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Sam Howzit, Titan II at the Titan Missile Museum, Pima County, Arizona, 22 October 2010, Wikimedia Commons

Issue Brief

Titan Missile Program

With the Air Force fully in support of ICBM technology, orders were given in July 1954 to the Western Development Division (WDD) to research alternate, more advanced designs to act as an auxiliary, if not backup, project to the primary Atlas program. As a result, Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company launched the Titan Missile Program from its headquarter facility outside of Denver, Colorado in January 1955. The program’s first achievement was the Titan I missile, which was 16 feet taller and 40,000 pounds lighter than the Atlas D. However, what truly set the Titan I apart from the Atlas missiles was its two-stage rocket technology which allowed it to carry W38 and W49 nuclear warheads, with 3.75 megatons or 1.44 megatons of explosive power respectively, over a 6,300-mile distance. After extensive testing, 54 Titans were put on operational alert, 18 of which were stationed at the program’s home at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.

Simultaneously, the Air Force invested in further improving its ICBM design, and in February 1963 successfully launched the first Titan II missile. The second-generation Titan boasted a one-minute launch time compared to Titan I’s fifteen minutes, due to an innovative storable, non-cryogenic propellant. Other notable improvements to the Titan II were its ability to launch from hardened, underground silos (making it less vulnerable to a first strike), its increased payload, and maximum covered distance of 9,300 miles.

Over the course of the Titan program there were a series of fatal accidents, two of which occurred in 1978 and 1980 and resulted in three deaths and 46 injured. In 1981, after President Reagan announced his Strategic Forces Improvement Program, Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci discontinued the program for both safety and technological reasons. Much of the rocket technology developed during the Titan program was adapted by NASA and successfully used to send multiple missions to space, such as the Gemini program.

Hidden beneath the crust of the Centennial State, six former Titan I missile complexes remain in Colorado: four are located on the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range east of Aurora (near Denver); one near the town of Deer Trail (around 45-minutes from Denver); and another just south of the town Elizabeth. The complexes were decommissioned and the missiles removed in 1965. Public and private owners later acquired the complexes, and for the most part the silos were abandoned after recovering the equipment. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has discovered and is monitoring contamination from disintegrating electrical equipment, solvents, and paint. Soil contamination from cleaning solvents, such as perchloroethylene (PCB) and trichloroethylene (TCE), has been found at some sites; silo water supplies have elevated levels of PCBs or metals such as zinc and cadmium considered to be related to the corrosion of metal structures at the complexes.

Regardless of the environmental dangers, explorers have frequently trespassed the Deer Trail silo illegally and documented the expansive network of underground tunnels. The main entrance has now been welded shut.

Sources

Agle, D.C. "Riding the Titan II." Air & Space Magazine. September 1998. Accessed August 3, 2020.

Barton, Rusty. "Titan 1 Chronology 1954-1985." Waybackmachine. February 27, 2003. Accessed August 3, 2020.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "Titan 1 Missile Complexes." 2019. Accessed August 3, 2020.

Kirkpatrick, Jim. "Titan 1 Missile Site Coordinates." Accessed August 3, 2020 [inaccessible on August 27, 2021].

McKee, Spencer. "The Abandoned Nuclear Missile Silos Under Colorado." Out There Colorado. August 28, 2017. Accessed August 3, 2020.

"Titan I Missile Silo Coordinates." TheMilitaryStandard. Accessed August 27, 2021.

Titan Missile Museum. "Titan History." Accessed June 3, 2020.

U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service. "The Titan Missile." April 6, 2017 [last updated]. Accessed August 3, 2020.
 
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