Rocket Man, Rocket Woman

August 10th, 2018

My journey inside a nuclear bunker

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The missileers gave us a test printout from their old thermal printer, which is still in use. Note the face circled in the code at the bottom.

The alarm beep, beep, beeps and we jump behind the curtain shielding us from sensitive, Top Secret information coming in over the Comm system.

30 seconds later, the curtain slides back open and the missileers — one man and one woman — continue explaining their roles in this bunker, this completely secured capsule dozens of feet beneath the … where, I can’t tell you.

A long, straight drive due north from town, across a flat, sun-hardened/winter whipped plain got us here — a nondescript building in the middle of nowhere. After a background and criminal history check, texted pictures of our driver’s licenses, sharing our Social Security numbers, and answering a checklist of do’s and don’ts, we were ushered into the Missile Alert Facility, then down into the Launch Control Center that monitors and hopefully never launches some of our nation’s nuclear warheads.

Coming down into this bunker, we take an industrial warehouse freight elevator, then pass through more than one enormous blast door that looks, feels and operates like an oversized bank vault. Topside, 19-yr.-olds with machine guns have just returned from patrol.    

Down here, the missileers devour the lunch our escort brought with us — omelettes, made fresh by a young man who then went outside to shoot some hoops by himself against the Humvee garage.

Underneath hardened layers of steel, earth and concrete, the young missileers sit inside an almost impossibly free-floating room that you could convince me was really inside a submarine somewhere out to sea. Their enclosure — the size and shape of a shipping container — rests on enormous shock absorbers inside a giant hollow egg, or Tic Tac. Everything is separated and buffered, designed to give way in case of a nuclear hit. 

They explain some of the consoles we’re looking at. Yes, part of it appears antiquated. Indeed, they are still using a system that sent the very first email and they give us a test printout from its old school, 80’s era thermal printer. One of the airmen circles the bottom characters to form a face.

But there are systems after redundant systems, in case one or many fail. After all, they are monitoring a small flight of our nation’s nukes and they have to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Even the air and electricity systems have redundant backups: one oxygen regeneration system consists of different chemicals that, in an emergency, the missileers would mix together and disburse by turning a hand crank. 

I ask a lot of questions: that’s the recovering journalist in me. (Whatever you see written here was cleared for me to share, by the way.)  I’m curious what goes through their heads as they perform their duties.

“We think about having our butts in the chairs and doing our jobs. We think about what we’re gonna do next weekend or what we’re gonna eat also.”

For 24-hour shifts at a time, (not counting travel back and forth, briefing and debriefing), two people remain in the capsule at all times. “We use a prison-size bathroom and sleep in a shitty twin bed,” I’m told.

My escort has been down in the Launch Control Center for as long as 72 hours. Though he can usually get seven or eight hours of sleep in that bed during his normal shift.

Oh right, the bed. Here’s where things get a little weird and I hope the Air Force allows this next little bit. You should only sleep facing one way in the tiny, curtained-off bed. Sleep with your head facing the other way and your dreams will be even more insane. There’s a large battery — one of the redundant systems — behind a wall at the foot of the bed. Make sure that’s always at your feet, ALWAYS. It messes with your head otherwise. 

The dreams they have while on alert? Well, they deserve their own separate tale. But I was lucky enough to speak with several missileers at a going-away party afterward. If cleared, I’ll share some of them at the end of this piece.

Yes, it takes two missileers to launch the ICBMs and they have to do it in exact synchronization. We saw the famous two-lock box, with the presidential authenticator inside. Tamper evident stickers cover a few of the sensitive dual launch controls to alert the other team member that you did something you really shouldn’t have done.

More tones beep, beep, beep and we jump behind the shower-like curtain so as not to see more Top Secret information come across one of the many consoles. 

As a pacifist, I am in an odd, enthralled state. I try not to process the multiple megatons of instant death for millions that sit beeping and buzzing behind the curtain. Is this the transmission that launches Hellfire from Clavis Pacis — The Wolf Pack, as it says on their insignia patches? I try not to think of the bigger picture.

All-clear, the curtain pulls back and we’re again chatting with the launch controllers. The man has a mandolin he strums.

As the conversation in the underground launch center winds down, the two at the consoles say it can get a bit monotonous, but then they surprise us by saying thank you for reminding them of their awesome responsibility.

We’re allowed to help push one of the enormously thick blast doors back into place and help spin the wheel to lock two missileers on the other side until their shifts end.

Our escort lets on that he loves leaving this place. When the clank of the freight elevator signals we’re topside, he breathes easier. Then as we walk outside, he stretches his arms wide and says how good it feels to be out of the capsule and see the wide open sky and land.

Riding back across the flatness, I rush to write down everything I can possibly remember, since no phones, outside electronics or note taking equipment is allowed in the capsule.

We roll into a late lunch at a brew pub on the prairie. Unbelievably, yet true and absolutely appropriately, Rocket Man, by Elton John is playing on the restaurant speakers.


Dreams of the missileers:

“I had a dream where I was in the movie Inception within another inception.”

“I sometimes wake up in the bed fearing that I fell asleep over in the console chair while I was supposed to be on alert.”

“I have very vivid, long dreams. I don’t remember them once I wake up, but they’re different than regular dreams.

“I experience lucid dreaming; I know when I’m in a dream. It’s very vivid; much more so than when I’m not on alert.”

“One of my dreams was insane. I dreamed I had a cancerous tumor that had it’s own teeth and hair when I was sleeping with my head toward the battery.”

I wonder what my own dreams are going to be like after this experience?

There’s one more thing several of them talked about. There’s sometimes a sudden loud pounding down there. They said it freaks them out. There are only two people in the control center and tons of dirt/feet of steel/yards of concrete separate them from anyone else. But abrupt banging right inside their capsule reminds them of sailors after Pearl Harbor who some said were pounding on the sunken ship’s walls.

One airman at the party after our visit said it’s probably a humidifier, but admits when pressed, “It’s a bit strange.”

(FOOTNOTE: Almost everything I wrote was cleared for publication. A few details I used were deemed too sensitive to share. But for the most part, the information is as I originally thumbed-typed it, riding back from the missile range.)

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