It might be easy to think of the Cold War as something in the past. With that thought, it might be easy to think we’re no longer in danger of nuclear war. But when we visited the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota, it not only brought the past vividly to life, it also served as a sober reminder of how the threat of nuclear annihilation never really went away.
Because we had already purchased timed tickets, Neek, Sar and I arrived extremely early in the parking lot outside the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility. There was a group of people that were near the entrance gate, and a tall elderly gentleman stepped away from the group and approached our car. This was the tour guide Steve, who let us know that there was room for us on the earlier tour.
He wanted to make sure we knew if there was an elevator failure that there were two 15 foot ladders we would have to climb, and we let him all of us, including Sar, would be OK with that. Then he opened the entrance gate for us.
Our tour was a fascinating exploration of the past! We walked inside the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility and immediately the peacefulness of the prairie outside was left behind for Cold War tension. It was built in 1963 and operated until it was deactivated following the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by President George H. W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Steve showed us the sleeping quarters as well as the kitchen and dining area in the above ground part of the building.
It was preserved to look as it did during the 1980s. I was particularly amused that on the tables in the dining area was the board game Battleship!
While showing us the offices and life support equipment, Steve told us about his military career in the Air Force, how he served in this facility from 1974 to 1976 while studying for his Masters degree, and how he even served as a tour guide there for Jack and Ozzy Osbourne on their history show, “Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour.” Steve was a very informative and entertaining guide, with a quirky sense of humor, but definitely took his job and the facility seriously.
Then we got into an elevator and began a slow 31 foot (9.4 meter) descent to the launch control center. When we reached the bottom and the doors opened, we immediately saw what looked like a Domino’s Pizza sign from the 1980s; except this one showed an image of the Minuteman missile with the words, “Worldwide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less” – then below the logo – “Or Your Next One is Free.”
It seems a dark sense of humor is a prerequisite when you’re on the front lines for the end of civilization!
It was very cramped quarters in the underground facility. We had to go through a tight tunnel, but Neek, Sar and I did shuffle through to the heart of the launch control center. It looked very close to the room in the opening scene of the 1983 movie Wargames! There were computers, phones, and control panels surrounding two chairs bolted to a track that even had seatbelts to protect against the shock from a nuclear blast. Steve related some of the drills they had to perform while on duty and it sounded very psychologically intense. It’s important to remember that this place was an operational nuclear launch facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for over 30 years.
We got back in the elevator and rode to the top with no problem. We passed by the ladders that fortunately we didn’t have to use, and then walked back outside. After saying goodbye to Steve and thanking him for a wonderful tour, we went back to our car. Thinking over what amazing sights and history we just walked through, we decided our visit wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t drive over to see the actual nuclear missile this facility would have launched in the event of World War III!
About 10.5 miles (16.9 kilometers) away from the launch control facility is the silo called Launch Facility (Missile Silo) Delta-09. There is a long dirt road to drive through off the highway to get there. We parked near the chain link fence surrounding the area and there was an open gate with a few other visitors walking the grounds. Neek and I walked through the gate and up to a prominent glass window pointing toward the ground. We climbed up a step to get to the glass and looked down. There it was – a Minuteman II missile, up close and personal! Originally in 1963 it was a Minuteman IB missile, but between 1971 and 1973 the silo was modified to fit the more advanced Minuteman II.
Though Delta-09 was deactivated in 1993 and the unarmed missile has the glass viewing closure not just for visitors like Neek and I to see, but so the Russians can verify from their satellites that the site is not operational, it is still a sobering experience. The Cold War may be over, but there are still thousands of operational nuclear missiles with the potential to end the world as we know it. Seeing one up close, even in an unarmed state, is a visceral reminder of just how dangerous our modern world has been.