Thursday, March 22, 2018

Titan Missile Museum

Nuclear holocaust was a distant but very real threat for those us growing up in the 1950s/60s. We practiced ducking-and-covering when citywide air-raid sirens were tested once a month. We were also intrigued by rumors of people building bomb shelters in their backyards. Ever looming nuclear war was just part of everyday life. However, as I grow older and learn more about the U.S.'s Cold War with the Soviet Union, I marvel at how we even survived that period.

Tim and I usually travel to Arizona every other year to see baseball spring training. While there, we like to take in some of the local attractions, such as the Pima Air Museum & Boneyard or the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. This year we decided to visit the Titan Missile Museum, site of the last remaining nuclear missile on "alert" from 1963 until 1987. 

Located outside Tucson, about two hours from our hotel in Tempe, this unassuming museum is home to one of the 54 nuclear missile launch sites that used to operate in Arizona, Kansas and Arkansas. Housed underground, the mega-ton Titan IIs, which were also used to propel Gemini capsules and their astronauts into space, could be airborne within a minute of receiving launch orders. Once detonated, the missile's nuclear warhead would kill everything within a 900-mile radius. But as our tour guides kept emphasizing, the main purpose of the missile program was to deter enemies from launching their own missiles. Luckily the ploy worked, leaving just one unarmed missile site to serve today as a museum and important cautionary history lesson.

Museum entrance

Visitors enter the site through a small building that contains a gift shop and excellent exhibit of Cold War artifacts. The hour-long tours of the missile silo start with a 15-minute video, orienting the group to what they're about to see. The group then goes outside, where a tour guide leads everyone to a set of concrete stairs heading underground.

Impossible to tell there's a mega-ton missile under this
unassuming landscape

Stairs heading underground

The launch site itself actually consists of three areas, connected by long hallways: living quarters and launch control (left), decontamination area (center), and missile silo (right), as illustrated below (click on image to enlarge). Once underground, our guide led us to the control room, where what now looks to be ancient (i.e., early 1960s) equipment used to monitor the missile and await launch orders. Crews of four worked in 24-hour shifts.

Detailed illustration of the underground site

One of many door button panels to enter the inner sanctum

State-of-the-art equipment in early 1960s

The red locker held the launch codes, requiring two people to access—
note the two locks on the locker

From there, we walked down a long corridor, passing the decontamination area and into the silo, where the (now de-nuked) Titan II still stands. The silo was built as two 150-foot-deep concentric cylinders: the outer ring measuring 55 ft. wide; the other, called the "launch duct," 26 ft. wide. Walls are 8 ft. thick. Though not allowed to go inside the cylinders, we were able to peer at the missile through two glass windows. Seeing the Titan II in such close proximity was absolutely breathtaking—not so much as a weapon of war, but more as a vehicle for space exploration, which I love.

Tim walking down the long corridor

Decontamination suits

Emergency shower if exposed to radiation—Karen Silkwood, anyone?

First sight of the missile's main body

De-nuked nosecone

Above ground again, we were encouraged to look at the missile through an observation window created specifically for tourists. And there it was, still standing in its underground silo, waiting for orders to wreak havoc on the world. Chilling, but a fascinating reminder of why no one should have the power to launch mass destruction. 

Looking down on the missile from the observation deck

By the way, if you're a Star Trek fan, you may recognize the Titan II and its silo from the movie First Contact, where savvy scientists turn a deactivated missile into the first "warp drive" spaceship. Yay!

No comments: