The Cold War In Amber

A Visit to Titan II Complex 571-7

by W. Brewster Gillett

The Sonoran desert south of Tucson is not flat; it rolls and dips in frozen undulations of sand, mesquite, and prickly pear cactus. Impressive mountain ranges dominate the horizon in almost every direction. The southwestern sunlight sprays its radiation insistently on unprotected flesh. The twin Nogales, Arizona and Sonora, bake in unquiet slumber some thirty minutes to the south.

For over twenty years during the Cold War, beginning in the early Sixties, the Tucson area was host to 18 of the 54 Titan II ICBM silos in the continental United States. Serviced by several hundred maintenance personnel from Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, these 18 loaded and cocked engines of mass destruction brooded under 740-ton silo doors, waiting for the launch signal that never came.

Tucson’s 18 Titan II complexes spread in a wide ring around the metropolitan center. By 1987, all had been taken off alert, dismantled and destroyed; all except for 571-7, now leased from the U.S. Air Force for use as the Titan Missile Museum, a designated National Historic Landmark. Operated by the Tucson Air Museum Foundation as an adjunct of the Pima Air & Space Museum some 20 miles to the north, the Titan Museum is open daily during the tourist season and Wednesday through Sunday during the May 1-October 31 off-season months. Guided tours are provided by local museum volunteers.

The modest visitor center is almost the only visible sign of Complex 571-7, most of which lies completely underground. The Launch Control Center, suspended from gigantic coil springs four stories under the desert, connects by a 200-foot tunnel to the 146-foot deep silo. A never-fueled, but complete and intact Titan II ICBM, once used for training exercises, occupies the silo in the same position as its armed and fueled counterpart of thirty years ago. At least to outward appearances, the entire complex and all its equipment look much the same as they must have when the site was operational.

Above ground, static displays offer actual examples of the twin first-stage engines, the re-entry vehicle that once contained megatons of destruction, and the various ground and air vehicles that supported the operations. The variety of communications antennas and intrusion-alert devices, and the two separate refueling stations for the dual-fuel rockets, still occupy their places just as they did during the Cold War years.

Your tour begins with a videotaped history of the Titan systems, showing actual test launches at Vandenburg AFB in California and dramatizations of operational procedures. Donning your hard-hat, you then descend through the desert floor to the Launch Control Center, acting out the crew-change security procedures with the tour guides’ assistance. The guides run though a simulated launch procedure, complete with dual keys and sound effects. A brief 200-foot stroll through the access tunnel, past several 4-foot-thick blast doors, brings you to the actual silo, complete with its 330,000-pound one-use warbird. The guide reminds us that the multistage Titan II was not only a weapon, but was also used in some early NASA spaceflight programs and satellite launches.

Visiting a Titan silo complex is a sobering experience; viewing a moment of Cold War history frozen in amber. It is a place for conflicting emotions and uneasy reflections; a place that forces us to once again consider the thorny questions of war and international relations that led to the deployment of Titan and its brethren. It is a place that can at once make us thankful that it went unused, and grateful for its deterrent effect; an effect that can perhaps now be understood to have operated almost exactly as intended. The luxury of hindsight allows us to feel abhorrence that such a weapon could ever have been conceived, while appreciating that it was precisely the very real threat of mutual destruction that was largely responsible for assuring that the first step towards Armageddon was never taken after all.

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