Nuclear Tourism: A Wyoming Missile Site Could Be Your Next Vacation Destination
Head east from Cheyenne’s F.E. Warren Air Force Base for about thirty minutes and you will see a few wooden A-frame buildings sitting just off the highway. Go inside the big one and you’ll find a ladder. Climb down about a hundred feet, walk past the foot-thick metal blast door, and you’re inside Quebec 1, a former launch control center for one of the deadliest weapons ever made–a “Peacekeeper” intercontinental nuclear missile.
“You are standing where none of you would ever stand,” said Travis Beckwith, Cultural Program Manager at F.E. Warren. “Unless you were specifically authorized to be here.”
Up until a decade ago neither Beckwith nor the media tour that he was leading (which WPR attended) would have ever been allowed here. But the Peacekeeper missile was decommissioned in 2005, ending the former missile alert facility’s five decades of military service. Now Beckwith and his team are trying to transform this facility into a tourist attraction, which they hope to have ready for visitors by 2019.
The plan is to restore the place to its former glory, but right now it looks pretty run down. Disconnected wires hang everywhere, and the outlines of old machinery installments are traced in dust on the walls. Fifteen years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Galbart worked here as a missileer. He hasn’t been to Quebec 1 since it was shuttered.
“It is kind of bittersweet, you know? A little nostalgic.”
Galbart’s day job is still as a missileer–he works on the active “Minuteman” missiles nearby–but today he is our tour guide. He points out a cramped little room in Quebec 1 that sort of looks like the inside of a WWII-era submarine.
“This is where the two crew members would spend their 24-hour shift,” he said. “Monitoring the status of the missile. Running commands. Doing inspections. And, if need be, processing message traffic sent directly from the president.”
This whole facility isn’t much bigger than a mobile home, and guys like Galbart spent a lot of time down here--usually about eight 24-hour shifts a month. Peter Aguirre worked with Galbart on the Peacekeeper Missile crew. He was below ground, on alert, on the morning of September 11, 2001. Aguierre said he spent the next few days here, waiting for orders.
“Obviously, cooler heads prevailed. But it was quite possibly the most intense moment I’ve ever had in my life.”
Wyoming state officials hope that the history and intrigue of this former nuclear missile alert facility will entice thousands of tourists to pay a visit. Wyoming State Parks will eventually take over running the facility.
“There is indeed this niche market of tourism called nuclear tourism,” said State Parks Director Milward Simpson. “We certainly want to advertise and market heavily to those folks. So I see it as something that expands the offerings we currently enjoy like Cheyenne Frontier Days, but also could attract its own unique niche of visitors.”
Simpson says the state hopes to build up to about fifty thousand visitors per year, and right now imagines charging about $5 a head. Similar Cold War tourist sites have been booming in the last few years: the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site in South Dakota is on track to see about one hundred thousand visitors this year.
Towards the end of the tour of Quebec 1, Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Galbart pointed out a round portal on the ceiling of the bunker–the escape hatch. He said that, while most aspects of the facility were well-designed, the escape hatch was a notorious exception.
“It’s paved over,” he said. “So you are really not going to get out of there. But hey, I’ll just take that one for my country.”