I am old enough to be part of a generation that attended school during the Cold War, when children regularly participated in nuclear bomb preparedness drills and watched mandatory movies on how to survive a nuclear winter. My college aged children are far enough removed from that experience to find it amusing now, but as a child, it was terrifying to listen to the droning voice-over of black and white movies instructing us how to look for the small signs that indicated locations of fallout shelters, and the symptoms of radiation poisoning. By the time I was in middle school, we were savvy enough to start calling the bomb drills our mandatory, “kiss your butt goodbye” exercise.
Maybe it was because I was raised on a farm in Missouri, smack dab in the middle of the plains where thousands of Minuteman Missile silos stood ready to launch at a moment’s notice, that this whole experience was so traumatizing. Everyone knew where these sites were, because their effectiveness as a deterrent depended on full disclosure of their presence. As a kid, my mental disaster preparedness included the additional step of frequently assessing the stockpiles of canned vegetables in our cellar and taking some comfort in the knowledge that while everyone else would be living off of tasteless protein crackers, we would be enjoying canned pears, green beans and applesauce, even though the radiation would probably get us eventually (children are very practical thinkers.) The looming threat of a nuclear apocalypse was constant as I grew up, and was not at all helped by the 1983 release of the movie, “The Day After“, a cinematic travesty that still managed to scare the bejeevers out of pretty much everyone I knew.
Those unhappy memories are why I’m not sure I would have taken the time to stop at this site, were it not for the fact that my son had driven up from Colorado to join me for a few days. He was interested, and I thought it was part of our history that he would only benefit from knowing more about, so off we went.
At the end of World War II, the U.S. possessed a total of six nuclear weapons. After the Soviet Union successfully tested their first atomic bomb four years later, the arms race took off and within four decades, the global nuclear arsenal reach a peak of about 65,000 weapons. Things got a little nutty along the way, as attested to by this photo of a celebratory cake shaped like a mushroom cloud:
You can see a time lapse demonstration of global nuclear testing during the period between 1945 and 1998, here in a fourteen minute video. It’s astounding.
Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silos first arrived on the Great Plains in 1959, when Atlas sites were constructed in Wyoming. Over time, hundreds of Atlas, Titan, Minuteman and Peacekeeper sites were constructed, with most common sites being the Minuteman. From the mid-1960s until the early 1990s there were 1,000 Minuteman Silos and 100 corresponding Launch Control Facilities for command and control spread across the plains.
Why the Great Plains? Well, lots of reasons but the three main ones are: 1) they offer the shortest distance to the former Soviet Union. A missile launched from the Dakotas would only take about 20 minutes to meet a target in Russia (and of course the same applies to the Dakotas as a target), 2) locating them away from coastlines means more warning time if they are targeted by missiles launched from naval vessels, and 3) the locations are remote, and less densely populated.
The nuclear arms race got a little less scary in 1972, when the U.S. and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), followed by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 2010. Guided by the START agreement, the U.S. deactivated 450 Minuteman II Missile silos and launch control centers, while the Soviet Union undertook a parallel effort. Today, there are still about 450 active land based Minuteman III ICBM launch sites (the vast majority of nuclear weapons are located in naval vessels, not ground silos.) This graphic below is from the NPS web site, and shows active sites in red, and deactivated sites in black. There is not really any attempt to hide where these sites are because again, the continued point of them is to be a deterrent.
The National Historic Site in South Dakota includes tours of Launch Control Facility Delta One, a Visitor’s Center, and the Delta Nine Missile Silo. We started at the Visitor’s Center, which has a number of exhibits that speak to the history of the Minuteman Missiles in the context of the Cold War. It also had several exhibits inviting you to consider what it would be like to work at a launch facility, especially with the heavy burden of having to potentially be one of those people charged with launching a missile. There is also section on the Civil Defense programming that encouraged people to build bomb shelters and to otherwise prepare for the threat of nuclear war.
I found the stories of close calls to be both fascinating and disturbing. In 1983, “Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislov Petrov chose to ignore an alarm indicating a U.S. nuclear attack was underway. He reasoned the U.S. would never launch just five ICBMs, so it must have been a false alarm. He was right. Sunlight reflected from high altitude clouds had triggered a satellite detection system. The incident occurred during a period of extremely high tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. If Petrov had reported the alarm, Soviet leaders might well have initiated a retaliatory nuclear strike. The incident was not reported in the West until after the Cold War had ended. Petrov was honored at a United Nations meeting in 2006. He has been called, ‘the man who saved the world.’ Petrov visted the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in spring 2007.”
In January of 1995, “Russian forces were ordered on full alert when early warning systems detected a missile that was thought to be on course toward Moscow. President Boris Yeltsin activated the ‘nuclear briefcase’, a machine that could send the signal to launch nuclear forces. Yeltsin prepared to input the nuclear codes. After several minutes, the warning was declared false. The missile in question was actually a research rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern Lights.” Yikes.
So, after the refresher course on why we should all be terrified of nuclear war, we headed down the road to the Delta Nine Missile Silo, which was guarded by this calf (who provided some much needed comic relief):
I have to say our visit to this site benefited tremendously from our good fortune to have arrived when there was a Park Ranger that was just about to start a daily talk about what we were looking at.
She walked through how the launch process worked (there is a detonation to blow the lid off, then the launch starts up) and took us through some of the technology that was used. If you visit when there’s not a Park Ranger about, there are both signs and a cell phone based audio tour.
I asked my son what he found most interesting about our visit, and he said it was definitely the way in which these sites are all out in the open, just disbursed across the fields. He spent a fair amount of time reviewing the security in place to better understand how they monitor everything (yes, there is massive security in place). There wasn’t any big secret about what would happen if you tried to get close to any of the active launch sites. First, a truck with with two guys shows up to check out any irregularities, but if anything is actually going on, all hell breaks loose in short order.
After we finished touring the launch site, we hopped back in the truck and headed down the road to the South Dakota Air & Space Museum, located at the nearby Ellsworth Air Force base. Along the way we succumbed to the lure of the billboards, and stopped for lunch at the Wall Drug Store. It was the I-90 equivalent of the South of the Border experience in South Carolina.
Overall Impression: This is heavy content to consider, but highly informative and thought provoking. I’m glad my son convinced me to visit. I also want to mention there is a new movie coming to the Visitor’s Center in 2018 that looks quite interesting. The embedded link includes a preview, and it gives a good sense of the story told here.
Cost: Admission is free to both the Visitors Center and the Delta Nine Missile Silo. There is a $6/adult tour fee to visit the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility and advance reservations are required. The Delta-01 tour lasts thirty minutes and you need to be able to climb two 15 foot ladders without assistance in order to participate.