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Missile Museum Sparks Cold War Memories

Twenty-five years ago, a missile silo south of Tucson was one of the most top-secret places in America. At the height of the Cold War, it was part of a network of nuclear warheads designed to avert a nuclear attack. The silo housed the Titan 2 Missile, which could be launched in less than a minute from its position 150 feet beneath the Sonoran Desert.

The missile was never launched. And the site is now a National Historic Landmark that hosts a museum dedicated to the Titan 2 Missile.

Yvonne Morris led a crew in the 1980s that was trained to respond to launch orders that they hoped would never come.

"If you're being ordered to take your keys out and get ready to launch your missile, life as you know it is pretty much over," Morris says. "So in essence, you have nothing to lose."

Morris is now the director of the museum where the Titan 2 still rests in its silo. It's the last of 54 such missiles that were clustered in Arizona, Arkansas and Kansas. The rest have been destroyed. The Command Post deep inside the ground is like something from a sci-fi movie. Mint green metal panels are full of blinking lights, large switches, dials, and meters.

The missile site evokes strong memories for museum visitors like Rosemary Mancillas, who reflects on when she was in grade school.

"I get kind of a creepy, crawly feeling all over to think back on that time," she says. "We all grew up during that time of duck and cover. I remember as a child thinking we were being invaded by Russians, and we were all going to die."

Joel Sarich, a visitor from East Lake, looks at the missile and remembers a speech given by President Kennedy in October 1962.

"I can remember vividly sitting in front of the television and seeing John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis and thinking just maybe that was going to be the end. And I know there were neighbor kids who were much younger than I, who were very frightened and didn't sleep that night because they figured we were all going to be goners," Sarich says.

A few days after President Kennedy delivered the speech, the Russian missile facility in Cuba was dismantled. But it would be more than 20 years before the Cold War ended. Visiting the site, Sarich ays the the threats we face today are much different than they were back then.

"The enemy isn't well defined and neither are their actions as well defined. At least between us and the Soviet Union, there seemed to be this mutual respect for life."

But not everyone remembers the Cold War tension. Morris is now trying to raise money to help educate people who weren't alive at the time. In addition to tours and gift shop memorabilia, museum-goers can pay $500 spend the night in this once top-secret missile silo. For $1,000, people can sleep in the crew quarters, play war games at the commander's console, launch an imaginary missile and enjoy a catered dinner.

Morris says these options are just a way of bringing the period alive for visitors. She can't think of any other way to do that effectively — short of creating a Titan II video game.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Mark Moran