When Gene Williams was growing up in the 1960s, he knew that his family's farm held a dangerous weapona nuclear missile that could reach the Soviet Union. "You were always aware of the fact that the awesome power that was there could end the world," he recalls.
The missile was one of hundreds of Minuteman missiles hidden beneath the sunflowers and wheat, the cows and corn of America's Great Plains during the Cold War. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site commemorates this perilous period of world history and explores the choices a nation faces.
An unmarked building encircled by a tall fence gave little hint this was a LAUNCH CONTROL FACILITY. Above ground, security guards and other staff worked, stood watch, relaxed, and rested. Below ground, two US Air Force officers were always ready to launch nuclear missiles. All they needed was the command from the US president.
At the LAUNCH FACILITY a few miles away, a nuclear missile waited in a silo. Its solid fuel was stable enough to last decades while still making the missile able to launch in minutes. The tall motion sensor would alert Launch Control of intruders. The cone-shaped antenna communicated with airborne control centers. If the command came from Launch Control, the 90-ton silo cover would slide out of the way and the Minuteman missile would blast off to a target thousands of miles around the Earth.
The Missileers Who Work the Shifts
Two people worked 24-hour shifts in a control center that was designed to protect them from a nuclear blast. It was inside a capsule made of four-foot-thick concrete reinforced with three-inch-thick steel bars, and was suspended from shock absorbers. The crew had survival gear to last two weeks, and an escape hatch in the event of disaster. What kind of world would have awaited them?
Those Who Maintain
Missile technicians drove more than 60 miles from Ellsworth Air Force Base to maintain the missile. While the technicians worked, armed guards watched over them and the security of the facility.
Those Who Deliver
Rural roads were specially maintained for the massive truck and trailer delivering a missile. This "transporter erector" could erect the container over the silo and lower the missile into place.
Those They Protect
People heard about "civil defense" from radio, TV, films, magazines, newspapers, and booklets. They learned how to build and stock a private bomb shelter or where to find a community shelter. And they hoped to never need one.
What Does an Arms Race Look Like?
"Little Boy," a World War II era atomic bomb, could have destroyed the center of Washington, DC. One Minuteman Missile could have taken out most of the city plus adjacent cities and towns. If that happened today, at least one million people would die.
With 1,000 Minuteman missiles ready, the United States was ready to strike back if the Soviet Union struck first. But how many Americans would have already died? One such strike could kill as many as two million people, including people in civil defense shelters. Imagine how many would die if 100 missiles struck at once along the US East Coast.
In a Minute's Notice
Living with Missiles
We would always go out to the missile silos and... listen to the machinery that's humming... and it just reminded me of Darth Vader.
Lindi Kirkbride, rancher in Wyoming and antinuclear activist
It was kind of like this macho competition, but it was never like complete hatred.
Valeri Bochkov, artist and writer who grew up in Russia during the Cold War
You had a bathroom at the end that looked like something out of Alcatraz [prison]... and the bed was right there. There is really no changing area.... no privacy whatsoever in a Minuteman capsule.
Linda Aldrich, missileer 1982-98
That's what the nuclear forces have done is created that environment where there generally has been peace at the highest levels, and that's what we continue to do today.
Tucker Fagan, missileer 1968-73
The best type of war to have is one that you never have to fight, and this is one case where we fought a war and we never actually fired a weapon in anger.
Gene Williams, who had Delta-06, a Minuteman launch facility, on his ranch
Planning Your Visit
The park's three sites are along I-90 between Badlands National Park and Wall, South Dakota. Begin at the visitor center, located north of 1-90 exit 131. A film and exhibits explore the Cold War.
The Delta-01 Launch Control Facility is open only during ranger-led tours. Fee; reservations required. Go to the park website or call the park. • Delta-09, the missile silo site, is open daily; exhibits explain the site, you can look down into the silo. • Parking and facilities are limited at both sites.
Safety and Regulations The launch control facility tour is limited to six persons. It requires a ride in a small elevator; visitors must also be able to climb two long ladders. • Be prepared for sudden changes in weather and road conditions. • Check the park website for firearms regulations.
Accessibility We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information go to the visitor center, call, or check our website.
Emergencies call 911
You might also want to visit the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base. It has a launch control simulator and a Minuteman II missile. The base tour includes an opportunity to go inside a missile silo. The base is outside Rapid City. Go to www.sdairandspacemuseum.com.
Source: NPS Brochure (2018)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Historic Resource Study: The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War (Mead & Hunt, Inc., 2003)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Minuteman ICBM Launch Control Facility Delta-01 and Launch Facility Delta-09, Ellsworth Air Force Base (Christina Slattery, Emily Schill, Amy R. Squitieri, John F. Lauber and Jeffrey A. Hess, 1996, October 2003)
Vertebrate and Floristic Inventories at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site: 2007 Status Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NGPN/NRTR—2008/124 (Marcia H. Wilson, Robert A. Gitzen and Michael Bynum, September 2008)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Interpretive Film (Duration: 9:47; 2008)
Last Updated: 02-Dec-2021