By Mark Alpert
Writing fiction is a great way to share secrets. When a writer learns something remarkable — about relationships or human psychology or the nature of society — his or her natural impulse is to write about it. And the impulse is even stronger when the story involves something hidden, a secret place or event or phenomenon that the writer is dying to broadcast to everyone.
Well, I have something to share, something that should particularly appeal to the writers and readers of military thrillers. Last week I visited an abandoned nuclear missile silo in upstate New York. I’m not ready to put this juicy secret into a novel or write about it at length, so for now I’ll tell the story in pictures. The photo above shows the entrance to the silo, which is located in the Adirondack mountains, just a few miles north of the town of Lewis.
I learned about this secret place through my friend Brian Andrews, an author of military and science thrillers. (You should check out his novel RESET, it’s amazing!) In RESET, Brian wrote about a decommissioned missile silo that a survivalist had transformed into a doomsday bunker. He received a letter from a reader saying, “You got most of the details right, but not everything. Want to see the silo that I own?” Brian said yes, of course, and he offered me a chance to tag along.
Before I go any further, I need to provide a little Cold War history. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, America’s nuclear strategists were obsessed with the so-called “missile gap.” They were terrified that the Soviet Union would build so many intercontinental ballistic missiles that they could destroy our own ICBM forces before we could launch them. America’s earliest ICBM was the Atlas missile, whose engines were powered by liquid fuel — RP-1 (a highly refined form of kerosene) and liquid oxygen (LOX). Because oxygen won’t stay liquid unless it’s kept very cold, it couldn’t be stored indefinitely in the Atlas missile’s fuel tanks; the LOX had to be loaded into the rocket just before launch, a process that could take an hour or more. But a Russian ICBM could fly to targets in the U.S. in only 30 minutes, raising the possibility that the Soviets could launch a devastating first strike that would destroy the American missiles before they could be fired in retaliation.
Our first response to this perceived crisis — as it later turned out, the missile gap was overexaggerated — was to throw more money into ICBM development and build a lot more nuclear missiles. But American strategists also reasoned that they could make our ICBM forces more survivable by placing the missiles in underground silos that were so robustly fortified that they could withstand the nearby explosion of a Soviet nuke. (The guidance systems on ICBMs were relatively primitive back then, so the missile might land more than a mile from its target.) So the most advanced versions of the Atlas ICBM — the Atlas-F — were deployed in silos more than a hundred feet deep, each lined with ten-foot-thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete. Each missile stood vertically on a steel cradle suspended from the silo’s walls; that way, the seismic shock from a nearby blast would rock the ICBM but not destroy it. If the missile survived the Soviet first strike, the massive clamshell doors at the top of the silo would open, and the Atlas-F would be raised to firing position.
By 1965 dozens of Atlas-F silos had been built across the country, including twelve in the Adirondacks, all located within a hundred-mile radius of Plattsburgh Air Force Base. But these installations became obsolete almost immediately. The Russians improved the accuracy of their ICBMs and increased the megatonnage of their nuclear warheads, making it much less likely that any of the Atlas-F silos would survive a first strike. More important, the U.S. had developed a better ICBM, the Minuteman, which used solid fuel (aluminum powder oxidized by ammonium perchlorate). Because this missile didn’t need to be loaded with cryogenic liquid oxygen, it could be launched within minutes (hence its name). By then, the U.S. also had a fleet of satellites that could detect Russian missile launches by their distinctive infrared flares, so the Minutemen could be fired well before the enemy missiles reached their silos. Best of all, the Minutemen were much easier and cheaper to build than the Atlas missiles. By the 1970s there were hundreds of Minuteman silos scattered across Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.
So the Air Force removed the Atlas-F missiles from their fortified silos, which were left to rust and fill with water. And eventually the federal government sold the sites to private investors. An Atlas silo in Kansas, for example, has been transformed into Survival Condo, a giant bunker designed for a community of luxury-minded survivalists. The silo in the Adirondacks that Brian and I visited is in the process of being renovated; the owner has pumped all the groundwater out of the deep hole, but there’s still lots of rusty steel everywhere, making it a very cool and eerie place to explore.
The silo’s owner couldn’t meet us there, but the property manager gave us a great tour of the place. The temperature outside was in the 80s that afternoon, but as we stepped through the silo entrance and descended the first flight of stairs, we felt the temperature drop to the 50s. Then we came to the first set of blast doors:
Considering that the doors were designed to withstand a nuclear blast, they were surprisingly easy to open and close!
Then we came to the launch control center. All the electronic controls for launching the missile had been removed, of course, but there were some reminders of the silo’s original purpose:
Then we walked down an ominous passageway:
And we came to the silo itself, in all its apocalyptic glory:
Here are the silo’s clamshell doors, seen from below:
Here’s a glimpse down into the shaft, where the Atlas-F missile used to stand:
Then we put on hardhats and made our way down the shaft, navigating a spiral stairway and some very rusty ladders. Here’s a picture of the very bottom of the silo:
And here’s another shot of the clamshell doors, but taken from the silo’s bottom:
All in all, it was a thriller writer’s dream. Or nightmare, depending on how you look at it.
And it was a timely visit, given the current geopolitical situation. Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Cold War is going strong again. Putin’s spies are murdering his enemies in the West with nerve toxins and radioactive isotopes. Five years ago he wrested Crimea from Ukraine and fomented a rebellion in that country, in the process shooting down a commercial airliner and killing 298 people, mostly from the Netherlands. And now he’s threatening to take over Belarus and the Baltic Republics. Is NATO really prepared to stop Putin if he sends his army into Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia? His forces in that region are so numerically superior that they could occupy the countries before NATO could muster enough troops for a counterattack. And then Putin would put on that sly hangman’s smile of his and say, “What are you going to do about it? Start a nuclear war?”
As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”