At the height of the Cold War, 54 underground silos containing the most powerful nuclear missiles ever built (before or since) littered the landscape in Arizona, Kansas, and Arkansas. The warheads sitting atop these inter continental ballistic missiles were approximately 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War II. To put that in context, that bomb destroyed an area approximately four square miles. Each Titan II missile was designed to obliterate an area 900 square miles.
Unlike modern day weapons, these missiles were not designed for tactical strikes. The idea was that if one was launched, they were all going to be launched. The system was intended entirely as a deterrent to the Soviet Union, the message being, “if you attack us, we will annihilate you.” On the other side, the Soviet Union built their own deterrent system, with the exact same message. This concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was as controversial as it was, ultimately, effective.
The 54 Titan II missiles were located in just three states – each in an area dominated by a strategic Air Force base. There were 17 sites surrounding Little Rock AFB in Arkansas (originally 18 until the Damascus accident), 18 sites around McConnell AFB in Wichita, Kansas, and 18 sites near Davis-Monthan in Tucson. In 1983, as part of a weapons modernization program, all of the silos, save one, were officially decommissioned and destroyed. The one remaining facility was preserved as a museum, a monument to how close humanity came to wiping itself out and a lesson in how well the program ultimately achieved its objective of ‘peace through deterrence.’
While in Tucson, we toured the Titan Missile Museum twice. We were so intrigued by the standard one hour tour that most visitors take, that we signed up to return several weeks later for their comprehensive “Top to Bottom Tour.”
While both tours touched on the larger political/historical context of the facility, the main focus was on the site itself – how the facilities were designed to meet the objectives of the program, how the missile itself worked, the manner in which it would have been launched, the ways in which the facility was secured, and the day to day lives of the crews who worked there.
Some of the most interesting facets of the tour involved the challenges the military faced when building these sites and how they overcame those challenges. For example, in order to be an effective deterrent, the other side had to be absolutely convinced that if they launched an attack, the United States would be able to respond effectively. Meaning, this complex had to meet its objectives even if nuclear weapons were raining down on the United States. In real terms, that meant if a powerful electromagnetic pulse knocked out electricity for hundreds of miles around, the missile could still be launched; if the earth was shaking from bombs falling nearby, the missile could still be launched; and if nuclear radiation was actively poisoning the air, water, and soil above ground, the missile could still be launched. If the military couldn’t reliably launch these missiles quickly and effectively during an attack, their deterrent effect would evaporate.
How to address these issues? Start by building a command and control center that was surrounded by 8 foot thick, steel reinforced concrete walls, complete with 3 ton blast doors.
Next, separate the entire command and control facility, as well as the missile silo, from the earth by bolting the structures to springs – creating giant shock absorbers…
Then, put every mission critical piece of equipment in the complex on its own set of springs
or place them on top of floating platforms….
Finally, place the Command and Control Center far from the missile silo, providing the crew protection from the launch of the facility’s own missile…
Speaking of challenges related to the launch, Titan II was the first ICBM designed to be launched from inside the silo itself, rather than having to be raised to the surface before launch. Without proper sound suppression, the violent shaking of the massive engines firing inside the silo would destroy the missile before it ever cleared the surface. The engineers addressed these issues by lining the silo with specialized sound absorbing panels and by designing a massive water suppression system that would fill the cavity below the rocket with millions of gallons of water as the engine was firing.
At the Museum, the missile’s engines have been removed and places outside so visitors can see them up close.
Speaking of engines, the Titan missiles that would have delivered their thermonuclear warheads halfway around the world in 35 minutes were the same systems that powered 12 different Gemini missions for NASA between 1964 and 1966. Instead of a nuclear warhead on top, NASA placed astronauts and equipment and set off for space. Here’s an interesting article I found talking about various astronauts’ experiences on these flights.
One of the crucial features that distinguished Titan II from previous ICBMs was its readiness to launch. Prior ICBMs were liquid propellant systems that used liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. Liquid oxygen has to be stored at extremely low temperatures, which means that it can’t be stored onboard the missile. As a result, prior ICBMs had to be fueled just before launch, a process that could take some thirty minutes.
As Soviet rocket technology improved, a thirty minute launch period was simply too long. The oxidizer for the Titan II missile was nitrogen tetroxide, which does not need to be stored at extremely low temperatures. As a result, the Titan II missile could be fueled and ready at all times. The launch window was reduced from thirty minutes to just 58 seconds.
The downside of the Titan II’s new propellant system, however, was that the chemicals used were extremely toxic and dangerous. Workers donned protective gear to work on the missile, but even with extreme caution, there were still deadly accidents involving these chemicals.
Once the command to launch was given – an order that could only come from the President – a careful, choreographed process would begin in the command module.
After an alarm bell rang inside the center, a series of codes would come over the loudspeaker. The Commanding Officer and the First Officer would each write the codes down. They would then trade their work to ensure they’d both heard the same thing. Assuming so, both officers would walk over to a locked cabinet, unlock their individual locks, and retrieve a pack of authentication cards.
They would compare the codes on the authentication cards against what had just come over the loudspeaker. Assuming they matched, the officers would know they’d been given the go-ahead to launch. Finally, they would enter an additional code – also received directly from the President in the radio message – into a control (referred to as a butterfly valve lock control) to unlock a valve located on one of the rocket’s oxidizer lines. The rocket could not launch without that valve unlocked. This last code was a fail-safe to ensure infiltrators, or rogue employees, could not launch the missile on their own.
The President’s orders would include instructions regarding the timing of each launch… If all 54 missiles were launched at the same time, several would crash into one another over the north pole. By staggering the launches, all of the missiles would presumably reach their intended targets in one piece. This meant that after receiving and verifying their orders to launch, the crew would have to wait a certain amount of time before actually launching their missile.
When it was time to launch, both officers would place their keys in their individual control panels and turn, at the same time, for five seconds. The panels were not within reach of one another, ensuring that one person could not launch the missile alone.
During the first tour, the docent volunteered me to play the role of Commanding Officer.
You can see where the docent is over at the First Officer’s desk. We’re both turning our keys at the same time to send the missile off.
Once the keys were turned, each of these lights would illuminate from left to right, showing the progress of the launch.
Once the launch began, there was no way to terminate it.
The last light, which reads “Lift Off” would illuminate just 58 seconds after the keys were turned.
Tours at the Titan Missile Museum
Both of the tours we took were excellent. The regular one hour tour explains the background of the program, takes visitors to the command and control center, demonstrates the launch, and takes them to view the missile in its silo from a viewing area about two thirds of the way up. The docents also show visitors the surface level including the various communications and security equipment, the fueling trucks, the engines, and the view from the top of the rocket down.
Described as a 4-6 hour experience, the extended “Top to Bottom Tour” is limited to just six visitors, offers extensive access to all areas of the complex, and provides comprehensive detail about all aspects of the program. The tour completely delivered on its promises. We were there for well over five hours and when they say “top to bottom,” they mean “top to bottom.” The docents, one of whom had been a crew member at the facility for many years before it was decommissioned, were some of the most engaging, well versed, and interesting we’ve had, and the small group format really allowed us to get up close to the equipment, ask questions, and gain real insight into the program.
Additionally, the tour was just cool. We climbed ladders, ducked into small viewing areas, and rode old style freight elevators. And while the hard hats (and sexy protective hair nets) they made us wear seemed like overkill at first, by the third time we’d knocked our heads into low hanging pipes and doors, we were happy to have them.
We stood at the very top of the rocket looking down…
we poked our head into multiple access points along the missile…
and we studied the underside of the rocket where the engine would have been attached:
Finally, we stood at the very bottom and looked up.
Beyond the missile itself, we were able to see the inner workings of all the major support systems for the missile and crew. Everything from a massive diesel generator that stood ready to power the facility, to huge hydraulic systems that controlled the enormous cement silo cover, to the basement full of 1960’s tech was available for our perusal. We even got to see where some irritated employee drew graffiti on the wall making fun of his boss…
However, there was truly little to laugh at at this facility. When it was operational, the fate of millions rested on a handful of people tasked to follow an endless array of safety and security protocols to manage and maintain these missile complexes. And the fate of humanity itself rested on the leadership of a foreign adversary being convinced that these dedicated crews would be ready to unleash the unthinkable if called upon to do so by their government.
Fortunately, the system worked as designed and rational actors were in control in both the USSR and the U.S. during these momentous years. Seeing this complex up close, and learning how complicated-yet-simple the process of ending life on earth could (and still can) be, was remarkable. If you find yourself in the Tucson area, the Titan Missile Museum is well worth your time.
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