Flashback to the Cold War: thousands of powerful nuclear weapons poised for launch by the U.S. and the Soviets, based on the principle of deterrence known as Mutually Assured Destruction, in which a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming nuclear counterattack such that both countries would be annihilated.
Unfortunately, it’s not just a history lesson these days, given Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and an elevated level of angst about possible use of nuclear weapons.
Our visit to the Titan Missile Museum south of Tucson was sobering, and that was prior to the current events in the Ukraine.
First, some background on the Titan missile sites:
- Three clusters of Titan II missile sites became operational in 1963, one each around Davis-Monthan AFB (Tucson), McConnell AFB (Wichita KS), and Little Rock AFB in Arkansas. Each cluster consisted of 18 silos, with one missile per silo.
- Capable of traveling up to 6,000 miles, each missile was armed with a single nuclear warhead containing 9,000 kilotons of explosive power (compared to 15 kilotons and 21 kilotons for the devastating atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII).
- The missiles were never intended to be used for a “first strike” – only in response to incoming missiles from the Soviet Union. Titan II launch orders could be initiated only upon authorization of the President.
- If a strike had been ordered (thankfully, it never happened), all 54 Titan II missiles would have launched.
- All Titan II missile silos were deactivated and demolished between 1982 and 1987 as part of the military’s weapons modernization program.
All, that is, except for one – the missile site in Sahuarita was retained for educational purposes – deactivated but not demolished. The photo below shows how the silo looks today – the doors are permanently locked in a partially open position, which was a condition required by the Soviets during later treaty talks.
The Titan II missile housed in the silo contains neither fuel nor warhead, and the reentry vehicle has a prominent hole in the side to prove it is inert. The photo below was taken looking down at the missile from the outside of the silo – you can easily see the hole near the top that renders it unusable.
The Titan Missile Museum has been welcoming visitors since 1986. There were informational displays inside the visitor center plus additional machinery and placards around the grounds, but the centerpiece of the visit was a one-hour guided tour of the underground facilities.
With no rattlesnakes in view, we descended through the access portal into the underground complex as our guide explained the complicated process for changing out the four-person crew at the end of their 24-hour shift, including a series of strict security measures to ensure an uneventful handoff to the incoming team.
We spent most of the tour time in the main control room, where we learned about a routine day in the life of crew members before getting into the details of how an actual launch order would have been authenticated and executed.
A locked red box within the control facility containing specific launch codes required two keys to open. Each officer on duty had one key.
I found a link to a YouTube video that explains the sequence of events much better than I can – disturbing yet fascinating and worth viewing.
After exiting the control room, we walked down a long hallway to an observation area where the missile was visible from below ground level.
I’m pretty sure the observation window was added later as part of the site’s development as a museum, because I can’t imagine those little portholes were blast-proof.
Multiple outdoor exhibits surrounding the silo provided additional information about operations at the site.
And some helpful safety advice:
Personal perspective: I grew up 12 miles from McConnell AFB in Kansas, and my hometown was surrounded by the 18 Titan II missile silos that became operational when I was nine years old. I recall being aware of their presence but didn’t know much beyond that. My teenage self just tuned it out.
Some of you will remember the “Duck and Cover” drills in school during the early 1960s. We practiced for a potential bomb strike by sheltering under our desks and covering our heads with our arms.
Oh my – whoever thought this would be effective?
Time to move on to a more pleasant topic – a day trip to Madera Canyon.
We were surprised to discover that Madera Canyon looks and feels like the foothills of Colorado, with Ponderosa pines and gambel oak trees no doubt providing respite from the intense heat of the Sonoran Desert during the summer. It’s about an hour’s drive from Tucson and not far from the Titan Missile Museum.
Average elevation in Madera Canyon is comparable to our hometown in Colorado at around 5,000 feet, but on this sunny 70 degree day in February, unlike at home, we were able to enjoy an outdoor picnic before embarking on our chosen hiking trail. Here are a few photos.
A most pleasant day and worth a return visit when we’re back in the Tucson area.
Closer to Tucson, we decided to check out Sabino Canyon – only 45 miles from Madera Canyon, but an entirely different experience!
With 4.5 out of 5 stars, Sabino Canyon National Recreation Area is among the top three Tucson-area attractions profiled on Trip Advisor.
Private vehicles are prohibited beyond the Visitor Center, so the easiest way to see the sights is by riding the shuttle eight miles (round trip) on the main canyon road. Better yet, take a hike to soak in the views and get some exercise.
We decided to do both – took the shuttle up and meandered back at our own pace. Here’s a look at some of the views.
Tip: It’s a popular place – make online shuttle reservations well in advance!
The short road up the canyon was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), with aspirations of eventually extending it to the top of 9,171′ Mt. Lemmon. That plan was abandoned at some point, but the original section remains, including a small dam and nine beautiful stone bridges that were constructed along Sabino Creek.
Unlike many waterways in Arizona that don’t actually carry water except during the summer monsoons, Sabino Creek flows year-round, fed by rainwater and snow-melt from Mt. Lemmon and other nearby mountains.
Sabino Canyon is a delightful place to spend time in nature. Next time, we’ll do the Seven Falls Trail.
As you can tell, we found plenty of things to keep us busy in the Tucson area. Yet to come – one more article . . .