Visitors peer inside a decommissioned Minute Man Missile silo near Wall, South Dakota.

Visitors peer inside a decommissioned Minute Man Missile silo near Wall, South Dakota.

The key to keeping everyone happy on a family vacation is ensuring that everyone gets to do at least one thing he or she really wants to do. For my husband on our family vacation in South Dakota, that was the Minute Man Missile Silo tour near Wall.

The decommissioned missile (war head removed) remains in its silo on the middle of a South Dakota field, but it’s now part of a national historic site that includes a visitor center 15 miles away. That’s where you have to go to pick up the free tickets that entitle you to tour the command facility.

Understanding the Cold War

Minute Man missiles were a Cold War creation. They used solid fuel which, according to our guide, U.S. Park Ranger and historian Butch Davis, meant the missiles could be out of the silos and on their way to Soviet Union targets within five minutes. Conversely, inter-continental ballistic missiles use liquid fuel, which means they can take 30 minutes or more to arm and send on their destructive way. That time delay meant that a Soviet missile could conceivably destroy the ICBMs before they ever got off the ground. But, as Davis said, once the Minute Man Missile leaves the silo, “Next stop, Moscow.”

This decommissioned missile (warhead removed) is stark reminder of how close the U.S. came to nuclear war.

This decommissioned missile (warhead removed) is stark reminder of how close the U.S. came to nuclear war.

As my husband, a Cold War junkie, nodded along, Davis explained that the missiles were kept as defensive weapons only. They deterred the Soviet Union from launching a first strike because the Soviets understood that the United States could launch a retaliatory strike before the Soviet missiles hit the U.S. It all adds up to the “mutually assured destruction” I remember learning about in my high school history class.

The tour includes a look inside the command center, where Davis explained the process for staffing the site (women joined the crew in the mid-80s) and fielded questions about what guaranteed that none of the folks with their fingers on the button–literally–could not go rogue and decide to launch a first strike. (A launch required two keys, 12 feet apart, turned simultaneously, as well as agreement from an offsite location.)

Teens Can Be a Tough Crowd

A Air Force missileer with a sense of humor painted this on the door to the command center.

A Air Force missileer with a sense of humor painted this on the door to the command center.

Like all good National Park Rangers, Davis did his best to engage my teens, including chatting about engineering with my college-age son, who is studying engineering at Purdue University. But it was a tough sell. The teens found it a little dull, and my 17-year-old daughter found the tight space to be a little claustrophobic.

They both perked up, though, when they saw the door to the command bunker. One of the previous tenants had painted it like a Domino’s Pizza ad, with the caption: “WORLD-WIDE DELIVERY IN 30 MINUTES OR LESS…. OR THE NEXT ONE IS FREE.”

If You Go

Tours are limited to just six people (it’s a small elevator and a small space), so they sell out quickly. If you want to see the command center, plan to arrive at the visitor center when it opens at 8am. Tickets are handed out each day on a first come, first served basis.

And if you have to wait very long, there isn’t much beyond a short movie about the site to entertain yourself or the kids.