At this very moment, as you are reading this article, 90 highly trained U.S. Air Force Officers are on alert across a network of Minuteman III Launch Control Centers. Working in pairs, the missileers, as the officers are called, are on 24-hour shifts, or Alerts, where they await orders not to “push the button,” as it’s commonly said, but instead to “turn the keys.”
The Minuteman III Launch Control Centers are located deep underground in remote areas of North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Montana; these facilities support the approximately 450 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that now comprise our land-based nuclear arsenal. Although the number of missiles has been considerably reduced since the height of the cold war, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for military superiority, the U.S. armed services continue to maintain a high state of readiness. 1 These officers, many of them in their twenties, are entrusted with the responsibility to launch devastating weapons within 30 minutes of receiving the coded orders.
Out of sight, deep below the surface of the earth in some of the least populous parts of the country, these sites of atomic weaponry are mostly out of mind. The geography of nuclear warfare mirrors the darker corners of our souls. We don’t want to go there.
It’s a frosty morning in November, a few days after the presidential election, and I have set out from Bismarck, North Dakota, for the long drive due east on Highway 94 to the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, a decommissioned Launch Control Center consisting of the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility and the November-33 Launch Facility. I’ll be meeting with Mark Sundlov, a former missileer who is now Museum Division Director of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. I’ve been granted permission to use 3D photogrammetric techniques to document Oscar-Zero for a project that will recreate the space as a life-size virtual reality installation and in this way give new visibility to our subterranean nuclear landscape.
Operational from 1965 until 1997, Oscar-Zero was one of 15 Missile Alert Facilities run by the 321st Strategic Missile Wing, its crew responsible for ten of the 150 Minuteman missiles then housed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, about 80 miles to the northeast. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the early ’90s, and the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the 321st was among the facilities selected for inactivation. The majority of the decommissioned missile sites have been destroyed — imploded and filled with sand or rubble. Some have been reclaimed by a new breed of developer and taken on unexpected new uses; one decommissioned silo near Wichita has even been converted into luxury survival-condos for the ultra-wealthy to deploy as a hedge against troubled times and future apocalypse. The post-nuclear life of Oscar-Zero has been more civic-minded: it has been left intact, preserved to encourage broader public understanding of cold war military history and the narrative of averted calamity. 2
Restored and managed by the State Historical Society, the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site opened to the public in July 2009; guided tours are offered from April 1 through October 31 (from fools to fright?). Because the photogrammetry will take a few days, I’ve scheduled our session during the off-season. Most visitors start topside, in the modest support structure that once housed maintenance and security staff, before descending 60 feet to the twin steel-reinforced concrete capsules: the Launch Control Center and the Launch Control Equipment Building.
We’re eager to get started so we skip the topside tour, which includes the staff kitchen and living areas, and head for the elevator. Above the door there’s a hand-painted mural: an eagle superimposed over an American flag proclaiming, “Welcome to Oscar-0.” Once the scissor gate clangs shut, it’s a slow ride down. Mark Sundlov, who did a five-year tour of duty in the early ’00s after graduating from the Air Force Academy, and who since then earned a master’s in public history from University of Wisconsin, knows every inch of the missile site, from the workings of the blast door to the cold war breakfast menus, but his ultimate goal is the preservation of the personal narratives — the human dimension — of this sparsely populated stretch of the Dakota prairie. To this end Sundlov has created an oral history project, “Memories of the Missile Field,” which includes interviews with former missileers, support crew personnel, and civilian neighbors. On the ride down I learn that it took a decade to restore the former military installation and transform the site into an historical museum and tourist destination.
The Launch Control Center and the Equipment Building comprise twin cylindrical capsules laid end to end, with facing entrances. When we emerge from the elevator we are in the alcove between the two. The capsules are suspended on pneumatic shock isolators and further protected by 4½-foot-thick blast-proof doors designed to protect the occupants from the effects of a direct nuclear hit. That morning, the blast doors were open, almost welcoming. In the old days they would have been closed tight, eight tons of inaccessible steel secured by hydraulic pins, requiring several levels of authentication to open. Mark warns me to watch my head. I duck and enter.
The Launch Control Center is a tight space dominated by the Command Console and the Status Console — each an impressively complicated analog-era instrument panel, complete with knobs, switches, and corded phones. Running along tracks in front of each console is a bright red aircraft seat equipped with lap and shoulder belts. It was from here that the missileers would have launched the ICBMs, if commanded. The safety harness and tracks were engineered to allow them to remain in place and on duty in case of an attack. Keeping the equipment cool is an on-and-off noisy forced-air system. Fluorescent lighting, reflected off walls painted sea-foam green, gives the space a sickly feel.
But Oscar-Zero is not all gunmetal grim. One corner melts into an azure photomural depicting a lush tropical seascape. In another mural, two missileers stride proudly under the slogan “WHO YA GONNA CALL?,” from the 1984 hit film, Ghostbusters. The Commanding Officer is depicted as an American eagle and his Deputy Commander is the Muppet character, Oscar the Grouch, who declares: “Hey! This is a job for the BEST of the BEST!” Both officers are wearing patches that read: “Kremlin Krushers.” On one cabinet there’s a picture of Donald Duck lazing against a palm tree. These illustrations date to the late 1980s, when the missileers, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force, extended the tradition of “Nose Art,” informal paintings on the fuselage of aircraft, into the capsules. Some of the pop culture references darkly acknowledge the cold war context; an image based on the rock band Molly Hatchet’s 1979 album, Flirtin’ With Disaster, is painted over the entrance.
The Launch Control Center also contains a small sleeping area protected by a curtain. On an Alert, one officer sleeps while the other monitors the missiles at the Status Console. Atop the Command Console is large round clock set to Military Time.
But there’s another way to tell the time. The Doomsday Clock is set, at irregular intervals, by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a serious and sober group that includes more than a dozen Nobel laureates. The clock made its first appearance on the cover of the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin, as a graphic superimposed over the table of contents. The graphic designer, Martyl Langsdorf, who created the cover, set the hands to what she called a “visually pleasing” seven minutes to midnight — the countdown to nuclear apocalypse. Since then the Doomsday Clock has entered the cultural lexicon and inspired countless nervous editorials and political cartoons. Today we would call it a meme. It’s a clock that moves backwards and forwards, a grim predictor of how much time we have left.
On January 26, 2017, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington to announce they were resetting the clock: moving it from three minutes to two minutes and thirty seconds to midnight. Just days after the inauguration of the 45th president, the scientists judged that we’d moved closer to global catastrophe due to “a darkening global security landscape that is colored by increasingly sophisticated technology, and a growing disregard for scientific expertise.”
Ominously, the Doomsday prediction has not been this pessimistic since the early years of the arms race, when in 1953, after both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. conducted tests of thermonuclear weapons — hydrogen bombs vastly more powerful than the atomic bombs that nearly destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II — the clock was set at two minutes to midnight. As the Bulletin put it at the time: “Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western civilization.”
The resetting of the Doomsday Clock was notable for being one of the few occasions, in the recent election season, when attention was paid to nuclear issues. In contrast, in the immediate postwar decades, U.S. politics and media reflected the growing struggle to come to grips with the new responsibilities and unprecedented dangers of atomic weapons. During those early days of the cold war, the arms race was taken seriously, its threats increasingly reported and understood. Newsreel footage of nuclear bomb tests on Bikini Atoll and at the Nevada Test Site drew widespread public attention to the terrifying new possibility of global destruction. As Spencer Weart writes in his classic study, The Rise of Nuclear Fear:
Newspapers and magazines printed countless civil defense articles. Every radio listener from 1953 on was periodically jolted when the emerging warning network interrupted a broadcast at random (“This is not a test …”). Towns set up air-raid sirens and tested them at intervals. … Hundreds of thousands volunteered for the Ground Observers Corp to watch the sky for enemy bombers sneaking in. Most impressive of all was a series of “Operation Alert” exercises held from 1954 on. As fictional Russian bombers approached, citizens in scores of cities obeyed the howls of sirens and sought shelter, leaving the streets deserted. 3
Popular culture explored — and exploited — these fears in diverse ways. Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, a thriller centering on the consequences of an accidental launch, and Stanley Kubrick’s bleakly absurdist satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, were both released in 1964, not long after the real-life international drama of the Cuban missile crisis. At the same time the first James Bond movies, Dr. No and From Russia with Love, glamorized the cold war in the persona of Agent 007. American pre-teens were introduced to the futility of escalation through the antics of Spy vs. Spy, a political cartoon in MAD magazine. And even very young children were familiar with the Russian spies, Natasha Fatale and Boris Badenov, both recurring characters in the animated cartoon series Rocky and Bullwinkle. To be sure, this focus would prove short-lived. As early as the 1970s, the works that dealt with nuclear threats were notable for their emotional distance; Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s avant-garde opera, Einstein on the Beach, first performed in 1976, treated the subject with formal abstraction. Well before the fall of the Berlin Wall, our cultural preoccupations were shifting elsewhere.
In December 1994, my husband and I took our young daughters on a family trip to Tucson. We followed the usual itinerary for southern Arizona: we hiked in the Saguaro National Forest, we visited Prairie Dog Town, we wandered into a museum dedicated to yo-yo’s called the Yozeum. I’m not sure what possessed me to suggest — or insist — that we visit the Titan Missile Museum, but one afternoon we drove south of the city to the former site of Air Force Facility Missile Site 8. Operational from 1963 (when it went into high alert after the assassination of John F. Kennedy) until 1982 (when Ronald Reagan decommissioned the Titan program as part of a weapons modernization agenda), the old missile site had just been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The tour began with a video describing the cold war and the strategy of deterrence (or mutually assured destruction). Afterward, we donned hard hats and peered down into the eight-story silo at an actual (unarmed) missile. But not even the immensity of the Titan Missile — 10 feet in diameter, 103 feet tall — prepared me for the next part of the tour.
We packed into an elevator, descended 35 feet, and filed into the cramped, underground chamber that served as the Launch Control Center from 1963 to 1978. The guide explained the meticulous procedures necessary to authenticate a command to launch a Titan and its nine-megaton warhead — the largest of any American missile. This is when I first learned that the fateful nuclear “button,” that icon of cold war culture, didn’t actually exist. Instead, as a reporter for the New York Times aptly put it, there is “a vast complex of rules and equipment.” That day at the Titan missile site we learned that there is a safe with two padlocks, containing two launch ignition keys and the validation codes for the command. The two officers on duty — the “two man rule” is one of the Air Force safety protocols enforced at Missile Alert Facilities — must each open one of the padlocks and compare the launch order against the codes in the box; once the officers have both verified the order, they must insert the ignition keys simultaneously into different slots on separate consoles (far enough apart so that one man could not operate both keys); to add yet another layer of protection, the same process must be carried out by another crew in an entirely different control facility in order for the missile to be truly launched. To wage nuclear war, cooperation is mandatory.
Our guide emphasized the many safeguards. In keeping with the two-man rule, the Launch Control Center was a “no lone zone”: at least two people, including a commissioned officer, must be present at all times. There were codes and locks and protocols and checklists; the systems were doubly or triply redundant. I was still struggling to absorb the technical and procedural details when our guide began the more interactive feature of the tour: the “simulated missile launch.” He cast two from our group as missileers — a tourist who didn’t speak much English, and a young boy in a scout uniform — and directed them to sit at the two consoles. The rest of us were spectators. The launch of a Titan missile would have begun, our guide explained, with a warble tone siren followed by a coded message; the officers would then record the codes and compare them character by character; if the codes were a match they’d proceed to unlock the box with the keys … and so on. By now the enthusiastic guide is immersing us into the simulation, reading the code from his script, as the tourist and the boy scout nod in agreement: “Yes, yes, it’s a match.” “Now it’s time to insert your keys,” instructs the guide, counting down with a dramatic flourish: “Three – Two – One – Launch. Turn. Your. Keys.” As we watch, the tourist and the scout turn the keys and launch a nuclear strike. “Thank you,” says the guide.
By which point my husband and I are holding our daughters and tears are streaming down my face as the guide points to the console, now lit up, and continues: “The green light indicates that we are ready to fire, and the missile, once the sequence has begun, cannot be stopped. It cannot be destroyed and it cannot be altered. Thirty minutes from now, the target will be vaporized in a fireball exceeding three miles in diameter.” At that moment, something inside of me vaporized, or perhaps ignited, which may account for my enthusiasm for dark tourism.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, almost at the end of his 24-hour shift at Minot Air Force Base, in North Dakota, missileer Mark Sundlov received a call over the Hardened Voice Channel telephone system linking the five Launch Control Centers in his squadron. Meanwhile another officer on duty told him to turn on CNN. As he watched the television he thought — like many of us in those first minutes — that maybe the jet plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan was a freak accident; but when the second plane hit the South Tower 17 minutes later, he understood that something was happening, and that his shift wasn’t over. Sundlov woke his deputy officer and together they followed the events and learned that President George W. Bush was on Air Force One flying from Florida to Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command. The missileers knew that the Commander in Chief would have access to the Airborne Launch Control Center, a back-up system developed to assure nuclear capability in the case of a debilitating attack on our land-based ICBMs, including those that Mark and his deputy were monitoring that morning near Minot AFB. This was, they realized, not a test.
The missileers are officers in the U.S. Air Force; they are also the functional link between the military and executive branch — the men and women who stand between the rest of us and the threat of annihilation. You might then think we would know more about them. Yet the missileers remain largely unknown and uncelebrated. Pilots earn their glory with spectacular displays of skill and bravery, while the missileers do their service deep underground, vigilant but unheralded.
In 1972, an officer who’d done a tour at Malmstrom AFB in Montana wrote a poem that captures the ethos of stoic service. Here is the opening stanza of “Missileers,” by Captain Robert. A. Wyckoff:
In vacant corners of our land,
off rutted gravel trails,
There is a watchful breed of men,
who see that peace prevails.
For them there are no waving flags,
no blare of martial tune,
There is no romance in their job,
no glory at high noon.
While some missileers might regret the absence of waving flags and sunlit glory, others are troubled by a more critical lack of awareness — by what they view as public apathy about the intense and ongoing watchfulness that is required to ensure that “peace prevails.” An undated post in the Warble Tone, the newsletter put out by the Association of Air Force missileers, urges members to address this ignorance:
Most of the population doesn’t even know that we still do “nuclear deterrence.” Most people don’t even know that we still have an ICBM force. … Tell people every chance you have about the importance of our nuclear deterrent mission.
My own experience suggests that The Warble Tone has got it right. In recent weeks, since returning from Oscar-Zero, I’ve had to explain the acronym “ICBM” to college-educated friends. I’ve also had to explain that our missile program is not actually “top-secret.” Deterrence as a strategy relies on potential combatants understanding each other’s strengths; “mutually assured destruction” requires mutual superpower awareness.
But on the morning of September 11 — confronted with a series of shocking attacks coordinated not by a superpower adversary but by 19 terrorists who’d hijacked commercial flights — “it didn’t feel like deterrence,” said Mark Sundlov. “There we were, with all our nuclear strength. But obviously, the attackers assumed we wouldn’t strike back with nuclear weapons. That raises the question of their relevance, in this changed world.” This is of course the fundamental challenge for the U.S. military in the early 21st century, and for one former missileer, the answer is clear: Bruce Blair, who manned the Launch Control Center at Malmstrom AFB in the early ’70s and now teaches at Princeton, is one of the co-founders of the non-partisan group Global Zero, which advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide.
“Yes. Without any hesitation.” That’s the answer to the crucial question at the heart of nuclear deterrence. If and when they receive the command, the missileers will turn their keys.
All missileers undergo intense screening. They must pass stringent psychological assessments, including a detailed evaluation called the Personal Reliability Program. They train constantly, taking monthly training exercises to simulate different launch conditions. Michael Brown, a missileer in the 1970s who’s now the mayor of Grand Forks, North Dakota, remembers that “you practiced so much that if the real thing happened, you were programmed to not even hesitate.” As Eric Schlosser writes, in Command and Control, his excellent and often hair-raising account of nuclear readiness:
If an emergency war order arrived from SAC headquarters, every missile crew officer would face a decision with almost unimaginable consequences. Given the order to launch, [the officer] would comply without hesitation. He had no desire to commit mass murder. … [He] had faith in the logic of nuclear deterrence: his willingness to launch the missile ensured that it would never be launched. 4
Schlosser narrates an unnerving history of accidents and near misses, starting the book with a detailed account of the notorious incident in 1980 at Launch Complex 374-7, near Damascus, Arkansas: a missile repairman doing routine maintenance dropped a nine-pound socket which tore a hole in a Titan II missile, not only releasing its toxic fuel and ultimately killing one officer and injuring 21 others but also threatening to detonate the missile’s warhead. 5
In his oral history project on the missileers, Mark Sundlov explores what he calls “the human aspect” of the work, including the emotional burden of being ready to obey the order and turn the key. 6 Several former officers spoke frankly about the difficulties of coming to terms with the work and its implications; some recalled incidents when they got as far as inserting the keys into the slots on the consoles as a result of orders that later turned out to be in error. Sundlov remembers an open mic held soon after Oscar-Zero reopened as an historical site. A former missileer took the stage and recalled the night when he and his crew received the order to launch. “We had our keys in. I called my wife. I said, ‘What’s going on? Is there something in the news? Something unusual happening?’ … She said, ‘No, it doesn’t look like anything’s happening at all.’ So I said ‘Good bye.’” As it happened the order was a mistake, possibly a technical error; but the missileer thought he might be talking to his wife for the last time. “He was very emotional while telling us that story,” Sundlov said. 7
For one of the oral histories, Sundlov interviewed John Gezelius, a former missileer at Grand Forks AFB who later became an attorney, asking what he thought about the base closures that followed the signing of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty in the ’90s. “I don’t think anybody who ever sat here in this hole ever wanted a bigger ICBM force,” Gezelius said. He continued:
I don’t think you can really understand the business at its very visceral level until you sit here in the middle of the night with the deputy’s console behind you and you look at that little red box. Then it’s absolutely real … and it ought to scare you. I don’t think anybody who’s ever been down there late at night in that chair would ever, ever want an expansion of the missile force. … I was glad to see START. Maybe that means fewer lieutenants are going to have to sit there with dark thoughts in the middle of the night.
It’s five past midnight. Van, a fellow in his 30s, made it to blast-proof digs in the Greenbriar Bunker, but he’s got non-human company. Crunch, a human-sized cockroach on rollerblades, is putting him on trial. The insect order Blattaria would survive, no sweat, but they were going to miss peanut butter, raisins, pet food. “Humans were great cooks,” he says. “Too bad ya’ll just couldn’t get along.”
These lines are from the opening scene of a one-act play I wrote in 2006. In my drama, Crunch is not just any cockroach: he’s the celebrated host of a reality show called Survival, and he’s just located another human survivor, a female, and now the last two human specimens will perform under the slimelight of the show. At which point Van protests, “Show? The survival of the species is not some kind of show.” On the contrary, Crunch replies, “It’s the greatest show on earth! The rules are simple: You get the babe, you make the baby. You’re a dud, the ratings tank, the show is canceled. Extinction.”
My play will stay buried in a drawer, but a decade later, it seems even more urgent to draw attention to our nuclear landscape. On June 14, 2016, a headline on The Onion read: U.N. Warns Trump May Be 7 Months Away From Acquiring Nuclear Weapons. I sent the article to my mother with a note that read “Funny.” I read it now, early in the administration of the reality show host who now occupies the Oval Office, and it doesn’t strike me as funny anymore. In a sobering piece in The New Yorker published one month before the inauguration, Eric Schlosser warns:
As a technology, nuclear weapons have become obsolete. What worries me most isn’t the possibility of a cyberattack, a technical glitch, or a misunderstanding starting a nuclear war sometime next week. My greatest concern is the lack of public awareness about this existential threat, the absence of a vigorous public debate about the nuclear-war plans of Russia and the United States, the silent consent to the roughly fifteen thousand nuclear weapons in the world. These machines have been carefully and ingeniously designed to kill us. Complacency increases the odds that, some day, they will. 8
The Doomsday Clock may have two and a half minutes to go, but it’s past time to put our nuclear arsenal, including all those ICBMs in remote sites across the continent, into the white-hot center of our political conversation.