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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Duck and Cover: Children of the Cold War

Growing up, I can't recall a single instance of ever doing the "duck and cover" drill.

This lack of cold war education is a bit odd, because I grew up within a few miles of a nuclear missile launch complex.  The missile complex was taken out of service a few short years after it was built, while the US and USSR moved on to a paradigm of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, so maybe the school board just assumed everyone on the planet would be vaporized by incoming nuke missiles.  In any event, I never performed a 'duck and cover' drill while at school.

I had heard rumors of the nearby missile complex when I was in high school, and it took a while after that before I could find someone who knew where it was located.  Boise, Idaho, where I grew up, is just off the top of the map below, and 569-C (near Orchard), is the nearby site I had a chance to explore.

Frankly it was a little intimidating driving up to the site, even with friends who had been there many times before.  It was fenced and posted "No Trespassing", and had various signs about being a felony to trespass, etc, etc.  The fence was in bad shape however, and the gate was askew. In we went...

In its heyday, the missile complex was part of the 569th Strategic Missile Squadron, based out of Mountain Home Air Force Base.  The missiles were deployed in a 3x3 arrangement - meaning three launch complexes with three missiles each.  Each of the above mapped "569" sites therefore would have three silos each containing a nuclear-tipped missile.

Below, a diagram of a three missile launch complex, showing the major components.  Note: Hydrazine was used on later missiles, so this likely a diagram for a Titan 2 missile complex.

The nearby launch complex was built around first-generation SM-68 Titan 1 missiles, and was only active for a very brief time before being superseded by more advanced missiles. The launch site was abandoned (rather than updated) at that time.  The 569th Strategic Missile Command was only active from June 1961 to April 1965 - a useful lifespan of under 4 years.  This must have been the only weapon system for nuclear deterrence with the longevity of a fruit fly.

Below, a Titan 1 missile, out of the silo.  Note the open blast doors and the Air Force markings.  This looks like it might be a commissioning ceremony, based on the contractor trailers and vehicles on site, as well as the tent adjacent to the silo.

The Titan 1 was the first true US intercontinental missile, having a range of 5500 nautical miles.  The arrangements required to launch the missiles were quite complex and time consuming, and this is very likely the reason that the system was abandoned so quickly, in addition to the rapid pace of rocket development in that era.

To begin with, the missile was a two-stage, liquid-fueled design.  The propellant was RP-1, essentially highly refined kerosene (a light oil) that was kept on board the missile.  The oxidizer, however, was liquid oxygen.  This had to be stored in an insulated and refrigerated cryogenic tank at the launch site, and pumped into tanks on board the missile immediately before launch, for both the first and second stages.

Further complicating matters, the silos were not designed with exhaust vents, so the blast doors had to be opened and the missile raised on an elevator out of the silo before launch could proceed.  There was no "quick launch" feature for this missile.  It took 15 minutes to launch the first one, and the other two would follow at 8 minute intervals.  Surely this would be an eternity in a nuclear exchange, particularly if you were not making the first strike.

The missile guidance system left a bit to be desired as well, being radio command.  Therefore this missile required radio signals from ground guidance to get where it was supposed to go.  The likelihood of intentional interference or Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulses (EMP) blocking this communication would be likely in the event of nuclear war.

What this missile could do however, was fling a W-38 thermonuclear weapon halfway around the globe and deliver a whopping 3.75 Megatons of destruction, with whatever level of accuracy the radio guidance system could provide.  Link to a Chinese video of a 3.3 Megaton airburst.

The missiles were pretty failure prone; of the 70 that were test launched, only 53 performed successfully - a success rate of about 76 percent.  That means that of two of the nine missiles from the 569th Strategic Missile Squadron probably wouldn't make it to the show - but those that did would make quite an impression ;)

And now, what you have been waiting for... the inside of the missile launch complex of the 1960s. (FYI: These are not photos that I took)

Below, a Google Earth image of the 569-C site near Boise.  The silos are to the upper left inside the fenced area.  The big pit in the center was dug to remove components from the complex when the site was abandoned.  It appears to be private property at this time.

This was how you got into the complex - where crews had dug down and made a ramp to remove the components from inside the control room.  The other option was to rappel down into the silo on a rope.  Being a little acrophobic, I chose the former.

Below, a lot of dislodged heating and cooling ducts, as well as some stripped down electrical cabinets.  Not sure what part of the complex this is...

Below is my favorite.  Take a look at the massive shock springs at the left and right.  All the critical equipment was suspended by springs - in event the silo had to deal with a nuclear first strike.  The *hope* was that an incoming nuke would not score a direct hit, and that the launch complex could survive to retaliate.  Modern guidance systems do not offer this hope of a near-miss.

Cool stuff!

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