Life and work : 80 feet below ground

  • Published
  • By Glenn S. Robertson
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

The doors slam shut with a clang and the captain presses a button, starting a slow descent 80 feet into the Nebraska underground.

She considers all the tasks expected of her and her deputy while they stand alert in the launch control capsule. In a few short minutes, they’ll conduct a turnover where the crew ending their alert will brief the oncoming crew of what they need to know for their own time in the capsule – including information about any maintenance in progress or upcoming, the status of equipment in the Launch Control Center and at the Launch Facilities, as well as any other information to be aware of for the next 24 hours. 

The officers go down a checklist covering all the items to be aware of before custody of the warheads and the control center is turned over, ensuring nothing is left out.

When the turnover is complete and the other crew departs topside, the heavy blast door is closed and wheeled to a locked position. So begins the challenging period of alert for the two-person crew manning the most lethal weapons in the U.S. inventory.

The thought of spending a full day in an egg no more than 15 feet wide, 30 feet long and 10 foot high might be able to put a claustrophobic’s hair on end, but it’s all in a day’s work for a missileer.

“The way I like to describe the feeling of being on alert is that it’s like you’re in an airplane: there isn’t much room to move around, there’s recycled air, and there’s always ambient noise from the airflow through the equipment,” said Capt. Stephanie Sanchez, 321st Missile Squadron flight commander. “I’ve never felt claustrophobic while I was in the Launch Control Center, because I know that if there were an emergency situation, we aren’t stuck - we have the training to know how to handle it, and we can open the door to evacuate and get to safety.”

The capsule is lined on all sides with crucial equipment for conducting the mission, as well as support equipment for quality of life such as a stainless steel toilet and a bed. The space taken by the equipment leaves little space for the missileers to move around.

“It’s essentially a tiny shipping container filled with very old – but very effective and lethal – equipment suspended inside a concrete capsule and it’s all underground,” said Lt. Keeshia McDonald, 320th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander. “It’s like working in a Cold War Museum.”

Much of that equipment creates an endless hum of noise that can be both distracting and exhausting.

“The constant sound of the equipment running and the constant vibration from the motor generator, coupled with the audible indications from the console create an atmosphere of mental exhaustion by the end of an alert,” said Lt. Col. Robert Mack, 319th Missile Squadron commander. “It’s not dissimilar to being on a plane for a full 24 hours or more, so by the time the alert is over, you’re ready to be back on ‘solid ground’.”

With a system that was designed and installed around 50 years ago, stepping inside the capsule can be like stepping into history.

“It’s like stepping into the 1950s,” said McDonald. “We call the Launch Control Center ‘the capsule’ because of its pill-like shape underground but it’s also like walking into a time capsule.”

The missileers who shoulder the task of standing alert in the LCC know all too well the awesome responsibility they assume.

“When you’re on alert, you’re responsible for the safety and security of the weapon system and the people who interact with it,” said Sanchez. “Most days, that involves periodic checks of the security system or coordinating with maintenance and security forces at the Launch Facilities while maintenance is happening and I’m always amazed by alert because even the day-to-day tasks that become routine are still operating and maintaining a nuclear weapon - it’s an incredible responsibility.”

Though the work environment might seem intimidating to some, missileers remain undaunted by the compact, confining, and potentially even claustrophobia-inducing launch control capsule.

“For some, it can be difficult to be that far underground behind two blast doors,” said Mack. “However, missileers push past the challenges that come from working in a small space 100 feet below ground because they have a responsibility to uphold – and they get it done.”