COOPERSTOWN, N.D. — The two keys that had to be turned simultaneously to launch Minuteman nuclear missiles were stored in a small red steel box secured with two combination padlocks.
The keys are gone, but the red box is still here in one of the remaining relics of the Cold War, the tense era when the United States and the Soviet Union aimed nuclear warheads at each other.
This steel-reinforced launch control center is the last of 15 once scattered across eastern North Dakota.
Until the doors here closed in 1997, Air Force officers were on duty around the clock, prepared to use secret codes and those keys to send missiles from underground silos on the prairie toward the Soviet Union.
Now this facility could become a museum, but the State Historical Society of North Dakota faces a one-year deadline and a fundraising challenge. By Dec. 31, 2007, the historical society must raise $1 million to turn the site into a museum and set up an endowment to operate it. Otherwise, the Air Force will dismantle it.
Save America's Treasures, a federal program, has given a $250,000 grant to the project. Merl Paaverud, director of the historical society, says he hopes the North Dakota Legislature will match that amount when its 2007 session begins Wednesday. That would leave $500,000 to raise. A museum would preserve "a whole era of our lives that really needs to be taught," he says.
This area, which has been losing population for years, also would benefit, says Becky Meidinger, development specialist for Cooperstown, population 1,100. "Tourism could have a huge economic impact on our area," she says, "and this could be our flagship."
Firepower at fingertips
This Missile Alert Facility a couple of miles north of Cooperstown is named O-0 (called Oscar Zero). Like the other 14 once in this area, it includes an above-ground building and an underground launch control center. Each was linked by buried cables and a radio network to 10 unmanned, underground silos containing an intercontinental ballistic missile with three nuclear warheads. All 150 missiles are gone.
One missile silo, called November 33, survives southeast of Cooperstown. The rest were imploded in the 1990s after the United States and Russia agreed in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Graffiti at the entrance to Oscar Zero's launch control center marks the date it was closed: July 17, 1997. A departing airman added the Latin phrase In Aquilae Cura: "In the care of eagles."
From the road, Oscar Zero looks almost ordinary. A one-story building contains offices, seven bunk rooms, a kitchen, dining room, TV room and rec room with racks of magazines from 1996 and 1997. The building is surrounded by several odd antennas and a big gate.
Inside, an elevator descends 40 feet, then opens between two capsule-shaped pods with floors that are suspended on giant cables to ensure stability in case of a nuclear blast. Each capsule has a 3-foot-thick door weighing several tons for protection from a nuclear attack.
One capsule contains backup generators and filters that would have kept pure air flowing, if needed. The entire facility cost more than $1 million in the 1960s, when the Cold War was at its peak. It was built "in a mad, mad hurry," says Larry Vetter, who maintains it.
The launch control center capsule is entered through a short tunnel. Inside, two officers were always on duty, so one rogue airman couldn't start a nuclear war. A sign outside says "No-lone zone. Two-person concept applies."
There's a tiny bathroom, a narrow bunk and two consoles with electronic gear and rows of lights indicating the missiles' status. The consoles are 18 feet, 2 inches apart — too far apart for one officer to turn both keys and launch up to 10 nuclear missiles.
The air is a little musty, and the equipment seems primitive compared with today's high-tech military gear. The red chairs have seat and shoulder belts the officers would have fastened if an attack was imminent. A round escape hatch is high on a windowless wall.
'Snapshot' of the past
Oscar Zero has been part of Keith Monson's life since it was built. Monson, the chairman of the Cooperstown-Griggs County Economic Development Corp., remembers "being taught when we were kids to get under our desks" if there was a Soviet attack.
He sees the facility as a cornerstone of the community's future. "It's a snapshot of what they were talking about on the news every night," he says. "This would be one of the major go-to spots in North Dakota."
Philip Parnell, 46, an administrator at the University of North Dakota, worked inside the launch control center from 1986-1990 as an Air Force lieutenant, then captain. He was one of the officers entrusted with a launch key.
There were scores of checks that had to be made during each shift, Parnell says, but duty inside the launch control center could be tedious. "On some days, it seemed like a very big deal to be here, and on some days, it was just the job that you went to," he says. "You had to try to forget sometimes about how dangerous and important this whole thing was."
Paaverud envisions Parnell and other veterans of Oscar Zero giving tours or describing it on videotape for visitors, who would watch a simulation of a launch alert and the insertion of the two launch keys. After visiting here, they could drive to the nearby missile silo. Maybe an actual Minuteman III could be displayed, he says.
Parnell says it's essential to save Oscar Zero. "It's a part of history that we really don't want to get rid of," he says. "It shows that we were determined to win — and we did."
Posted 12/27/2006 10:32 PM ET