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On the Nuclear Trail

David Sirota visits the atomic sites of the American Southwest for an inside look at a booming—and potentially radioactive—new travel industry

Author David Sirota Photography Bryon Darby


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The cableway connecting the missile complex to the launch duct.

FROM THE SURFACE, the 3.5-acre plot officially called Titan II ICBM Site 571-7 doesn’t look like much. In fact, says a sandpaper-faced repairman and fellow atomic tourist named Butch, “It’s pretty easy to miss—hell, I’ve been driving by this place for years and didn’t even notice it, but I just decided today to pull off because I had to check it out.” Butch, like me, is one of the 55,000 people who will visit this place this year. I imagine everyone initially wonders what we are paying admission for. Up here, it just looks like a tiny post office–sized building, some sci-fi-esque antennas, a few concrete slabs and lots of tumbleweed.

But then, the Titan Missile Museum is not about display cases and dioramas; it is about experiencing a once secret physical environment exactly as it existed during the Cold War. And so the deceptive camouflage that makes this preserved missile silo look unimpressive from the outside is actually part of its strategic design—one that becomes all the more stunning when you behold the giant rocket, command center and troop residence hidden beneath the surface.

Unlike the museum and air base in Tucson, which leaves the aircraft’s destructive power to the imagination, the Titan museum in Sahuarita is explicit about the obliterating capacity of the 9-megaton, 103-foot-tall intercontinental ballistic missile that was housed here from a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis until the early 1980s. A 900-square-mile blast zone; third-degree burns 30 miles away from the detonation site; a map of Tucson showing the “approximate area of complete destruction.” These are just some of the stats flashing on a monitor above the lobby’s 10-foot-tall black shell of a W-53 nuclear warhead—the same kind of ablative shell that sits atop the missile casing that is still housed here.

“Most people come here to see what could have been the end of the world,” says the museum’s historian Chuck Penson when I ask him about why the lobby so openly advertises the apocalyptic implications of the missile. “The questions we typically get are: How big was the weapon? How much damage would it do? How close to a hit could you be and still survive?”

Before Penson and another guide take me, Butch, a pair of bikers and a family of four below ground, we watch a short video explaining that this is the last of 54 such Air Force installations. From there, though, all the usual trappings of a museum melt away as we don hard hats, descend metal stairs, stride through a 6,000-pound steel door and enter another world. In this submarine-like space, civilian clothing instantly seems absurd—the informality of Butch’s dirt-stained gray and yellow work uniform, the Harley guys’ biker boots and my sandals clash with the martial color of the place (that seafoam green common at military sites). Inside the low-ceilinged tunnel that connects the command center to the silo, we are entombed in 8-foot-thick steel-reinforced concrete. Yet everything—even the teenagers’ sneakers—seems to loudly clang through the exposed pipes and wiring because so much in here is made of metal.

“See all these springs everywhere?” asks Penson. Pointing to an SUV-sized coil of steel in one corner and other smaller coils suspending equipment along the wall, he explains: “Everything which is launch critical is connected to a spring to ‘shock isolate’ it from a nuclear blast. That means this whole building is built on springs.”

As if in an amusement park, one of the bikers grabs a pole and tries to shake the floor to see if he can make the spring flex, but Penson laughs and reminds him that “the spring was built to withstand a nuclear explosion, so it doesn’t move unless the Earth does.”

As we take a steel-cage elevator to the bottom of the silo and gaze up at the now-disarmed missile, Penson explains that what we’re really looking at is a study in the kind of meticulous planning and communications redundancy that is now ubiquitous in the 21st-century world of crash-resistant technology and data backup. From the springs to the 9,000 gallons of water needed to suppress the missile engine’s deadly sound, to the multiple codes needed to get into the bunker, to the flame deflectors beneath the missile’s engine, “no contingency was too trivial to be ignored,” he says.

This is hammered home during the chilling climax of the tour—a real-to-life simulation of a launch in the command center. Everything in this cramped room is as it was the day the bunker went offline in 1982—the yellowing manuals, the encoded Mylar reels that held the missile targeting information, the hulking computer panels, the aging blue Air Force jumpsuits and, of course, the keys.

Ah yes, the keys.

“This is the room from WarGames, right?” I ask our guide, referencing the Matthew Broderick blockbuster from 1983. “The one where the guys turn the keys?”

That it is, he says, as Butch whispers, “Oh man, I knew it looked familiar.”

As that film’s first searing scene illustrated, and as a tour guide named Sam now explains, with the right codes entered into the combination dial on the console, those tiny objects were the final bits of metal in a massive doomsday machine.

Step by step, Sam clicks the numbers into the dial. He opens the red safe. The buttons on the console flash. Those of us with cameras quit snapping pictures. The kids on the tour stop fooling around.

The room goes silent.

One of my fellow tourists is asked to put one of the keys into the circuit board as Sam puts an identical one into another slot a few feet away. The countdown begins. The keys are turned in unison. We all flinch as a klaxon alarm breaks the silence.

A mere 58 seconds later—the time it would take to fuel the 330,000-pound missile—the world ends … but it doesn’t.Instead, one of our tour guides smiles and hands the day’s designated tourist-turned-launch-commander a souvenir card that reads, “I turned the key.”

3 Responses to “On the Nuclear Trail”

  1. Jim Says:
    September 20th, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    Cuban MC was October 1962, not 1963….

  2. Jack Cohen-Joppa Says:
    October 10th, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    David, you may have missed the contemporary nuclear connection to another of the aircraft in the Davis-Monthan boneyard: the A-10. The “Warthog” is the warplane responsible for firing an estimated 400 tons of depleted uranium during combat in Iraq, 1991 and 2003-4. Plus another 30 tons in the Balkans in ’95, leaving a legacy of radioactive pollution that’s still killing kids in Iraq. A-10 training is still among the main missions at D-M, but many A-10s are also in the boneyard. See http://bandepleteduranium.org/ for more info.

  3. Bill Geerhart Says:
    October 12th, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Enjoyed the article and photography. Small correction: The Cuban Missile crisis took place in 1962, not 1963.

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