Winter in the Desert - 2013 travel blog

missile from above

launching the bomb

protective suits

control room

2 man zone

antenna or Xmas tree?


launch keys

view from silo


The Cold War, Russia's constant threat, was an ever present worry during most of our younger lives. We heard about people building bomb shelters, practiced what to do when the bombs came, and studied about radiation disease. According to the propaganda of the day, the US built nuclear missiles capable of destroying the USSR a kazillion times over, because the Russians were over there doing the same thing. It was called MAD - mutual assured destruction. And it all was rather mad. Our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had showed the world what a nuclear bomb could do and the theory was that if both sides had the ability to destroy the other neither would do so. It's hard to say if this is what prevented the Cold War from becoming a hot one, but these days it appears that launching atomic bombs at others had truly become unthinkable.

Lest we forget about this tense time, one of the Titan missile silos has been turned into a national historic landmark and museum. This preserved Titan II missile site is all that remains of the 54 Titan II missile sites that were on alert across the United States from 1963 to 1987. Able to launch from its underground silo in just 58 seconds, the Titan II was capable of delivering a 9-megaton nuclear warhead to targets more than 6300 miles away in about 30 minutes.

The facility's highest state of alert was November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was shot. When news of the shooting broke, the keys used to launch the missile were ordered to be placed on the tables at the launch consoles to prepare for a possible launch. The Pentagon did yet know whether the Soviet Union had committed an act of war.

At launch, orders from the National Command Authority would have specified one of three pre-programmed targets which, for security reasons, were unknown to the crew. The missile's computer could hold up to three targets, and the target selected was determined by Strategic Air Command headquarters. To change the selected target, the crew commander pressed the appropriate button on the launch console. It was assumed that the targets were Soviet cities or military installations.

During the Reagan administrations as disarmament began, all the Titan missile sites but the silo we visited today were destroyed. The entrances were blown up and left open for view so that the Russians could tell that they were no longer operational. The tour we took today was led by old Cold War warriors. It was chilling to walk through the six foot thick doors into the silo. Because it was assumed that the Russians were aiming a warhead here, the silo was hardened - protected by thick concrete embedded with huge metal supports and suspended on enormous springs so it could bounce as the blast hit it and remain operational. There were always four crewmen below on duty for 24 hours per shift. They worked in pairs, constantly monitoring each other. The actual firing of the missile required two sets of locks, two sets of code and two people turning launch keys - all safeguards to avoid accidents or treachery. Most of the time they were bored out of their minds, but occasional alarms and drills kept the adrenalin flowing. Most of their work involved maintenance, making sure that the fuel had not leaked and all systems remained go. Some of the missile components became parts of the Gemini missile program after they were removed from the silo.

The guide revealed that the Russians never were successful in fueling their missiles in a stable way and once fueled, they were only viable for firing for about a month. If only we had known....

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