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Postcard from the Titan Missile Museum

When it comes to Arizona tourism, most people assume that once you've seen the Grand Canyon you can write the state off. But then most people probably aren't aware that there is another hole in the ground that is equally deserving of your time: The Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, AZ. Special CONELRAD Atomic Tourism correspondent Liz Coffey filed the following report after a private tour of the facility in December 2003.

There were 54 Titan II missile sites by 1963, and they were all eliminated from the US arsenal during the Reagan administration. This silo was left intact to be used as a museum. The missile was left above ground for a month, with holes cut in it that could be seen from space, to assure the Soviets it was not armed. The museum is run by volunteers, many of whom are Air Force vets.

We began our one hour tour in a meeting room, where we put on hard hats and watched a video that explained the history of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the Titan II, and the US complex of these missile silos. The meeting room is in a new building, built in the past year, which also houses a timeline display and a gift shop. Previously, the tour began in a small metal shed.

Fuel truck above ground...

The tour begins above ground with the fueling vehicles, parts of the missile, engines, and security systems. Before the museum was built, this area would have been deserted except for the security devices, the communications equipment, and the fence. The launch door is permanently welded open, and the open part is covered with a big window so you can look down on the missile and see the hole cut in the nosecone which once housed a nuclear warhead, the largest warhead in the US arsenal.

Seeing the first stage engine is something else. It would fire for 150 seconds, send the missile up 45 miles, and burn up 24,900 gallons of fuel! You can stick your head into this thing and see all the little holes where the fuel would come out and become a powerful fireball. Inspecting the first stage rocket motors... It's easy to imagine yourself being completely melted by this, maybe it's the first time on the tour you can vividly visualize your own destruction.

The second portion of the tour takes place underground, inside the silo. We had two tour guides, which was great since there were two of us. The style of the tour was a day in the life of a worker. We went down some stairs to the door. The sign as you walk down says watch out for rattlesnakes. I guess they hang out in the shade of the door in summer. Inside, we walked down several flights of stairs (steel grates leave you spiked heels in the car) and were led through the security steps needed to pass through the doors, including either burning or eating (if you forgot your matches) the onionskin paper with the secret password written on it. This part of the silo isn't built to withstand a nuclear blast or even an earthquake.

Passageway...We passed through the blast door, the entrance to the "hardened" area of the silo complex, built to survive the apocalypse. The blast door is steel and concrete and weighs 6,000 pounds. The door stands open these days, but they let me pull it, a 100-pound girl moving a 6-ton door proved the engineering on this door is indeed impressive. The door moves slowly but smoothly. It didn't feel like I was moving 6,000, or even 60 pounds. This door has been hanging on these hinges for 40 years, hanging open for about half that time.

The entire interior of the complex is painted black and that 1950s industrial shade of light green. It's just gorgeous, strangely close to the color of the walls in my bedroom. (When I own a house, I will paint a room to match the silo.) For such a terrifying weapon, the missile's home has a strangely calm atmosphere, nearly pleasant in a very 1950s kind of way.

Our guides pointed out the huge springs holding up the floor and the two inches of space between the walls and the floor. If the missile was launched, Giant springs...the blast of takeoff wouldn't destroy the interior of the silo; the floor would just bounce around on these springs, giant shock absorbers. We walked down a long hall to the control center. This underground pod is three levels, but we only got to see the central one. The top floor is the crew's quarters which I'm sorry we missed, and the lower floor houses more equipment. The middle floor is the control center, home to the filing cabinet full of secret emergency plans, the clock set at Zulu time (Greenwich Mean Time), and the two keys which have to be turned simultaneously to launch the missile. Four people worked in the silo at a time, on rotating 24-hour shifts. The same four people always worked together. There were two officers and two enlisted personnel. The officers were the Missile Combat Crew Commander and his or her deputy; the enlisted men were technicians. Two people, one an officer, had to be in the control center at all times.

We went through a simulation of what would happen if the president phoned with the orders to launch the most powerful weapon in the world. (In the case that all the antennas were destroyed, a very slow, "survivable low frequency signal" could be sent through radio waves that travel through the ground instead of the air.) I got to play the Missile Crew Commander role. In the end, one of the tour guides and I simultaneously turned the keys and started the irreversible launch sequence. How can I describe this? Some lights came on on the control panel, a bell rang, and there was a deafening silence while part of my soul exploded. The control room... restricted entryJason failed to snap a photo of me launching a nuclear weapon, but I'll forgive him since it all happened so fast and pretty shocking. It's not like I'll ever need a photo to remember this moment. Here I was, acting out the opposite role from the one I play out in my nuclear nightmares.

The tour guide had asked if I was ready to launch the missile. Well, no, I wasn't ready. Who would be? Instead of hyperventilating or crying or throwing up, I turned the key and sort of smiled nervously when my co-conspirator in key turning suggested we go down and see the missile (if it was still there of course). I wonder if the tour guides keep an eye on the tourist picked to be the crew commander at this point. How do people react? Do they turn pale and smile nervously like me, or do they yell Take THAT, Vladivostok! Here I should tell you the crew didn't know the missile's destination. There were two destinations possible for each missile; the choice depended on how things went. The crew generally didn't want to know the target as it's much easier to just turn a key and be done with it than to do so knowing the name of the city, the number of people you're about to wipe from maps.

Looking down at the Titan II...We went down the hall and saw that the missile was still in its silo. There are windows put in by the museum so you can look in at the center of the missile from about 10 feet away. Two mannequins wear space-suit-like outfits as they work on the missile, standing on little platforms. The missile is unexpectedly pretty. The metal is riveted in artistic shapes, a few shades of gold and silver. Taken in sections, it could pass for decorative medieval armor or art. Perhaps these designs imply some hope that the missile wouldn't end up burning up in our atmosphere, sending its payload toward Russia.

Our guided tour ended here, but I'd forgotten most of my questions, my memory erased by the turn of a key. We chatted with our great tour guides for a little while and then we walked around topside a bit more, and I got too much sun.

In the gift shop, two large color photographs of the control room tempted me, but their price tag was out of my range. I was satisfied with a bunch of postcards, a coffee mug (start your day with a bang!) and the extremely informative "Titan II Take-home Tour," which costs $7 and is extremely useful. All the technical specs you forgot as soon as the tour guide uttered them are at your fingertips, along with descriptions and diagrams. They don't have a T-shirt that says "My grandma launched a nuclear weapon & all I got was this lousy T-shirt," but perhaps it's only a matter of time. They have a variety of more tasteful T-shirts and books such as a memoir by a Titan Missile silo crewmember. The best postcard is a 1972 painting of a cutaway view of the underground site. It's an apocalyptic orange and blue.

Titan Missile Launch Checklist [PDF]

Liz Coffey has been having nightmares about nuclear destruction since she was about five years old. Now she is a film archivist and atomic enthusiast living in Boston, MA. She stops in at atomic sites whenever she travels.

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