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A Visit to the Shell of the Bomb

One of the Titan II missile silos is still open to visitors, and it's a blast.
September 12, 2013, 4:15pm

If you're on the way to the Titan Missile Museum, chances are you came through the Phoenix metro area, where I live with almost half the Arizona population, then through Tuscon, home to another 15 percent. The rest of the state's populace is spattered thinly, with mile after mile of untilled desert in between. You'll see the vegetation change from saguaros to velvet mesquite, as chain fruit cholla line the road, drooping like tired fellow travelers.


The museum is in the middle of nowhere, and you might not want to trust hitchikers. When I get back on the highway to leave, a guy in a Street Kingz leather vest has a gun shoved down his ass-crack. He weaves his way through traffic, cutting everyone off as he goes.

The desolation is a part of what brought the missiles out here in the mid-1960s, at the height of the Cold War. (Carl Hayden and Barry Goldwater probably also had something to do with it.) Out by Sahuarita, what's there, mostly, can be inferred from the sign that greets visitors at the museum entryway:

Ha ha, good old rattlesnakes.

This is actually pretty unfair, since Sahuarita has around 25,000 people (up from 2,000, circa 1990), along with some truly astonishing natural resources. Ever wonder why copper is so cheap it's used in pennies? That has something to do with how common it is around here. Just behind the museum is a giant mine—they're all around, the overburden forming mile-long walls right off the interstate—and a big rock beside the rattlesnake warning is the characteristic blue of oxidized copper.

Now, if the site looks at all familiar, there may be a reason. As I found out from a blurb beside the signed headshot of LaVar Burton that's under glass in the museum lobby, it has been used as a set for two movies—not only the made-for-TV Disaster at Silo Seven, but also Star Trek: First Contact. (Yes, that's the one where Data has slimy robot sex with the Borg Queen.)

Rest assured, however, that when you turn right off of West Duval Mine Road—left would run you into an American Legion—you won't see anything more sinister than a discone antennae that's capped by something that looks like a crown of thorns. DANGER, reads the sign, RF RADIATION, and then again in Spanish: PELIGRO RADIATION DE ALTA FREQUENCIA. The HAM radio hobbyists who would like to try their equipment are encouraged by another sign to enquire inside.

Still, nothing to worry about, right? Well, that's true now—although even today, according to our tour guide, the Russians continue their flyovers just to make sure. But until the mid-1980s, this was an operational facility, ready to launch a hydrogen bomb within 58 seconds of command. If you were wondering, the last of the Titan II bomb facilities closed in 1987, not out of any particular desire to disarm, but out of a Regan decision that the annual $1 million per-facility costs were too high. Most of the silos were filled in with dirt, the land terraced to match its surroundings. But some, crazy as this seems, have become wine cellars for a very peculiar type of American castle.

But that's all now. What about then, during those two decades when this was an operational facility? What would you have to do to get near a Titan II during their period of historical importance—be that near Little Rock, or Wichita, or here?

Unless you were a rattlesnake, it would be tough to get anywhere near the door. The picture above (I'm the dour security guard) has the basic, though effective, system. As is explained in an intro video by one Chuck Penson, a man with a gray ponytail and hardhat who wrote the book on Titan II missiles, there were two safeguards before you even got to the opening hatch.

First, you had to call on the phone, and the gate would be remotely unlatched for you. If you didn't call first, the scooped antennae shown on the left above, the AN/TPS-39, a.k.a. the "Tipsy," would be set off, assuming the radio fence hadn't been disarmed along with the gate. Additionally, if you took more than three minutes between the first call and the second call, meant to take place past the hatch, you could also expect a visit from the security police.

There, at the bottom, was another phone — the second in a series of four, but you get the idea. Since the whole point of the base was to trigger an alarmingly literal doomsday, there wasn't much leeway for individual trust. Only in the small kitchen area—not included in the tour, sadly—were crew members allowed to lounge alone. Everywhere else, the "two man policy," whereby you would have to keep an eye on others as they kept an eye on you, was strictly enforced. Ostensibly, this was to make sure neither of you were Russian spies, or had suddenly decided to burn your way into world history.

There's something intriguingly anonymous about the whole enterprise: the control room looks more like a call center than a staging ground for the world's end. This, of course, was by design. The only way a sane human being could press the apocalypse button would be if the precursors to destruction were made into a sort of formal subroutine. The tour guide explained the electronic ballet—from a president's call, down the chain of command with various arcane protocol—that would lead up to the two men's simultaneous button-pressing.

A control panel, beside the punch-reel computer that controlled it.

Maybe the most important part of this was that neither could know their missile's designated target. They would have pressed the buttons, but it would be at the order of another, to carry out the punch-reel programs of someone else entirely.

Once the button was pressed, there would be no going back; "If we were able to control the missile remotely, so would the Russians," the tour guide explains. But, unlike the post-press engineers, who would be sealed in their nuclear coffin—the shelter was equipped with thirty days worth of MREs to keep them fed after the great kablamm, but the airtight vessel would only have enough oxygen to supply the crew for fifteen days, when they'd have some bad decisions to make, our tour guide told us—we're safe on our way to see the shell of the great machine.

It has no bomb anymore, and no fuel either, so our walk down the long corridor feels like a victory lap. Be assured that I'm not the only one here snapping cheerful pictures. Many of us are so intoxicated with this Cold War time machine, we sit in the captain's seat, a trigger finger atop the console's red-lit Target 2.


But no one's here to ruminate on the poetics of the control room: we had come to see the missile. Finally, we get to: sitting behind glass windows, constructed so we can take as many pictures as we like, was the hulking Titan II. The engineers, at the time of launch, wouldn't have heard much, from behind their four-foot concrete walls — which is not to say that it wouldn't have been loud. One of the more amazing pieces of trivia is that the sound, if not damped, would've had enough energy to literally tear apart the missile, so engineers had to devise various ways to absorb it, from acoustical panels (you can see the beige shapes lining the silo in the picture below, on the left), to extra steam pumped in as the cylinder would rise from its concrete tube.

After a few minutes to gawk, we're shepherded back to the surface. By this point, I'm so dazzled by the old technology, all my ideological resistance has worn pretty thin—I'm too caught up in making sure that Holly, my wife, gets usable images. She takes some overhead shots of the missile by pressing the camera against the glass of the viewing platform that's been built over the opening to the silo. I go a little crazy toward the end: I want images of the truck that cooled the poisonous liquid fuel so it wouldn't boil away or explode upon before entering the missile, images of the stubby, high-frequency antenna that could be used if all the other retractable antennae were bombed away, images that show the delicate little holes in the Stage 1 rocket that controlled the oxidization rate during blast-off.

The return trip to Phoenix has me back in a more thoughtful mode, and when we pass regional landmarks—a beige casino rises from the sand like a ziggurat of old—apocalyptic musings float over me, imprecise thoughts about the American Southwest and how its era of civilization, with water shortages, may soon come to an end.

We speed past an abandoned outlet mall. Off the interstate, looking for supper, we drive through a prefab suburb with no businesses of any kind. Slogans from the afternoon's video play in my mind over the scene—second-strike capability and mutually assured destruction, the soundtrack to a muggy afternoon. By the time we find a Denny's, I've reached the glum conclusion that the museum, by making atomic bombs seem like a thing of the past, is another prop to distract us from just how fucked we humans really are.

A few pancakes later, I feel hopeful. A week later, I'll only think of nukes when I'm typing this article, and now that we've reached the end of it, I can forget them again, but for vague dreams of one day owning a cabin with an unusually large wine cellar.