December 9, 2020.
Here’s your Cold War mission. If the Soviet Union fires nukes at us, it is your job to fire back and help make sure all of humanity is erased. You are one of four soldiers pulling a 24-hour shift at a US missile silo. Tell you what. You can even pick your job. Ready?
If you chose to be Commanding Officer or Second in Command, don’t forget to bring your personal padlock and key. You’ll need it later. If you chose to be a rocket tech or general maintenance tech you won’t need the padlock. But you all have to remember four phone numbers.
The first call is at the exterior gate. The crew you are about to relieve is deep in the silo, but they will press a button to unlock. You have three minutes to make the next call. If you are attacked during that time, they will call for reinforcements.
The second call is at the entrance to the control center. Another button pushed from inside will let you in. Halfway down the 55 stairs, outside the first three-ton, nuke-proof door, you make the third call. Now you have a sequence of buttons to press, coordinating with someone inside. Then again at the second nuke-proof door, and at the bottom of the stairs.
You’re in! The only time you’ll be alone in the next 24 hours is when you are in the bathroom. The first order of business is a three-hour check of all systems, with officers making sure everything in the double-padlocked cabinet is in order.
You are in a three-story underground chamber, suspended by huge springs designed to withstand vibration from an incoming nuclear warhead. Above are sleeping quarters, where you may take a four-hour nap. Below are environmental systems, and in the center is the silo’s control room. Down a long hallway is the silo itself.
In the silo is a Titan missile, over 100 feet tall. In the nose is a nuclear warhead. Half of the multi-stage rocket’s weight comes from volatile liquid propellants, kept from reacting with each other by butterfly valves. The Titan’s brain is powered by two 24V batteries that contain no electrolytic solution. The fluid is stored separately, and fed into the batteries in the event that the launch sequence is started.
A large tank near the silo holds water to be released during the launch sequence. If the engines ignite the water will turn to steam, baffling the sound waves that would vibrate the rocket apart during launch.
You go about your duties, always alertly listening for one of two sounds. The first is a motion-detector alarm which can be triggered by large swivels stationed outside. Designed to signal an incoming warhead or natural disaster, it can also be set off by wildlife.
The second sound is a coded radio transmission relayed from the White House. If you hear this, it’s time to implement Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The premise of MAD is this. If you know that your enemy will retaliate by destroying you, then you won’t attack.
Let’s assume that USSR did launch the first attack, though. After hearing the initial transmission your team would jump into action. Each officer would grab his notebook and decode the message. As a double-check, they would swap notebooks and decode again.
Using their personal keys they would unlock the padlocks of the cabinet and remove the envelope matching their message. A six-digit combination for the launch would be set. None of you know the target destination. Each officer would insert a key into his console, and they would turn their keys simultaneously.
Now the computer takes over, retracting the silo’s cover, dumping water into the silo, dumping electrolytes into the batteries, transferring control to the warhead, and opening the butterfly valves allowing the fuel to combine and react. Your rocket launches.
It’s time to update your logs and contemplate the future. By the time the second stage of your Titan is expended, the warhead will be traveling at 25 times the speed of sound. It could hit Moscow in half an hour. Your motion detector alarm could sound any second, signaling that your site has been hit. Your facility was designed to keep you alive for three weeks below ground. And you have a month’s supply of food. Cheers!
Fortunately for all of us, the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction worked. The Cold War ended before any of the 54 Titan missiles were launched from their silos in Arizona, Arkansas, and Kansas. In fact, if you have half a million dollars lying around, you could buy yourself a silo, or for $13.50 (Adults 13 and up) you can visit the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, AZ.
* All pics are click to enlarge.
** This is the first of 3 posts about a short trip we did through Southern Arizona this past December.