Titan Missile Museum
Green Valley, Arizona
When a country develops any effective weapon, sooner or later that weapon is used in a conflict against its enemies. It may kill hundreds, thousands, even millions, but dammit, they're gonna fire that thing!
The Cold War defied that trend. Nuclear arsenals were not loosed, atomic missiles didn't fill the skies. Duck and Cover became a laughable video clip rather than humankind's last thought before they turned to glowing gray powder.
As fortunate as that might seem, this decades-long legacy of non-use compels the Titan Missile Museum to explain itself with a curious message of "Peace Through Deterrence." So much potential energy, never unleashed, so much self-control (Why, I'd let that nice young man date my daughter any time!).
During The Cold War, there were 54 Titan II nuclear installations in the United States. Today, this is the only one that's left. By treaty, all of the others had to be destroyed. This one, which closed in 1982, was allowed by the Soviets to survive as a museum and tourist attraction.
According to Len, our tour guide, holes were cut in the 103-foot-tall missile and it was left outside for a month so that the Soviet spy satellites could verify that it no longer carried a payload. "Are we being watched?" he asks our tour group rhetorically. "Oh yes, but we are watching them, too. Trust, but verify."
A visit to the Titan Missile Museum begins with an introductory video hosted by "Chuck," who praises the hard work of the rugged missileers who kept this place running. He then warns the audience, many of whom might be white-haired Cold Warriors, that a visit to the launch bunker requires descending and climbing 55 steps. A slow, mechanical elevator is available if anyone needs help -- and people on our tour will need help. "Drink plenty of water when you're on the tour," Chuck cautions, and then we're off.
The tour starts on the surface, in the desert sun. A sign in a stairwell alerts the careless to "Watch for Rattlesnakes," and Len stops at the old nitrogen tetroxide propellant tanks and the engine display to talk about fuel consumption and payload delivery ratios. Len, although gray himself, tells us that he is too young to have worked at this complex. He stresses that the people who staffed the site never knew where the missile would go, but that they were always dedicated and meticulous. We recall similar praise for the workers at the SPAM Museum, except that their product was luncheon meat and not a nine-megaton-tipped skyrocket from Hades.
The defanged Titan II, after passing muster with the Soviets, was returned to its silo (It was probably more of a courtesy approval; still, starting World War 3 over a missile museum would have been silly). Visitors on the surface can peer down into it from behind a guardrail. Tinted Plexiglas now covers the hatch opening, mostly reflecting the sky above. But our tour group isn't too disappointed, as we're about to descend those 55 steps to get a closer look.
Len takes us through the three-ton blast door, over a foot thick, that sealed the crew into the launch bunker. Everything inside is painted Insane Asylum Green and bathed in fluorescent light. To protect the structure in the event of a nearby Russian warhead explosion, the walls of the control center are not connected to the floors, and everything is mounted on giant springs. "What's the tensile strength of the springs?" one of our tour group asks, and Len is finally up against a question that he can't answer.
The scariest part of the Titan Missile Museum is not the missile itself, but the antiquated equipment on which our national security once rested. It looks marginally better than the creaky instrument arrays in old science fiction movies. In the launch room, an old punch-tape reader is ready to feed secret target directions into the guidance system. There are toggle switches, analog dials, bulky metal bays with grab handles, and push buttons that glow green, yellow, or red when you press them. Could this stuff really deliver a payload 9,000 miles away?
At this point, a 58-second recording of the order to launch from the movie "War Games" used to be played on the tour. One lucky visitor was chosen to turn the launch key, amid alarms, bells, flashing lights, and then an eerie silence. The turning of the key is still a high point of the tour, but the A/V component is gone. "That system bit the dust and we haven't been able to figure out how to replace it," explained Museum director Yvonne Morris. "We'd like to demonstrate how a launch would have sounded, but for now we're back to trying to 'set the mood' ourselves."
The control room experience was better when they played the tape, but the inability to keep it operating shows it's not so easy down here in the ground, keeping all the machinery humming and waiting for the launch order.
After a long walk down a cableway to view the missile from below, our tour makes its way back to the surface at a much slower speed than it had arrived. Len, in parting, reminds us that "peace through deterrence kept the Cold War from turning hot." Yvonne tells us about the Museum's new "Moonlight MADness" tours, in which visitors can tour the complex on Saturday evenings nearest the full moon.
"When it's completely dark outside," she says, "and you're standing on top of the launch duct, and you look down at that missile? Oh, it'll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up."