For anyone who lived through the Cold War, or anyone wanting to get a taste of that time, a visit to one of the country’s remaining relics of that era may be just the thing you want. Hidden in plain sight, buried under the vast Great Plains, a thousand missiles stood ready to rain destruction on America’s enemies. Hundreds of these sites remain today, and you can visit one at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota.
The Site is located just seventy-five miles east of Rapid City, SD, at exit 131 on US I-90, the silo is open from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, with some curtailed hours during winter. The place to start your experience is the Visitors’ Center. The main entrance to this facility is defined by three pillars, representing the nuclear triad of air, land, and sea capability. Here you will find a bookstore, can view a short film about the missile facilities, and consult with staff, who are available to answer questions about the park, the missiles themselves, and their context in the Cold War. During Summer, you can also find staff from the South Dakota Department of Tourism, who will be able to tell you more about points of interest to be found nearby.
From 1963 through the early nineties, the missile silo at the site contained a fully operational Minuteman Missile with a 1.2 megaton warhead. This was just one of 150 buried throughout South Dakota, and one thousand across the country. When the missile was decommissioned, it was replaced with a mock-up, the door was welded closed, and the facility was fitted with a glass roof. The silo itself is twelve feet in diameter, and extends downward for eighty feet. Due to safety issues, no underground tours are offered of the silo, but you can gaze through the glass roof at America’s once mighty weapon.
One location you can tour is the Delta-01 Launch Facility. The tour begins above ground, touring the grounds and the support facilities before descending about 35 feet to the control room below. Needless to say, this facility was not designed to handle civilian tourists. The descent, and ascent, is via an open elevator, which may be crowded with other visitors. All visitors must certify that they are able to ascend two fifteen-foot ladders, just in case of an outage. Tour participants are required to have advance tickets. You can purchase these tickets online or by phone at 866-601-5129 up to ninety days in advance. No same day tickets are available.
The whole experience offers an interesting look at what could have happened, but, fortunately, didn’t.