View down the muzzle of the silo at a Minuteman II missile replica (NPS photo)
View down the muzzle of the silo at a Minuteman II missile replica (NPS photo)

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

– 1888 –
South Dakota

APOCALYPSE

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
    who is and was,
        for you have taken your great power and enforced your rule.
            The nations were enraged, but your wrath came.
The time came for the dead to be judged.
The time came to reward your servants, the prophets and saints,
            and those who fear your name, both small and great,
            and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”

– Revelation 11:17-18 (Common English Bible)

At least 25 National Park Service units mark battlegrounds. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site illustrates a battle that, mercifully, never took place.

Just off Interstate 90 in western South Dakota, you can peer into the devastating power of America’s nuclear arsenal. Built during the Cold War as a deterrent to the Soviet Union, thousands of missiles promised to deliver the most powerful weapon humanity has ever created around the planet in less than half an hour. Several models of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) were deployed – Titan, Atlas, Minuteman and Peacekeeper the most common – in missile fields across the central United States, away from population centers.

The site has two main centers. The retired Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, once overseen by Ellsworth Air Force Base 60 miles west, isn’t all that impressive, merely a maintenance building and equipment. A facility manager, cook, and six security personnel supported two missileers dozens of feet below ground. Visitors with hard-to-get tickets tour the underground launch center beginning with a claustrophobic elevator ride down to the facility, then passing through the multi-ton blast door that protected the crew and equipment from a Soviet missile attack. Beyond that they see the tight operations quarters where two officers stood ready, prepared to launch 10 missiles under their command on a moment’s notice. These stations were staffed constantly – every minute of every day of every year.

A few miles down the interstate is the Delta-09 launch facility, an 80-foot-deep silo holding a replica of the Minuteman II. The 90-ton concrete blast doors that protected the missile in this deep silo have been replaced by a glass window looking down on the pointed, 57-foot-long tube of propellent and explosive. Even knowing it’s inactive and that no missile of its kind had ever been used in combat, seeing the aerodynamic weapon renders the uneasy feeling of looking down the barrel of a gun. In its day, the live missile could have carried a 1.2 megaton warhead, equal to the explosive power of 1.2 million tons of dynamite, immensely more powerful than the nuclear bombs that ended World War II. Consider the power that resided in that silo alone, then remember there were 150 silos in South Dakota. And many, many more in several other states. Enough power in the United States alone to destroy humanity in a matter of minutes.

The philosophy behind America’s missile arsenal was “mutually assured destruction” – the idea that using nuclear weapons, an attacking country would in turn be destroyed by its victim. Thousands of nuclear weapons were manufactured by both sides. They stationed in land-based silos, naval vessels that could get within a few miles of the enemy’s coast, and airborne bombers capable of flying around the world to deliver their payloads. For almost five decades, the Cold War saw amazing technological leaps. The Minuteman II was state-of-the-art – a technological advance that could have ended humanity.

Those who lived through the Cold War had opportunities to consider the real possibility the world could end in their lifetimes on a moment’s notice. It seems a miracle we never saw a mushroom cloud rising.

The U.S. still has about 6,500 warheads, and other nuclear powers are estimated to have more than 8,000 warheads, in various states of readiness. International security poses many different threats now, but we still fear the violence that plagues our world. And sometimes, that violence can be in our backyard.

There are other times when it feels like the world is ending: The death of a parent or child or spouse. Rejection by somebody we love. Loss of a job or something we hold dear. Our faith tells us that God mourns with us, that God shares our pain, and that even in the face of pain and sadness, we must continue on. It can be very, very difficult, but the world does not end.

When have you felt like your world was ending? What did you do to move past that difficulty? How have you helped others move through those hard times?