By Jonathan Haeber
On Memorial Day of 2007, and then again in December, I visited two separate Titan I missile sites. The first was quite the introduction. The second was mind-blowing. There are no words to describe being in what is perhaps the world’s largest underground missile complex. In fact, I’ve tried more than once, and in my mind have not achieved an adequate description. Last month, I clicked on a random link and encountered the narrative of another man who had done the same. His words, and his story came much closer to describing the feeling in detail. Even better, this man knew all of the intricacies of the base. He was a true savant of Titan I – and probably the foremost non-military expert of these historic bases. I contacted him and asked if he would be willing to talk about his experience and he readily agreed. Though he prefers to be known here only by his first name, he was more than willing to tell me his story.
Discovering a “Titan” in an Early Tour
It was 1993 and Pete had just moved into Colorado. He managed to come in contact with someone who gave him a tour of one of the nearby sites. “This man had been there once before and had taken some pictures,” Pete said, “but he didn’t really have much in the way of technical information, he simply knew they were there.” Pete’s first impression was much the same as mine: “I was amazed at the scale,” he said.
Years passed, and around 1998 Pete had casually mentioned his visit to a friend, who had become so interested in the Titan site that he developed a business plan around its purchase. That’s how Pete originally got full, unfettered access. It was the beginning of a long-term obsession and the start of detailed foray into the operations and the minutiae of the entire base.
A Dash-1 Opens Doors
More on Titan I
In the following months, Pete and two others descended deep into the snakelike passageways of the base discovering bits of the past along the way. With cameras and bright sources of continuous illumination in tow, Pete was able to capture – unlike anyone I’ve known before – the entire Titan complex. Every nook, every tunnel seems to be covered in detail. His site (http://www.chromehooves.net) is filled with what were once top secret blueprints of each staircase and ladder, the silos, terminals, emergency escapes and air shafts. In fact, all of this would perhaps not have been possible had Pete not encountered a serendipitous find: Buried deep beneath stacks of junk, in a small room next to the power dome, Pete had found a complete Dash-1.
What is a Dash-1? It is essentially the technical manual to a Titan 1 complex (You can download a Dash-1 here 75MB – PDF) . “Typically a lot of documents were destroyed,” Pete told me, “A lot of the [documents] I saw down there I haven’t seen anywhere.” Within the 120 lbs of papers he would come to know the inner workings of Titan I’s operation – even the most mundane of activities, including detailed instructions on how to clean the launch console. Pete was able to glean all he needed to know from the Dash-1 and the nearby materials. It was his source book for his next project. “I had a big set of blueprints for the Titan base and I thought I could translate these things into a game map,” Pete told me matter-of-factly.
The Original Blueprint of the Titan Power Dome
Pete’s Three-dimensional Map of the Power Dome and nearby structures of the Titan base.
On his own, on evenings and weekends, in the period of about six months and comprising well over 100 hours worth of work, he constructed a detailed three-dimensional game environment that depicts what it feels like to be inside of an entire Titan base. As someone who has been inside of a base thrice, I could honestly say that it was an eerie and realistic journey back into those spaces. It sparked memories of visits to the silo that I didn’t know existed. I had felt the same feeling that came upon me as I looked down into the empty void of the silo – and it all happened from my laptop. I knew I had to talk to the man who created this game map.
Titan I Adventures in Narrative
As an interviewee, Pete is quite modest, but modest men are usually those who have the most to be proud of. I know for a fact that nobody but Pete (other than perhaps a few military contractors and past base personnel) could tell me the thickness of concrete inside of the power dome (“less than two feet thick of reinforced concrete at the apex”). The research alone – including the images, which I’ve seen nowhere else despite all of my own former efforts at researching the bases, are telling witness to his fastidiousness. Pete had an explanation for each intricate, working part. For example, he knew the weight of the missile (“in excess of 200,000 pounds”); he knew that the emergency exits were once full of sand (“A winch lowered the hatch safely as the sand poured in and the tunnel cleared”); and he even knew the dirtiest, grittiest details (literally) – the bathroom fixtures were built to be entirely shock proof, the toilets of which are probably the only toilets in the world sitting on shock absorbers.
The facility seems to resurrect itself through Pete’s descriptions. Everything becomes an anthropomorphic organ. The power dome is the “heart” of the site, and the control center (a much smaller dome, but no less important) its “brain.” One gets the sense of a massive, underground living organism, precision-engineered to deliver deadly weapons. Its proper operation is contingent on so many working parts that it almost becomes impossible to fathom how these things ran smoothly with little mishap and few fatalities.
Then there are the construction images… I’m sure Pete spent nearly as much time researching the bases as he did creating the 3-D fly-through of the base. I have never seen construction photos in such detail. Pete was able to dig up images from inside the silo, artistically captured in dramatic lighting and angle. The airman stands on the crib structure; to the side of him is a massive Titan I Missile. Off-gassing liquid oxygen seems to move within the image. The ominous weapon of mass destruction sits — peacefully, ironically — in its crib awaiting orders.
In fact, I myself have received messages from airmen who served within the Titan bases during the most chilling moments of the Cold War. Some recall the tense few months of standoff during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was perhaps the proudest moment in the history of Titan I and an unplanned yet convenient justification for their construction.
Peter approaches such facts neutrally and without agenda. He seems to see the sites as, primarily, a gigantic artifact ideal for study through observation. Never once do the political or moral implications enter into his narrative. It’s almost refreshing to see his approach materialize. It truly is a rare thing to have such a vast and time-consuming project not become something of a moral crusade.
Pete’s Final Days in the Titan Base
For Pete, though, Politics was too small (or too big?) of a subject to take up when his mind was set on one thing: The complete and unhindered exploration of the base. After all of the webpages one navigates in his site, the crux of it all is saved for last. Clicking through the blueprints you eventually find yourself at the silos themselves. Punctuated by photographs from its operation are the personal reflections of a man obsessed: “The missile is protected within the silo by 2 silo doors, each weighing around 115 tons each and opened and closed hydraulically by 2 pistons that control movement in both directions. Within this steel and concrete chrysalis, the missile rests atop its launcher platform, ensconced within a massive steel cribwork comprising the launcher system where it waits for the orders that will transform it from a mass of inert metals and propellants into a weapon of terrible power.”
In those sentences I finally saw it all. Those of you who have been inside of the silo know the bare nature of the huge cylinder of air. Today, the crib structure is largely absent from all but one or two of the sites today. Instead, what occupies the space is – well – space. And before reading Pete’s description I could finally imagine what it was really like.
Pete knew what he had to do next. His window of opportunity was closing. Pete writes on his site: “There was one place I had seen precious little of, and another I had not seen at all. With my mind completely gone, I set about planning on how to see the catwalk level of the silos.” With only a few months left of access, Pete set out alone towards Silo #3. With a rough sketch of his route planned, he decided to make the climb. Below him was 100 feet of standing water full of volatile organic compounds and god-knows-how-many-dead-rats; above was the catwalk. Between him and the catwalk was a hodge-podge of service pipes, bones of crib beams, and conduits.
Pete went up with no climbing equipment or buddy. His journey was pure madness, but a type of madness that he doesn’t regret. “I can’t say that I wouldn’t do that again.” he frankly told me. “After a while you kind of forget what you see and curiosity sets in again. I just had to see it while I had the opportunity.”
As Pete finished up his conversation with me, I knew I wanted to know what final thing: What did he think would happen to these sites. Where will they be in 100, or even 1000 years? I had my own answer, but I knew his take would be much more interesting. He approached my question with a moment of silent thought.
His wheels were turning. He was contemplating the engineering of the site, the thickness of concrete. The supercomputer inside his brain (like any human brain, multiples more powerful than the actual nerve center of the Titan I) was quickly figuring out his answer. Pete said he thinks these bases will remain beyond even 1000 years from now.
His answer was a surprise to me and it only led to a hypothetical soothsayer’s look into these vast, underground ruins. If Rome had its roads and China had its wall – would these voids become monuments to our civilization’s ingenuity long after we’re gone? Will America be known for its military might through these giant sites? Or will we create something even larger and more dramatic to put civilizations centuries ahead of us in awe?
I said goodbye to Pete and closed the screen of my laptop. It was an unusually warm day in San Francisco as I walked down Mission Street. Still, such bright surroundings — sunshine and fresh fruit on sidewalks — couldn’t take my mind off of one thing. Among the many things Pete had seen underground they were mostly dead things, whether they were the rats that had fallen into the 150-foot silo; the unfortunate rabbits that catapulted themselves into an emergency exit portal that went five stories down; or even the garter snake that had somehow navigated its way into the control center only to find itself famished until it had become a skeleton.
Despite the myriad of journeys he took, Pete had never seen a living creature until one of his last trips underground. There, in the bottom of the deck plating of Tunnel Junction #10 he saw a tiny creature fully functioning and alive. The image stayed indelibly imprinted in my mind as an emblematic metaphor.
Then again, I’m always trying to inject meaning into everything. Maybe it was exactly how Pete described it. Maybe it really was just a “lone salamander.”