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Apocalypse then: Inside the chilling Titan Missile Museum

The top-secret nuclear missile silos of the Cold War are either off-limits because they're still in use, or emptied and destroyed. Except for this one.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

It's 8:30 in the morning and already the Arizona sun is punishing the asphalt, shrubs and any living creature stupid enough to stand under it. Like me. I'm glad I'll be spending the next few hours deep underground.

Near where I'm standing, on this hillside south of Tucson, is a 150-foot-deep (46m) silo that once housed one of the most destructive forces ever created: a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. Over 100 feet (31.4m) tall, 10 feet (3m) wide, and capable of delivering a 9-megaton nuclear bomb anywhere within 9,900 miles (16,000km), it functioned as a nuclear deterrent, and in a different role, launched the men of the Gemini program into space.   

Actually, it's still there. Kind of…

Titan II

The Titan Missile Museum is one of the only nuclear missile silos open to the public, and the only one from the Titan program. Most have been decommissioned and destroyed, although some 400 of the smaller Minuteman III missile silos are still in use. 

It's a fascinating place. Beyond the parking lot and visitor's center, the surface portion of the facility is still largely how it would have looked in its heyday. Ground-level radar emitters and receivers, retractable antennas and then the massive reinforced concrete roof over the missile itself. This remains partially and permanently open, a glass sunroof keeping out the elements, letting visitors peer down into the silo from above. The Titan II itself looms within.

But I'm not quite there yet. First stop is the visitor's center, with its memorabilia and gift shop. I get to bypass the usual safety briefing, having been here before and getting special access for CNET. The director of the museum, Yvonne Morris guides me on a tour herself (as she does once a month on the Director's Tour).

We step back out into the sun and head over to a small hatch and stairway, the only access to the underground complex. Once out of the heat, the familiar smell of a military facility greets my nose: steel, concrete, and as Yvonne informs me, hydraulic fluid.

At the base of the stairs, massive steel doors secure the facility from any sort of attack. The Titan II silos weren't designed to survive a direct strike, but it was hoped they'd make it through a near-hit.

The main corridor is something out of a movie. Sickly-green paint covers steel decking and hydraulic dampeners. Hoses and cables run along the walls. We're roughly in the middle. To the right, a long way away, is the silo itself.

We take the shorter corridor to the left. Only a handful of men lived and worked here. I imagine it was a nerve-racking job. This part of the facility is about the size of a small house. The main level is the Launch Control Center, with banks of early computers and enough dials, readouts and warning lights to double as a sci-fi B-movie set.

Upstairs is the main living area. The bedroom with its bunkbeds is fairly spacious, the curved wall a reminder of where you are. Next door is the kitchen, replete with a rather anachronistic LCD TV and DVD player. A copy of "Dr. Strangelove" sits on the counter. Of course.

Silo

A museum employee sets off the missile launch countdown, a staged recording of course. It's eerie in person, and the 360 video below hopefully captures some of that feeling.

Then we start the long walk to the missile. The cableway is as overbuilt as anything I've ever seen. More like the bowels of a battleship than a… well, OK, this is technically a bunker to protect soldiers from nuclear attack. So maybe the elaborate redundancies and substantial support beams are completely appropriate.

Ahead I can see a partially open door and something metal beyond. An anteroom encircles the round silo. Inside sits the missile. Security doors have been opened and replaced with glass for a better look at the Titan II missile itself.

It's strange seeing one of these up close, and from this angle. In other museums they're either on their side, or stood vertically but without viewing platforms so you can only walk under or around them. Here, you're about level with the top of the upper stage. Look up and you can see the reentry vehicle. Look down… it continues down into the Earth. You can't see the bottom from here.

A small elevator takes us down. Five stories down to the base of the missile. Here, the weird has transitioned into the creepy. Stepping into the silo itself, I'm underneath the Titan II, staring up its length to the sunlight seeping in from far above. It's almost chilly this far down, the heat of the day above a distant memory. The grated decking is not for the faint of heart. 

The silo continues two more stories below, ending in concrete channels that funnel the exhaust from the dual rocket motors back up the height of the silo and out into the atmosphere, should the need arise. 

Now, though it's all empty space. The rocket motors are gone. The missile is empty -- literally, a museum piece from a different era.

We return to the main level, walk down the long corridor, then into one more elevator. It creeks upward, eventually breaking the surface, and freeing us into the sun.

A step into history

The Titan Missile Museum is an incredible and unique experience. It's unlike any place you've seen before. Unless you're a trekkie, that is. The museum and missile were used as a set and prop in "First Contact," as close to a good Trek movie as we "ST:TNG" fans got. As I explored the facility, I wondered if Hugh Howey had visited here and got inspired to write his brilliant "Silo" series.

There are multiple tours available. The basic tour covers Launch Control and the top of the silo. The more elaborate tours let you see even more, like the living quarters and underneath the missile. On one tour, you can even stay overnight.

The Titan Missile Museum is a fascinating look into history, and if you find yourself in southern Arizona (in the winter, I hope, for your sake), I highly recommend checking it out.


In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarinesmedieval castlesiconic music studios and more. You can follow his exploits on TwitterInstagram and on his travel blog BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel