Nuclear launch center "blast door" art

Design Observer has an article about "blast door" art, painted by the people who man nuclear launch control centers in the US.
 Images Vanderbilt.Delta2 Like the garish and cheeky illustrations etched across the noses of World War II aircraft, these images in launch control centers across the United States testify to the bravado of the men (and, from the mid-1980s onward, women) of what has been called "America's Underground Air Force." But they also reflect the sometimes surreal pressures faced by two-person missile crews on 24-hour duty alerts, waiting for a call to turn their missile launch keys and perhaps end civilization as we know it. "You're sitting there waiting for the message you hope never comes," says Tony Gatlin, who painted the Domino's homage as a young deputy flight commander at Delta One in 1989. "That's a pretty screwed up way of looking at the world."

Now an Air Force major and deputy director of staff with the 100th Air Refueling Wing, based at the Royal Air Force's Mildenhall Base, in England, Gatlin was struck by the similarity of Domino's delivery time and that of his missiles. "One went with the other kind of well," he deadpans. Gatlin's painting is one of only a few the public can see, following the transformation in 1999 of the Delta One control facility and the nearby Delta Nine missile silo into an historic site by the National Park Service (NPS). Under the terms of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the then-Soviet Union and the United States, many Minuteman missile sites have been deactivated or destroyed.

Link (Thanks, William!)


  1. I love you all and am a dedicated fan, so please take this in the manner in which it is intended: I would request that BoingBoing authors make an attempt to use “staff” in place of “man” when it is applicable. As the husband to a wife, the son to a mother, the father of a daughter, the brother to a sister, and as a feminist, I assert that it is high time we made this change in our language.

    Thanks for considering it, and double-plus thanks for all the great BoingBoing posts – you folks are teh awesome.

  2. Pretty interesting article. I wish it linked to more of the photodocumented crew paintings. It’s long been a dream of mine to explore a subsurface ICBM facility. I’m deeply envious of those few folks who live in fully-converted luxury home / missle silos. Well, except that they’re all in places I wouldn’t really want to live, e.g.: in the middle of nowhere.

  3. #2 Takuan, I hear you, but I have a feeling that this was not such a case (although, adding the right syntax to the sentence, this post could be a solid reason for the term “man,” although I wonder if women would have invented such devices if they were in charge).

  4. Has anyone ever been to a restaurant with a big group, and one person in the group scorns the waiter for getting something wrong, and then the rest of the group feels… well, awkward? Just curious.

    Irregardless, I would’ve never thought that blast-door art even existed. Then again, they do have a lot of time on their hands. I’m a big fan of the WWII era bomber nose art, and I find it interesting how artistically inclined a lot of the armed forces are. I wonder if there is any equivalent to nose-art or blast-door art in the current armed forces.

  5. anyone know how many people went batshit over the pressure and had to be either rotated out, counseled,drugged hospitalized or shot with the key in their hand?

    I really don’t know who would be better in the job; a bonehead with no imagination and damn little empathy or a person of all the finest human qualities?

    No matter how they broke the job of killing the world up into little ,doable bits, one single person still had to push a button – or, OK then,two – if the movies are correct.

  6. to:#7 I doubt that many people went nuts as a result of serving at an ICBM post. Most people can only how much pressure there is in this position but like in the Hitch Hiker’s guide, the idea of the Earth and everything on it being destroyed is just too much to comprehend. Even Paul Tibbets, the man who dropped the first Atomic Bomb was fine afterwards. He finished his military service and retired without sinking in to a depression.

  7. @ #1
    Man the battlestations…

    Staff the battlestations…

    I guess I’m just not that big of a feminist, even if I think it’s fine if women man the battlestations. Maybe I just think there are more important things to worry about than something so pedantic, but then I also think language is for communicating and not empowerment. Yes, yes, words blind us to how precious and special everyone is, etc.

    @ #7
    Actually, the system was designed with several safeguards. First, the two people in the control room for a group of missiles had to turn their keys at exactly the same time at two stations too far apart for a human to do by their lonesome. This would constitute one launch vote. Secondly, another control room would be in charge of the same group of missiles, and they would also have to turn their keys simultaneously with each other (but not simultaneously with the first crew) to register a second launch vote and thereby launch any ICBMs. Thus, you would have to have four highly tested Air Force officers to launch any missiles, people who had been trained to be part of a chain of command that emphasized that the only way we would launch is if the Soviets had launched first.

    From what I’ve read, lots of crews worked on higher education in the bunkers. Lots of MBAs, stuff like that.

  8. well, I hope when they had blind drills, someone came on the loudspeakers at the critical last second and said “SUCKERS!”

  9. For a lovely story of how you might pass the time in your lonely missle silo, I highly recommend a listen (or two or a hundred) of Josh Ritter’s “The Temptation of Adam” off of his latest album The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.

    It’s a magnificent song and gets better every time. There’s a video of Josh performing it on the Amazon page for the album.

  10. # 9 Some of those Cold War MBA students may now be nuking our financial system. I guess they can’t take the presure.

  11. # 1

    I must object to the use of the patriarchal and phallocentric term “staff” to refer to humyn beings in general. In our post-feminist and enlightened times, I’m sure you would agree that the term “humoform” is an entirely more appropriate and gender-neutral term, especially since we now know there is absolutely no difference between males and womyn at all. Thank you.

  12. Errr, sorry, I agree with his sentiment, I just thought it was funny to replace the word man with another word that could also be taken in a gender-biased way. Maybe only if you’re in junior high school, though. I was going for friendly laughter, sorry if I didn’t get there.

  13. Stu Mark 1
    As a woman, I’m okay with the use of the word man in general. Firemen? Man your stations? Sure! Why not?

    It doesn’t need to be seen as gender. As the daughter of a mother, the sister to a brother, I take the use of ‘man’ the same way I do ‘mankind’ or simply ‘man’ for humanity.

  14. My diesel dyke friend’s diesel dyke firefighter cousin does not cotton to being called a fireman. And when she tells you something once, you remember it forever. She’s got an ax.

  15. Who in San Francisco doesn’t have a labrys, a vesica piscis and a couple of pentacles hanging around their necks?

  16. The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is worth visiting. It’s just a little east of Rapid City, South Dakota, near Badlands National Park. Not only do you get to go down into the control “capsule” with the blast door in the photo, you also go out to one of the nearby missile silos, complete with decommissioned Minuteman II missile.

    I’ve got a whole set of photos of that visit on our family web site (pre-Flickr — need to get the full-res versions uploaded there someday) here, including one where you can see the six- or eight-inch thickness of that door, and quite a few of the geek stuff down there. And then the missile visit, too.

  17. I visited the Titan Missile Museum south of Tucson, AZ, last year. It’s a great one hour tour I would recommend to anybody visiting the area.

    “The Titan Missile Museum is the only publicly accessible Titan II missile site in the nation. Tour the underground missile site. See the 3-ton blast doors, the 8-foot thick silo walls, and an actual Titan II missile in the launch duct. Visit the launch control center, experience a simulated launch and more!”

  18. “You’re sitting there waiting for the message you hope never comes,” says Tony Gatlin

    The problem I have with people like Tony is that if and when that message comes, they’ll dutifully push the button and kill all of us. Not because we did anything to deserve it, but because someone told them to.

  19. Firefighter, Police Officer, Postal Carrier, etc.

    I’m not intending to appear pedantic. I am actually a fairly relaxed person (and the folks at BB know that I love them more than words), but I do assert that certain social changes are helped along when we all pay a bit more attention to language.

    Peace to y’all.

  20. An old high school friend of mine alerted me to this article on Friday. I’ve never seen this site, nor have a ever posted a ‘blog’ (or whatever it’s called) before responding to another site yesterday. I’ve got to say I find this little cyber universe as curious and foreign as most of you seemed to find our world as missileers of the Cold War.

    Though most of the comments seem oddly off topic (perhaps that’s normal for these threads), some seemed insightful and reasonably well-thought out. Others, however, not so much.

    So as not to divert the conversation from whatever tangent it takes next, let me offer up my email address (below) for anyone who’d like to ask intelligent questions about what life was like on crew. I’d even entertain a question from the poster of comment #26 if he’d care to take a moment to find out what “people like me” are really like.

    Best regards,

    Tony Gatlin
    Former Missileer of the 66th Strategic Missile Squadron

  21. no fear of diversion, say what thou wilt. Only the pointlessly vicious, terminally rude or just plain stupid get sanctioned here. And even then,not much.

    I am intensely curious. How did you reconcile duty with that amount of death?

  22. An interesting question, Takuan. Any answer I pose has to be caveated with the facts that, 1) I speak only for myself (although my thoughts were probably shared by most crew-dogs of the day), and 2) you must remember, I was pulling alerts 20 years ago…it was a different day.

    In the first quarter century of our ICBM force, our country maintained a policy of not launching a first strike against non-nuclear countries. In other words, our ICBMs were our ‘last line of defense.’ Once we were called upon, in theory, all other means had been exhausted to deter a threat against our country. Any deaths my missiles caused had been precipitated by the actions of others, and it was my duty to follow the orders of the commander-in-chief (the only one with the authority to release our weapons).

    The moment of personal reconciliation had to come way before we closed the blast door behind us. We went through rigorous psychological testing and months of training before we were certified to pull alert. It was during this lead-up time that we had to decide for ourselves if we could do our job when the time came.

    Many of us on crew had wives and children at home. Every time we left for alert, we knew it could be the last time we saw them. If we ever ‘did our job,’ we knew there wasn’t any going home.

    It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m convinced at the time, it was the right decision for me.

    Thanks for the question.


  23. Firstly, thank you for your most gracious reply. I value this opportunity to speak first hand with someone such as yourself.

    I need some time to collect my thoughts, if I may, but in the interim; (a crudely fashioned query, but your indulgence is begged) if then, you knew that attack had been made and that American casualties would be in the the tens of millions of men, women and children killed in the first hour of exchange, did you ever consider that the reciprocal deaths of millions of Soviet Bloc citizens would just be the seal on the death of our race? Did you ever consider NOT retaliating?

  24. I don’t know that the reciprocal deaths of millions of Soviet citizens would necessarily have sealed the death of humanity. There _is_ the whole southern hemisphere to consider.

  25. I would have cartoon-illustrated a scene from The Bedford Incident, where after Captain Finlander has led his ship’s crew on a harrowing chase of a Soviet Submarine, at one point, both boats stop and seem to be at a silent standoff. Finlander orders an anti-submarine rocked armed. A visiting ex-German navy Commodore says, “This is insane!”

    Captain Finlander: Don’t worry, Commodore. The Bedford will never fire first. But if he fires one, I’ll fire one.

    Ensign Ralston: (launching the rocket)Fire one!

  26. As is often the case, I find myself arriving late to the party. I was Tony Gatlin’s crew commander, and the other hand stroking a brush to the D-01 blast door.

    Don’t worry; I’m not trying to steal Tony’s thunder. This was entirely his idea, and his creativity. I just helped fill in the lines in order to pass a few of the countless hours spent in the little box, stories below the South Dakota prairie.

    Like virtually every other USAF missileer, I had to reconcile my values with the job at hand. Our job was deterrence. While most of the movie was ridiculously hokey, the line at the end of War Games summed up the reality: “The only way to win is not to play.” The only way “not to play” was for each side to know that the other was unquestionably willing to strike if given the order. The credible threat of mutually assured destruction is what saved the world from nuclear annihilation.

    No need to get all sentimental; a simple “thank you” will do.

  27. If that door was painted in 1989, it was not the first of the ‘Delivery in 30 minutes or less or the next one is free’ art. I worked in MMT and we had something really similar on t-shirts a few years before that. If I remember right, we also had OMMS on it somewhere. The lettering was different, though

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