Fall Vacation

    So this story starts in December of 2007. I was at home on "vacation." Meaning I was just doing nothing at home and not going to work since I had to take some time off. I think I was watching the history channel about the history of rockets. The development of which was always for war and not actually for science. But with nothing to do, I was more curious about the silo installations. I had grown up in Kansas for a while, and there were always rumors that there was one near us, so I was fascinated considering that the whole concept of ICBMs scared the crap out of me when I was a kid (yes, I was too ahead of my time I think having nightmares over thermonuclear warfare). I somehow found my way to Silo World. I spent half the day just browsing that site. I think it would be cool to buy and restore one of these sites. It plays well in to many aspects of my personality. That site proved to me though that its a giant pain in the ass, though still did look interesting.

    About a year ago, I also went on a trip to Chicago to go visit fermilab and what WAS the largest operating particle accelerator in the world at the time. I also managed to visit 3 of the top 6 largest buildings in the US while there as well (and went up 2 of them). So I liked the idea of going somewhere to just do something fun. Well, after some more searching I eventually got to the Titan Missile Museum. I noticed that they had a top to bottom tour which looked very extensive. So I emailed for more information, and grabbed up the first available spot.... which was in September of 2008 (9 months later). They are the only remaining in tact Titan II missile installation. They also happen to be a national historic monument as well. You can read more about them here as well.

    So, fast forward 9 months or so and here we are, I am in Tucson, AZ. I flew in a few days in advance since flights were a bit cheaper and so that I could find something else to do here as well (same in Chicago, I spent the other days doing other things as well). I had no advanced plans this time though. I had a really hectic/hard couple of weeks at work with a lot going on, so I had not done any planning ahead for the trip. Well, when I got to the airport, I was going to the baggage claim, when I saw I picture on the wall of the McMath Pierce Solar Telescope. I immediately recognized it from Our Universe. I remember a several page feature done on the telescope at the time, and reading it when I was a kid. I immediately knew I was going there no matter what.

    Well, I checked their hours, and the tour that I wanted started at 10am. It was already almost noon, so I wasn't going there on the first day. So I went to the wall of fliers at the airport for things to do in Tucson. I don't think I have ever done that before, nor do I think that many people do anymore, but there is one other location that immediately got my business as well. The Pima Air and Space Museum had a picture of a SR-71 Blackbird on their brochure. That's one way to immediately get my business. The chance to see the SR-71 in person was irresistible. So, that is what I did on the day that I flew in.

    They had a BUNCH of planes actually. When I showed, up, there was only 90 minutes left before they were closing, and the cashier actually tried talking me out of buying my ticket since he said  there would not be enough time to see everything. I just simply explained I knew the hours before that I came and was ready to buy a ticket. I was starting to get annoyed that a. he wouldn't just sell me a ticket I had asked for and b. I was losing more time in the mean time listening to the pitch. Anyway, I got to walk through President Kennedy's air plane, see the SR-71 up close, and see MANY other interesting planes as well. One thing I WAS annoyed with though was that they were installing a new plane on one side of the SR-71 during business hours and had half the exhibit taped off. This was annoying because all my pictures were taken into the light (because they had the large door at the end open to bring the fork lifts in to hold the plan in place), also because I just never could see the other side of the plane. But, I took plenty of pictures, and saw a bunch of cool planes, including the one that I want, so I was actually done in only about 60 minutes rather than the 90 that I had ;).

    The next day started BRIGHT and early because Kitt Peak was 70 or so miles away and with the slower areas to get through, they recommended planning for a 90 minute drive. Also the tour that I wanted was at 10am, so I planned to leave the hotel at around 7:30 or so (I think actual time was 7:48). It was a good thing though because the ROAD to the peak only opens at 9am, so I got there just as it was about to open. I had noticed in advance that they have guided tours on their website that you can download as well. However, I was planning on just taking the docent led tours, so I didn't do this in advance. I knew that they had a discount if you purchased a day pass as well for the tours.  However, when I asked about this, the person working the counter actually recommended against it since he said that 1. I could just walk wherever I wanted (which I didn't know ahead of time) and 2. that they may not actually have the tours. Well, our tour guide for the 10am tour wasn't exactly spry, nor did he seem to have the facts committed to memory (he had a set of flash cards that he carried). I was happy to have someone to ask questions though and did enjoy the information that he was giving. After the tour though, I continued to walk around for several hours though taking lots of pictures, and would have enjoyed the additional soundtrack which the mp3's had. I did not notice any other tours that day either, so the cashier was correct in not purchasing other tours. However, I don't think it mattered that much. They have unprecedented level of access into the buildings and the grounds. Essentially any doorway or driveway not labeled as employee only was fair game and there were observation areas setup in the three largest telescopes as well as an observation deck which surrounded the entire outside edge of the 4 meter telescope. I had a great time there, and recommend it to anyone with a half day to spare in the Tucson area.

    Finally, the last day. It was time for the missile tour. Now, I had worked myself up about this tour for nine months. I have seen some pictures of these places online and they can be in complete disarray. I knew that at least parts of it were well kept, since they have regular tours, but I think that I figured that the "top to bottom" tour would be crawling all over the hard to get to places in the silo. They sent a 5 page long document to sign in advance about the dangers of mold, asbestos, physical capability, clothing requirements, etc. One of the requirements listed is to fit through a 24 inch hole. They explained as well to make sure to wear something that could get dirty as well. I figured we would be crawling around all sorts of interesting places in and around the infrastructure of the silo.

    I was wrong. At no time did we go anywhere with 2 feet diameter clearance. Sure, level one was pretty tight, and you have to climb a ladder to get there, but you probably could have fit inside 2.5 to 3 ft and have been fine. Both of these areas we were just standing and listening though. At no point did we ever do anything but stand and walk around. Hell, as an exclamation to it, there is a darn elevator in the side of the silo that took us to all the levels (except level 9.... which we didn't get to go to). I mean, we enter a level, hit the light switch, walk around the level, and go to the next level. That's it. Don't get me wrong, I was enamored with the place. I can just eat up all the information they could have given. In fact, if I had one suggestion for them, it would be to explain in greater detail how everything worked. I mean, I have the capability to understand a bit beyond ac generators and RF transmitters. I am interested in how it all tied in together, how the control systems worked, etc. Now, I could have asked a lot of questions, but the way that the tour works is that we went to the control center first, so I didn't really get some of the stuff he was pointing out. THEN, when we went over to the silo, I started thinking of questions of the controls once I saw the things that they were connected to on the other side. If it were me, I would start with a briefing as an overview of the complex (which they did... but not to much depth), then start with the silo and follow up with the control center connecting together all the components that were shown in the silo.

    Now one thing I should say is that the people that they have doing the restoration are paying EXTRA attention to detail. They are working hard to make everything look (and for the most part act) like it did when it was active. The only difference obviously being the missile. Other than that, the cabling/wiring/labeling is all as it was when the place was built. Our tour guide was a former titan II commander, so he was well familiar with both the systems and practices which went on. I would say that was an excellent touch and he did a great job as well. I very much appreciated having a guide who was intimately familiar not because they had to be as a guide, but because that used to be their job. In general, a missile silo is both so well designed and not so well designed its amazing. I mean the level of functionality, redundancy, and efficiency that was designed into the complex  (without the aid of computers) is just amazing. Yet at the same time, we were always spotting odd design issues such as certain components being many floors away from other components that they have to work with, or how seemingly everything is stored below and has to be pumped up to a higher level. The ONLY exception to this was water for sound dampening, which is stored in a large tank and gravity fed into the nozzles. The same tank also feeds the fire suppression system, but there were pumps for that too. Seemingly the whole complex is controlled via compressed air or hydraulic fluid (or sometimes compressed air that triggers hydraulic fluid). Even the 760 ton door could both open and close (once in each direction) using stored hydraulic power.

    The other interesting aspect of the complex was how much function changes when the whole purpose is so singular. Every system and process was designed around a singular purpose and that was to launch the missile. Nothing else mattered other than that. So there are contingencies, and backups, and many different plans for what do do in order to make that succeed. After which nothing mattered. Sure, they have somewhat of a design in place such that the complexes can be reused. Our guide mentioned that the turn around time for an installation was 30 days to get it operational again. But that is assuming no emergencies. My point I suppose is that all the planning for safety / backup / redundancy ends the point at which the missile is launched. All other systems not critical to that task are not as robust. Another interesting thing is the attention to detail in construction of the complex. Every component is labeled. Every bolted connection that I was was also labeled. These were all cataloged as well and available for the crew to study. (This reminds me of star trek quite a bit where officers were required to know the engineering specification of the vessel.) I almost want to write an entire write up on the functionality of the site itself its that interesting. It would take a while though since there are just a lot of components.

    As much as I liked it though, remember how I started this section above. I worked myself up over this tour for nine months. There was no crawling, there was no dirt (everything was just about spotless actually with fresh paint in most places). The only exceptions were probably levels 1, 3, and 8, but even then they were not that bad. But compared to the normal ticket price, I am not sure  that 70$ plus a flight/hotel/car costs was worth it. I feel lucky that I got to do some other cool things on the trip, because if I only ended up doing this tour, I really would have been disappointed then.


    But in the end it was a good trip over all I suppose and was just the right length in time as well. I have posted a few pictures on line from the trip here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jpsphotos/collections/72157607279555421/. I have many more as well if anyone is interested in the insides of the silo. Its not as interesting just by looking at the pictures as you may think though. It really was only after I left for the day and started reading their material that they gave out that I started putting together the components and got somewhat more interested.



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