Listen: Nuclear missile crew have a weird job

MPR's Stephen Smith observes an average day in the life of a nuclear missile crew based at Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. He finds out that there is no button to launch a nuke; it's actually a set of keys…and keeping the keys can be pretty dull work.


1989 San Francisco State University Broadcast Media Award, News Feature category

1988 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Excellence in Journalism - Radio Features category

1988 Northwest Broadcast News Association Award, award of merit in Feature - Large Market category

1989 CPB Public Radio Program Award, silver award in Local News category


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SPEAKER 1: She spent the month of January [INAUDIBLE]

STEPHEN SMITH: It's just after 8:00 in the morning, and 30 men in blue combat uniform are waiting in a windowless lecture room at Grand Forks Air Force base in Eastern North Dakota. This is The daily briefing for the 321st strategic missile wing.

SPEAKER 2: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Lieutenant [? Bigelow, ?] your briefing officer for today, 29th of July, 1988.

STEPHEN SMITH: The Grand Forks base operates 150 Minuteman missiles across a huge stretch of North Dakota prairie. The men in this briefing room are the launch control officers. This morning, they'll drive to 15 separate launch capsules buried in the ground, where each two-man team will spend the next 24 hours on alert, ready at the command from Washington, to fire a Salvo of nuclear destruction across the North Pole to the Soviet Union.

Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Goff is the assistant deputy commander of operations. He says the missile crews must be prepared to handle a profound responsibility. The average age of a missileer is 24. Goff says the work requires dedication and mental resolve, but isn't very glamorous.

GERALD GOFF: Yeah, it's boring as the dickens. The biggest challenge those guys have on a day-to-day basis sitting out there is to keep their head from slamming off the desktop, but they have to be ready.


SPEAKER 3: The roar of the engine.

STEPHEN SMITH: 24-year-old Mike Miller cranks up the standard issue blue Chevy Suburban. He and his commander, 28-year-old Jeff [? Burum, ?] will drive about an hour and a half to their launch capsule, known as Juliet zero.

Once they are down in the capsule with the eight-ton blast door winch shut behind them, Miller and [? Burum ?] will control a flight of 10 Minuteman 3 missiles. Jeff [? Burum ?] has been on missile duty for almost four years now, driving the same roads between the same fields of corn and sunflower over and over.

JEFF: Grand Forks Air Force base is approximately 20 miles-- is it West? West of Grand Forks, the city of Grand Forks. And that's why I'm not a pilot. I don't know all these directions. But anyway, so we're going West now down to Highway 2. And we'll go about 45 miles to the town of Lakota.

STEPHEN SMITH: By mid-morning, the crew arrives at Juliet zero, a long, single-story building surrounded by a tall fence. [? Burum ?] radios to the security team inside.


JEFF: [INAUDIBLE] Captain [? Burum. ?] Plus 3. All handheld items [INAUDIBLE] request permission to enter. We'll report to FCC for further ID. Copy.

STEPHEN SMITH: The launch center has sleeping rooms for the above-ground support teams, along with a weight room, pool table, and satellite TV. Once inside the building, I am searched with a metal detector.


JEFF: We, right now, are at Juliet launch control facility topside. The actual capsule is about 63 feet downstairs. We're outside the security control center. We have to go through this door before we can go through another door, which will take us to the elevator, which will allow us to descend to the capsule.

STEPHEN SMITH: And I have to leave my recording equipment here?

JEFF: That's correct. I'm sorry.

STEPHEN SMITH: National security rules do allow tape recorders in this simulation room back at the Grand Forks Air base.

JEFF: Commander, I've got a flashing status change on alpha 9. You have an [? Osi. ?] You have an OS 301.

STEPHEN SMITH: Captain [? Burum ?] and Lieutenant Miller are about to go through a series of training drills. There are some differences between this room and the launch capsule at Juliet zero. On a real alert, the men pass the time by watching TV, listening to cassette tapes, studying for advanced degrees, and one man is even allowed to nap on a small bed in the capsule while the other one stays on watch.

Here, in the simulator, the crews are tested on combat skills, skills which they say they hope never to use. Captain Rich Binger is the instructor.

RICH: Although we cannot discuss or demonstrate the classified procedures, we would like to demonstrate an unclassified launch sequence to you. We would like you to assume that the crew has received a message directing them to launch missiles. After decoding and authenticating the message, the crew will begin the checklist.

STEPHEN SMITH: Miller and [? Burum ?] said at control panels about 15 apart. Miller is the deputy. He studies rows of blinking lights, telling the status of missiles in the flight. [? Burum ?] is the commander, and he dials up the coded launch order.

JEFF: I'll read them back to you. Alpha [INAUDIBLE] Bravo Romeo Charlie Sierra November 5 Mike 4 Oscar 6. Do you agree?

STEPHEN SMITH: To fire the missiles, the crew must unlock a special red safe, take out a pair of keys, insert them in the consoles, and turn the keys simultaneously. Meanwhile, a crew in a separate capsule must do the same thing because it takes four key turns to launch a missile attack.

JEFF: Five seconds. We're in the [? cable ?] position. Hands on keys. 3, 2, 1, commit. I have a tile. Radio position. The tile is out. Hands on keys. 3, 2, 1, commit. I have a tile.

STEPHEN SMITH: In this drill, eight nuclear missiles are now roaring off to targets across the world. These men are not given to tortured introspection about their role in the American nuclear machine. Even though their wives and children live at the base on what is certainly a strike target, [? Burum ?] and Miller say that if the order comes, they'll turn their keys without hesitation.

JEFF: We are the backbone of this country's defense. You get right down to it. We are the backbone. There's no substitute for it.

MIKE: We're all defending our country. And to me, it doesn't take any more of a decision to sit in a crew in a capsule than it does to point an M-16 at somebody and shooting like an infantryman does. I don't see the difference. To me, you're still taking human life.

And the goal is not to take human life. It's to prevent that from ever happening. To me, people that question whether or not you could do it, I don't see anyone that couldn't do it.

STEPHEN SMITH: The Air Force has a program that's supposed to ensure the reliability of its missile crews. But Colonel Gerald Goff says there's no formal psychological screening process for launch officers.

GERALD GOFF: Yeah, we're all laymen. Yeah, we're not trained medicos. But you can pick up on whether or not a guy is going off the deep end or not, if he gets into financial trouble or any kind of thing that can essentially preoccupy a person. We can't have preoccupied people out there dealing with nuclear weapons, so that's what we need to avoid.

STEPHEN SMITH: The tour of duty on a missile crew is four years or somewhere between 200 and 300 actual alerts. Most missileers do not sign up for another round. But Goff says few, if any, ever quit because of doubts about the work.

GERALD GOFF: We tell them what could be expected of them, a worst case. Hey, we could be going to war. You could be killing millions of people on the other side of the globe. What do you think about that? Does that bother you?

STEPHEN SMITH: Lieutenant Mike Miller says he signed up for missile duty at Grand Forks on the advice of his father, who worked as a civilian on the Pershing missile system. Miller says being a missileer taught him what it means to be an American.

MIKE: You really treasure more, I think, the freedom that you have as being American. Just all the American values, the little getting your house, your wife, your little picket fence. It's the dream-- you see the dream from a different perspective wearing the blue uniform than you do-- than I did, at least, in civilian clothes.

JEFF: Hands on keys. 3, 2, 1, commit. I have a tile. Radio position.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is Stephen Smith reporting.

JEFF: The tile is out. Hands on keys. 3, 2, 1, commit. I have a tile.


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