“Anybody who isn’t wearing two million sunblock is going to have a real bad day.”
……Sarah Connor, Terminator 2
This R2D2-looking thing is a re-entry vehicle (RV) for a Titan II ICBM. It carried a single Mark-53 nine megaton nuclear warhead. That’s over 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb dropped at the end of World War II. The Titan II would have carried this payload over 6,000 miles in roughly 30 minutes after a launch sequence that lasted 58 seconds. This RV is on display at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, AZ. It is the only museum of its kind, safeguarding and preserving a piece of Cold War history – a complete Titan ICBM launch facility. If you get up to South Dakota, you can check out the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Wall, SD.
**AUTHOR’S NOTE: April 1, 2020. Due to the emergency conditions resulting from the Chinese virus, the museum is closed until further notice. The Pima Air and Space Museum is closed as well.**
I admit it. I’m a Cold War junkie. I grew up in the days when we did “duck and cover” drills in school. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of my 20 years in the Marine Corps were spent as a cold warrior. Now I’m a road warrior, but I’m still fascinated by the whole Commie/nuke/Dr Strangelove thing. Looking back on it now, a lot of the stuff was ludicrous (nuclear land mines, anybody?), but it was deadly serious back in the day.
If you lived in Tucson between the early 1960’s and the late 1980’s, you were surrounded by 18 Titan II ICBM’s and the Soviets knew all about them. That means in the event of war, there were probably several dozen Soviet missiles targeting Tucson’s Titan force.
Fortunately, it never came to that thanks to the deterrent effect of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). When the Titans were taken out of service during the Reagan administration, the missiles were reconfigured as launch vehicles for NASA. The launch facilities were gutted except for this one. Launch Facility 571-7 was kept intact, a deactivated Titan was placed in the silo and a museum was born. The 571-7 designation is shorthand for the 7th launch facility of the 571st Strategic Missile Squadron. It was one of two missile squadrons, along with the 570th, belonging to the 390th Strategic Missile Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson. Got all that?
When we came to Tucson for the winter several years back and discovered the Titan Missile Museum, it was high on the bucket list. I went there not knowing what I might find. Some of these military museums are little more than roadside attractions with a bunch of junk laying out on tables. Happily that is not the case here.
There are four of these blast doors in the blast lock area at the bottom of the access steps. They work in pairs like an air lock. One pair seals off the crew from the outside world. The other pair seals off the silo area from the crew area. Each door weighs 6,000 pounds and is opened/closed manually. They are perfectly mounted and balanced on simple pin hinges. Even after hanging there for over 50 years, they can be moved with one hand. The design and construction of these launch facilities is unbelievable. In addition to the obvious workmanship and attention to detail, everything is redundant and backed up. Nothing was left to chance. When all sealed up, the facility could survive just about anything except a direct hit by a nuke.
Tucked away in the Sonoran desert hills, the museum is a hidden gem. They have static displays inside and out, a documentary film and several kinds of guided tours that go through the whole underground facility. The silo contains a de-activated Titan missile. You’ll get a good look at it from above and below. There’s also a simulated launch conducted in the control room with the tour. Afterwards, you can walk around topside for as long as you want. Photography is allowed throughout. The all volunteer staff is knowledgeable and includes several docents who worked as missile crew or contractors. Everyone is very informal and friendly. The cost is $13.50 per person. The museum is a private non-profit entity and also a National Historic Landmark. Be sure to grab a hard hat when they offer them. There’s all kinds of head bangers underground.
The entire facility and tours are very informative. Some of the revelations are downright jaw-dropping. For instance, assuming they survived, what did the four person crew do after the launch? They had a 30 day supply of food and water but only two weeks of air in their sealed underground bunker. The hard reality was that there was no plan. They were on their own. It was assumed that the crew commander at some point would begin to probe outside the facility. Now there’s something to look forward to. If the main access route was untenable, there was an emergency escape tunnel that would take them outside. At least, that was the theory.
The star of the show – the museum’s Titan II ICBM. The Titan II was the largest ICBM deployed by the U.S. during the Cold War, measuring 103 feet long and 10 feet in diameter. It also carried the largest warhead. The Mark-53 had a yield of nine megatons, i.e. nine millions tons of TNT. A train carrying nine million tons of TNT would be 1,200 miles long. Weighing around 8,000 pounds, it was a thermonuclear bunker buster.
We’ll never know what targets the Titans would have hit but with nine megatons of firepower, they weren’t going to be used on radar sites and truck parks. It’s a virtual certainty that they would have gone after command centers, key military installations, industrial centers and nuclear storage facilities. Even the launch crew didn’t know the targets. A total of 150 Titan II’s were built. Fifty were used as test and evaluation platforms. Fifty four ended up in silos with nuke warheads. There were 18 each in Tucson AZ, Wichita KS and Little Rock AR. One of the missiles in Little Rock blew up in its silo in 1980. Built in safety locks kept the RV and warhead intact.
The Titan II missile was a rock steady and reliable system and performed several roles simultaneously. At the height of the Cold War, it was the most dangerous missile on earth. In terms of speed and accuracy, the Soviets had nothing like it until the late 1970’s. Twelve were used to launch the NASA Gemini manned space missions from 1964-66. In 1977, two modified Titans (Titan III) launched the Voyager satellites on their journey out of the solar system. Others were used to launch scientific and commercial payloads from Vandenburg AFB. The last Titan II was launched in October 2003. A platform with a planned service life of 10 years lasted 40. It was finally done in by the economics of its high maintenance.
In a way, the museum’s launch facility is still involved in a Cold War scenario. The START Treaty requires measures to verify the absence of weapons that may be in violation. The RV on display in the exhibit room has a big plexiglass cutout to show at a glance there are no weapons on board. Also, the 760 ton sliding silo hatch is locked in the half open position so Russian satellites can keep an eye on it.
This is the place. GPS coordinates N31.9020636, W110.9995385. Click on the coordinates for a Google map. Click the following link to find out all about the Titan Missile Museum. BTW, Count Ferdinand von Galen is a real person and a real German Count. He’s also a successful Arizona businessman, aviation enthusiast and chairman of the Board of Directors for the Arizona Aerospace Foundation.
When you finish at the museum, you can fire up the smart phone and start gathering up some of the dozens of geocaches and munzees in the immediate area. Cell phone coverage is excellent along the I-19 corridor. Then it’s time for some Mexican food. El Patio, El Rodeo, Agave and Manuel’s are all excellent and about 10 minutes away. There’s also a Taco Bell nearby.
Then you can walk off the calories and the guilt at the Pima Air and Space Museum. One of the largest non-government air museums in the world, it’s magnificent.
Enjoy your visit …. Boris and Natasha