Monday, November 19, 2012

The Atomic Tourist

View up from level 7
Having grown up and served during the cold war prior to the present unpleasantness,  artifacts of that era hold something of a fascination to me.  Since Her Accuracy also seems to have quite the interest as well, over the years we've managed several trips, some of which (like the Trinity test site) are not particularly easy to get to.  One of the common frustrations I have is that very few places let you inside an exhibit - I'd love to explore a B-36, for example, but the places that have one restored to near operational status are understandably hesitant to let the unwashed masses rummage through their irreplaceable exhibits.

This weekend we visited the Titan Missile Museum just south of Tucson which is the exception to that rule.  Complex 571-7 in Green Valley, Arizona was operational from 1963 till the Titan II was decommissioned in 1987.  One of 54 site around Tuscon, Little Rock and Wichita, someone had the amazing foresight so suggest saving a silo complex for posterity.  Bless them, whoever they are!

The silo topside as seen today
We first visited the museum in 2004.  We took the standard tour which included the control center and one level of the silo as well as several above ground exhibits.  At the time most of the silo was closed to the public with the exception of an occasional special event.  It was well worth the admission, and when combined with a visit to the Pima Air Museum nearby made for a full day.  If you make your arrangements in advance you get a discount for visiting both locations the same day.  These days in addition to the standard tour, there's a "Behind the blast wall" tour and a "Top to Bottom" tour.  You can also arrange to spend the night, although that might be a bit much - there are no operating toilets in the launch complex today so that would make for a long slog to the museum building in the middle of the night...

Blast Lock - Here's where the "hardened" part of the complex begins
We took the "Top to Bottom" tour with museum historian Chuck Penson as our guide.  Since missile sites aren't generally designed for easy access there's a release to sign, a safety briefing, and encouragement not to exceed ones comfort zone.  Since there are ladders and reasonably tight areas to get through this isn't a formality.  Following a brief movie on the Titan II we head for the entry area where we descend the stairs to the blast lock.  These are the concrete and steel doors that separate the hardened area of the complex from the outside world.  Like the standard tour we start in the Launch Control Center where the equipment and procedures are described, including a demonstration of of the launch sequence.


The first time through the control center it seemed like there was a lot there to watch, but on the Top to Bottom tour we spent more time discussing the layout, and having the time (and the smaller group) to get a closer look at everything it becomes apparent that there was a logical division of the systems.  The racks behind Chuck in the video are (left to right) the site power distribution panel, the missile systems fault locator, the control monitor group which sequences everything properly for launch, the control power panel, and the missile guidance-alignment checkout group, also known as targeting.

Launch Control Complex Facilities Console
The Launch Control Complex Facilities Console is primarily the missile and silo control panel.  The plexiglass panel on the one pictured above is a museum addition to protect the panel since every tour gets to launch a missile.

Alternate Launch Officers Console
 The Alternate Launch Officers Console is primarily a communications console, which explains why it is frequently covered in photographs taken in active Titan sites.  The second key required for launch is visible in the photo above in the side of the console just below the clock.  The two keys are far enough apart to prevent one person from activating both keys at the same time.

UHF, HF and LF communications racks.
Behind the ALOC is the safe that would contain the launch codes. Note the two locks - each officer on duty would have the key to one of them.  The next set of racks have the high frequency and UHF transmitters and receivers and the low frequency receiver.

Level 2 of the LCC.
 The launch control center is not very large, but since the normal alert staff would consist of only two launch officers and two enlisted technicians it's not claustrophobic. We were given a copy of the Air Force complex familiarization handout given to launch crews that listed everything to be checked out during an alert shift and it's clear that missile crews did not spend all their time staring at the panels.  Our tour lasted over 5 hours to to access all the levels.  Even given the familiarity with the systems a missile crew would have, I could see it easily taking two hours just doing the physical inspections, and I'm sure there were regular test and maintenance activities to perform as well.

Break Room
The upper level of the control center is the living area where the break room with the stove and refrigerator are as well as the sleeping area. 

This was the way out after a launch
The lower level has the ventilation and radio antenna controls.  Also in level 3 is the hatch to the ventilation duct that served as the alternate escape from the control center.  The normal entrance was not expected to survive a near miss. Given the remote location of these sites, leaving the area would be problematic after a nuclear exchange in any case.
Communications tunnel to the silo
Once through touring the control center a short walk through the cable way leads to the silo.  Consisting of an inner launch duct where the missile sits and an external duct surrounding it with the support equipment, the cable way enters on level 2 of the silo.  The museum had two windows cut into the launch duct through which the missile can be observed. 

The business end
Since we were on the top to bottom tour we encountered our first ladder at this point, up to the hydraulic and engine compartments that drove the 700-750 ton silo door. This door is now permanently blocked in the half open position.

Looking down from level 3
 Moving down through the silo we next went to level 3 where after taking the hard hats off we could lean out into the launch duct through one of the access doors.  If you look closely you can see another group on level 7.  That ring around the missile at the bottom is the thrust mount.  It's suspended by those large springs you see on the side of the launch duct.  The missile sits on the thrust mount secured by 4 explosive bolts.

Diesel Generator
Level 3 is also where the diesel generator skid that provides emergency power is located.  While there isn't a whole lot of extra room, there is plenty of access to all the equipment.  The photographs make it look more crowded than it is.

We continued down through levels 4, 5 and 6 where ventilation, diesel fuel and hard water tanks, fuel and oxidizer sample stations are located - I'll spare you photos since unless you're into industrial machinery it all pretty much looks alike...

Here's where the engine goes - the pipes are for fuel and oxidizer
 At level 7 we enter the launch duct just below the thrust mount where the engine would be.  When asked why the engine was removed Chuck had an excellent answer - "We didn't expect to be taking anyone down here."  The good news is that they've acquired enough parts to assemble another engine to mount, although it will have to be brought down in pieces - the elevator isn't very big.

Looking up from the flame deflector
 Then down to the blast deflector.  Those big water pipe looking things sticking out of the wall are indeed big water pipes.  Just prior to launch water from the 100,000 gallon hard water tank are dumped through here to be turned into steam.  This steam along with sound insulation throughout the launch duct are necessary to prevent the noise of launch from destroying the missile before it can clear the silo.

 After completing the launch duct tour we went topside to check out the various exhibits on display.  When operational there were only antennas, vents, and some utility pads up top.  Fuel and oxidizer trucks and equipment would be brought to the site when necessary.  Now the first and second stage engines are on display...

MkVI RV yard art.  I want one...
 ...As is another Reentry Vehicle.  Finally there's the obligatory photo through the glass weather cover that has been built over the open portion of the silo.

Looking into the silo from the surface.  The hole in the RV is to prove to foreign spies that there really isn't a physics package installed.
 If you're in the Tuscon area, I highly recommend a visit to the Titan Missile Museum.  Whichever tour is right for you, it's worth the trip to be able to step into a piece of Cold War history.  The level of access is second to none.  Of course there's a store for books and trinkets as well...

Thanks again to Chuck Penson for a great tour.

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