Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

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If you’re old enough, at some time during your childhood, you saw some cold-war movie where the U.S. and Soviet Union started launching nuclear missiles at each other, and the whole world went to hell.  It probably featured a scene shot in a corn field, where the earth opened to reveal a weapon of inconceivable destructive power, hidden in the fertile soil.  In a blast of fire and smoke, that missile would burst out of the ground, headed for Moscow.  Then, you wouldn’t sleep for several days, because you kept picturing Armageddon.

Ahhh, the cold war.  Fortunately, those days are over.  Just don’t tell Mahmoud, Kim, Hugo, or Fidel.

Without the old Soviet Union posing a threat, America needs a lot fewer of those deadly missiles lying around.  There were a thousand of them scattered throughout the northern mid-west, with 150 of them lying quietly beneath the South Dakota plains.  It seemed a shame to get rid of all of them, and try to completely forget the days where civilization could be destroyed in 30 minutes.  So, in 1999, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site was created, preserving a missile silo, and a control facility.  On my way to Badlands National Park, I stopped by the missile silo.

The Minuteman Missile silo (officially known as Delta-09 Launch Facility) is located off Interstate 90 at exit 116.  There is nothing else here, and some maps don’t even mark the exit, but it does exist.  Signage is also a bit vague.  Just head towards the only thing that looks like it could be a missile silo (surrounded by a chain-link fence).
You can also visit the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility (the control room, where the “button” would be pushed), but you’ll need to hook up with an official tour.  The tours leave once or twice daily from the visitor’s center at exit 131.  Call ahead to reserve a spot: 605-433-5552

2016 update: the Minuteman Missile site has been extensively developed since my visit in 2008. You’ll find much more here today.

Since the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is one of the country’s newest National Park units, it still lacks some of the amenities of the more established parks.  The missile silo is certainly undeveloped, but visitors are free to walk around inside the fence.

There are just two things to see at the launch facility — the missile silo, and an armored vehicle that was designed to survive a nuclear blast.  As you wander around the site, you can dial a special number on your cell phone, to hear pre-recorded information about each stop.  I dialed the number and listened to a couple of the messages, but quickly ran out of patience.  It was cold and windy (causing me to speed up my visit), and I could figure out where the silo was without the help of a phone message.

The missile silo features a glass ceiling, that could slide back in the case of a launch.  Unlike what I saw as a kid in that movie, the missile silos in South Dakota weren’t hidden.   Instead, the military spaced them far enough apart, that a nuclear blast at one site wouldn’t destroy the next nearby silo.  The Soviet Union wouldn’t have wanted to waste 1,000 nuclear weapons to destroy 1,000 launch sites, all across the sparsely-populated plains, so it didn’t really matter whether the commies knew where they were, or not.

The only really cool thing to do here is peer down, through the glass ceiling, into the missile silo.  A now-disarmed Minuteman missile still lives here, just as it did for decades during the Cold War, while awaiting its apocalyptic orders.

The park service likes to clear up a couple of misconceptions about the nuclear missile facilities.  First, the missile sites were never really “secret”.  They could be seen from the highway, even though no one made a big deal about the fact that they were there (so most people driving down I-90 for three decades had no idea they were surrounded by nuclear weapons).  Another misconception: there is no “button”.  A launch would have required proper codes be entered, then two keys would have to be turned simultaneously by two people.  And, the key-turning would also have to be performed at a second launch control facility, before the Minuteman would launch.

The Minuteman missile revolutionized warfare, because it used solid fuel, instead of liquid.  A liquid-fueled rocket would have to be filled before launch, while a solid-fuel rocket would be ready at any moment.  The Minuteman could travel over the North Pole, striking 6,000 miles away in just 30 minutes.  A Minuteman II missile could carry a nuclear weapon 120 times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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