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Visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site stands where the Great Plains meets the Black Hills. For 44 years, the United States-led Free World and the Soviet Union’s Communist Bloc aimed nuclear missiles at each other. The nuclear deterrence was known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Never was an acronym more appropriate.

The once-secret facilities are now revealed in western South Dakota. Looking down the now-unarmed missile silo is like looking into the maw of death, an eerie reminder of nuclear war’s risks.

The red brick, tan stone, and white metal Minuteman Missile National Historic Site visitors center.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitors Center is a quarter mile north of I-90 Exit 131.

The Minuteman Missile NHS stands beside Interstate 90 at the edge of Badlands National Park, an hour southeast of Rapid City and six miles west of Wall. Allow a couple of hours to tour the park, including drive time between sites. The three locations are spread over 15 miles.

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Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Bring bottled water and snacks because the historic site is not in a town.

A serious responsibility

The park headquarters include exhibits explaining the Cold War’s significance and the missileers’ lives and duties within the missile silos. Parking is plentiful and pets are welcome outside. Visitors may view one of the silos from above during regular operating hours. Take a tour of the underground control center with a park ranger. The NHS charges no entrance fee, but the Delta-01 guided tour does have tour fees.

One of the most serious responsibilities during the Cold War was to be part of a missile crew in one of the launch facilities. I imagined the military personnel carrying such heavy responsibilities, knowing they might have to push “The Button.” Then what kind of world would greet them topside? 

Red and blue buttons of varying heights with words explaining the nuclear proliferation timeline
Red (Soviet) and blue (US) buttons show the growth of nuclear weapons stocks from 1945 onward.

What you will see at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

From 1963 to the early 1990s, a Minuteman Missile field covered western South Dakota, hiding in plain sight. Fifteen launch control facilities controlled missile silos holding Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Minuteman Missile NHS contains three sites: the Launch Control Facility Delta-01 with its underground Launch Control Center, Launch Facility Delta-09, and the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Visit the visitors center first.

Thousands of Air Force personnel lived and worked around the nation’s vast arsenal of nuclear missiles from Texas to Montana. They were nearly invisible to passers-by. Only a concrete slab, a few posts and towers, and an eight-foot-high cyclone fence indicated that something occupied an otherwise open field. Maintenance crews and security kept the sites secure and always functional.

Submarine image on a overhang pillar at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
This pillar represents ballistic submarines, the third leg of the nuclear deterrent triad.

Exploring the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitors Center

The three pillars on the building’s front overhang represent the nuclear deterrent’s triad of air, sea, and land elements: nuclear bombers, submarines, and missiles. Nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base housed two of the three deterrent options, bombers and missiles.

Large cylindrical steel drum with warning and instruction stickers on it at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
The Minuteman Missile’s guidance and control section

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Lobby

The Cold War provoked intense fear on both sides of the conflict. The lobby orients visitors to the Cold War’s area historic sites, including the South Dakota Air & Space Museum at Ellsworth AFB. Another display shows South Dakota’s extensive collection of top-notch destinations.

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Domino's Pizza-tribute blast door that reads "World-Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less or Your Next One Is Free.
Gallows humor comes naturally to first responders.

Exhibits inside the visitors center

During World War II, most of the nation was safe from overseas attacks because neither planes nor missiles could reach America’s heartland. The Cold War changed that. Death could rain from above at any time. The exhibit “When the Home Front Became the Front Line” considers this change. Watch for the spooky Warning: Restricted Area…Use of Deadly Force Authorized” and the “World Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less” signs.

Related: During World War II, the federal government incarcerated Japanese-Americans at the Amache National Historic Site.

In Cold War crisis periods, people built underground bomb shelters to protect themselves. Schools ran “Duck and Cover” drills, which would have been useless in a real attack. Others lived with missiles in their fields. The Interstate System, including I-90, was part of the nation’s civil defense effort. Look for the 1962 Civil Defense supplies, an example of citizen and government attempts to prepare for a nuclear war.

3-2-1 Mark display with nuclear ignition device
Could you turn the nuclear missile key at a moment’s notice?

Meet the missileers

Gain insight into the lives of those who daily faced the ultimate nightmare of deploying a 1.2-megaton nuclear missile in the underground control center’s tight quarters. Ask yourself, “Could I turn the key?” 

Stainless steel toilet and sink combo next to a steel locker at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
The missileers used the same type of sink/toilet combination as prison inmates do.

Look for an actual capsule toilet — just like in a prison inmate’s cell — and a locker, filled with uniforms and personal memorabilia. Browse a “Top Secret” file of primary source documents, including “Minuteman Service News” and technical orders in a capsule chair.

Khaki-uniformed white mannequin in a hanging maintenance cage
Picture yourself maintaining a nuclear missile in this cage.

Those maintaining the Minutemen didn’t have to ask that terrible question, but they still had to keep  “the tip of the spear” ready for action. They kept the missiles 99-percent flight ready at all times. Look for a circular silo wall with a suspended actual silo work cage, a mannequin wearing a missile tech uniform, and a large floor graphic featuring a dramatic silo view. 

Red "We will bury you" exhibit including a propaganda poster
Fortunately, Khruschev’s threats did not come true.

From the Soviet perspective

Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khruschev said “Мы вас похороним!” at a 1956 reception at Moscow’s Polish embassy\. His personal translator translated the phrase as “We will bury you!” A dozen NATO ambassadors and the Israeli ambassador walked out.

Touching a yellowish cement Berlin Wall fragment
Meditate on freedom when you touch a fragment of the Berlin Wall.

In the exhibit, touch a piece of the Berlin Wall that divided East Germany from West Germany, and learn about the SS-18, the Minuteman’s Soviet counterpart. Personal photos, memories, civil defense and propaganda posters with English translations explain the opposite perspective. 

Related: Fort Leavenworth displays an entire Berlin Wall slab.

"Split Second Decisions" countdown is at 9 seconds to impact.
Could you make the split-second decision to respond?

The Red Phone and split-second decisions

What if you got the call that the other side had launched nuclear missiles? Consider all aspects of your decision and the effects on the world. Compare the lines of communications from the Commander in Chief to the two-man missile capsule crew. No single person could authorize, arm, or launch a Minuteman Missile. Because of these precautions, no nation has launched nuclear weapons since 1945 — although the world endured near-misses. However, the two sides fought proxy wars in Vietnam and other places.

Listen to oral history on the Red Phone. The Red Phone in the Oval Office is a Hollywood myth. Instead of the iconic telephone, a pair of teletype machines connected the nations’ defense establishments.

Pin reading, "Mission Complete: Aggressor Beware, 1962-1994"
A celebratory pin including a missileer badge

Standing down the Minuteman Missiles

Tensions cooled after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved. East and West negotiated arms reductions, although plenty of nuclear missiles remain. Look for the blast door cover from the Oscar-01 launch control center. The last display explains missile sites’ downsizing, including US and Soviet mutual inspections and the park’s establishment of the park. Watch a silent video loop showing the disarming and dismantlement process.

Taking tours of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility

The Delta-01 Launch Control Facility’s topside support building is visible from the Interstate, but the Launch Control Center is 31 feet down. Access is limited to 45-minute ranger-guided tours. Delta-01 tours are limited to six people and they fill up quickly. Reserve a slot up to 90 days before you arrive because same-day tours are unavailable during the summer. Tours last 45 minutes from the entry gate. Visitors must walk a quarter of a mile without assistance. 

Roxie’s reliable report: If you’re not on a tour, you may look through the fence into the compound. Can’t do all that walking and potential climbing? Watch the virtual tour.

Tour guest requirements

To go underground, all guests must be able to climb two 15-foot ladders without help in case the elevator fails. (The sturdy ladders are firmly attached to the silo walls.) Children must be at least 40 inches tall and six years old.

Beware if you struggle with claustrophobia because the elevator is cramped with six adults in close proximity. Acrophobic people may be uneasy because the silo is 35 feet high and the elevator door is an open grate. 

Glass covered disarmed white Minuteman Missile in its steel-plated silo
The deadly deterrence

Viewing the Delta-09 Missile Silo

The Delta-09 is on a dirt road off I-90’s Exit 116.

The Delta-09 missile silo contained a fully operational Minuteman Missile with a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead from 1963 to the early 1990s. The missile silo was one of 150 western South Dakota sites. The United States spread 1,000 Minuteman missiles across the nation during the Cold War.

Roxie’s reliable report: By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima produced 15 kilotons of explosive power.

The reinforced concrete silo is 12 feet across and 80 feet deep and lined with steel plate. The former steel door is now glass and the current missile is unarmed. Tours are not available for safety reasons. Support structures like antennas and motion sensors surround the silo. Look for the cover and its rails.

Roxie’s reliable report: Learn more with a cell-phone guided tour. Air Force veterans narrate Minuteman Missile history and operational details. 

Why missiles dotted the Great Plains

The missiles hid in the expanses of the Great Plains for three reasons: 

  • 1) Distance to the target — The Great Plains provided the shortest route to the United States’ main Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union was over the North Pole. Launch Facility (Missile Silo) Delta-09 flight to Moscow was about 5,100 miles.
  • 2) More warning time — Keeping missile sites away from the East and West Coast provided more warning time from submarine-launched missiles.
  • 3) Fewer at-risk people — Because the Great Plains is less populated than the coasts, fewer lives were at risk from nuclear attack. Of course, that fact provided little comfort to those living on the Great Plains — if we ever considered the missiles.

Related: Visit Rapid City and the Black Hills.

About the Minuteman Missile’s origins in Cold War events

The Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, “First Lightning” on August 29, 1949, with help from espionage. They launched the first ICBM in August 1957. The same rocket type put Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit on October 4, 1957. The Sputnik success meant that the Soviets could strike anywhere in America anytime.

In response, President Dwight Eisenhower increased funding for intercontinental ballistic missile development. Eventually, the Air Force approved the Minuteman design, a three-stage, rocket-powered missile with a 6,000-mile range. Crew members could launch the missile’s single nuclear warhead from hardened underground silos. The Air Force began installation in 1961. The silos were 80 feet deep and 12 feet wide, occupying two or three surface acres.

Related: Experience Abilene, Kansas, President Eisenhower’s hometown.

Retiring the Minuteman Missiles

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) mandated the Minuteman Missile II’s retirement. Between 1996 and 1998, the Air Force dismantled the missiles, preserving the South Dakota site because of its proximity to Badlands National Park and the Black Hills. Modifications ensure other nations that the Minuteman II has been rendered inoperative. The national parks opened site opened in 1999.

Where to stay

Camp at Badlands Heritage Guest Ranch next to Badlands National Park or Sleepy Hollow Campground & RV Park of Wall. The map below shows regional hotel accommodations.

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