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Silo

Started: 2022-04-17 20:43:13

Submitted: 2022-04-17 22:56:48

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Visiting a nuclear missile silo

As an amateur nerd interested in things like history, aerospace, and aerospace history, I was aware of a couple of sites somewhere in the American Southwest that I ought to visit at some point that combined these interests: the Pima Air and Space Museum, holding a massive collection of aircraft in the desert heat including Working Together, the first Boeing 777 ever built before it was retrofitted for commercial use; and the only surviving Titan II missile silo, now set up as a museum. Somehow it escaped me that these two museums were actually in the same city (Tucson, and were actually operated by the same museum); that important detail bumped the priority up from "I should maybe do this someday" to "visit ASAP, ideally before summer (when it's too hot to visit Arizona)". The Omicron surge has abated, and my whole household is vaccinated and boosted. I asked Calvin, "Would you like to see a real nuclear missile silo?" and his eyes got wide (which, to be fair, matched my own reaction when I first heard of the silo). I bought plane tickets for a short trip to Tucson at the end of the kids' spring break in the first week in April. (Kiesa spent a year living in Arizona and had no desire to return, so I took the kids while she stayed home.)

Julian reviews the safety information card of this CRJ-200 aircraft
Julian reviews the safety information card of this CRJ-200 aircraft

We ended up with a flight departing San Francisco late on Thursday afternoon (inconveniently timed so we were flying during what should have been time to eat supper, so we ate an early supper at the airport before boarding the plane). I took the whole day off work, giving me plenty of time to do a quick load of laundry and pack before we left, as well as dropping by my local garden center to check out their supply of vegetable seedlings (though I ended up buying more house plants, because clearly we need more house plants). I got a direct flight from SFO to Tucson, operated by Skywest on a CRJ-200 as United Express.

N956SW wing banks over San Bruno Mountain climbing out of SFO
N956SW wing banks over San Bruno Mountain climbing out of SFO

When we landed, the flight attendant welcomed us to Tucson and used the phrase important when changing time zones, "where the local time is" and the current time. We had technically changed time zones into Mountain time, but Arizona has opted out of daylight saving time, so we flew from Pacific Daylight Time into Mountain Standard Time and we didn't need to change our clocks because we were still seven hours behind GMT. (I do want you to know that I tagged all of the photos I took in Arizona with the correct time zone.)

I picked a hotel close to the airport, since most of the things we'd be seeing were outside of central Tucson anyway. By the time we claimed our bags and picked up the rental car, it was only a short drive to the hotel. Julian went to bed immediately; I stayed up reading.

Titan Missile Museum

We ate breakfast at our hotel on Friday morning, then headed out to the Titan Missile Museum. We drove south on Interstate 19, running from Tucson to the border at Nogales, which was marked entirely in kilometers: all of the distances on the signs were given in kilometers, and the mileposts had been replaced with kilometer-posts; all of the exits were numbered using the adjacent kilometer-post. I had never seen a US highway marked exclusively in kilometers, and I later confirmed that it is unique in the United States.

Titan Missile Museum
Titan Missile Museum

We arrived at the museum in time for our 10:30 tour, giving us a bit of time to look around the small displays in the museum, showing the reentry vehicle that rode at the top of the missile, and the B53 nuclear bomb that rode in the reentry vehicle. This bomb was rated at 9 megatons, one of the largest bombs ever deployed in active service in the US military. This bomb was built as a bunker-buster, and worked as a city-killer. A single warhead could kill millions of people in a single explosion, earning its place in the world targets in megadeaths.

We began our tour with a video giving an overview of the historic context of the missile and an overview of its operation. This site was one of 18 Titan II missile silos built around Tucson; along with identical deployments in Kansas and around Little Rock, Arkansas the US fielded 54 Titan II missiles, all staffed around the clock. This was the second-strike part of the "nuclear triad": land-based strategic bombers, land-based ICBM silos, and strategic deterrence through mutually-assured destruction.

Silo blast doors at ground level
Silo blast doors at ground level

We stepped out of the climate-controlled building into the bright morning desert sun and walked across the gravel inside the fenced perimeter to the access portal. From ground level the site was unimpressive: an expanse of gravel, bisected by paved paths, and a low silo door looming in the distance. We descended into the access portal, the main entrance into the silo (there were additional emergency exits) and climbed down the steps to the blast doors below.

Calvin and Julian descend the stairs into the Titan missile silo
Calvin and Julian descend the stairs into the Titan missile silo

Beyond the blast doors we turned left and headed into the control center, where the missile silo crew spent most of their time, and where they'd launch the missile if the order came. The missile was aimed at one of three possible targets, and the crew didn't know what the targets were.

Tour group enters the missile command center
Tour group enters the missile command center

Inside the launch control center were two duty stations for the officers on duty, surrounded by rack-mounted equipment to monitor the launch systems. Our guide (standing in front of the console in the blue shirt below; he had worked on the Minuteman missiles) recruited two volunteers from the tour to sit at the commander's station and the deputy commander's station as he explained the details of the twenty-four hour duty shift.

Tour guide explains the Titan missile operations
Tour guide explains the Titan missile operations

Then our guide walked the commander and deputy commander through the process of a launch order: they'd receive the orders over the radio, read in code, then confirm the codes against the launch orders stored in the safe, and then both turn their keys simultaneously to launch the nuclear missile. We watched the launch computers cycle through the launch sequence, which would fire the missile and its warhead.

Launching the Titan missile
Launching the Titan missile

Having simulated the launch of the missile, we walked down the corridor to the launch silo to get a look at the missile.

Calvin and Julian look at the Titan missile silo
Calvin and Julian look at the Titan missile silo

We were on the second of eight levels going down into the silo; we could see the top of the second stage and the heat-shielded reentry vehicle at the top of the missile behind Plexiglas covering the doors. Above the missile were the doors covering the top of the silo, now wedged half-open to prevent the silo from being used again.

Looking up at the Titan-II missile
Looking up at the Titan-II missile

We crowded against the doors to see the missile.

Looking into the missile silo
Looking into the missile silo

It was hard to get a sense of the scale of the missile and the silo from the one vantage point we had of the silo. I could see the missile, and the platforms on levels below that would fold down to allow inspection and maintenance on the missile, but I couldn't see the bottom or even get a sense that I was only looking at the top of the second stage.

Looking down the missile shaft
Looking down the missile shaft

We left the missile silo and headed back down the main corridor, past the decontamination showers and through the blast lock, and returned to the surface.

Looking down the corridor towards the command center
Looking down the corridor towards the command center

Our guide wrapped up the tour back on the surface, and I headed to look around the grounds. There was a tanker parked on the fueling stand, and several rocket motors from the rocket's two stages. I climbed up onto the viewing stand and looked down into the silo, finally seeing the whole missile below me. This was the best view of the missile, crouched in its reinforced concrete silo, waiting and ready to fly across the world to deliver its warhead.

Titan-II missile in the silo
Titan-II missile in the silo

This missile silo was used in the movie Star Trek: First Contact. Filmed just a couple of years after the end of the Cold War, it showed a weapon of war repurposed as a tool for peace. I didn't have the opportunity to touch the rocket in the silo as Data did in the movie, but I did touch the window, and I reinterpreted Data's quote:

"I am sensing imperfections in the Plexiglas window, temperature variations in the air conditioning. Somehow the experience is much more real for me than it was before."

Standing there, looking down into the silo at the weapon of mass destruction, I was thrilled to have come to visit the museum, and relieved we never fired a Titan II missile and its nuclear warhead in anger.

i'll go sacrifice ken, oops, i mean great spiritual monkeys to the gods,
and keep my fingers crossed.
- Scott Galvin, 01 May 1999