How To Launch A Nuclear Missile In The 1960’s

After exploring and researching the abandoned Cold War-era missile silo in the Saranac valley I posted about on Monday, the one big question I still had was: how do you actually fire the missile? I speculated that this device might be a part of it…


Turns out, I was right. A reader by the name of Bob wrote a very detailed, informative, and absolutely chilling comment about how exactly a missile launch (read: Armageddon) would go down,  and I wanted to share it with those who might be curious. Take it away, Bob!


The first step once a message was received and authenticated was to remove two keys from a lock box.  The silo had two operators who sat about 15-20 feet across from each other. Both were officers and one was the commander.

Keys were inserted into the keyhole next to the phone.  At this point a series of buttons and switches were flipped/turned, pressed to enter the information.  The phone would ring at the secondary officers station for final verification and the keys would be turned and the missle committed.

It would go something like this:

(over speaker)
Message Follows:  AABTY872V9……
A (Commander): I have a valid launch message
B (Secondary): I concur.
A: Remove Key.

**each officer would then open a lock on the key box and take out their respective key*****

Now they would start entering information from a manual that was also kept under lock and key.  They would read from the manual step by step to arm, program, and launch:

A: Unstable the missle.
B: Check.
A:  Program in-flight switch enable.
B: Check.
B: Program online codes inserted.
A: Roger.
A: Enable Switch enabled.
B: Roger.

–at this point one of the two phones would ring with a final authorization call———-

A: Key turn on my mark


The key was turned and the missle launch was committed. The doors would fly open – literally – and the missle would launch.

The silo crew, now having done its mission, gets to kick back and wait to die.

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  1. Was the computers name “Joshua”? Name the 1980’s refrence.

  2. “The silo crew, now having done its mission, gets to kick back and wait to die.”

    I wonder if they also kept some alcohol and/or prescription drugs under lock and key for use at this point?

  3. Yeah, the opening sequence of Wargames is a pretty accurate rendition of the process.

  4. I had thought that each officer had to turn a key simultaneously, with the two key stations separated by a barrier so one officer couldn’t hold a gun on the other.

  5. The BBC drama from the 1980s “Threads” (see it on YouTube) is a pretty accurate rendition of what happens *after* the process.

  6. [Politician on missile silo tour] “Hey, what’s the button here … oh, no.”

  7. Almost right! You are talking about a Bomarc site. They were CAPABLE of carrying nuclear weapons for ground to air defense against incoming bomber groups. I doubt they were ever armed with nuclear weapons.

    The ICBM nuclear missile sites were in the West and they required a second capsule to confirm the launch. This would prevent a rogue team from starting a war.

  8. Hi Nick, thank you so much for the hard work and effort you put into this site – this post was totally fascinating. Takes my interest in NYC and surrounds to new heights. Again many thanks.

  9. Thanks for your hard work on this site – it truly is amazing.

    How did the missiles know which target to strike I wonder? Was each missile “hard-coded” to hit a specific location, or was it part of the coding that the operators entered in before a launch?

  10. @Mike S. –

    I recall reading that back when these silos were in use, the missiles had preset targets, though they could be reprogrammed with some advance notice. Today’s nuclear missiles do not have any preset targets. A launch order from the President would contain the targets, to be programmed during the launch sequence.

  11. @Peter: yes, both officers must turn their key within 2 seconds of each other (basically “simultaneously”, for all intents and purposes.) at least with modern Minuteman missiles, if both keys aren’t turned at the same time, it aborts the sequence and the missile is basically a dead duck. i would imagine, given enough time, the system to could reprogrammed and the missile brought back to operational status. however, considering this is a war event and the missile is most likely a direct target, it would never happen in reality. this is also one of dozens of fail-safes and barriers in place that make it literally impossible for a single person to ever launch a nuclear missile

    however, there has never been a barrier between the officers in any American ICBM system that i’m aware of. in the event of nuclear war, the sad truth is that they’re most likely going to die anyway, whether one decides to turn or not turn his key. also, missilleers have to go through rigorous psychological testing and training to make sure they’re mentally capable of 1) staying underground for 24hrs at a time, and 2) turning their key if ever necessary. i’m sure if it were to ever happen, there would be some that may not be able to, but having another officer “point a gun” at them wouldn’t make a difference either: they either risk being shot then (at which point the missile wouldn’t be able to launch anyway, because of the aforementioned two-person system), or dying ten minutes later from a nearby nuclear strike anyway. the other officer could argue and try to convince the person to turn the key, but shooting him would be completely futile, no matter how you look at it.

    however, i should mention that (again, at least with the modern MM system), another Launch Facility CAN gain control of that launch facility’s launch capabilities, and assuming the missile hasn’t been permanently “aborted” (as in the case of not turning keys simultaneously), a different Launch Facility could launch their missiles remotely. this was also the case with the Looking Glass airborne command system with Titan II, and i believe Atlas F (and maybe even farthur back than that.)

    @Peter and Mike S.: the missile did have preset targets, although the launch crew didn’t know what those targets were (they were decided on, and programmed, somewhere else offsite.) if you notice the first launch console scan on the original post, the top left section is the targeting section. all it says is “Target A Selector” and “Target B Selector”. when the SIOP (launch) orders were being executed, they’d be told which target selector to push, but that’s it. i’m not sure if the Titan and Atlas systems had to verify with another launch site, but the Minuteman system does. as stated before, MM missiles are not currently “aimed” a specific target. i THINK that the target is assigned as part of the launch code (which is a long string of numbers and letters), because the targets will be decided upon based on the threat location at the time of launch (as opposed to “most likely somewhere in Russia” during the Cold War.) however, i KNOW the officers still won’t know what the final target will be.

    about ten years ago, i asked a former Minuteman III officer why they weren’t privvy to the target location, and (at least when he was on crew), it was primarily a psychological one: it was thought by the Air Force that it was mentally easier to launch a missile at “some random place somewhere” instead of a “specific city where you know millions of people live”. it’s probably along the same reasons why ground troops tend to have much higher incidences of PTSD than fighter and bomber pilots, who never see the people they have to kill. i’m not trying to be morbid (not that war ISN’T morbid), but from a psychological standpoint, it makes sense.

    the MMIII officer i talked to said that he thought it might also be partially for security reasons: if a launch crew member were somehow contacted by spies, they wouldn’t be able to tell them any useful targeting information. this would’ve been an especially big deal back during the height of the Cold War.

    one final thing that a LOT of people wonder about: even a two-person crew cannot launch a missile on their own: there are dozens of people that have to pass down commands and codes through the proper chains for a missile to be armed for launch. if a two-person crew, for some reason, decided to just insert their keys and turn them right now, nothing would happen…well, aside from prison time at the very least. for a good example of how the sequence of launching a missile works and everything that has to happen, look up “Single Integrated Operational Plan” on Wikipedia. up through the early 2000’s, the SIOP was basically THE plan for how a nuclear strike would be initiated, from the President on down. when you read the section on how it was to be executed, you’ll see just how complicated the system was and how much stuff was in place to keep some rogue person(s) from initiating a launch. most other countries had a similar system in place.

    if you want to see how a Minuteman crew would’ve reacted during the launch, look up a PBS documentary called “First Strike” (the whole thing is also up on YouTube.) there are some inaccuracies in the overall “storyline” of the fictional part, but the footage of the Minuteman crew and airborne command crew are 100% accurate, as they were actually performed by active members of SAC at the time (they basically just filmed the crews during training scenarios. the crew members weren’t credited, but you can clearly see some of their name tags.) oh, and if the footage from “First Strike” looks familiar, it’s because some of it was reused for the early-80’s TV movie, “The Day After”!

  12. You ought to check out the old Nike missle site,in Sandy Hook.

  13. I have actually gotten to participate in a simulated launch, part of the tour at the only remaining Titan-II Missile Site open to the public. The museum is south of Tuscon, AZ and it pretty interesting if you ever get the chance to see it.

    Also of note, all the Interstate signage turns from miles to kilometers south of Tuscon.

  14. I know this post was froma year ago, but I just saw it for the first time today. Boy, are there a LOT of
    incorrect statements and speculation in this blog post! Let me clear a few up if I may:

    1. Most of the descriptions above are for systems that are not in existence anymore. I can’t attest to their accuracy, but I can speak with accuracy about Minuteman III.
    2. The opening sequence to Wargames is NOT accurate. It’s crap. The set looks accurate and the uniforms. Everything the crew says and does is a Hollywood version of what happens when an ICBM is launched. ESPECIALLY the Deputy pulling a .38 revolver on his commander and saying “turn your key, sir”. That is beyond ridiculous. At any rate, MMIII crews are no longer armed these days.
    3. Two keys have to be turned simultaneously to put in a launch vote. It takes two launch votes to launch a MMIII, so 4 crewmwmbers total (at least) have to turn keys to launch that way. The ALCC can also launch ICBMS from the air if the missiles have gone into Radio Mode.
    4. True that ICBMs are not sitting with a target loaded into the guidance set. However, it takes seconds to load a target. Targets, indeed entire warplans, are pre-loaded i to the computer in the launch control center. Which warplan is executed is chosen by national leaders and the missileeers load and execute that plan on receipt of a valid order to do so.
    4. And finally, Minuteman III crews CAN indeed see what target is loaded into each warhead in the entire squadron of 50 missiles. There is a story about a crew who had a map of Russia pinned to the wall inside their capsule and plotted out the lat.long of each warhead in the squadron to see what they were tasked to hit if they executed the SIOP (this was back when each ICBM had the targets loaded 24/7, unlike today). They could see the entire plan for their missiles and the map was consequently classified as Top Secret. They had to take it down so visitors to the capsule, maintenance crews, the cook, etc, who were not cleared for that level could not see it. Finally, the speculation about why the AF didn’t “let” the crews know the targets is pure fantasy. These crews knew, and know, that if they execute a full-up SIOP execution plan that cities nad civilians will be vaporized. That is the KEY to the unholy terror of nuclear weapons, and why they have effectively deterred enemies for decades. ICBM crews will do their part, knowing that if they turn keys for real then it has really hit the fan politically up topside. It won’t be a surprise. Not these days.