30 minutes or less

I never realized I had driven past the missile silos so often over the years. You can see one from I-90, but unless you know what you were looking for, it’s just be another nondescript building on the prairie.

The central plains were a safe place to house our intercontinental ballistic missiles during the Cold War. They were far from the Soviet subs that prowled our coast. And if something nasty was coming toward them, our guys had time to launch before it arrived.

30 minutes. That’s how long it would take for a Minuteman Missile to go from South Dakota over the Arctic Circle to the Soviet Union. More than 10,000 miles per hour.

There were close to 1,000 of them. Each one armed with a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead. That’s more than 2 billion pounds of TNT. The bomb we dropped on Hiroshima was 16 kilotons. The ranger who gave our tour explained it this way…take ALL of the weaponry discharged during WWII and add it up….there is 60% of that total on each of the Minuteman warheads.

Sheesh. I can’t even wrap my mind around it.

We got to visit one of the missile silos from above, then we got to go underground to one of the launch facilities. Two people were underground in the capsule, each with access to their own key. Working together with the launch codes that could be provided to them, they could unleash the mayhem.

Mutually assured destruction. That’s what they called it.

The website says, “Minuteman missiles held the power to destroy civilization, but this destructive force also acted as a nuclear deterrent which maintained peace and prevented war.”

It was interesting to stand in the place that controlled it. The phones, the keys, the manuals.

The system was filled with redundant safety devices to make sure the missiles weren’t launched accidentally. There was protocol and process. Everyone knew what was at stake. But at the end of the day, the operators were still human. The History Channel outlines five close calls from the Cold War on their website, and it makes you shudder.

The underground capsule we toured was designed to survive an indirect blast. The whole thing was suspended on shock absorbers with two feet of buffer space to help survive the impact, all inside a reinforced concrete cocoon. The personnel could wear harnesses to hold them in their seats and help them survive if that blast would ever happen. But I wonder… would you want to?

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