Sunday, September 25

Cold War: up close and personal

Throughout the Cold War the Titan II, a large liquid fueled ballistic missile, stood on constant vigil. Its nine-megaton nuclear warhead made it the most powerful ICBM ever put into active service. Today’s warheads operate with less than a tenth of the Titan’s explosive power. Putting such a large, heavy warhead into flight required a imposing, 31-metre tall two-stage rocket. A rocket so powerful it was used for several years by NASA to launch its two-man Gemini space capsule.

The entire missile system’s massive scale reflected limitations of missile technology at the time of its activation in 1963. warhead’s deadly size reflects the limitations of its inertial guidance unit At the time of its activation in 1963,. While cutting-edge technology at the time of its activation in 1963, at best the unit could guide a missile within one kilometre of its intended target. As a result, the warhead had to be destructive enough to destroy anything within a 1500 radius.

The Titan 2 remains on active duty until 1987. It was eventually retired as the cost of maintaining 63 missiles in four locations across the USA had become increasingly prohibitive. The missiles that ultimately replaced it use solid rocket technology, which is much easier to maintain. The Titan II used two highly toxic fuels, Aeroxine 50 and dinitrogen tetroxide, which could be stored on board the missile. However, their hypergolic nature (i.e. they ignite on contact, thus eliminating the need for a separate ignition source) made them incredibly dangerous to handle.

While in Tuscon, Arizona, Garry and I visited the Titan Missile Museum, for a five hour tour of this marvel of the Cold War. The missile sits in a deactivated silo, displayed in launch position, with much of the original infrastructure deactivated but still in place. We’d booked the tour six months earlier as they’re limited to six people and happen only once a month. I must admit we both wondered if it was possible to spend six hours in a missile silo without becoming bored senseless.

I can honestly report that the time simply flew by. Our guide, Chuck Penson, was incredibly informative. He regaled us with facts, anecdotes and specialist insights that kept us entertained for hours. I was fascinated to learn that the entire missile and its launch complex is actually suspended on giant springs inside the silo, as are most the supporting infrastructure. This assembly was designed to absorb the shock of an enemy missile exploding nearby, increasing its chances of survival and thus its ability to launch a punishing retaliatory strike.

Our tour took us into the underground command bunker where four men worked in rotating shifts around the clock. We sat at their launch console and were taken through the entire launch sequence, including a simulation that progressively lit up diagnostic light panels around the room. It was unnerving to witness the speed at which a launch could be sent on its way; 58 seconds after two master keys were simultaneously turned and held. The missile we saw has been programmed to hit three different targets. The final target was determined by the launch code held in a series of envelopes stored in a bright red safe nearby. Today, these targets are still highly classified.

Our tour ended with a special treat. The museum had made arrangements with the local authorities to operate its launch siren. This generator-driven alarm delivers an eerie, bone-shattering whine from a yellow bullhorn mounted on the top of a tall mast. Its piercing sound sent shivers down my spine, reminding everyone present that the missile below was the real deal. I don’t think anything else could have bought home the frightening reality of nuclear war.

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