More background info: (NOTE: do not get this site confused with the “Minute Man National Historical Park” in Massachusetts, which is about the first battle in the American War of Independence and has nothing at all to do with this South Dakota site other than the similarity of the name – the missile was named after the quick to ready partisan “minutemen” militias who fought in that war.)
The Minuteman ICBM
wasn't America's first nor largest such system. In fact the earlier Titan II missile
was capable of delivering a much larger warhead. However, from 1961 onwards the Minuteman design became the core and backbone of the USA
's nuclear deterrent – and it still is. By 1967, a whopping 1000 Minuteman missiles were deployed. 450 remain in service today, as the only American land-based ICBM system.
The advantage of the Minuteman that gave it the edge over all previous ICBMs lay in the fact that it is based on a solid-fuel propellant, which – in contrast to Titan's difficult to manage, dangerously toxic liquid fuel – allows for safe storage, on permanent hair-trigger alert, in much simpler silos that require next to no support facilities and upkeep effort.
This also meant their silos could be spread out over a larger area to make them separate targets for the enemy and thus increase the chances of partially surviving a first strike and launching a retaliatory response – i.e. guaranteeing mutually assured destruction ('MAD
') in a nuclear World War Three
So a system was developed in which 10 missile silos (called Launch Facilities), located several miles apart from each other in a ring around their Launch Control Center (LCC) underneath a Launch Control Facility (LCF) in the centre from where the missiles were controlled remotely. Together these clusters were known as a “Flight”. Five such flights made up a Squadron (of 50 missiles).
South Dakota had three such Missile Squadrons (66th, 67th and 68th) which formed the 44th Strategic Missile Wing. It was associated with Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City. More such clusters of Minuteman silos were spread all over the Great Plains of the USA
, with Minuteman missile fields in North Dakota, Montana, Missouri and in the border area of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.
The Minuteman II is a three-stage ICBM
with a range of over 6000 miles (10,000 km). Once launched, the missile would travel on a trajectory into the stratosphere over the North Pole and deliver its 1.2 megaton thermonuclear warhead to the chosen target in the USSR
) in about 30 minutes.
The order for launching this deadly force could come only from the president of the USA
, which would pass through a complicated system of verification before reaching the missileers in the LCCs who would eventually turn the actual launch keys.
In order to prevent an accidental or unauthorized launch, several safeguard measures were in place.
First of all, there were always two missileers on duty in every LCC, a commander and a deputy commander. If a launch order had come, they would have opened a locked box to access the launch keys and inserted the launch codes they were given. Once verified they would have to turn their launch keys simultaneously within a short time window of a few seconds. The whole process from first order to completing the launch sequence would take as little as five minutes.
The launch keyholes were 12 feet (4m) away from each other, so no single person could turn both keys at the same time. Moreover, the key-turning would only actually launch the missile if other LCCs in the missile flight also turned theirs. One LCC's key-turning was only a “vote”, so a single crew of missileers would have been technically unable to launch just their silo's missiles. At least one other LCC in the Squadron would have to turn their keys at the same time to make a launch possible – and the two teams would have been many miles apart and with no means of direct communication.
[UPDATE: apparently that was not quite so, or at least not always. I was contacted by an ex-missileer, who was on duty with an earlier Minuteman squadron from 1967-1971, and he specified the "voting system" thus: 'Recalling my time as a Missile Combat Crew member and if memory still serves, the timing of the “second” launch vote was not critical to the “first” vote; consequently there was no specified time window in which the “second” vote would be provided by one of the other squadron’s LCCs. In fact that was by design in the unlikely case that the other four LCCs had been compromised/disabled and unable to key turn. Under that circumstance, the one remaining LCC of that squadron became a “lone-survivor” and all squadron missiles would launch under an undisclosed timed program sequence with a single key-turn “vote.”
If by chance a “rogue” crew somehow had command of an LCC and key turned without authorization, all other four LCCs would immediately see and hear such unauthorized actions had been taken. At that point any of the four LCCs could then inhibit (a switch on the commander’s console) that “vote” and the launch sequence would terminate; however, if there was another “rogue” crew within one of the four cooperating with the first crew and they key-turned as well for the second vote, then nothing stops the launch sequence.' (sent in by William Geer Jr, formerly at 341st Strategic Missile Wing, Malmstrom AFB, Mt)]
There were several occasions on which the world nearly ended due to false alarms and computer errors during the Cold War era, and catastrophe was often only narrowly averted by correct human judgement (even in defiance of orders in a couple of cases in the USSR
). But the safeguard measures built into the Minuteman system have (so far) worked.
The LCCs themselves were fortified concrete-and-steel capsules buried deep underground and rested on massive shock absorbers. Access was through a single blast door that could only be locked and opened from the inside. The capsules were more or less self-contained, complete with daybeds, toilets, kitchenettes and their own emergency power and air supply. In the event of an emergency there was an escape hatch to the surface that also could only be opened from the inside.
The missileers typically worked on 24-hour “alert duties” after which they were relieved by another missileer team. Each team had between six and eight alert duties a month. The full period of service as a missileer was a maximum of four years. Few volunteered to do the full term. Most opted out as soon as it was possible after only one or two years.
Not only was there a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of these young men (and, from the 1980s, also women), but every time those 24 hours of alert duty must have been mind-numbingly boring!
[UPDATE: the same ex-missileer who contacted me (see above) pointed out, though, that while the actual alert duties were indeed boring, the job was still very demanding and the regular training extremely rigorous. There were apparently monthly training and testing sessions, plus yearly qualification checks, and all these had to be passed 100%, giving no room for anything less than perfection.]
The duty basically consisted of waiting for an order everybody hoped would never come – and it never did (expect in training sessions). And there was hardly any entertainment down in the LCCs. They may have had TVs, but these would be connected to the TV in the topside Launch Control Facility's day room, so the missileers would have no choice in what they could watch.
The day room was part of the support buildings, which also housed a kitchen, storerooms, bathrooms and sleeping quarters for the facility manager and the security guards. Entrance to the whole complex was also tightly controlled.
From the outside, the Launch Control Facilities are basically simple, nondescript single-storey yellow buildings that could be mistaken for harmless farm buildings, if it weren't for the high security fence surrounding them and the various receivers and transmitters for communication … and a flagpole flying the stars and stripes. As the park ranger guide on my tour of the Delta-01 LCC joked: people may have thought “that must be one paranoid patriotic farmer living there!”.
The missile silos themselves were somewhat less obvious and not so easy to spot. Buried entirely underground, the 90-ton concrete lid sealing the silo is the only part visible on the surface … as is, again, the security fence. The silos also come with an access hatch for maintenance, but they require very little on-site support facilities except for an emergency energy supply (either high-power batteries that were always kept charged or an on-site diesel generator). The 10 silos for each LCC were connected to it only by underground cables that would transmit the target data and launch command.
The Minuteman system came in three generations, I, II and III. The newest system was also capable of delivering multiple warheads (or to use the precise terminology: multiple individually targetable re-entry vehicles – MIRVs), before these were banned in 1993 under the START II arms reduction treaty.
Today there are still 450 single-warhead Minuteman III ICBM
s deployed in the Great Plains of the USA, but no longer any in South Dakota. The Minuteman II missiles that had replaced the Minuteman I from 1971 onwards at the Ellsworth AFB's missile squadrons were all removed, the LCCs deactivated and the silos blown up or filled in as required by the START treaty signed by the USA
and the USSR
in 1991. 44th Strategic Missile Wing was disbanded for good in 1994.
Only the sites of Delta 09 and Delta 01 were chosen for preservation and in 1999 were declared a National Historic Site (they were selected mainly because of their proximity to Interstate-90 and other attractions – see combinations
– and because they were still close to their original appearance in the 1960s).
The site is run by the National Park Service and it employs former missileers as guides for the LCC tours. More recently, a new purpose-built visitor center was added and a new exhibition was scheduled to open in September 2015.
What there is to see: Three separate sites: the missile silo Delta-09, the Launch Control Facility Delta-01, plus the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site visitor center. To see the Delta-01 site you have to sign up for a tour, the other two sites can be visited independently on a self-guided basis.
The visitor center
is now in a fairly new building (replacing a more basic former “visitor contact center” that used to be nearby) and now is home to a substantial museum exhibition about the Cold War
and especially the nuclear threat of total annihilation in a possible Third World War
with the USSR
At the main counter, National Park rangers are on hand to answer questions and, most importantly, hand out the limited tickets for the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility guided tours (see below and check the access details
The rangers also alert visitors to the starting times of the center's documentary film
shown in the separate movie theatre. When I was there this was a ca. 10-minute intro film on the subject of the Cold War
in general and the role of the Minuteman ICBM
s in it in particular. The National Park website now mentions a new “park feature film”that is “under development” and due to be finished by late 2016.
The exhibition was also still under development when I visited the site in late August 2015. The main panels with texts, photos and charts were already there but only loosely stitched together and not yet cut to their final form. In the finished exhibition it will surely all look a bit neater, but I found the info that was there already impressive.
To me the topic seemed well presented, in a quite balanced and neutral way, not the uber-patriotic “we won the Cold War” style that one could have feared it to be. Instead the exhibition did not sweep the whole madness of the concept of MAD
under the rug, the many mishaps when planes lost bombs and such like, nor the accidental near launches of “retaliatory strikes” after false alarms. The ludicrousness of some of the civil defence manuals and drills like “duck and cover” is covered too.
I enquired with one of the rangers what else there would be in the new exhibition when it was finished and he mentioned in particular a missile launch simulation exhibit that should lend the whole thing some extra drama. Apparently there were also to be some modern-style “interactive” elements to be added.
It's a shame I narrowly missed the opening of the complete new exhibition by only a few weeks. Well, it gives me an incentive to return if I ever make it back to this off-the-beaten-track part of the USA
The visitor center already had a well-stocked bookshop where plenty of highly relevant volumes were on sale, including a specially produced 37-page glossy brochure specifically about the Minuteman Missile Site. Also offered were souvenirs like patches, pins, T-shirts and even flight jackets.
The highlight of a visit to this site, however, is definitely a tour of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility and the Launch Control Center (LCC) underneath it.
When I was there, the park ranger guiding our group was an ex-missileer who had worked at this very site many years ago. What each tour is like will probably depend quite a lot on the individual guide, but I considered myself lucky. Our guide had a brilliant, dry and dead-pan kind of (dark) humour that really enhanced the whole thing substantially.
It was also interesting to get such a personal angle on what is otherwise a cold and technical subject. To give just one example: our guide complained a bit about a depiction of an LCC in a recent Hollywood movie, in which the actors playing the missileers carried handguns. This is apparently incorrect. And he commented: “of course we didn't have handguns. The two of us were locked in down there for 24 hours in a row several times a month for at least a year, in a confined space, fighting utter boredom. You get to know each other's quirks and mannerisms and then you think 'if he does that ONE more time …' – of course we didn't have handguns!”
[UPDATE: an ex-missileer who contacted me after I wrote this original chapter disputed this point about guns. He claimed that when he was on duty between 1967 and 1971 they did have guns, though they mostly kept them in a locker and rarely wore them (only when the blast door was open). So either one of the versions is wrong, or, perhaps more likely, the regime changed in later years. I reckoned my guide when I visited the site in 2015 would have served as a missileer in the 1980s or 1990s, going by his (estimated) age. So maybe by then the gun rules had been revised.]
The tour begins right at the gate in the fence of the topside Launch Control Facility. First a few of the outdoor features are explained, such as the communications aerials, the armoured vehicle of the security guards, and the BBQ-like “code burner” which was also used to destroy classified documents when required.
Inside the topside support facility building you'll see the security control center with its vintage electronic equipment, the sleeping quarters of the security guards, the facility manager's quarters, bathroom facilities, including the separate women's restroom that had to be installed once female missileers joined the teams on alert duty.
The highlight (of sorts) up here has to be the day room
. The interior design is very 1970s/80s with a big tube TV, wood panelling and leather chairs and sofas. A kitschy wall panel showed a floor-to-ceiling blow-up of a photo of deer in an autumnal forest – not something you would see looking out of the window in the Great Plains! Interesting is also the kitchen
and the board which spells out what food was on offer. Not much health food ... (see also under Oscar Zero
Then the tour group takes the small lift down to the level of the Launch Control Center. The heavy blast door to the command capsule was adorned on the outside with murals – as was apparently commonplace in these centers. The mural here was a particularly black-humoured one that alluded to a famous pizza company's slogan as well as the missile's capability: “World-Wide delivery in 30 minutes or less … or your next one is free”!
Inside the LCC capsule you can see the commander's and deputy commander's desks and red chairs and all manner of electronic equipment that looks antiquated now, but still are intriguing, cryptic even, and somewhat menacing. Of particular interest, obviously, are the launch key box and the keyholes.
You see the daybed, the small washroom & toilet, and the support equipment – as well as the inner lid to the tunnel that leads to the escape hatch. Then you get the lift back up (or, if you're unlucky you may have to use the ladders – see under access
!) and leave.
The third site that makes up the Historic Site is one of the actual missile silos, located several miles from the LCC. This is the Delta-09 missile silo, or Launch Facility. The original 90-ton concrete lid atop the silo has been removed and replaced by a glass canopy through which you can see the sleek Minuteman II missile inside.
This is only an unarmed training model, but it looks pretty much like the real thing. It is even connected to its “umbilical cord”, i.e. the thick cables through which the target data and launch command would have been transmitted from the LCC to the on-board electronic guiding system of the missile.
At the gate in the fence to the silo site is a small information panel that provides a very basic outline of the other installations here. But to get the full story, you'd have to use a “cell phone guide” (or have downloaded and read the transcript) – see under access
All in all:
the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is definitely a crown jewel in the USA
's commemoration of the Cold War
. The missile as such cannot compete with the much more dramatic Titan II in Arizona
, but the authenticity of the Launch Control Facility and especially the guided tours by ex-missileers are a real treat. Don't come here without getting on one of those tours, even if the visitor center's Cold War exhibition and the missile are also impressive on their own. But it's the tours that really make the difference.
in the remote Great Plains vastness of South Dakota, USA
, not far from Badlands National Park to the south-west. The nearest larger town is Rapid City ca. 65 miles (105 km) to the west, while the state's capital Pierre is a good 100 miles (170 km) to the north-east.
Google maps locators:
(Note that Google maps does not yet – at the time of writing – show the new visitor center; nor does street-view show any of the signposting yet! But trust me, they are all there)
Access and costs: in a fairly remote location, and partly with restricted access; but free of charge
Details: To get to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site you have to have your own means of transport, which in these remote parts means: a (rental) car. All three sites are easily accessed from the main thoroughfare through the region, Interstate 90. All are signposted and have sufficient car parking spaces.
The missile silo, or Launch Facility Delta-09, can be accessed year-round on an independent basis. Opening hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the summer, and to 3 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission free. It is at the end of a gravel track off exit 116 from Interstate 90.
If you wish you can use a “Cell Phone Guided Tour” narrated by a National Park ranger at Delta-09. For this you have to call a number specified at the site. If you are a foreign visitor with only a non-US mobile phone, you'd probably not want to do this to avoid piling up prohibitive roaming charges.
The Visitor Center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in summer, and only to 4 p.m. out of the peak season. Admission is also free. Visits are self-guided. The introductory film is shown every half hour and lasts ca. 10 minutes. (Although the new “feature film” mentioned on the Park's website might turn out longer.)
NOTE that the visitor center has replaced an earlier so-called “visitor contact center” that was located south of exit 131 off I-90. Some older guidebooks and other sources may still refer to this rather older location (including – at the time of writing Google maps!). Ignore these and follow the signs (or the above directions) to the new center instead which takes you to the correct new location north of I-90 exit 131.
For the ranger-guided tours of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility you are required to obtain a ticket in advance from the Visitor Center. These are given out from the ranger desk in the center for the same day on a first-come-first-served basis only. There is (currently) no option of reserving spaces on any of the tours online or by phoning up in advance. It is therefore advisable to queue up at the visitor center as soon as it opens – better be there even a bit before they open. There are only six places on each tour, so at busy times all tickets for the day may be gone early.
However, these tickets are also free.
Tours run every 30 minutes from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the summer season. During the rest of the year there are only two tours a day, one at 10 a.m. and the other at 2 p.m. – and are subject to changes or cancellation depending on weather conditions and staff availability.
Delta-01 can be found just north of I-90, exit 127. You have to wait outside until your park ranger guide grants you access to the facility.
There are a few restrictions for safety reasons: participants on these tours must be able to climb two 15 foot (5m) ladders unassisted in case the lift to/from the underground LCC malfunctions (this does apparently indeed happen – not often, but it has). Normally, though, you only have to negotiate a few steps and low doorways/entrances in the LCC so watch your step and mind your head. Participants also must be at least 40 inches (1m) tall, so no small children are allowed to take part. No bags allowed on the tours either.
All three sites of the National Historic Site are closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
NOTE: all times given above are Mountain Time (GMT-7), which is used in this western part of South Dakota, unlike in the rest of the state, which uses Central Time (GMT-6).
When coming out here you may well require accommodation
, especially if you want to do all three Minuteman sites, and possibly combine it with a visit to the museum at Ellsworth AFB (see combinations
) and/or Badlands National Park as well.
Within the latter is the very pleasant Cedar Pass Lodge with eco-friendly cabins. And right outside the Park is the Lodge's sister property Badlands Inn which offers more regular motel-like guest rooms. Both are located just north-east of the village of Interior at the eastern end of the National Park. They are only about 10 miles (15 km) from the Minuteman visitor center.
At Wall (see below
), closer to the Delta-09 missile silo site (7 miles / 12 km to the south-east), there's a cluster of conventional motels as well as basic restaurants and shops. You can also stay at a ranch in the area. More urban accommodation can be found in Rapid City.
Time required: The tours at Delta-01 take nominally 30 minutes, but you have to be there a bit before the tour starts – and allow time for getting there: it's ca. 7 minutes' driving time from the visitor center, or 15 minutes from the Delta-09 missile silo.
The visitor center can take between half an hour and over a full hour if you want to read, watch and see everything.
The missile silo can be done in between a couple of minutes for just a quick look and perhaps an extra 20 minutes or so for the “cell phone guided tour”.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site may have the distinction of being the only site that has both an LCC and Launch Facility with a Minuteman missile visible inside its silo, but it is not quite so unique as its commodification
sometimes makes you believe.
There is another fully preserved Launch Control Facility of a Minuteman missile field in North Dakota
called a Missile Alert Facility
here, and code-named Oscar-Zero
. Here you get a full-hour guided tour (albeit not by an ex-missileer) and can also see more of the support facilities of the center. Of its associated missile field only the topside part of one of its silos remains. So no missile to be seen under a glass canopy, but instead you get to see such a site as it used to be when there was an armed missile down there, namely with the 90-ton concrete shield/lid still in its original place (the silo underneath has been filled in, though).
Closer by, a training unit of a Minuteman Launch Control Center, together with a mock missile silo, can be seen at the South Dakota Air & Space Museum adjacent to Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota. Outside they also have a model Minuteman missile standing upright amongst the various planes in the open-air part, with a B-1B Lancer bomber taking pride of place in the centre – as Ellsworth AFB is one of the main bases for these supersonic (and super-sleek) strategic bombers.
Much further afield (over a thousand miles, in fact), the USAF Museum
at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, also has a section on the Cold War
that includes a mock-up of a Minuteman LCC capsule
. Also on display are several missiles, including Minutemans, and a couple of Minuteman II re-entry vehicles/warheads.
The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History
in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has a set of Minuteman re-entry vehicles
on display too, one tested and one untested, so you can compare the clean and sleek pre-launch state with the singed and roughened heat shield of the used re-entry vehicle.
As far as Launch Facilities for nuclear ICBM
s go, however, nothing can beat the impressive size of the Titan II and its massive silo
that has been preserved as a museum near Tucson, Arizona.
Another site much closer by, back in South Dakota, that has to be mentioned here, even though it has nothing at all to do with missiles or the Cold War is Wounded Knee
, site of a massacre of Native Americans of the Lakota tribe towards the end of the Indian Wars and a very black blot on the history of White America.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The Minuteman sites off the I-90 highway are only a few miles away from one of the natural treasures of the USA
: Badlands National Park
, a weirdly eroded landscape full of stark beauty – and with some interesting wildlife, including buffalo and colonies of cute prairie dogs. See the general USA photo gallery
for a few images.
Just a few miles up I-90 to the north-west a very different piece of fabled Americana can be found: Wall with its famous Wall Drug Store, which was started during the Great Depression and gained fame for its ingenious marketing strategies (billboards and offers of free ice water). Today it is mainly an excessively kitschy shopping mall and eclectic museum-cum-amusement arcade.
A bit further away, but within a few hours' driving range, are the Black Hills
with the famous Mt Rushmore
presidential heads and the giant Crazy Horse
monument in the making (see under Wounded Knee
For more yet further away see under USA
- Minuteman 01 - visitor centre
- Minuteman 02 - in the exhibition
- Minuteman 03 - still only temorary panels then
- Minuteman 04 - folder with misconstrued safety advice
- Minuteman 05 - Delta-01 launch control facility
- Minuteman 06 - receiver
- Minuteman 07 - armoured security vehicle
- Minuteman 08 - topside bunk beds
- Minuteman 09 - shower for the female missileers
- Minuteman 10 - topside entertainment room
- Minuteman 11 - ladder down
- Minuteman 12 - spelling error in the elevator
- Minuteman 13 - heavy blast door
- Minuteman 14a - SAC sarcasm
- Minuteman 14b - original target depiction
- Minuteman 15 - going in
- Minuteman 16 - launch control center capsule
- Minuteman 17 - vintage technology
- Minuteman 18 - red box for the launch keys
- Minuteman 19 - keyholes to WW3 - but apparently there was a plan B switch too
- Minuteman 20 - you never work alone down here
- Minuteman 21 - except here, presumably
- Minuteman 22 - or here - daybed
- Minuteman 23 - escape hatch
- Minuteman 24 - Delta-09 missile silo site
- Minuteman 25 - now only covered with a glass canopy
- Minuteman 26 - the missile in its silo
- Minuteman 27 - decommissioned but still connected