The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Titan Missile Museum

Photos by RCP Photography

Nine megatons, for most of us, might as well be an imaginary number. Without context or technical understanding, it’s simply a numerical word that, admittedly, does sound a little intimidating even on the surface. But its full scope and meaning is lost without more concrete understanding. So let us assist in that endeavor — nine megatons is approximately 600 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II.

Now that we’ve established the degree of potency, let’s talk about the value of time. These nine megatons can be launched from a fully hardened underground bunker in 58 seconds. That might be less time than it took you to browse the table of contents, notice this article, decide you wanted to read it, and flip to this page.

After the initial sub-minute launch sequence, this same nine megatons is capable of travelling 6,000 miles in 30 minutes. If that doesn’t give you enough context, here’s a challenge: Pick up your phone. Call the nearest pizza place. Order a pie. Wait. By the time that hot tasty cheese wheel shows up at your doorstep, the nine-megaton Titan II missile would’ve traveled to the other side of the planet to remove an entire city — and its people — from the face of the earth.

That was the metaphorical elephant in every room of every home around the world during the height of the Cold War. The single-handed destruction of mankind and the permanent alteration of an entire planet could be effected in less time than it takes most of us to commute home. Preserving the knowledge and historical context of this particularly tense pocket of world history is the mission of the Titan Missile Museum just outside of Sahaurita, Arizona. We took a walk through this life-sized time capsule to get a handle on exactly what life was like for Missileers of the era and how the presence of these rocket-powered, city-killing sledgehammers may actually have kept the Cold War from going hot.

This immensely expensive, cutting-edge facility, housing the most destructive weapon in human history, was once patrolled by bored NCOs in rickety Jeeps.

This immensely expensive, cutting-edge facility, housing the most destructive weapon in human history, was once patrolled by bored NCOs in rickety Jeeps.

The Titan Missile Museum technically consists of two parts. Your initial entry, should you choose to make the trip, will be through the Count Ferdinand von Gallen Titan Missile Museum Research and Education Center. This building houses an exhibit gallery, gift store, and classroom. Immediately adjacent is the Titan Missile National Historic Landmark — the launch complex itself. This particular site was known as 571-7 and was attached to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in nearby Tucson. It’s the only Titan Missile Complex that remains of the 54 that were on alert during the Cold War. 571-7 was on constant 24-hour alert from 1963 to 1987.

Just make sure you try pushing and pulling the door before you call MCC.

Just make sure you try pushing and pulling the door before you call MCC.

The museum offers a number of tours varying in length and intensity, which we’ll talk discuss in a bit. Their introductory tour is a one-hour experience that costs less than $10 and is available every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. It starts 35 feet below the surface, where you’ll get to see the control room that was manned at all times and would’ve been the starting point for World War III, if such an order had been given. The director of the museum, a former missile crewmember from a Titan complex, raised an interesting point during our tour. Any live missile launch, even if performed within assigned time limits, would’ve been considered a failure by the command.

Telecommunications, back when “mobile phone” was a relative term.

Telecommunications, back when “mobile phone” was a relative term.

The primary goal of the Titan program was to serve as a strategic deterrent to Soviet leaders possibly considering a nuclear option. Unlike their bomber and submarine counterparts, the Titan launch sites were highly visible and deliberately made known to whoever had interest in such matters. That aforementioned nine-megaton payload was the largest in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Subsequent ICBMs used multiple smaller warheads. Even the sheer, somewhat incalculable size of the Titan II payload served as a think-twice signal for America’s nuclear-capable enemies.

Discussion in the control room included a brief, watered-down overview of how the launch order would be given, received, authenticated and then executed. The presentation included approximations of the forms and documents used by missile crews to decode messages and verify the required information. At the end of that review, we were even allowed to turn the actual launch key on the command console. The electrical system in the room has been wired so that, when said key is turned, the control panel will light up with all the same lights in the same sequence as during an actual launch. The speakers play all the same sounds and audio in the same sequence. Both occur in real-time throughout the entire 58-second launch sequence. It was a rather unnerving simulation, to say the least.

The nerve center of a Titan missile silo, the MCC.

The nerve center of a Titan missile silo, the MCC.

After we stopped worrying and loved the bomb, it was onward to the launch duct. This is the giant metal and concrete tube that houses an actual Titan II airframe. The frame on display at the museum is number 10 of we’re not sure how many. It’s also the only Titan II frame to never carry propellant or payload — it was used at the missile crew schoolhouse to allow future crewmen (and women) to become familiar with the Titan II, both inside and out.

This particular frame, as we learned, is also somewhat famous. The Titan Missile Museum has served as the set for several nuclear-missile-themed productions, including the Netflix Documentary Command And Control and Star Trek: First Contact. Neither the museum nor RECOIL can say much about the latter, but rumor has it if you ever find yourself at the museum and happen to be a sci-fi enthusiast, there may or may not be a special tour that you can request “off menu.” If you want to know more about that one, make the trip.

Hallways and stairwells aren’t quite as cramped as a submarine, but not wholly dissimilar.

Hallways and stairwells aren’t quite as cramped as a submarine, but not wholly dissimilar.

And there are a number of other equally intriguing tours that are listed on the menu. In addition to the standard one-hour tour, there’s the Director’s Tour — an extended, 90-minute experience with an in-depth recounting of the details of life on the Missile Crew, straight from the director herself.

For an even more comprehensive look inside the launch complex itself, there’s the Behind The Blast Door Tour. This 1-hour-and-45-minute tour takes guests more than 100 feet down, into the crew sleeping quarters and underneath the Titan II airframe itself for a one-of-a-kind view up through the launch duct. Make sure you bring your social media A game for that one.

An actual Titan launch key. The beginning of the end would have started right here.

An actual Titan launch key. The beginning of the end would have started right here.

Next up the ladder is the Top To Bottom Tour. This includes stops on all eight underground levels of the complex. Participants will see the silo closure door mechanism on level 1, the diesel generator on level 3, the bottom of the launch duct on level 7, and — more than 140 feet below the surface — level 8, with all of the equipment that was required to keep the entire complex up and running during its operational lifetime. Top To Bottom is an almost-all-day event that runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Seismic monitoring for both ballistic impact and natural disaster was vital to tracking vibrational stress on the fully shock-insulated facility.

Seismic monitoring for both ballistic impact and natural disaster was vital to tracking vibrational stress on the fully shock-insulated facility.

Finally, there’s the Titan Overnight Experience. This is offered only a couple times each year and must be scheduled with the museum well in advance. But that’s understandable, as it provides the opportunity to spend a night living and sleeping underground in the actual crew quarters of an ICBM missile crew. There are a number of variations on the experience, including catered meals and individualized tours based on interest.

Launch verification orders had to be checked and rechecked by two Missile Control specialists through the use of code books.

Launch verification orders had to be checked and rechecked by two Missile Control specialists through the use of code books.

Mutually Assured Destruction will remain an ominous and fascinating landmark on the journey of human history. With the current threat discussions coming out of the Korean peninsula, it has become even more relevant to understand the delicate balance and level-headedness required to responsibly wield nuclear power. We’re sure each and every one of you have your opinions on how, when, and why these powers should be exercised, scrutinized, and possibly even restricted or abolished.

The Titan Missile Museum offers its visitors a unique firsthand look at life under the atomic umbrella, truly rare in its depth and poignancy. Our experience with the folks there was eye opening and, frankly, a touch sobering. But, at the end of the day, it’s a visit that we’d recommend to anybody with even a remote interest in aerospace, engineering, military history, or the unenviable swamp that is international diplomacy in the nuclear age.

A little bump protection is prudent on some of the more extensive tours where you may be ducking and shimmying in and out of tight quarters.

A little bump protection is prudent on some of the more extensive tours where you may be ducking and shimmying in and out of tight quarters.

Titan Missile Museum

Address
1580 W. Duval Mine Rd.
Sahuarita, AZ 85629
Hours
Open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Winter Hours
(November-April)
Sunday-Friday:
9:45 a.m. – 5 p.m. (first tour at 10 a.m., last tour at 3:45 p.m.)
No admission to the museum after 4:30 p.m.
Saturday:
8:45 a.m. – 5 p.m. (first tour at 9 a.m., last tour at 3:45 p.m.)
No admission to the museum after 4:30 p.m.
Summer Hours
(May – October)
Sunday-Friday:
9:45 a.m. – 4 p.m. (first tour at 10 a.m., last tour at 2:45 p.m.)
No admission to the museum after 3:30 p.m.
Saturday:
8:45 a.m. – 5 p.m. (first tour at 9 a.m., last tour at 3:45 p.m.)
No admission to the museum after 4:30 p.m.
Admission
Adults
$10.50
Seniors, Pima
County Residents
$9.50
Military and Groups     $9.50
Juniors (Ages 5-12)     $7
Phone
520-625-7736
URL
www.titanmissilemuseum.org

titan missile museum

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