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20,000 Leagues Under The Desert

By Gregory McNamee

THE THEME OF this Best of Tucson issue, as you may have guessed already, is the weird and monstrous--and there are fewer places hereabouts more weird and monstrous than the Titan Missile Silo Museum.

Fifty thousand visitors come each year to this decommissioned missile installation, Complex 571-7 in Pentagon parlance, which lies right across a busy road from the booming retirement community of Green Valley. Built in 1961 and deactivated on November 11, 1982, the installation is the one place in America where the average tourist--average, that is to say, in lacking security clearance to sensitive death-dealing bits of technology and real estate--can get a firsthand look at the weapons that once gave people around the world the willies.

One of 18 such missile installations--146-foot-deep holes crammed with expensive computer equipment and rocketry--that dotted the desert around Tucson during the Cold War's heyday, Complex 571-7 was a quiet place where four-man crews would sit 24-hour shifts, anticipating the day when the Reds finally got their comeuppance and Armageddon was visited upon the unhappy planet. With the crews sat a 330,000-pound, 110-foot-long Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile targeted on one of three cities inside what was then the Soviet Union. On the missile was painted the motto peregrinamur pro pace, "we are made to wander for peace." (If nothing else, the military has an exquisite sense of irony.)

All that has changed, of course, with the end of the Cold War. But you wouldn't necessarily know it in talking to the museum's staff of guides, most of them retired Air Force personnel. They give the place a living-history quality that is much more effective than, say, colonial Williamsburg, with its powdered-wig wearing dandies and stuffed-bodice servants. To talk to these crew-cut, mirrored-sunglass-wearing warriors on their home turf is to enter a dislocating, even frightening scenario, indeed.

These men will give you the facts, just the facts. They'll tell you, for instance, that the underground silo and command center used 1,100 tons of rebar, 2,100 cubic yards of concrete, 120 tons of steel beams, 200 tons of electromagnetic lining, and 117 tons of steel rings. They'll tell you that the Titan missile, after attaining an apogee 450 miles above the surface of the earth at a cruising speed of 17,000 miles per hour, could strike targets more than 5,000 miles away. They'll point out gear like the "maximum uncomfortable" rocket-fueling suits installation personnel had to wear when servicing the missile, the retractable radio antennae that would rise from the ashes if a Red thermonuclear missile landed atop the site and knocked out above-ground communications.

Local musical impresario Clif Taylor pegs the place just right when he remarks, "The combination of Cold War fear and modern humor in this place is really weird." Really weird, indeed, and utterly unique to our little corner of the world. Have a look for yourself. Take I-19 to the Duval Mine Road exit and go half a mile west. The entrance to the museum is clearly marked.

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