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Minuteman I missile

A Minuteman I missile test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, August 1973. The Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) could reach targets a continent away. The missiles traveled out of the atmosphere and returned to earth at tremendous velocities, upwards of 15,000 miles per hour. "Ballistic" missiles are so named because, after a short period of powered flight, they assume a ballistic path, acted on only by gravity and, during reentry, by the friction of the atmosphere. US AIR FORCE

History of Minuteman Missile Sites


Minuteman I missile

A Minuteman I ICBM launches during a test flight at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in 1961. US AIR FORCE

In 1961, the US Air Force began constructing 1,000 Minuteman ICBM missile sites in America's heartland. Dispersed in underground silos throughout the central United States, Minuteman missiles were inconspicuous, silent sentinels on the Nation's rural landscape. Casual observers, including the thousands of tourists who annually traveled along Interstate 90 in western South Dakota, could easily have overlooked the antennas and security fencing that were the only "topside" signs of the below-ground, nuclear-tipped missiles.

The Minuteman missile system's carefully-designed, low-profile appearance only underscored its top-secret importance to national security. For almost 30 years, Minuteman missiles served as an integral component of America's nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and manned bombers. Although never launched against an enemy target, the Minuteman weapon system's ability to unleash apocalyptic destructive power at a moment's notice made "hot war" unthinkable — and protracted the standoff of the Cold War.

But by 1989, it was clear that the nearly 45 year-long Cold War between the world's superpowers was coming to a close. The Berlin Wall crumbled, Germany reunified, and former Eastern Bloc nations replaced their Communist regimes with democratically-elected governments. As a new decade and new world order began, the Soviet Union disintegrated. In 1991, when the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the enemy that President Ronald Reagan had once called "the evil empire" ceased to exist.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which US President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed in Moscow on July 31, 1991, reflected these changes in the world situation. As part of that effort to reduce the number of ICBMs worldwide, the Air Force began deactivating the Nation's entire Minuteman II force. Among the Minuteman sites to be deactivated were the 150 missile silos and 15 launch control facilities of the 44th Missile Wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB) in South Dakota.

An Opportunity for Preservation

equipment room

The underground missile silo includes an upper-level equipment room. The launch tube (left side of photo) is encircled by computer and electronic racks, air conditioning units, and other equipment. RICHARD M. KOHEN

Soon after the deactivation began, the National Park Service and the Air Force recognized that Ellsworth AFB's Minuteman facilities might be excellent candidates for long-term preservation. The Ellsworth AFB sites are among the Nation's oldest Minuteman missile bases. They are also the least altered from the original Minuteman configuration, much of their technology dating to the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Thus, the end of the Cold War created a unique "window of opportunity" to preserve a historic Minuteman missile complex. Through an interagency agreement, the National Park Service and the Air Force agreed to temporarily preserve two representative Minuteman sites at Ellsworth AFB — the Delta One Launch Control Facility and the Delta Nine Launch Facility — until their long-term preservation could be evaluated.

In December 1993, the National Park Service began a special resource study of Delta One and Delta Nine. The Minuteman Special Resource Study Team — which included representatives from the National Park Service, the US Air Force, the US Air Force Museum, the South Dakota Historical Society, and the Ellsworth Heritage Foundation — spent much of 1994 evaluating the possible preservation of Delta One and Delta Nine and making them available to the public as historic sites. Their Special Resource Study was completed in 1995, excerpts of which form the basis for these series of Web pages.

National Historic Site Established

Summary of Management Alternatives

In 1994, the Minuteman Special Resource Study Team was assembled to develop three management alternatives for the historic missile facilities at Ellsworth AFB. Following public input, their Special Resource Study proposed the following management alternatives:

Under Alternative 1, no action would be taken and Delta One and Delta Nine would not be preserved. The Air Force would deactivate and demolish Delta One and Delta Nine, as is currently underway with all of the other Minuteman sites associated with the 44th Missile Wing. This alternative received little support from the public.

Under Alternative 2, a government agency or non-profit organization - but not the National Park Service — would acquire Delta One and Delta Nine and make them available for public visitation. Despite widespread publicity about the Minuteman Special Resource Study, no government agency or non-profit organization has come forward and expressed a willingness to take over Delta One and Delta Nine. This alternative also received little support from the public.

Under Alternative 3, the National Park Service, in conjunction with the US Air Force Museum, would acquire, preserve, and interpret Delta One and Delta Nine as a National Historic Site. The site would commemorate the history and significance of the Minuteman missile system, the Cold War, and the arms race. This alternative received the greatest public support.

Alterntive 3 was selected culminating in legislation to create Minuteman Missile National Historic Site on November 29, 1999.

South Dakota Senators Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson introduced a bill to establish Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in 1998 and Congress began hearing testimony on the bill that same year. The bill failed in 1998 and was reintroduced the following year to the 106th Congress. Representatives from the NPS and the Air Force testified in favor of establishing the site. In 1999, both the House and Senate passed legislation which resulted in the establishment of Minuteman Missile National Historic Site on November 29, 1999. The law describes the purpose of Minuteman Missile National Historic Site as:

To preserve, protect, and interpret for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations the structures associated with the Minuteman II missile defense system;

  1. to interpret the historical role of the Minuteman II missile defense system—

    a. as a key component of America's strategic commitment to preserve world peace; and

    b. in the broader context of the Cold War; and

  2. to complement the interpretive programs relating to the Minuteman II missile defense system offered by the South Dakota Air and Space Museum at Ellsworth Air Force Base.

After the federal government officially endorsed the creation of the historic site, the NPS and the Air Force began preparations for the opening of the LF and LCF to the public. Once the legislation was passed, the specific plans to convert Delta-09 to a static display were formally presented to the START Compliance Review Group in Washington, D.C. for approval. Moreover, the new law gave the NPS funds to produce a general management plan for the site. A general management plan attempts to establish a clear management philosophy and provide direction for interpretive themes, resource preservation, and visitor use.

The NPS began work on the general management plan for the site in the spring of 2001 and hosted a series of public meetings to gather input from interested groups and individuals on their vision for the new historic site. The general management planning team included representatives from the Air Force, Forest Service, South Dakota Air & Space Museum, Badlands National Park, NPS Midwest Regional office, NPS Denver Service Center, and NPS Harper's Ferry Center. The general management plan is expected to be available for public comment in the summer of 2004 and finalized in late 2004 or early 2005.

Development and Future of the Historic Site

While the NPS occupied itself with the general management plan for Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, the Air Force worked on the conversion of the Delta-09 LF to a static display to comply with the START Treaty. This conversion was necessary prior to the transfer of ownership to the NPS. The Air Force worked to acquire an unarmed training missile and refurbished and painted the missile prior to shipping it to Delta-09. Procuring the display missile proved no small task for the Air Force staff working on the site with the NPS. Intense competition for training missiles and/or static display missiles existed, as military museums also desired their own Minuteman II ICBMs for their exhibits. Additionally, many of the high level officers who once staffed the Air Force's six operational missile wings had moved on after their wings were deactivated. These colonels and generals had supported the establishment of a monument to the Cold War and their transfer or retirement reduced high-level support for the new historic site and made obtaining a deactivated Minuteman II ICBM more difficult.

Once Air Force staff at Ellsworth had located the component parts of a training missile at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, technicians at Hill Air Force Base refurbished the object. On 12 June 2001 the Air Force emplaced the missile in the Delta-09 silo using a Transporter Erector vehicle designed to emplace Minuteman Missiles. Missile crews from 90th Logistics Group at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, many of whom were based at Ellsworth during the Cold War, assisted in the installation of the training missile. Local media were invited to the emplacement, increasing the profile of Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Missile viewing enclosure, Delta Nine

Missile viewing enclosure, Delta-09

Construction of a viewing enclosure for the missile silo began shortly thereafter. The design of the enclosure represented a joint effort between the NPS and the Air Force and met START Treaty requirements and interpretive needs. The enclosure allows viewing below grade with minimal visual impact to the site. To complete the viewing enclosure and platform, the Air Force opened the silo door one- foot past halfway and welded and grouted the door in place. Crews then placed a glass enclosure and stainless steel railing around the silo opening. Future visitors will be able to approach the silo and peer down at the Minuteman II display missile in the silo. By 15 August 2001 the viewing enclosure was largely completed. After the installation of the static display missile and the completion of the viewing enclosure, a Soviet inspection team traveled to South Dakota on 21 May 2002 to verify that Delta-09 complied with the START Treaty's specifications for static displays.

The Air Force and the NPS conducted a formal transfer of ownership of Delta-01 and Delta-09 to the NPS after the work of converting Delta-01 and Delta-09 was complete. On 27 September 2002, exactly eleven years to the day from stand down, the Air Force officially turned Minuteman Missile National Historic Site over to the NPS at a ceremony at Delta-09. The festivities included a B-1 flyover, presentation of colors by the Ellsworth Air Force Base Honor Guard, a performance by the Rapid City Central High School Marching Band, speeches by Fran Mainella, Director of the NPS, and Lieutenant General Robert Hinson, Vice Commander Air Force Space Command. Craig Manson, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, Department of the Interior and former missileer, spoke of his memories as an officer of the 44th SMW at Ellsworth. Colonel James Kowalski, Commander of the 28th Bomb Wing, then transferred the keys to Delta-01 and Delta-09 to William Supernaugh, Superintendent, Badlands National Park.

As of 2003, minor modifications had occurred to Delta-01 and Delta-09 in preparation for their opening as Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. New security and fire detection/suppression systems were installed at Delta-01 and Delta-09. Delta-01 remained largely as it was when it was deactivated and care has been taken to keep as much of the original mechanical equipment and historic furnishings at the site. The NPS plans to open Minuteman Missile National Historic Site to the general public, following the completion of an interpretive visitor center, anticipated in 2006.

If not for the dedication of many individuals, both at the Air Force and the NPS, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site site would not have become a reality. For the Air Force and former missileers, the establishment of the historic site provides the opportunity for the public to view their contribution to winning the Cold War. Former missileer Craig Manson stated that the preservation of Delta-01 and Delta-09 "is a most fitting idea because, for this reason, the Cold War dominated the last half of the twentieth century, and some will not believe this or accept this, but most of American life, in one way or another, was defined by the Cold War."


Introduction | Parkland Criteria | Minuteman History | Site Description | Bibliography

Sources: Minuteman Missile Sites: Special Resource Study, 1995 and The Missile Plains: Frontline of America's Cold War — Historic Resource Study, 2003.