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The death of a Titan
America's deadliest weapon becomes a unique tourist attraction
By Andy Walton
Green Valley, Arizona (CNN) -- The desert south of Tucson, Arizona, looks like any other example of the Southwest's economic growth. It's a new frontier for vacationers and retirees, dotted with recently constructed houses and golf courses. But from the '60s into the '80s, 18 very different holes dotted the Tucson-area landscape.
The Titan Missile Museum, in Green Valley, is the last of its kind. It is the only preserved example of a Titan II silo, the mainstay of the U.S. missile arsenal for more than 20 years. It was decommissioned while the Cold War was still in full gear, a victim of obsolescence.
Site 571-7, as the museum was called when active, was "on alert" -- manned and ready to fire, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year -- from 1963 to 1982. The U.S. Air Force presented it to the Arizona Aerospace Foundation in 1986.
"When word came down that the silos were going to be destroyed, the then-wing commander at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base contacted the foundation that operates Pima Air & Space Museum and asked them if they would be interested in opening a museum here," says museum director Becky Roberts. "He thought it was a good idea." Along with retired Titan II officers, the foundation set about maintaining and documenting the site.
Above ground, the museum has vehicles and refueling equipment on display. There are also parts of Titan II missiles: the engines of the rocket's first and second stages, and the nose cone, or re-entry vehicle, designed to carry the warhead through the atmosphere to its target. But what makes this museum unique is underground.
Into the underground
The compound is in three parts. The entryway is essentially a stairwell, with a pair of blast doors leading to the "hardened" part of the site: to the left is the three-story command center, to the right the seven-level silo itself. A television monitor allowed the site commander to identify anyone attempting to enter.
In the command center, crews of four worked 24-hour shifts. Two officers, the Missile Combat Crew Commander (MCCC) and Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander (DMCCC) monitored the complex's systems and personnel and awaited orders. Two enlisted personnel, the Ballistic Missile Analyst Technician (BMAT) and the Missile Facilities Technician (MFT), maintained the launch facility and the missile itself.
The control room is frozen in time, and seems almost quaint. Painted in stereotypical institutional green, its equipment racks are loaded with computers that were state of the art in their day, but have already become artifacts. Some of the racks are nearly empty, a testament to the miniaturization of computers during the missile's lifetime.
Two consoles dominate the center of the room. No keyboard or mouse here; the consoles are a daunting array of push-buttons and status lights, with a spring-loaded keyhole unobtrusively in the middle. At the Launch Control Complex Facilities Console (LCCFC), the MCCC monitored the status of the missile systems. He would be responsible for turning one of the two keys to initiate a launch.
The second key is at the smaller Alternate Launch Officer's Console, manned by the DMCCC, which contains the complex's communications equipment. Orders would arrive here, and the two officers would walk to a locked file cabinet, dial the lock's combination, and retrieve the missile's launch codes. Then both keys would have to be turned at the same time. They are too far apart to be operated by one person.
Roberts turns the key at the LCCFC; for purposes of demonstration, only one key is needed. Status lights march silently across the console. A loud bell indicates that the missile is fuelled and ready to fire. A few more lights, and a loud klaxon announces the last chance to abort the launch.
The last, red light clicks on: LAUNCH. Then silence. In an actual launch, this moment would be punctuated by the sound of a rocket producing 430,000 pounds of thrust, a rocket that could not be called back.
Above the control room are simple living quarters: a tiny room with two sets of bunk beds, and an unremarkable kitchen/dining room. The bottom level of the command center is occupied by communications and electrical equipment. A hatch, which is open in the museum but would have been closed under "ordinary" use, leads to a combination ventilation and escape shaft. This is how the crew would reach the surface -- after launching their missile -- if the entryway was destroyed.
The command center is fitted with all the blast-survival conveniences. It is mounted on springs, and has a foot of space between the inner and outer walls to allow everything to move. The cableway -- a long walkway from the command center to the blast lock, and then to the silo, lined by electrical cables -- is mounted on hydraulic shock absorbers.
When is a missile not a missile?
At the opposite end of the cableway is the silo proper, a seven-level structure. The missile is ringed with retractable service platforms, permanently extended in the museum; mannequins are frozen in mid-refueling.
At the bottom level of the silo, massive ducts trail away into the ground -- these would carry the rocket's exhaust out through vents at ground level. The rocket engine has been removed, and is on display above ground; the hollow body of the rocket, inert now, extends more than 100 feet to the half-open door above.
The rest of the Titan II sites -- 18 in Kansas, 18 in Arkansas, and the other 17 in Arizona -- have been partly demolished, partly filled in, and partly abandoned. A Titan II launch facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base, used for testing, is also intact. The missiles themselves are adapted as satellite launch vehicles, and sit not far from here, at Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, while they wait to be retro fitted.
To keep this silo intact, the museum had to convince the Soviet Union that it was not still a weapon under arms control treaties. "In order to save it and not count it as a weapon, they had to come up with a way to prove that it's not operational," Roberts says.
When the missile was first returned to the site, it was left on its side for 30 days, with holes cut in its fuel tanks and nose cone, so that Soviet satellites could confirm that it had been gutted.
The massive steel-concrete silo door is permanently sealed in the half-open position, with huge concrete blocks preventing it from opening further. A glass dome covers the open half of the silo, and from the top the hole in the re-entry vehicle is obvious to tourists or surveillance satellites.
The museum has been designated a national historic landmark, unusual for a site less than 40 years old. "It was so important in the history, such an important part of the Cold War, that it did merit becoming a national historic landmark," Roberts said. "That doesn't give us any money, but it does attest to the importance of it."
The Titan museum provides an interesting lesson in post-Cold War economics. Much of the silo's equipment is not in use, because it would cost too much to maintain; the museum is non-profit, funded by donations and admission fees, and staffed by volunteers.
An evaporative cooler, a type of inexpensive air conditioning that works well in dry climates, is hooked to the ventilation and escape shaft; the silo's normal air conditioning is too expensive to run.
Other parts are scrounged and donated, not because they're expensive, but because their age makes them rare; the video surveillance system is maintained by volunteer hobbyists, and the emergency lights along the cableway are kept in working order, despite the fact that their batteries are aging.
The retractable platforms that ring the missile are fixed in place, the hydraulic system that operated them no longer in use. The platforms can be raised or lowered -- one at a time -- with a portable hydraulic pump, a gift from the crew of "Star Trek: First Contact."
The museum and its missile played the part of the Phoenix, humanity's first warp-drive spacecraft, in that movie. One of the souvenirs in the silo's lower levels is a poster with the Phoenix's logo, labeled "Star Trek: Generations II," the movie's working title.
In addition to maintaining the site, the foundation keeps an archive of related documents -- the official history of the missile wing based at Davis-Monthan, complete plans of the Arizona and Arkansas silos. Hundreds of photos, films and videotapes, once used to train missile crews their grim trade, now train volunteers to preserve this unique bit of Cold War history.