As our nation faces a new kind of war, much has been made about what has changed in our world. Even our appreciation of history is evolving. In 1991, President George Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Hundreds of missile silos and launch facilities in the Midwest were demolished. The START agreement provided that one silo and launch command center be preserved to teach future generations about the Cold War and contemplate the power of nuclear weapons. A Minuteman missile silo and launch command in South Dakota are all that's left.
One missile will be preserved from this site. Construction workers are building a viewing platform and the 90-ton launch door of the Delta 9 missile has been rolled back so workers can install a plastic cover. The three-and-a-half-feet-thick door used to cover a 72,000-pound Minuteman missile. But now, tourists will be able to look directly down the 80-foot hole.
Take a multimedia tour.
Millions of people travel on Interstate 90 between the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Many don't know that they're traveling a section of roadway reinforced to handle military air traffic. It's easy to overlook the antennae and security fencing that were the "topside" signs of the below-ground, nuclear-tipped missiles.
About a mile off the interstate is a suburban tract home with odd lawn art: a large bump of metal and a long metal post are UHF antennas and motion sensors. A satellite dish and basketball hoop are evidence of human habitation.
"As we walk in we'll see the magazines, the salt and pepper shakers, the Parmesan cheese containers are still on the table as they were when this site was deactivated in the early 1990s," says Tim Pavek, the Minuteman Two deactivation program manager for Ellsworth Air Force Base.
Prior to that, he was the missile facilities engineer for the 150 missiles under the Ellsworth charge. This site is known as Delta One. For 30 years, two Air Force officers worked 24-hour shifts 32 feet below ground. They could activate 10 missiles. They listened to coded radio commands and could launch nuclear weapons to a target on the other side of the world.
As a sliding gate door closes on the freight elevator, you descend into a cooler, damper climate.
"As we come off the elevator, you'd often hear a faint voice from the heavy door saying to 'stand clear.' You'd have to stand behind this yellow line. When a seven-ton door comes swinging open, you wouldn't want to be pinned behind it," Pavek says.
On the door is human art work of a sort. The hand-painted sign resembles a Domino's pizza box. It reads "Minuteman Two - guaranteed delivery in 30 minutes or less or your next one's free." Pavek says it's a reminder of the Minuteman missiles' power.
The launch control center is protected in a capsule, suspended between huge, hydraulic shock absorbers. Everything is drab green except two red chairs. The chairs are mounted on a track that slides back and forth along the racks of radio, and computer equipment. It's "high tech," vintage 1960. There are large black phone receivers, relatively primitive radio communications and computer capabilities that are the equivalent of a 10-year-old personal computer.
In the early years, it was a simple toggle switch to activate a missile launch. Later, a series of codes would come down and it would take two people with a lock box to receive further orders. The operators turned keys 12 feet apart. "To guarantee no unauthorized launch," Pavek says.
One missile will be preserved from this site. Construction workers are building a viewing platform and the 90-ton launch door of the Delta 9 missile has been rolled back so workers can install a plastic cover. The three-and-a-half-feet-thick door used to cover a 72,000-pound Minuteman missile. But now, tourists will be able to look directly down the 80-foot hole. A dummy missile is in place and will be lit from within.
It's a different perspective to stand next to a missile some 20 feet below ground. Here you can look up and see the now-concrete replica of the missile tip, look directly at the brains of the missile, and look down into a dark mass of space with no concept of the bottom.
The missile launch silo is a round tube, painted a drab green. There's a small hatch next to the launch door for maintenance crews. There are air-handling vents, tubes and cables running around a small walkway.
"That power is still being developed by rouge nations today. While on one case the Cold War is over, there are certainly new threats we'll have to face in the future."
- Tim Pavek
"The 165 missile sites at Ellsworth are connected by 1,532 miles of hicks cable buried three to seven feet below ground. It provided the command and control for the missiles, as well as the constant monitoring and launch capabilities.
The Minuteman Two missile was the first to have a solid-fuel booster. It kept the 450 missile silos in the Midwest low maintenance, and more reliable.
President John F. Kennedy called them his "ace in the hole" during the height of the Cuban missile crisis. The 150 Ellsworth-controlled missile silos were built in two years by people working seven days a week.
Tim Pavek says turning these sites into a national historic site is important as a tribute to our history and the people of South Dakota. "It's an important piece of Cold War history. The people of western South Dakota have lived with these missiles for over 30 years. Many helped construct them. Many lived with them in their backyards. Many helped the missile crews out of snow banks or help them get out of a mud hole or help them in many ways. The preservation of these sites is a process of remembering this significant portion of our history," he says.
Pavek, 50, grew up 10 miles from Ellsworth Air Force base, home of the B-1 bomber. His Cold War memory was one of fear and wonderment. "As I lay awake on those hot, sweltering summer nights, I remember wondering whether this was just another practice mission or within minutes we might see the fireballs of nuclear weapons exploding over western South Dakota," he says.
The Cold War ended with a promise that our fear of what could have happened was enough to deter a nuclear war. All but one silo is gone, imploded and covered with dirt. Launch control facilities have been destroyed. Even before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tim Pavek says the preserved Delta 9 Minuteman missile site served as a reminder of what could have been. "And to not forget that power is still being developed by rouge nations today, and at the forefront of news. While on one case the Cold War is over, there are certainly new threats we'll have to face in the future," according to Pavek.
The Minuteman Two National Historic site won't open to the public for another three to five years. The Badlands National Park will manage the site and build a visitors' center. The park system will have the Delta One and Delta Nine sites transferred to their care in November.