Thursday, July 26, 2012

Road Trip Day 4 - Titan Missile Museum

As our big summer trip this year, my dad and I decided to take a six day road trip across southern California and Arizona to hit a number of museums that have been on our respective bucket lists for some time now.
 Now let's first get something very clear; every place we stopped at before this (part 1, part 2, part 3) were well and good, but the Titan Missile Museum is the single reason why we picked up and drove 1,000 miles into the Arizona desert.
This museum is built around the last Titan missile silo, to preserve an integral part of the Cold War between the US and the USSR.  I heard about it online two years ago, and thought it sounded interesting, but missile silos tend to be out in the middle of nowhere and that would be that.  BUT, the TMM offers a "Top-to-bottom" tour, where you get to spend a whole day, as part of a group of no more than six, working your way from the very top to the very bottom of the ENTIRE silo. Hold the freaking phone.  This is why this road trip happened, and I would say it easily made driving all 1,000 miles worth it.
In the words of the tour guide, this is the E ticket tour of this facility, and he made a point of making us remember that.  This tour gives you free reign of the entire facility and he showed us anything we wanted to see.
 Starting at the top, the missile silo is really just about as much as you would expect; a concrete cap and a few antennas.
As part of the arms reduction treaties, this silo has been chocked half-closed, but other than that and some other disabling measures, the entire facility has been immaculately preserved.
The facility includes several interesting radio antennas, including this HF one which is fully operational and actually has an amateur radio station connected to it to activate for special events.
This UHF antenna stands about 3 feet wide.  There were another half dozen antennas on various bands to REALLY ensure that communications to the silo could not be cut off.

At ground level is various pieces of Titan missiles, to let you really get a sense of scale.

The typical walk-in tour takes you down to the control room, which is part of the crew quarters connected to the silo via two blast doors and a long reenforced tunnel.  The control panels are still operational, and they have a simulator built into the control center so that you can "launch the missile" and get the full experience of what launching a ICBM was like.
 The standard tour ends there, but we got to visit the crew quarters and the radio electronics room, above and below the control room, before heading over to the actual silo for the rest of the tour.

One little piece of nerdy trivia I enjoyed was the fact that all of the original wiring was done using lacing cord, which is a strong waxed thread used to make wiring harnesses before the modern advent of velcro and zip-ties.  Lacing cord does a particularly good job because its waxyness tends to grip the cables and hold the harness in the desired shape, without needing to grossly over-tightness the straps like you do for zip ties.  Of course, the modern retrofitted CAT5e Ethernet cable was zip-tied into the bundles. You can't have everything.

It's becoming increasingly rare, but there are still a few places, namely on eBay, that you can still buy lacing cord, and I actually rather enjoy using it for cable control.

Another interesting feature of the facility was how everything was designed to withstand severe shock from aerial assault.  Every console, and every motor, and even the entire crew quarters, is suspended via giant shock absorbers.

As part of being able to get where it wants to go, an ICBM needed to know precisely where it is when it starts.  This was done by regularly sighting the missile off of a number of major land features surrounding the valley that the silo was built in.  Shown is the triangular concrete platform for the sextant tripod at ground level, the pipe running down two stories to the blue sighting table, which then fed through a portal in the side of the silo to the inertial navigation unit in the missile.

The website isn't kidding around when they say that you need to be physically fit to perform this in-depth tour.  Most of the trip was taken via the service elevator shown above, but there were a few ladders which needed to be climbed to reach some of the deeper corners of the facility.

As we worked our way down the nine levels of the silo, at each level we were first shown what various support equipment was installed at that level (generators, control circuitry, water tanks, etc), and then we were allowed to go out on the service platforms inside of the actual silo.  It was an amazing way to get a sense of scale to be able to stick your head out and look down the entire length of the missile, without any kind of window or grating standing between you and 100' of missile.

The electronics nerd in me had plenty to enjoy along the entire tour, and I was even able to point out some interesting points of the control systems which the guide didn't know (he was a retired major who originally operated these silos, but understandably didn't know ALL of the technical minutia of a missile silo).  I've used a piece or two of military grade 5400 logic before, which is equavalent to the standard 7400 TTL logic, but "better."  It was interesting to see entire circuit boards of 5400 logic in all the equipment.

Once we reached the bottom of the missile, the tour guide then asked if there was anywhere we wanted to go back and look at again.
In response, I pointed out that this was a "top-to-bottom" tour, and we weren't really at the bottom yet... I wanted to get down in the flame deflector, just to be able to say that I had.  The guide's response was "well... we're not normally supposed to take you down there, but if you're careful..."

This tour was amazing.

 Once down in the flame deflector, you can see the four main water jets, which would dump a tremendous amount of water below the missile engines to facilitate lift and cooling of the engine exhaust.
And this is then looking back up the exhaust manifolds towards ground level ten stories up.

So in summary, this was an amazing tour, and even at $80 and having to make reservations several months in advanced, was easily worth the expense and hassle of having to travel all the way to the middle of Arizona.  If you ever happen to be in the Tuscon area, I urge you to make a point of spending the time to go down and take either this, or even just the standard one-hour control center tour.  In either case, this is an amazing museum which is doing an incredible job preserving a very important piece of American history.


  1. It looked like an amazing trip... thank you for launchpad photos!

  2. I see what you did there, in that first launch control panel photo!

  3. You are more than a engineer! How did you learn all these stuff.
    I rally like your caption

    1. It all comes down to how I spend my free time; I get interested in a subject and start doing research and experiments on the matter for nothing more than my personal satisfaction. The Internet has enabled some pretty amazing projects.