Visiting a nuclear missile silo


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a fuel line for the Titan missile
A fuel line for the Titan missile.

Last week my oldest friend Lloyd and his wife Denise came to visit Diane and I here in Tucson. One of Lloyd’s requests was to visit the Tucson Missile Museum. This museum is built at the site of one of the now disabled missile silos built in the 1960s as a means for launching nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Fifty-four silos total had been built and operated, with eighteen of those silos scattered around the Tucson, Arizona area. When the U.S. signed a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union in the 1980s these silos were then shut down and sold. Some became private residences. Others remain buried and abandoned.

One silo, however, was kept as intact as allowed by treaty and made into a museum in order to preserve this artifact of history. Because Diane and I happen to know Chuck Penson, the archivist at the museum, we were able to arrange an augmented tour of the facility. Below are some of my pictures as Chuck took us down into the deepest bowels of the silo.

Chuck Penson in the silo control room.
Chuck Penson in the silo control room. It was in this room that an operational crew stood by, twenty-four hours a day, awaiting orders to launch their missile.

The missile used in these silos was the Titan 2 rocket, the same rocket NASA used to launch the astronauts during the Gemini program in the 1960s. To quote the museum website:

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 (10,000 km) away in about 30 minutes.

looking down the silo at the Titan 2 missile
Looking down the silo at the Titan 2 missile

When I interviewed Frank Borman and Jim Lovell for my book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, they both told me that a ride on a Titan 2 was like riding a bucking bull at a rodeo. The missile at the museum is real, though of course it is no longer loaded with any hydrazine fuel, which is extremely toxic.

Suits workers used to protect themselves from the hydrazine fuel.
Suits workers used to protect themselves from the hydrazine fuel.

If you look closely at the protective suits, you will notice a lot of patches. Chuck explained that these patches were put on whenever there appeared to be the slightest wear in the suit. Hydrazine is so toxic that no one wanted to wait until a leak actually developed.

Looking up the silo at the Titan missile.
Looking up the silo at the Titan missile.

Though none of these missiles were ever launched as a weapon of war, their construction and operation was a complete success. For more than twenty years they acted as a strong deterrent against Soviet aggression, letting that country’s leaders know that if they dared use their nuclear weapons against us, we could respond with devastating force. This policy, dubbed Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, seems insane, but it actually is quite rational. The result of this policy was that no nuclear conflict ever took place, with the competition for nuclear strength helping to bring about the eventual collapse of the Soviet dictatorship.

One of the springs on which the missile was mounted
The springs on which the missile was mounted.

In order for the threat of MAD to be effective, the silos had to be able to survive a nuclear attack. Thus, everything there, from the control room to the missile itself, is mounted on springs so that it can ride out the impact of a nuclear bomb. And these springs did work! Though no missile was every launched from an operational silo, every silo was built exactly the same, based on designs developed and tested by the U.S. military. In those tests they did successfully launch a Titan 2 from a silo, unarmed of course.

Sadly, today’s new nuclear threat is going to come from the Islamic world and Iran, whose leaders have said that they not only want to have the ability to destroy those they hate, such as Israel and the United States, they also seem eager to see the world cast into chaos and massive destruction. The threat of mutual destruction is likely not to discourage them in the slightest.

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15 comments

  • Chris Kirkendall

    Fascinatuing stuff, Bob – thanks for posting it! ! As a kid born in the early 50s & growing up in the 60s, I knew all about our ICBMs & the “Nuclear Triad”- Land-launched missiles, sub-launched missiles, and Bombers, the thinking being that it would be nearly impossible for an enemy to take out all three before we could retaliate with overwhelming force. And as you said, it worked – there was never a nuclear war because the consequences would’ve been so horrific. This is a concept I don’t believe Obama understands – he just thinks the very idea of these weapons is abhorrent. What he fails to understand is that, as military planners themselves said, if you ever have to use them, they’ve aleady failed their purpose. Disarming the U.S will most certainly NOT lead to world peace. That notion is about as foolish as Neville Chamberlain waving a piece of paper with Hitler’s signature & proclaiming “We have peace in our time” & we all know how THAT turned out!

    Anyway, very interesting to see what one of these silos actually looked like & it takes me back to a time when there really was actual fear of nuclear conflagration. Krushchev pounding his shoe on the podium at the UN & threatening “We will bury you !” while detonating the most powerful H-Bombs ever produced (one with a yield estimated at 100 Megatons) made our choices pretty clear ! !

  • JGL

    Very cool.

    A friend of mine was in the military and worked in the silos, I just found a patch he gave me, it says 341 MXS. I had heard a story about an incident where unauthorized “lights” were observed over missile silos and apparently probing them with some sort of other lights and these activities were accompanied with unauthorized manipulations of the systems. I thought this story was some kind of sci fi, Hollywood BS and I asked him about it and he confirmed that it was not BS and that it did in deed happen. In addition I recently viewed a youtube video featuring former astronaut Edgar Mitchell who had some interesting things to say on the subject of extra terrestrials. Would you have any comment on this subject Mr. Zimmerman? (or anyone else) Being so closely involved in the subject of science and space I though you might have come across people in this field who have other interesting story’s.

  • I respect Edgar Mitchell as an astronaut, but his attempts at science in the fields of ESP and extra-terrestrials have generally been somewhat embarrassing, not for the attempts but for his refusal to accept the results. For example, on his Apollo mission to the Moon he took ESP cards with him and did an experiment whereby, at a designated time, four friends on Earth would attempt to identify the cards he was looking at. When they added up the data they found the number of successful hits were no more than what you would get with random choices. There was no evidence of ESP at all. Sadly, Mitchell did not accept these results and has pushed on regardless.

  • Chris Kirkendall

    I have no idea what the truth of UFOs is – it’s a “real” phenomenon, in that many thousands of reliable people have reported these things. Now whether they represent extra-terrestrial life is another matter, but it’s always interesting to hear from people who are certainly NOT kooks – airline pilots, military, people who are trained in & familiar with all types of aircraft as well as celestial phenomona (meteors, as well as unusual weather phenomena, etc.). I do recall reading that Mitchell – who went to the Moon on Apollo 14 – said he’d witnessed something unusual. Testimony from a guy as highly trained, intelligent & obviously, emotionally stable (all traits required of Astronauts) carries some weight. I wonder if we’ll ever know what these are?

  • JGL

    Any comment on the silo’s being probed story’s?

  • JGL

    Javques Valle is a balanced and interesting investigator, he points out that humans have been observing and recording something in the sky’s and other interactions for millenia. I think that we have to recognize that the human animal has certain limitations in their ability to perceive and understand what they are perceiving. An interesting and controversial subject that not everyone is willing to express an opinion on.

    My conclusion?

    They are not, can not all be crazy, there is something there, what that something is though, I don’t know.

  • Phil Berardelli

    I think Carl Sagan described these phenomena best when he said humans are, above all, pattern recognizers. In other words, we can distinguish familiar images from otherwise chaotic sources. Also, the brain has ways of playing subtle tricks on us. On a personal level, I’ve watched movies all my life and retain vivid memories of them — or so I think. But sometimes when I revisit a film and see the scene performed or the dialogue uttered, it’s different from how I remember it, even though, as I said, my memory is vivid. It’s a bit unnerving. This tendency applies even more firmly when we experience something unexpected in real time. I remember watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center on television, from a CNN camera placed somewhere north of the twin towers. At the time, I swore a saw the plane swooping in from the north and hitting the tower right in front of me, but subsequent playbacks showed, as it actually happened, the plane arrived from the south, and what I saw was it crashing through the tower, exploding its fuel on the north side.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that human perception is a tricky process, and many things we think we see are either not there or are unfolding differently than our eyes and brains are telling us. So far, to my knowledge, there has not been a single shred of tangible evidence that our planet has been visited by intelligent aliens. It seems astounding, given the vastness of even our own galaxy and the steady discovery of planets within the potential habitable zone. But as Sagan also said, because of human fallibility extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  • Phil Berardelli

    BTW, great photos, Bob. Thanks for sharing.

  • JGL

    What about instances when there are more than one observer, sometimes many more than one, and they all see the same things from different places sometimes miles apart ?

    These can be energy like things which morph in shape and intensity and then there seem to be more mechanical appearing “craft”, both appear to be under intelligent control. In addition, the term “flying” seems to be inaccurate to me, what ever they are they appear to be manipulating space and are not “flying” in the strict sense of the word.

  • Steve MIller

    This missile silo reminds me of the hardened network AT&T built in the late fifties and sixties. It employed two or three story underground buildings supported on large springs designed to withstand near nuclear misses. There were automatic blast doors and sensors to lock down the building upon shock. If I recall correctly, the buildings had enough supplies and fuel for the diesel generators to last at least a month. These sites were built away from major cities to improve survivability. Feeder routes were built from these “junction” offices into the cities. In those days microwave radio and coaxial cables carried communications traffic with the latter being more survivable. The plan was to have a backbone network around during and post a nuclear war.

    The electronics, cable, and buildings were also designed to survive EMP effects. I worry that EMP isn’t being given much thrift these days. Our civilization is really quite fragile given our reliance on electronics. A solar flare of the magnitude of one in the 1860’s or a nuclear bomb over the US would be an almost unimaginable disaster.

    By the way, building a survivable network was extremely expensive but recall that AT&T had a monopoly then and the government supported this effort. When MCI and competition came along these costs could no longer be supported and no further hardened buildings were built.

  • danae

    Thank you for the tour. This is the only missile silo I’ve seen online that hasn’t been stripped and vandalized, or converted into a residence. The scale the the silo is very impressive.

  • Al

    Thanks for sharing these. I had a chill thinking of what it must have been like sitting in the cold blue florescent light for days on end waiting to receive the launch command. I’m can’t imaging having that duty and I’m glad those days are behind.

  • J FIncannon

    It is interesting to note that NASA funded work by the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) through JPL into ESP communications a couple years after Apollo 14. An interesting report was issued which you will have to judge for yourself.

    Results:
    “The SRI investigators in the report that follows (unedited by NASA or JPL) draw positive conclusions regarding ESP communications and learning.”
    But, oddly,
    “NASA has concluded that there is currently no basis for support of further investigations.”

  • Chuck Penson

    With regard to silos being probed: No incidents at Titan II facilities have come to my attention, but in the mid-70s many northern tier AF bases had UFO sightings, and at Great Falls MT (were I happened to live at the time) many Minuteman sites were visited by UFOs. I have first-hand experience with the affair, but the episodes were covered in a book called “Clear Intent,” by Lawrence Fawcett (available from Amazon, et al). The specific chapter in the book is “Faded Giant.” Very interesting stuff…

  • JGL

    My friend worked in the silos but was not an eye witness but knew of and confirmed the incident to me. He is above misleading me, all of those guys were the cream of the crop for the job. These are part of the 5% of unexplainable events that professionals in science will not comment on for good reason, they get tagged with the “crazy” tag, lose credibility and government funding.

    There is something there, I just don’t know what it is. (I hate that)

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