Day 14: Rapid City to Albert Lea

Some laughed, some cried … I recalled a passage from the Baghavad Gita:  I have become death, the destroyer of worlds …

This is the oft quoted (though I am praphrasing since I don’t have access to the actual quote) entry from Robert Oppenheimer’s journal on the day he witnessed the first nuclear explosion in the desert of New Mexico.  Our species collective inquiries into physics and science have revelaed many marvels, many of which led to positive advances.  The nuclear weapon has always had that special asterisk in history … it very well ended up saving lives by bringing WWII to a quicker end, but this was a creation that we have had to live with.

Today I visited Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  It is relativevly new on the National Parks register.  After treaties ended the use of the Minuteman II missile, one command bunker and one silo were saved from implosion to serve as a historic education site.

Sadly, I was too late to register for the tour, and thus did not get to visit the bunker and go down to the launch room.  I did, however, get to drive the 15 miles back the way I came to the silo.  It is a few hundred yards off of I-90 at the end of a dirt road.  The silo itself was surrounded by a chain link and barbed wire fence, but from even a close distance would have seemed innocuous to any observor.  The 20 megaton thermonuclear warhead that used to reside there had the equivalent energy of nearly one-half the entire explosive force of the Second World War.

There was a very nice ranger there who answered many questions and told many stories (he wsa a retired USAF officer who had been stationed at nearby Ellsworth AFB during the 1970s and 1980s.  What in fact looked like an easy to invade space was protected by fairly sophisticated technology … ranging from ground sensors to motion sensors.  as he explained it, military police could respond to any silo in less than 15 minutes, though most of the alarms were cattle along the fence, jackrabbits, and in one case, several camels that had escaped from a live renactment of the Passion.  As amazing as the sheer destructive energy that used to be there (South Dakota ranked behind only the USSR and the rest of the US at one time in terms of nuclear forces), was the 90 ton steel and concrete door which covered the silo.  Partially retracted today to see down into the silo, it was designed to be completely blown up and away (on rails) of the silo (several meters) in the event of a launch.

The ranger gave me a lot of info on the missile system that finally triggered several “aha” moments as I was able to put together some history and some physics to explain how parts of the later Cold War had played out.  That was a cool moment.

The rest of the drive was (sadly) quite boring.  Eastern South Dakota is not nearly as good looking as the west.  Far southern Minnesota looks exactly like central Illinois.

Home tomorrow …

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