New York Mills – November 28, 2012
Yesterday, I took a road trip into North Dakota to see the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Historic Site aka Oscar – Zero. I am still marveling at what a surreal place it was to be: surreal that it existed and surreal that I was standing in the spot where they could have launched 10 of the 150 nuclear missiles in this wing alone into the Soviet Union (there were 6 wings total, with nearly 1000 missiles, through the end of the Cold War – more about this at the end).
Because it wasn’t the regular tourist season, they only gave tours by appointment. Needless to say, I was the only one on my tour with my tour guide, Nathaniel, an early 20-something white guy with shaggy hair in his eyes, a blue hoodie with the historic site’s logo on it, jeans, and loosely laced skater sneakers.
He showed me around, and I badgered him with questions. Now the first thing I noticed (see the 2nd-to-top photo and the 2nd-to-last photo) is that there are no silos in sight. I guess I’d always assumed the missiles were disguised in those silos like farmers have. But no, the silos are under ground. Hm. But once you know what these sites look like, they’re easy to spot. Just look for lots of barbed wire fences around nothing special in the middle of the corn field. On my way back home, I noticed one of the other Launch Command Centers (that’s the top photo and where most of my photos and the tour took place) in a cornfield to the east of me. All the ones in this area of North Dakota (see map below) were deactivated after the START signing by George H W Bush and Mikail Gorbachev in 1991, though they didn’t officially close until 1997. Which makes it all the more strange: to visit an historic site that has only been closed for 15 years, though it had been in operation since 1966.
Most of these photos are from the underground capsule where they monitor and launch the missiles. We were ~60 feet underground that yellow building, inside a welded steel and concrete encapsulated space with a door like a safe only even thicker (see below and more info here). It was a pretty intense place to be because not only is this where they could have launched the missiles, but this space was also designed to save them from nuclear counter-attack. There was even an escape hatch. Two military people would be down in here at all times, two because that’s better than 1 in case something goes wrong–same reason there are 2 pilots on a plane. They had 24-hour shifts. Upstairs, their support staff of 8 came in 3-day shifts. There was even a rec room, straight out of the 80s with a pool table, a ping pong table, and a foos ball table. But the 2 people down here in the capsule were all business. Except as the Cold War dragged on and nothing was happening, they did eventually give them a tv to watch. And behind the tv is a giant mural-size poster of the Virgin Islands. (See above.) A stark contrast to the snowy fields of North Dakota that were actually surrounding them.
This, in case it isn’t obvious, is the key to launching the missiles. There is a multi-step process to get to this point where the key goes in and turns to launch: an order from the President, encrypted codes coming in via phone and a typewriter and something like “email” and who knows what else, then a red box with 2 padlocks on it. Each person in the capsule has their own padlock with their secret code, and so both commanders have to be alive/awake/whatever in order to get into that red box to get to the decoding book. I think there’s even a few more steps in there before the key can go into the key hole and turned to launch.
These last two photos of mine are from the nearby missile silo November-33. As you can see, there’s not much silo-like about it. The tall white thing that looks like a miniature missile is a motion detector. And the big concrete patch that is surrounded by the black outline is the lid to where the ~60 ft tall missile was stored. That’s pretty much it.
The above map is of all the Minuteman Missile sites in the U.S. Three are still active, including the one around Minot, ND. I think the other 2 active ones are in Wyoming and Montana. That’s 450 missile for anyone who is counting, still probably enough to take out most if not all of the people on the planet. Each missile has about 300 kilotons of TNT. Which is a whole fucking lot, just to be clear.
Posted on Wednesday, November 28, 2012, at 5:44 pm.