Frozen but Alert in North Dakota

Out of sight, out of mind. Unless, the ground starts to rumble that is. The cattle won’t know what is happening, and frankly, a portion of the local community may not either. Hidden away, buried sixty feet underground are two blast hardened complex’s. The elevator ride down into the bunker was a transition from the world we know to life as it was in 1991. Not a single chair was out of place, verything is as it was in 1991. The difference is this time there is no need for a nuclear launch procedure.

DSC_0336.pngIf you spent too much time down there your way of life would be changed, if you welcome that change I may begin to question your sanity. Down here, there is no sun, sky, rain, thunder, or even a mooing cow in the field. Confined spaces, sedentary readiness, and the same walls day in and day out. This was life for many members of the military who became Missileers inside a Launch Control Center. Missileers worked twenty-four hour shifts, called “alerts” every three days, averaging eight alerts per month.  The two-member crews monitored the missiles and awaited orders twenty-four hours a day. Their primary duty? Await the order from the President of the United States to initiate the launch of a Nuclear Missile. How would you put that on a resume?


The front gate of the Oscar Zero Launch Control Center as stands in August 2016.

This site was decommissioned in 1991, it’s name is Oscar Zero. Located just 4 miles north of Cooperstown North Dakota, it seemed out of place. Constructed as part of the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s 321 Missile Wing, the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility (MAF) and the November-33 Launch Facility (LF) were completed in 1965. The Oscar-Zero MAF consists of an above-ground Launch Control Support Building  that housed an eight-person security and maintenance team and provided access to the underground Launch Control Center. One way down, one viable way up.

For nearly thirty years these two missile facilities were on continuous alert.  While the Cold War did not escalate into a full-scale shooting war, the U.S. continued to develop and stockpile increasingly sophisticated weapons. The single-warhead Minuteman II missile at November-33 LF and those controlled by Oscar-Zero MAF were replaced in the early 1970s by the new Minuteman III, which had greater range and could deliver three warheads to widely scattered targets.

The first Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) approved for use by the United States Air Force was aptly named ‘Thor’. The United States produced these from 1959 to 1960 and roughly 225 finished production. According to studies done by Commander Robert Truax of the United States Navy, the range of this missile was approximately 1,750 miles, or 2,820 kilometeres with a maximum speed during reentry of 10,000 mph or 4.5km/s.

The first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) produced by the United States was named Atlas. Atlas was one of the Titans in Greek Mythology who fought against Zeus. After losing the battle, Zeus condemned Atlas to eternally stand on the western side of Gaea (the earth), holding Uranus (the sky) on his shoulders. Being this missile could go farther than ever before, the name was fitting. Being able to launch a missile 6,300 miles from the target was great achievement. The Atlas missile’s warhead was over 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped over Nagasaki in 1945, and an estimated 350 completed production.


Titan-II ICBM silo test launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base

There was a brief run with the Titan I missile but after longer than expected launch times, it was redesigned into the Titan II. Until Titan, missiles were launched above ground, which reduced the military’s element of surprise. This is when the Launch Facilities (LF) mentioned earlier come into play. The LF housed a Titan II rocket which used hydrazine-based hypergolic propellant which was storable and reliably ignited. This reduced time to launch and permitted it to be launched from its underground silo. Titan II also carried the largest single warhead of any American ICBM. The Titan II was produced from 1963 to 1987, and it is estimated nearly 131 were produced.

The last missiles developed during the Cold War was the Minuteman-III missile. Can you guess why it was named that? It was designed for the sole purpose of being launched at a moment’s notice. This missile has multiple stages, but could land multiple warheads using these separate stages.


1. The missile launches out of its silo by firing its 1st-stage boost motor (A).
2. About 60 seconds after launch, the 1st stage drops off and the 2nd-stage motor (B) ignites. The missile shroud (E) is ejected.
3. About 120 seconds after launch, the 3rd-stage motor (C) ignites and separates from the 2nd stage.
4. About 180 seconds after launch, 3rd-stage thrust terminates and the Post-Boost Vehicle (D) separates from the rocket.
5. The Post-Boost Vehicle maneuvers itself and prepares for re-entry vehicle (RV) deployment.
6. The RVs, as well as decoys and chaff, are deployed during backaway.
7. The RVs and chaff re-enter the atmosphere at high speeds and are armed in flight.
8. The nuclear warheads initiate, either as air bursts or ground bursts.

The range of the Minuteman-III missile was approximately 8,100 (13,000km) and has an accuracy of 200 meters. This rocket could be launched from a facility such as November-33, and land in Russia within 30 minutes while reaching a peak speed of approximately 17,507 mph, Mach 23 for those interested.

Take all of this in, and realize all of these were being stored near communities. November-33 was a mere 3.1 miles from the Cooperstown County Library. Enjoying a book and a nice cup of a coffee, but what is that rumbling in the earth? Earthquakes are not common in North Dakota or most parts of the upper midwest where most of these missiles were housed. According to, at the peak of the Cold War, more than 300 ICBM’s and 30 anti-ballistics missiles were hidden away underground in North Dakota alone.

The missiles in the Grand Forks and Minot missile fields were not dangerous to the people who lived nearby. They could not detonate in the silos. The missiles were only dangerous if the Soviet Union attacked the missiles. Many people thought the Safeguard Complex at Nekoma was more dangerous than the ICBMs in their silos. The missiles at Nekoma were designed to explode as enemy missiles approached the Grand Forks missile field. The ICBMs would be protected, but the fallout from a defensive nuclear explosion would poison people and destroy farmland. Hundreds of people, including scientists and politicians criticized the Safeguard Complex. They called the consequences unacceptable.

While Nuclear deterrence prevailed in the end, I could not imagine living within 5 miles of a nuclear missile. How close the United States and the Soviet Union were to war, and somehow these missiles, thankfully, were never used. The United States claims these missiles would never be launched first, that they would be used for retaliatory attacks in the event the Soviety Union launched the first missile. Let’s just be happy they never did, as we would live in a much different world.