’s hope none go off in our lifetimes.

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About ryaninseries

Ryan in America travel blog 2011-2012
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