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Sunday, October 25, 2009
Home Sweet Missile Silo
By Rene Romo
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Southern Bureau
ROSWELL — During the Cold War era, 12 heavily fortified missile silos ringing this southeast New Mexico town housed some of the deadliest weapons in human history — missiles armed with nuclear warheads capable of laying waste to a city the size of Albuquerque.
Sometime in the coming months, a launch command center attached to one of the silos that housed an Atlas F intercontinental ballistic missile could become the retirement home for a bus mechanic from Minnesota.
Richard Pipes / Journal Keary Olson, right, looks over this Atlas underground missile silo, part of which will become his new home near Roswell. At left is Gary Baker, a Roswell resident who works as a consultant. Richard Pipes / Journal Keary Olson of Minneapolis plans to live in the launch control center of a missile silo when he retires. "I'll try to do what I can to make it less claustrophobic," he said.
"I spent most of my life living in the city, so it'll be quite a step away from urban," said 59-year-old Keary Olson, a bachelor mechanic for Metro Transit in Minneapolis during a recent visit to the silo 20 miles outside of Roswell. Of the site he bought 30 years ago, Olson said, "I'll try to do what I can to make it less claustrophobic."
A total of 12 underground silos housing Atlas F ICBMs were built in an array around Roswell in the early 1960s in a rush to match Soviet weapons systems. The missile silos, manned by the 579th Strategic Missile Squadron based at the former Walker Air Force Base, were active for less than four years, ending in 1965.
Olson's missile silo is one of eight declared "ready for reuse" during a signing ceremony last month hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers. The declarations capped off years of environmental studies and some remediation work by the corps. The corps is seeking permission to enter and do work on the four remaining sites.
Construction on the not-so-secret missile silos around Roswell began in 1960, and the 12-missile squadron was activated by late 1961.
The missiles housed in the silos associated with Walker Air Force Base were among thermonuclear pawns at play during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 when the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off over Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's failed attempt to install ballistic missiles in Cuba.
"The thing about these silos is they are historical artifacts," said James Bearzi, chief of the state Environment Department's Hazardous Waste Bureau, which was involved in overseeing the corps' cleanup efforts.
The missile silos are yawning pits 180 feet deep and 52 feet in diameter, big enough to house an 82-foot tall Atlas F missile with a deadly reach of 9,400 miles. The silos are covered by huge, now immovable concrete bay doors that weigh 75 tons apiece.
"You can't help but think about 'Dr. Strangelove,' " said Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry in a reference to the 1964 satire about the perils of nuclear deterrence.
With the deployment of more advanced and powerful weapons — the Titan and Minuteman missile systems — the Air Force phased out the Atlas missile program in 1965, and the silos were deactivated.
Between 1965 and 1966, the Air Force declared the property surplus, and the U.S. government subsequently sold off the 12 sites, among 74 former Atlas F missile silos nationwide.
The Roswell-area silos are now in the hands of private and public owners. One silo is owned by the Lake Arthur Water Co-op, which draws the town's water from wells on the 14.6-acre site. Another is owned by a Hollywood visual effects supervisor who once considered converting the structure for film storage. At least two missile silo sites have mobile homes on the property, but no one lives in any of the launch command centers, said Brian Jordan, Atlas project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.
The silos are reached through an above-ground entrance that leads underground to the two-level launch command center, which contains about 1,500 square feet of usable space. It's hard to find a more secure structure than the command centers, Jordan said, since the walls are 8 feet thick, enough to protect troops from a nearby nuclear hit and enable them to launch a retaliatory attack. Two-ton doors that once protected the command center from the blast of a missile launch remain in place.
Museum or data storage
Over the years the darkened silos were a source of fascination for Chaves County teens, who explored them with flashlights and covered the walls with graffiti.
"What more fun (is there) than to come out to these sites and play in them," said silo owner Gary Baker, a Roswell resident who operates the www.siloworld.com Web site and works as a consultant on missile silo conversion projects across the country.
The silo Baker's parents own, and which he has cleaned up with his father, sold in 1968 for $1,700. When his family acquired Silo 4, Baker said, it was filled with water 130 feet deep that had seeped in.
In recent years, Baker has marketed his family's silo site as a secure computer data storage facility. He has also considered turning it into a museum focusing on missile defense.
At present, Baker is working with different individuals across the country, such as Olson, who are planning to convert the structures into underground homes.
Olson said his plans have not progressed very far. He figures after retiring from his bus mechanic job in the next year, he will move to Roswell while figuring out how to turn the missile command center on the town's outskirts into a proper home.
"Until it's developed, I may be sitting in a trailer on the surface," Olson said.