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Minuteman Missiles and Missileers

This morning before we left our quiet spot in the completely empty campground in the Badlands National Park, we drove over to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site to get a tour of their Delta-01 launch control facility. (Only 6 people can take the tour at a time because that's how many can fit in the elevator that takes you underground into the bunker that houses launch control.)


In 1955 the Soviet Union successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. In 1957 the Soviet Union successfully launched the world's first satellite. The combination of these two developments meant that the Soviets had the potential to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles with hydrogen bombs on board that would be capable of reaching anywhere in the U.S. 

This scared the bejeezus out of the U.S., of course. The U.S. response was the development and deployment of Minuteman missiles. These missiles could be launched on very short notice (about five minutes) from underground hardened silos that were built to resist a nuclear blast. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) accelerated the deployment of Minuteman missiles. Over 1000 missiles were poised and ready to launch, with the launch sites spread across the center of the U.S. The reason for putting them in the center of the country was so they would have more notice and more time to launch if a Soviet attack was detected. (Soviet nuclear submarines operating along the coastal U.S. could reach coastal areas too quickly with their missiles.)

The Minuteman was meant as a defense/retaliation weapon, not as a first strike weapon. The idea was to serve as a deterrent so that the Soviets would know that any attack they launched could be met with 1000 Minuteman missiles going the other way.

The missiles were spread across such a wide area so that it would take an enormous number of Soviet missiles to knock out all the sites. The missiles themselves were located about 15 miles from the control centers, and one launch control center controlled 10 missiles around it. There were five control centers in a squadron, and there were three squadrons in South Dakota — South Dakota had 150 Minuteman missiles. 


By locating the missiles away from population centers, it also meant that any Soviet attack against the missile facilities would result in far fewer casualties.

We started with a tour of the above-ground quarters of Delta-01. There were about ten people in the above-ground facility at all times (3-day shifts) and two missileers below ground in the launch control center (24 hour shifts).


The above-ground facility is "preserved" to be a museum of sorts and it basically looks like someone's grandmother's house, or a bare bones rec center decorated in 1970s liquidation sale furniture. I should have taken a photo, but I was too busy cringing at the matching nubby rose pink suede sofa and loveseat, shellac'd oak furniture, and giant forest photo mural that covered one whole wall (complete with a family of deer staring out at me).

I did get a couple shots of some of the cool details in the office/communications area of the place though:



We climbed into the elevator and headed below ground (about 30 feet down). 

Looking back up the elevator shaft from the underground facility:


Missile launch bunker artwork:


The launch control central hub was in a watermelon-shaped concrete enclosure that appeared to have about 10ft thick reinforced concrete walls, and a giant steel and concrete blast door.

This is the door to and from the launch control center (more launch control bunker art):


The other side of the door (and that "hallway" is actually a path through the wall):


The control center itself was a separate unit inside this outer shell, suspended on giant springs and shock absorbers so that the missileers and the equipment could still work even with a nuclear war going on outside:


This is basically the whole place. There's a tiny stainless steel bathroom just out of the picture on the right, and on the left out of frame is a fridge and microwave (added modern convenience!), as well as an oxygen machine and some other equipment. (It's about the size of an Airstream…maybe a 34ft.) 


There's a sleeping area for one missileer to get some rest while the other remains at the helm. Note how the two missileer chairs are on rails, with seatbelts, so they can keep steady if being bombed while trying to launch missiles.



Launching the missiles worked pretty much like you see in spy movies (the good ones, anyway). There were two launch keys stored in a locked red box.


The box was locked with two combination padlocks. If the order was given to launch, it took both missileers opening their padlocks to open the box and get the keys. The two launch controls were 12 feet apart (so that one person couldn't reach both). The two missileers would do a countdown and turn their keys simultaneously. At the same time, they had to be on the phone with another missile launch control center…the missileers in that other control center would also have to vote by turning their keys simultaneously. So it took four missileers at two different locations to launch any missile(s).

Launch panel #1:


Launch panel #2:


The Minuteman missiles, if launched, would have climbed 700 miles into space at a speed of over 15,000mph. They would then have re-entered the atmosphere reaching their targets in the Soviet Union approximately 30 minutes after launch. Unlike in the movies there was no "cancel" or "self-destruct" capability. Once the missiles were launched, they were irretrevably on their way to their targets.

After the tour wrapped up, we headed up the road a bit to go see one of the actual missile silos. When these things were all active and armed, they were not a secret from locals nor were they kept secret from the Soviets. Quite the opposite. By making them visible (especially from the air) the Soviets could count how many intercontinental ballistic missiles the U.S. had and by having 1000 of them, the U.S. hoped to discourage any attack and actually prevent a nuclear war.

This is what the missile launch control center looks like from I-90.


I doubt they had these road signs at the time, however:


The gate in front of the D-09 missile silo:


The top of the missile silo (now covered with glass — silo door half open so you can look down in and see the prop missile), and the hardened UHF antenna on the right. These antennas allowed the missile launch commands to be given from "looking glass" aircraft that were in the air constantly from around 1961 to 1990 and could launch the missiles if the ground stations were unable to.




This is the back half of the silo door, slid halfway open uncovering the missile silo interior:


All in all it was a super interesting tour. Kinda creepy, but also kind of interesting that it all apparently worked. It's fascinating the enormous cost and amount of effort that went into building this system. A thousand of these Minuteman missiles* and concrete missile silos, a hundred of the underground suspended launch control bunkers, the staffing to maintain and operate all of this for over 30 years…all in the desperate hope that none of it would ever be used.

*According to our tour guide, just one of the Minuteman missiles had 60% of the power of ALL of the munitions used in WWII by ALL countries combined, including the atom bombs. And there were a thousand of them embedded in middle America. The consequences of using any of them is just incomprehensible. Perhaps the most amazing and awesome thing about this entire defensive strategy is that it worked.