Four years ago, as part of my research for The Restless Hungarian, I embarked on an extended cross country road trip to visit structures that Paul Weidlinger engineered. Driving from West to East, I started experimenting with time-lapse photography from my car. In western Wyoming, with great cumulus clouds scudding overhead, I listened to medieval music: Perceval: La Quête du Graal (The Quest for the Grail). This music, in juxtaposition with the landscape, led me to imagine I was also searching for a grail, the container that could hold the essence and the meaning of my father’s life. Over the years I have both found and fashioned this container.
But four years ago, I used the metaphor in a darker context. The first step on my journey was to look for an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silo that my father had designed, a container for the world’s deadliest weapon of mass destruction, the MX “Peacekeeper” missile.
I suggest you watch the video before reading the context and history below.
The MX missile had a speed of 15,000 miles per hour, a range of 7,000 miles, and was capable of delivering ten independently targeted warheads. This weapon was so threatening that the Soviet Union could justify targeting up to ten of its own warheads against each MX missile. How could the U.S. protect itself against such an onslaught?
One answer to that question was a silo that could withstand the impact of a close nuclear strike. This was the “grail” of defense research and development that Weidlinger Associates focused on. One concept was to protect silos with giant, concrete slabs supported by dashpots, a kind of hydraulic spring that would compress in response to a blast, thereby dissipating some of its force. The mathematics behind the engineering was so complex that solutions only became conceivable with the advent of computers.
I learned that fifty MX missiles had been placed in silos in the rangeland north of Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is how I happened to be driving through the state listening to medieval music and looking for traces of my father’s work. I found the coordinates of one of the silos on the Internet. My smart phone helped me navigate to Site P5 in a hayfield about 20 miles northeast of Cheyenne.
The MX missiles were gone, decommissioned in 2004 in response to the SALT II treaty. But their silos were still in the ground. At P5 I expected to find awesome evidence of Weidlinger’s engineering skills, but all I saw as a modest slab of concrete on the ground.
I then discovered that although the MX missiles were produced, the silos to hold them were not. As the tensions of the Cold War lessened in the early 1980s, the cost of nuclear weapons seemed less justifiable. Therefore congress never authorized funds to build operational silos, although Weidlinger Associates had worked on the design, testing and development for years.
The Air Force’s cost-saving solution was to house the MX missiles in repurposed Minuteman silos, built for an earlier generation weapon. It was one of these that I found and filmed. It was one of fifty that were completely vulnerable to Soviet attack.