Exploring The Parks: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

During the Cold War, crews at Minuteman Missile silos in the Plains states promised that they could deliver their nuclear-tipped warheads in 30 minutes or less. Lee Dalton photo.

One of our newest, and perhaps one of our most unusual, national historic sites is located alongside Interstate 90 in South Dakota just outside the northeast entrance of Badlands National Park.

If you are old enough to remember the Cold War with its “duck and cover” drills at school, or sweating it out with the rest of the nation as we watched anxiously to see if President Kennedy could make the Soviets back down during the Cuban missile crises, then you will surely remember the Minuteman nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile.

If you’re not that old, here’s a place to receive a short course called Cold War 101.

Minuteman missiles were part of a huge, complex, and very frightening weapons system designed to provide what was referred to as “Mutual Assured Destruction” in the years between the end of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991.

Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, was exactly that -- mad. It was part of an international plan to try to prevent the launch of a nuclear war by making certain that if anyone did push the button, they would be destroyed along with their target – and the rest of the world, too. It was international insanity, and yet it may have actually worked because we are still here.

As tensions escalated between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union, our military devised a plan to keep us safe through deployment of so many nuclear-tipped Minutemen that it would be impossible for an enemy to neutralize all of them. No matter what an enemy might send our way, there would be enough missiles aimed at them to assure their annihilation even as they annihilated us.

Beginning in the 1950s and then in earnest in the early 1960s, our Air Force constructed hundreds of underground missile silos and launch control facilities under the plains of Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

Each launch control center contained red buttons that could send unimaginable death hurtling over the North Pole at speeds that would produce mushroom clouds over Russian cities in about 30 minutes. Each control center would launch about a dozen missiles from underground silos scattered over many square miles of prairie. Each nuclear warhead carried the equivalent of 1.2 million tons of dynamite. If those buttons had been pushed, the world would have ended.

For over 30 years, two Air Force officers (on rotating shifts with other duos) waited underground in all those control centers ready to turn the keys that would bring about the end of the world. At Minuteman Missile National Site, you’ll have the chance to ride a small elevator down into one of those control centers. And, if you wish, you can drive a few miles to one of the missile silos to take a look at a missile where it sat ready to fly any time a president of the United States ordered it.

As the Cold War wound down and tensions eased with the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the missiles were removed and their silos destroyed. (Although there are still about 500 of them deployed in existing silos in the Great Plains today – just in case. . .) This missile control center, called Delta 01 and the missile silo, Delta 09 were chosen by the Air Force and Congress to become a national historic site in 1999. It was finally turned over the National Park Service in 2001 and opened to visitors last year.

Visiting Minuteman Missile is a bit of a project. Its temporary headquarters is located in a couple of portable buildings hidden beside a gas station just south of Exit 131 off Interstate 90 between Wall and Kadoka and a few miles north of Badlands National Park. Only one small sign along Highway 44 and a couple along the Interstate warn you that it’s there. That may be a good thing, because space for ranger-guided tours is scarce.

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Launch control rooms are cramped places. Lee Dalton photo.

Only six people may go on each tour because that’s all that will fit in the elevator. Sometimes, a small child or two may allow the number to stretch a bit, but that’s about it. Potential visitors need to be at the visitor center when rangers unlock the door at eight in the morning if they want a chance at a tour sometime during the day.

I was there when the doors were unlocked and made the 8:30 a.m. tour with a group of seven. We were able to crunch one small boy into a corner of the elevator. Ranger Kate Hunzeker led us through a somewhat claustrophobic cluster of vintage electronics that just a few years ago were parts of our nation’s most modern weaponry.

She presented us with an entertaining, but also sobering lesson in Cold War history. Listening to comments by others in the group was interesting. Some, like me, remembered the stories all too well. Younger adults were hearing of something that seemed foreign to some of them. I was struck by how rapidly time marches on and current events of one generation suddenly become ancient history for another.

Visits to the silo at Delta-09 that houses a missile with inert warhead don’t require tickets and are self-guided using your cellphone.

Funding for a real visitor center has been promised and construction is supposed to start soon – despite the current budget crunch. Details were a bit confusing, but it appears Congress found some money in “savings” when the Air Force was able to close silos and that money will be used for the new facility.

Minuteman Missile is definitely worth making the effort to be one of those aboard the elevator at Delta-01.

Comments

Speaking as a guy from the "War Games" generation, I loved this site. I loved the ludicrousness of it all: how the escape ladders were filled with sand (to absorb a nuclear blast) and the "big tylenol" had a shovel so personnel could dig themselves out ... and step into a nuclear wasteland caused by a direct strike on the Badlands; how the site saved a tin can and hand-made shank used to burn the paper keys & stir the ashes "for posterity"; how they had to drive around in a full-steel-enclosed early Humvee in case a blast hit while they were outside.

It's a monument to both the immense, soul-searching (and soul-searing) horror and the idiotic, wholly pointless strategems of the nuclear age.