KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Not worth it. This quixotic mission to dig up one of Missouri’s entombed Minuteman II Cold War missile facilities is — two months into the hard labor — nothing but a muddied mess.
“If I knew then what I know now,” said Russ Nielsen.
He’s 66. He’s some 1,800 miles from his California home and his wife of 45 years. He’s got the screaming roar of an industrial vacuum truck still punishing his ears as workers hacking away 35 feet down in the earth feed a sucking tube with the quasi-cement and rock and water that was meant to foil anyone as crazy as Nielsen.
He’s twice over what he budgeted, and way beyond any concept of how long he thought this would take after spending the past two years generating 10 work plans to satisfy the relentless requirements of state and federal environmental regulators.
To date, he and the hired crews have only jack-hammered their way through the concrete cap and dug through the fill dirt and debris the military dumped into the elevator shaft when it decommissioned all of the Missouri intercontinental ballistic missile sites some 20 years ago.
What he really wants — access to the complicated den where missileers stood with the launch keys to 10 of the 150 underground missiles in Missouri — lies beyond a still-blocked blast door. Its steel is some 2 feet thick. There’s no workaround for that. “What if it won’t open?” Nielsen said. “Then all I’ve got is a shaft.”
From the air, the dead missile sites look like tiny barren scars. But they add up.
“Harden and disperse,” said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Joe Sutter, describing the hallmarks of the ICBM system — hard enough to take a nuclear strike, and dispersed across the Plains so the Soviet Union couldn’t take out more than one at a time.
“No one ever told me no, I can’t do it,” Nielsen said of his excavation efforts. “But I think they thought this was never going to happen. They thought I’d lose interest.”
On Oct. 6, he’s sitting by his camper when one of the excavation crew from Action Environmental of Kansas City is standing over him.
“The blast door is opened,” he said. “It opened on its own.”
It takes another day before the excavation crew thinks the cavern is safe and the water level low enough to go in.
Going into the steel capsule “is a bit on the creepy side,” he said.
It had been waterlogged for much of the past 22 years. It looks to him as he imagines a sunken submarine would look once lifted from the sea.
No furniture was left behind. No computers. No missileer keys.
Whatever is to come of it still means a lot of work ahead, whether it is on Nielsen, or another investor, or a history buff, or someone looking to shore up a sure bunker to survive the end of the world as we know it.
The whole thing was still too hard. Still probably not worth it. But now with a great relief, Nielsen said. “At this point, I’m happy I did it.”