I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s- a child of the Cold War. I’m sure my experience was different that that of people who lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I did grow up with the idea of the Soviet Union being the bad guys and the prospect of a nuclear war that would drastically alter life on the planet forever. During a trip to the Black Hills in 2006, I was able to step back into that era of history, thanks to the creativity of the National Park Service, with a visit to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The visitor center is located just outside the entrance to Badlands National Park. The site of the visitor center has no historical significance but serves as a staging area for tours to the site. At the time of my visit, tours were limited to 6 people. I and the other tour participants drove our personal vehicles to the site, following a park ranger into the prairie north of Interstate 90.
The first stop on the tour is the launch control facility, known as Delta One, which is located down country dirt roads about 12 miles away from the visitor center. It is one of the few that remain intact. During the height of the Cold War, there were as many as 15 of these sites scattered through the grasslands of the Central United States.
The tour at Delta One consists of two parts. The first part is a tour of the living quarters for the air force personnel that were stationed at the facility. The facility was built in the 1960s, and the interior still has the look of those times. Among the rooms included on the tour are the main lounge and recreation area, the barracks, the radio/communication room, and the kitchen.
There were many authentic parts of the above-ground part of the launch facility tour. The Ranger made it clear that for authenticity’s sake, the building was left exactly as it was on the day it was decommissioned in 1993, right down to the half-finished game of Battleship (pictured above), the signs posted around the building and the various logs and notebooks used around the building.
The highlight of the tour to Delta One was the visit to the underground Launch Control Center. The room, built 31 feet below the surface and surrounded by reinforced concrete, was home to the missileers, who worked in 24-hour shifts. Measuring 29 feet in diameter and 54 feet in length, this compact room contained the controls for up to 10 missiles scattered around the countryside in their silos.
The men and women chosen to work in this high-pressure job were required to undergo batteries of psychological testing. A sign near the entrance to the room announces “No Lone Zone. Two Man Concept Mandatory”, an obvious safeguard against an unintended missile launch. The room had a small toilet and a small bunk for the comfort and livability of the men stationed there.
I had goosebumps as the ranger conducting the tour showed us the actual missile launch box, something most people had seen only in the fictional setting of movies. To be so close to the controls that were at the heart of what could have been a catastrophic World War left me with a surreal feeling.
The final stop on the tour (which lasted about two hours) was a twenty-minute drive away from Delta One. The launch facility, Delta Nine, is a preserved missile silo. The steel cover of the silo has been partially rolled back, replaced with a glass cover that allows visitors to view the decommissioned ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) inside the silo. The ranger said the glass covering also had a secondary purpose- it allows Russian satellites to verify that the site no longer has military usage.
At the time of my visit in 2006, the only way to visit both sites was on the guided tour. In 2011, the site is much more flexible for the casual visitor who is not able to make reservations for the tour. The launch site (Delta 9) now has a self-guided tour where visitors are able to dial numbers on their cell phones to get an audio description of what they are looking at. The NPS has done a great job using this type of technology in many of the sites I have visited. The Launch Control Facility (Delta 1) now has Open House days on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the summer. I would still highly recommend making reservations for the tour if at all possible. The rangers do an outstanding job of bringing this recent and important part of American History to life.
This site makes an excellent addition to any visit to the Black Hills region, which also contains five other National Park sites- Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Devil’s Tower National Monument (located just across the border in Northeastern Wyoming).
More information is on the Minuteman Missile NHS. My photos from the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site are available on my site.