It is ironic that one of the most frivolous of roadside stops, Wall Drug , is just down the street from one of the most ominous and serious, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. After World War II, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union became hostile as differences in political ideology and the shadow of atomic warfare loomed over both countries. Fear of nuclear attack created an arms race between the two countries that resulted in nuclear weapons stockpiles that could have eliminated life on earth many times over.
The Minuteman missile, named after the Minutemen of the Revolutionary War, was the deterrent weapon of choice for the United States. The missile could be launched in less than six minutes and could reach its target, up to 6,000 miles away, in less than 30 minutes. Even if the Soviet Union performed a first-strike nuclear attack, the United States could respond quickly enough to “take them down with us.”
Minuteman missiles were armed with the equivalent of over one million tons of dynamite. This is 60 times more powerful than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, that killed over 140,000 people. It is a devastating scenario. Minuteman missiles were developed in 1950, though the Minuteman II missiles located in South Dakota were built in 1960. In South Dakota, there were 150 launch silos and 15 launch control centers, all of which were operational by 1963.
In 1991, President George H. W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Act (START) to reduce those stockpiles. All Minuteman II missile sites in South Dakota were deactivated. The START treaty did allow for one launch facility to serve as an interpretive location and Launch Facility Delta-09 in South Dakota was designated to be the interpretive location.
Three sites, located within miles of each other, comprise the historic site. There is an office site, the launch control facility, and the missile launch site.
The office site, called the Visitor Contact Station (21280 Hwy. 240, 605/433-5552, www.nps.gov/mimi , Memorial Day–Labor Day Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m., winter Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m., free), is the visitors center for the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Located off of I-90 at exit 131, the contact station is the Park Headquarters location and is situated next to the Badlands Trading Post (Conoco Station).
The contact station should be your first stop for visiting the site. All tours of the historic site begin here. While it is not necessary to take a tour to visit the site, it will enhance the experience. Reservations must be made in advance, however, as tour groups are kept very small.
While at the contact station, view a film that outlines the history of the Cold War and of the Minuteman missile program and look at the exhibits of Cold War artifacts on display.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, tours are scheduled Monday–Saturday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. During the rest of the year, tours are scheduled Monday–Friday at 10 a.m. The ranger-guided tour takes about 1.5 hours and visits both the launch facility and the missile silo.
Launch Center Delta-01 is located off of I-90, exit 127, about four miles from Park Headquarters, and is the control facility for the missile launch. An abbreviated ranger-led tour that includes the opportunity to enter the underground Launch Control Center is available at this site (summer Thurs. 9 a.m.–noon). It is here that the missileers, responsible for the firing of the missile should the need arise, lived and worked (in three-day-on, three-day-off shifts). The upper floors of the site housed the living quarters for the eight personnel required to maintain the site. Basketball courts were installed outdoors, and a television room, library, and weight room were installed inside.
The work of a missileer involved hours and hours of boredom, since their only real task was to wait for a signal to launch a nuclear attack. Underneath the living quarters, 31 feet down, was the launch control facility. There were two missileers in the underground facility at all times.
Should an emergency war order come through, the missileers decoded it, agreed to its authenticity, and each missileer then opened their personal combination safe to retrieve their key. It required two keys, turned simultaneously, to launch the missile. The key slots were set more than 12 feet apart so that one person could not launch the missile alone.
Debunking the Hollywood myth, there never was a red phone or a red button to push to launch the missile. The formal tour that originates at the contact station at park headquarters includes a visit to the underground launch control facility.
Launch Facility Delta-09 (May–Oct. Mon.–Sat. 8 a.m.–4 p.m.) is the actual missile silo. The silo is located off of I-90, exit 116. After exiting the highway, head south for about a half-mile and the silo will be visible on the right side of the road. The silo is comprised of an underground launch tube, 12 feet in diameter and 80 feet deep, that housed the missile. It was capped by a 90-ton overhead door that would blow off when the missile was launched.
Today, the door has been pulled partially off and a glass viewing window installed. An unarmed missile sits in the site and the glass window affords a view looking straight down into the silo and straight at the missile warhead. Rangers are stationed at the facility only intermittently but a self-guided cell phone tour is available. Again, the formal tour that originate at the contact station at park headquarters visits this location.
There are several misconceptions of the missile program that are cleared up on the tour, including the use of dual keys versus a red button. Another misconception was that the missile sites were “top secret.” In fact, since the missiles were intended to be deterrents to nuclear war, their existence was highly publicized and the sites themselves were never hidden. Many, like the silos in South Dakota, were located right next to interstate highways in plain view.