As a child of the cold war, nuclear armageddon was one of the major boogeymen which haunted my dreams.
Well, yesterday, I got a chance to enter the world of the men and women with the keys, codes and buttons that could launch doomsday at the Titan Missile Museum near Tucson. The museum is a decommissioned Titan II missile silo, complete with missile (but sans warhead). The massive silo doors have been concreted hallway open and a hole cut in the nose-cone to allow Russian satellites to see that the missile is no longer a threat.
Every so often, the museum runs special “Top to Bottom” tours that provide you with access to pretty much the entire complex… I went on one of these, which was guided by two retired Air Force guys who had spent a lot of time in silos like this one. We climbed ladders, squeezed into some small spaces (one of which was home to a resident Black Widow spider, whom I got to meet up close and personally) and saw all of the electronics and engineering that went into defending America’s freedom.
Most importantly, though, I got to sit in the actual missile commander’s chair and press a button on the console as I imagined an extremely surgical strike on my neighbor’s car, which he insists on parking on the street rather than in his driveway. Take that, Bob!
1. The launch complex does not look like much from above ground (other than the 760 ton silo door), but it is huge, extending 8 levels down. The parts of the complex dedicated to human habitation are relatively small (the control room, a very spartan bunk area and a kitchen) – mist of the space is taken up by the missile and the incredible machinery required to keep it ready to reduce Moscow (or my neighbor’s car) into radioactive dust.
2. I was surprised at the scope and complexity of the mechanical systems needed to keep the missile ready to go. Moving a 760 ton silo door requires some serious hydraulics and there are multiple water tanks and systems (crew comfort, fire fighting, and water to damp the noise and flame from a launch).
3. I was really surprised to find out that the silos were supplied with electrical power from the regular commercial power grid. There were backup generators, but these only powered safety and crew comfort systems. Our guides told a story of a crew who was woken up at 3:30 AM by a call from the main gate from someone claiming to be the meter reader. Yeah, right. They called the security police, who held the man at gunpoint. Only… he was the meter reader. The crew on duty did not usually work in this silo. The meter reader had an arrangement with the normal crew to always show up at the same time on the same day of the month to read the meter. Security has come a long way since those days…
4. While power redundancy was a problem, communications were much better protected against loss… the silo had multiple radio antennas, some of which are retractable and hardened against EMP. There were backups to the backup systems – various types of radio ranging from shortwave to UHF (for communications with the “Looking Glass” airborne command post) as well as antennas to receive very low frequency radio broadcasts through the earth’s crust. As a last resort, SAC could launch command missiles whose job it was to broadcast launch orders to their silo bound brethren.
5. The arrangements for keeping the codes and keys in the silo’s command center were surprisingly low tech. As you can see, what looks like a hefty file cabinet with a couple of padlocks holds the keys to doomsday.
Actually, those locks are really only the last layer in a very complex system, which includes specially coded fuel valves which will not allow the engines to get fuel unless a code (delivered to the crew only at launch time) is entered into the launch console. The site itself is surrounded by a high fence and is equipped with doppler radar intrusion detectors called “Tipsies.” Should the Tipsie indicate an intruder, the crew would stay in the silo and call the Air Force Security Police to respond. Our guides told of one site where a local mountain lion enjoyed sunning himself on top of the silo door – and bringing the cops running when he was detected by the Tipsies. I just like saying Tipsie.
I could go on for pages here… the tour was fantastic and it made me appreciate the scale of technology and expenditure that the Cold War took to win, as well as what the missile crews had to put up with to keep us safe… thanks, guys (and gals)!
More photos from the tour can be found on my Flickr Photostream… I have posted some, but will be adding more as I sort through them.
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Location:E 22nd St,Tucson,United States