From Missiles to Madera

Mid-September in Tucson. Another hot day, another chance to get away. We opted to tour the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita about twenty-five miles south of town.

The museum preserves an intact silo and a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile—minus its nine megaton payload1. From 1963 to 1983 Tucson was surrounded by 18 of these massive weapons which made my hometown one of the U.S.S.R.‘s main targets. There was a missile located less than half a mile from our elementary school, though by the time Lance attended it was deactivated. I distinctly recall having to participate in school-wide drills which I, of course, decided were completely pointless. If the Russians had launched a nuclear missile our way, it wouldn’t matter if we were all crouched in the hallway or under our desks. Or as Bill Bryson put it in his memoir, The Life And Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:

I remember being profoundly amazed that anyone would suppose that a little wooden desk would provide a safe haven in the event of an atomic bomb being dropped on Des Moines. But evidently they all took the matter seriously, for even the teacher, Miss Squat Little Fat Thing, was inserted under her desk, too—or at least as much of her as she could get under, which was perhaps 40 percent. Once I realized that no one was watching, I elected not to take part.

Obviously, that nearby Titan II affected my outlook; in the late 70s and early 80s it sure seemed like some idiot was going to press that button and I had my doubts about anyone but the roaches making it to the 90s. Amazingly, even as the Cold War was escalating, the Titan II missiles—the United States’s largest ICBMs—were dismantled. The missile near our school was the first one “off alert” in military lingo. It wasn’t because the President had a change of heart, merely that the missiles were suffering the ill effects of age. There were two deadly accidents, one in 1978 and another in 1980 (not in the Tucson area), that led to the decision.

All the missiles in the Tucson area were removed by 1983 with the remaining 45—near Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, Little Rock AFB in Arkansas, and McConnell AFB in Kansas—deactivated by 1987. The warheads were stored at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson until 2006 when they were taken apart, though no one is talking about what our government did with all that nuclear material.

All the silos were destroyed except the one in southern Arizona which is now the museum. Even though the Titan II inside the silo was a training missile and never had fuel or a warhead, at 103 feet it is still an imposing sight. It must worry other countries too since the cover of the silo can only open halfway to prevent us from launching the missile. They say that the silo and its cover are routinely checked via satellite by the Russians.

After coming up from underground in the massive concrete and steel silo we needed some fresh air. So we headed over to Madera Canyon. Walking along the tree-lined creek. Listening to the water laughing its way down canyon. Watching birds flit busily in the leaves. Glimpsing a young mule deer browsing in a meadow. Stepping carefully over bear scat on the trail. Just what we needed.

Photos: View our photographs from From Missiles to Madera.

Dates: We visited the Titan Missile Museum and Madera Canyon on September 11, 2011.


1 For comparison’s sake: Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 exploded with roughly 13-18 kilotons of force. Three days later, another A-bomb, Fat Man, was dropped over Nagasaki and it carried a 21 kiloton warhead. It would take close to 700 Little Boys and more than 428 Fat Mans to equal the explosive force of one, 9 megaton Titan II missile.