In search of something tamer than the wind and sun of the Badlands, we went looking for some intercontinental ballistic missiles. Luckily, South Dakota has plenty of those. With the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, many of them have been dismantled, with one unarmed missile and a launch control facility preserved for tours. (There are still nuclear-tipped Minuteman III missiles deployed in other parts of the west.)
The Wikipedia entry describes the site very well, so there's no need for me to repeat that information. To take the tour, you need to find the Conoco station at the same exit on I-90 as the eastern entrance to Badlands National Park. There's a trailer at the south end of the parking lot that houses a visitor center with a couple of displays, a short movie, and the ticketing. It's not the most dignified home for a facility that could have helped end all life on earth! But apparently a new one is in the works. The best way to get a ticket is to be waiting for them to open at 8:00 AM–they sell out early many days. You'll get directions to a couple of other I-90 exits a few miles away.
The launch control center houses one of the the famous facilities where two Air Force officers known as missileers sat ready to turn the keys as depicted in many movies. While you're waiting to get in, though, you might see a sight that looks like it came from a different film genre:
Cowboys! Riding horses, herding cattle, wearing hats, the whole thing. It's a great example of the contrasts that you see in this part of the country.
Inside the facility you see the very ordinary living arrangements used by the people who worked or visited. The facility was handed directly from the Defense Department to the National Park Service, so everything is preserved in its early-1990's glory.
Then you crowd into a small elevator and ride down thirty feet. After you step out of the elevator, you see the massive blast door, painted with some wacky end-of-the-world humor:
Behind the blast door is the room where the two officers sat during their shifts. If they ever had received valid launch codes, they would have taken keys from lock boxes and turned them at the same time, give or take a second or two. Contrary to what you see in movies, this was only one part of the launch process. Two turning keys alone would not have launched missiles.
The control facilities were guarded fairly heavily, but surprisingly, the missile silos were unguarded. The silos were surrounded by fences with motion detectors. If a cow, a protestor, or anyone else set off an alarm, security people got into a vehicle like this:
They went to the missile silo and chased off or arrested whoever was there. The guy who gave us the tour said that during the Cold War a minister climbed the fence of a silo once a year, laid a flower on the silo, and waited to be arrested.
To see the missile in its silo, you go to yet another exit on I-90 and follow the signs. The silo was originally covered by a massive door that was supposed to shoot off and land a hundred feet away in the event of a launch. That door has been moved partly open and covered with a glass enclosure so that the missile is visible:
And there it is, an inactive Minuteman II:
Our tour guide (who doesn't go to the silo–that part is self-guided) said that he has talked to many missile personnel on the tours. In the event of a launch, they would have been told to "await further orders." If it ever really happened, most of the population of the earth would have been dead or dying, including every member of the missileers' families. Most of them told our guide that they had planned to launch the missiles, go upstairs, crack open a beer, and watch the fireworks. What else would be left to do?