Atlas & Titan Nuclear Missile Bases
Wyoming & Colorado

We were almost to Cheyenne, Wyoming when the hail started and I-80 began to flood. My cell phone reception was terrible, but there was enough of a connection to squeeze a tornado watch to my phone.

All the reason to go faster.

We’re going to the safest place in the world to hide from a tornado,” I told Kate, “just your standard hardened concrete nuclear missile base.” Fifteen minutes to go. We could make it. (We did make it…)

"Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world but in the processes loses his soul." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian writer and historian.
“Man has set for himself the goal of conquering the world, but in the processes has lost his soul.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Russian writer and historian.

Exploring What’s Left of the Atlas Nuclear Missile System

By the time we arrived, the storm was clearing and the Air Force was beginning to inspect the active nuclear sites nearby. At least, that was what we thought the black helicopters were there for. The hail started to melt as I backed the truck into the open doors of the nearest missile launcher, where rockets would be loaded onto the launcher itself. As dark clouds followed the power lines northward, it was hard to tell if we were any safer.

This remote base could launch three nuclear-tipped Atlas SM65-D missiles at a time; one from each of its hardened concrete and steel bunkers. In the center of the three launchers sits an even more hardened control building. The base was one of the first active ICBM sites in the United States when it was assigned the designation 565-B in September 1957.

In spite of its ability to once withstand an indirect nuclear attack, nowadays it looks a little rough. Bullet holes mark every steel door and the concrete is cracking from exposure to the elements. The blast pits below the launchers—designed to carry the missile’s flames safely away from the launch pad—are full of scummy water and toxic trash. If it were not for the constant humming and crackling from the nearby high tension power lines, it would be easy to imagine that the cold war turned hot and this was a casualty.

The Nearby Atlas-E Missile Base

In the distance, a semi truck kicks up fresh rain from the highway. As seen from the top of the steel blast door.
In the distance, a semi truck kicks up fresh rain from the highway. As seen from the top of the steel blast door.

An even more hardened base lies to the north: 566-2, a “coffin” style Atlas-E site from the early 1960s. The Atlas E sites are closer to what the average person imagines when they hear the words ‘missile base’. It is mostly underground and heavy steel doors over the bunker protect the payload prior to launch. Like the earlier Atlas D, the rocket is stored horizontally and raised into firing position after the doors open over it. Unlike the Atlas Ds at 565-B, however, only one missile was stored at one location at one time.

All of these design considerations were to increase the chances of a successful launch after a Russian first strike; if we were attacked first, even if the country was in ruins, we would have revenge. This is sometimes called the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD).

The program was not limited to the Atlas system, however. Because these technologies were new and relatively unreliable, the Air Force funded a separate and parallel ICBM system: The Titans.

Exploring A Titan Nuclear Missile Base

The large domed rooms were surreal.
The large domed rooms were surreal.

Base 725-B is only an hour east of Denver, one of a cluster of identical sites activated on August 1st, 1960 as part of the United States’ early nuclear deterrent. The three sites are just far enough away from one another so that a single nuclear strike could not disable more than one: about 17 miles.

We crawled through a broken air vent and found ourselves in a long tunnel, one that connects all of the sections of the base. The entire complex is underground and stems from a central control dome that contained all of the control and guidance computers. Near the control center is another dome that once comprised a small diesel power plant, flanked by substantial air filtering (for nuclear fallout) and exhaust handling equipment rooms. On the far end of the main tunnel were a pair of retractable antennae which could be withdrawn behind steel blast doors preempting an attack. On the opposite side are the missile silos themselves, also vertically shielded by heavy doors.

Nearly all of the accessible steel in the complex was scrapped and gutted, which made moving around treacherous at times. The subterranean complex is connected by large round tunnels that once accommodated pipes and wires along the floor and walls. Workers would walk through the center of the space on an elevated steel grate. When the pipes were removed, though, so was the flooring, so navigating through any given hallway meant walking on support beams to avoid the toxic water along the floor of the tunnel. Don’t drop anything important. Major portions of the tunnel system were equipped with heavy hydraulic blast doors and bulkheads to seal off fires resulting from accidents or attacks.

This base was equipped with three missile silos. Where the gigantic rocket motors and the nuclear warhead once waited, though, there is only dark space and ten feet of water. Nevertheless, looking into the huge missile vault from the edge of the personnel tunnel gave me a new appreciation for the effort and expense of the Cold War. Only my most powerful flashlight could illuminate the dark water some 90 feet below—the total height of the silo is about 170 feet. I still wonder what is submerged on the bottom. Far above, painted in bright red colors that have never been faded by sunlight, were the steel blast doors. Unlike modern missiles that launch from underground, Titan missiles were raised to the surface by a hugely powerful elevator and launched there, filling the silos with its fiery plume.

Water at the bottom of the silo was perfectly clear.
Water at the bottom of the silo was perfectly clear.

Thank goodness that, in 1965, this base was retired without ever having to be used. The fact that we never had to use systems like this is, of course, because these systems were so effective. Had they been any less well designed, they might not have been such an effective deterrent.

If you are curious about ICMB base design and rocket development, I strongly encourage a visit to South Dakota’s Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (Philip, SD) and Nebraska’s Strategic Air Command Museum (Ashland, NE). Both of these museums are safer and more informative than exploring a ruined missile base yourself.

Atlas D Gallery

Atlas E Gallery

Titan Gallery