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  • Minuteman Missile National Historical Site: A Blast From The Past

Minuteman Missile National Historical Site: A Blast From The Past

Minute Man Missile National Historical Site

Mark Quasius
Apr 1, 2012
Photographers: Mark Quasius
One of the newest units added to the National Park Service is a unique site. Normally thoughts of the National Park Service bring to mind images of vast natural wonders, such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite—or even some of the famous historical battlefields from the revolutionary or civil wars. Minuteman is a throwback to a more recent war, the Cold War.

The Minuteman Missile sites were famous for never having to fire a shot yet played a vital role in our nation’s defense. They served as a deterrent to global nuclear attack. Hidden away beneath the ground, these sites were scattered across various areas of the United States and were provided with a level of security heretofore never seen.
Photo 2/14   |   Shown here in its silo, the Minuteman II travels at 15,000 mph and is capable of reaching its destination in 30 minutes or less.
About 500 of the 1,500 sites were located in South Dakota. It was a location that was safe from Soviet submarine-launched missiles and not in major populated areas, such as the east and west coasts. After the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty many of these sites were deactivated, rendered unserviceable, and sealed up. However, this particular unit was allowed to remain as a non-serviceable unit for public display.

The site is accessed via a small office facility just south of Exit 131 on South Dakota’s portion of Interstate Highway 90, which is about 75 miles east of Rapid City. Inside the office you will see a 12-minute interpretive film that brings you up to speed on the sites. The Delta-09 missile silo is located about 15 miles west at Exit 116, just to the south of the highway. You can drive there and view the site at your convenience, because it is a self-guided tour. You may also make a reservation for an underground guided tour into the command and control center, which is located four miles west of the headquarters. We made sure to do both.
Photo 3/14   |   The 2-foot thick blast cover over the Minuteman II missile silo was partially rolled back and a glass cover installed to allow viewing of the missile from above. The tall obelisk behind it is a motion detection system used by the security force to detect any intrusions.
Down Under

We were fortunate in that our command center tour was led by a former missileer, a retired Air Force major who once was in command of a similar control center. His personal anecdotes contributed greatly to our understanding of life below the surface. The tours are limited in size due to the tiny elevator that takes you down underground, as well as by the confined quarters of the launch control center.

We began by meeting our guide topside. We were let in through a chain link gate that enclosed a secure area, bristling with antenna arrays, a helicopter pad, an armored vehicle, and underground access hatch covers. A small barracks building, which looked much like a ranch house from a distance, housed the eight-man support crew for the facility. Inside the barracks was a communications area, as well as living quarters for the guards and tech-support team. After a tour of the above ground facilities we headed for the elevator that would take us down into the hardened control center bunker.
Photo 4/14   |   Security at missile sites was taken seriously. Electronic surveillance and armed guards were authorized to keep intruders out at any cost.
The elevator doors opened up into a small room flanked by mechanical areas and a 3-1/2-foot thick blast door weighing 5 tons. The entire underground facility had been placed in a hardened concrete tube that is capable of withstanding a nuclear blast. Topside personnel had been allowed into the underground area, but only the launch control officer and his assistant were allowed inside the command center. The 5-ton blast door would be locked from the inside for the duration of their 24-hour shift. Each control center had controlled 10 Minuteman Missiles, which were located at dispersed sites within a 20-mile radius of the command center.

The shifts were described as long periods of intense boredom, punctuated by brief periods of extreme panic. Training drills had been implemented unannounced and with total surprise to keep the missileers on their toes. Air Force flight service personnel typically paint nose art on their planes, but missileers didn’t have planes so their artwork adorned the basement walls and on the huge blast doors. In fact, the blast door at Delta-01 showed a pizza-delivery box reminiscent of a popular national brand with the slogan “Worldwide Delivery in 30 Minutes or less or the Next One is Free.”
Photo 5/14   |   The surface structure located over the launch control center quartered the support crew and housed maintenance and communications equipment, as well as the elevator that leads to the underground launch control center.
The Best Defense…

The Minuteman was a unique missile and had features that helped in its deterrence role. We had many more missiles than the Soviets, so we had them outgunned. But the biggest advantage was the speed and state of readiness of the Minuteman. Typical liquid-fueled rockets require constant of maintenance, and fuel needs to be purged and monitored, so it takes time to get an intercontinental ballistic missile ready for launch.

The Minuteman was a solid-fueled missile, so it could sit stagnant and unmanned for months at a time without any maintenance and could be launched within 30 seconds should the command be given. The Minuteman was also a faster missile and traveled at 15,000 mph, which meant it could have traveled over the North Pole and reached its target in 30 minutes. If we had detected any inbound Soviet missiles, we could have easily gotten our birds off the ground and reached their targets before the incoming missiles would arrive. All of these factors were well known by the Soviets, so they knew it was a no-win situation should they attack us. As such, the Minuteman command centers helped end the Cold War without ever having to fire a shot.

The control center had controlled several missile launch sites. Each missile was placed in an underground silo. These silos were spread out within a 20-mile radius to prevent clustering into one large target.
Photo 6/14   |   This recreation area for the topside crew helped relieve what was described as long hours of boredom punctuated by brief minutes of sheer panic.
Photo 7/14   |   It took two men with separate keys to launch the missiles. Each station was 33 feet apart to prevent any one person from initiating a launch. The launch control officers were seat belted into their positions. Sleeping bunks were provided for the officer who was not on active alert.
Silo Search

After our tour of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility we headed off to visit the missile silo at Delta-09. Once we left the interstate exit we found small signs directing us to the missile site. Amazingly, we had passed by this area on previous trips numerous times and never knew there was a missile silo nearby.

This particular silo had the huge blast cover partially rolled back and a glass enclosure placed over the silo so that visitors could look into the silo and see the missile, which was now inert and harmless. A self-guided tour was facilitated by on-site brochures and a point-by-point audio narrative available via cell phones.

In addition to the National Park Service missile sites, Ellsworth Air Force Base is near Rapid City, about an hour to the west and features an excellent museum filled with aircraft, as well as missiles and related equipment from the Cold War era. A launch control training station has now been made part of the tour, so if you can’t make it to Delta-01, the mockup at Ellsworth is your next best bet. This is a really great addition to the National Park Service and something quite unique that tells a great story of those times. If you still remember duck-and-cover drills from your school days you’ll truly appreciate this site. However, I’m sure that everyone will be fascinated with what they see.
Photo 8/14   |   Sleeping quarters — as well as a kitchen, bathroom, and dining area — were provided for the crew.


Minuteman Missile National Historical Site


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