A former nuclear missile launch centre that closed as the Cold War was winding down opened Monday to a public curious to see what life was like at the once-top secret site.
The Ronald Reagan Minuteman site, surrounded by wheat and soybean fields in eastern North Dakota, looked much as it would have in 1997 when it was still active.
The former living quarters, a building that stands about 60ft above the underground nuclear missile control centre, still has the kitchen equipment, televisions, pool table and magazines it did when the site was closed.
‘It’s a true time capsule. It is furnished in ways that most sites could only dream of,’ said retired Air Force Captain Mark Sundlov, a former missile officer who now manages the site.
The living area contains seven bedrooms, including one that Sundlov uses as an office, a commercial kitchen and dining room, a weight room with a stationery bicycle, and a game room.
Visitors can go underground and view where Air Force officers once sat to wait for a possible nuclear war. It was their job to monitor 10 nearby Minuteman III nuclear missiles – and to launch them if ordered.
A freight elevator took about 30 visitors Monday to two cavernous rooms that resemble railroad tunnels, where the underground air smelled faintly of diesel fuel and parts of the floor were sticky with hydraulic fluid.
One room housed diesel generators and air conditioners to cool the equipment. Another was for two officers who worked 24-hour shifts.
Rows of light on a console showed the status of each missile. One labeled ‘missile away’ would indicate a launch.
One officer usually slept in a narrow bunk while a second was on duty. But both officers, along with another pair in a separate facility, would have to give the command for any launch, Sundlov said.
‘We want to beat down that idea that one guy who has had a bad day can push the button,’ he said. ‘People who don’t know anything about the system, I think they go away feeling much safer.’
Lari Helgren, 58, a former Air Force environmental maintenance technician, said his visit brought back memories from when he worked there on the launch center’s air handling systems, diesel generators and warning lights.
‘I’ve slept in this site and eaten in this site, and I’ve worked down in this site many a time,’ Helgren said.
‘I’ve seen just about every problem that could have possibly happened out here,’ he said.
The missile site, about three miles north of Cooperstown and about 70 miles northwest of Fargo, is one of a handful of US locations that commemorate the Cold War.
The National Park Service operates a former Minuteman II launch center and missile silo in South Dakota. In Arizona, historic preservationists operate a former Titan nuclear missile site.