Yellowstone - Day 4

We left the Bad Lands of South Dakota early and headed for the Interstate. First stop was the National Minuteman Missile Launch Facility. The park service runs tours of the old cold war missile silos and command centers. It’s such an important part of history that we had to stop and investigate.

As luck would have it, Tuesday is the only day of the week when they have open house tours. All other times are by appointment. We first headed to one of the control centers (there were 12 at one time in South Dakota). It’s a nondescript building that does not stand out in anyway except for the cyclone fence and barb wire. Not unlike what you would find at any other municipal facility.

Several dozen of us were lined up and waiting when the park rangers came out and began to escort us in groups of 7 or less. Once in side, it had all the charm of a military facility. Fax wood paneling, drop ceilings and drab colored carpet were the extent of decoration. The personnel slept in bunk beds and had to bring their own bedding. There was a hand gun discharge barrel in each room. After unloading, the gun was pointed into the discharge barrel (filled with sand) and the gun fired to confirm the chamber was empty. Guns were then stored in a locker.

We then proceeded to the elevator which barely fit the 7 people in our group plus the park ranger. The control center was located 31 feet below the surface. Some facilities are as deep as 180 feet.

Once below, we entered the “Capsule”. It’s a pill shaped room about 30 feet long and suspended on large springs to absorb the shock of a nuclear strike. The door to the room is 7 tons and looks to be about 4 feet thick. There’s a funny cartoon modeled after the Domino’s PIzza slogan painted on the door promising delivery in 30 minutes or less.

The room is vintage 1960’s. Some of the computers look like they had nixie tubes. There was a red box with two locks that contained the launch codes. Each missileer (their name, not mine), has separate codes that only he knows. And unlike the movies, there is no red button. There are two keys spaced 12 feet apart that have to be turned simultaneously.

One thing I didn’t know is that it actually takes 4 people, not two to launch a missile. If only the two officers actuate the weapon, it goes into a 2.5 hour count down. Only if 2 other missileers in another control center confirm the launch by the same method is there a launch.

There was a total of 450 missiles through out South Dakota. All could be launched from multiple launch centers. And even if all the launch centers were destroyed, there was a plane in the air at all times called “Looking Glass” that could launch missiles at a later time. There was a clever array of hardened antennas that were designed to survive an attack and allow Looking Glass to fire the missiles.

We then drove 7 miles to one of the missile silos. Again, just a barb-wired square area about 200 feet on a side. The silo had some huge freaking door on it (I forget the tonnage). When it came time to fire the door was literally blown off the top and missile is on its way.

The missile itself is 57 feet tall and looks way to small to fly 6,500 miles and drop a 40 megaton payload. It was clad entirely in white and had no markings on it. I guess the figured the Soviets would figure out who sent the missile.

There’s lots more to tell but I let you discover it for yourself by visiting this interesting relic of the cold war.

We arrived at Mt. Rushmore later that day. It’s smaller than I imagined. The mountain looms 600 feet above the ground. It some how looks unfinished to me. The history and exhibit are well worth the trip but it really can be seen in half a day. Check out the sculpture studio where you can handle the jackhammers and grinders the workers used to shape the granite.

We left Mt. Rushmore and headed to Custer State Park via Iron Mountain Road. Calling it a road is generous. It’s one lane in many places and the fastest you can go is about 25 mph. The have these cool pigtail bridges where you drive under the bridge and then turn sharply while climbing until you cross the bridge. It’s a clever way of moving up a hill in a small space.

We then drove through tunnels that were blasted out of the rock. The tunnels were only 10 feet across and 12 feet high. The camper fit through, but just barely.

We arrived at Custer State Park. This place is huge. It took us 45 minutes to drive to the camp ground after entering the park. Tomorrow, we go wild life viewing.

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