(Photo credit: Titan Missile Museum)
I get amused at the number of warning signs that the insurance and legal industries have spawned. My ATV, for example, has no fewer than seven conspicuous warning placards that instruct the user to avoid all sorts of stupidity. I doubt that any of these warning labels have prevented bodily injury but rest assured that the plaintiff’s bar will nail the manufacturer for not having eight warning labels instead of seven.
That brings us to the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, AZ. The Museum encompasses a remarkably well preserved Titan II ICBM complex including topside as well as underground facilities.
This is a place that legitimately needs warning signs and they appear as soon as you approach the main gate….many of them are as applicable today as they were when the facility was actively deterring enemy attack. The missile, for example, is surrounded in its concrete silo by elevated and retractable work platforms and, wisely, there is a large warning tag. The stencil in the crew’s sleeping quarters warns against smoking in bed and actually cites the regulation you would be violating if you light one up. I guess if it were me, I would have been more squeamish about flicking my Bic at the end of the long access corridor where 31,000 gallons of rocket fuel and oxidizer once sat patiently inside the aluminum skinned Titan II.
If this Titan II complex were built today, would it be too far-fetched to imagine the following warning labels on the 700 ton, reinforced concrete silo door?
Caution, atomic warhead inside
Caution, silo door may fly off without warning
Caution, large cylinder may fly out of hole without warning
Caution, large exploding objects may fall from sky without warning
Okay, enough about signage. The Titan Missile Museum is an amazing place. Of the original 54 complexes located in Arizona, Arkansas and Kansas, only this one escaped demolition when the Titan II fleet was phased out in the 1980s. Chuck Penson, archivist and historian for the Museum, was kind enough to give me a top to bottom tour of the facility and I couldn't imagine a more knowledgeable guide. I won’t go deeply into the history or performance specs of the Titan II system but if you want to learn about those things, I strongly suggest you get Chuck’s excellent book, The Titan II Handbook. His book is well organized and well written….one particularly welcome feature is the generous number of photographs that nicely complement the text.
(Photo credit: Titan Missile Museum)
I should point out that the United States still maintains a sizable, land-based nuclear deterrent in the form of 450 Minuteman III ICBMs. The Minuteman III carries a very accurate, single warhead in the 300 kiloton range (roughly 20 times the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) as opposed to Titan II which had an impressive (albeit less accurate) 9 megaton payload. Minuteman combat crews and Titan II combat crews have/had very different relationships with their nuclear weaponry. A Minuteman combat crew is stationed in an underground Launch Control Center (LCC) where they command a flight of ten Minuteman III missiles dispersed and located many miles away in underground silos hardened against nuclear blast. A Titan II combat crew was also underground but had a more intimate bond with their single missile because they basically lived with it….they monitored it….they maintained it….they slept "down the hall" from it.
Although the Titan Missile Museum is the only site that preserves an original Titan II complex, there were 17 other Titan II sites in the Tucson area. All of those sites went through a comprehensive demolition process and were subsequently sold to private owners. The underground LCCs, however, were not demolished and a few owners have managed to force their way inside. Chuck accompanied me to two ruin sites. One site, just east of Tucson, is owned by Pima County and has been excavated to the point where the LCC dome is now well exposed. The steel shell that once shielded the LCC from the effects of an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse, basically a shock wave caused by a nuclear detonation that can severely damage electronic components) has been breached by a cutting torch thereby exposing the underlying reinforced concrete.
Launch Control Center dome at ruin site. Access portal in the background.
Nice try. Only 18 more inches of reinforced concrete and you're in!
This is actually a peaceful spot with the mountains in the distance and well outside of town. A different kind of war was waged here by a different kind of warrior. Along with the Titan Missile Museum, this is their monument.