Mental Floss is always a fun read. But imagine my surprise when my spouse tells me there are pictures of old and rotting nuclear missiles and an old Soviet launch control center (or capsule) on their site. The Soviet capsule is shaped differently from the capsules I worked in while watching my Minuteman missiles. Current US cement enclosures for the launch control center are shaped like aspirin capsules. Whether Soviet or US, each one is meant to be buried underground, deep enough to protect the launch crews from a nuclear blast.
The Soviet capsule looks more like the old US Titan or Atlas launch centers–except the Soviets built them little bit taller with several more floors. The Titan launch centers were huge, and made up of several parts, but the Soviet launch centers were bigger. If you look at the picture below, you can see the launch centers were also physically connected to the Titan nuclear missile launch tube by a tunnel, with an equipment support building in-between. The Soviet one doesn’t appear to have a tunnel linking the missile to the launch center. But the Titan launch center, while big, was only about three to four stories tall. The Soviet launch center was twelve stories tall. This might be considered a good thing if your crew partner ate beans and eggs for lunch.
Some people actually have made homes out of the Titan complexes (you can see some of the homes, for sale, here). The Russians don’t seem to be as interested in converting them.
The six-hour shifts the Soviet nuclear launch crews pulled sound luxurious compared to the 24-hour “alert” a US Minuteman Missile Combat Crew pulls. The equipment in Mental Floss’ pictures looks positively disco–era that is (the 70’s). Be assured that US equipment is at least as old in some instances–but some of it, such as the computers, have been upgraded.
InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMS) have origins with the space age and space race. The Soviets initially used an ICBM, one they called an R-7, to launch Sputnik 1 into the Earth’s orbit. That was the very first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. But what isn’t as well-known is the Soviets had successfully launched an R-7 as an ICBM first. They even announced its success.
But the Americans didn’t seem to care–hence the Soviet launch of Sputnik, which scared the bejeezus out of the Americans. It didn’t help that the current president during Sputnik’s launch, Eisenhower, downplayed the meaning of the space launch. Some, like Lyndon Johnson, used the perceived Soviet advancement in space tech to help him in his bid for the presidency. The United States Naval Research Laboratory certainly didn’t help when their Vanguard rocket, ripe with cost overruns and unproven technology, fell and exploded after attaining just four feet of altitude. Americans felt a reason to be panicked: if the Soviets could launch a rocket and put a satellite in space, but the Americans couldn’t, well suddenly the Soviets had an advantage when they placed nuclear weapons on top of the R-7.
The thing is, the R-7 was never destined to be the ICBM to hold the US hostage. It was too slow to fuel and had a very finicky launch sequence–things a Soviet army general considered as definite “cons” to use the R-7 as a weapon. The command capsules shown in the Mental Floss pictures were meant to launch a different kind of missile: the SS-18 SATAN. The SS-18 had as many as 10 thermonuclear warheads on its tip.
As hardened as US or Soviet command centers were, it definitely would’ve been a very bad day for the crews of either if a couple of enemy warheads detonated close by. If interested in what the other side operated, give the Mental Floss post a read.