Notes on Nike Missile Site SF-88L

2020-04-07

Many, many days ago, when humans could still roam the Earth for non-essential activities, our little crew visited Nike Missile Site SF-88L as another destination in our sixth grade class-trip whistle-stop tour of nerdy places in the Bay Area.

site

Nike Missile Site SF 88-L is just over the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marin headlands (essentially behind Hawk Hill), so it's a short drive or hike or bike ride away from the city.

radar

Check out its National Park Service website for its operating hours and tour times. As you might expect, it looks like the site is closed for the time being. If you're lucky (and can plan ahead), try to go on the first Saturday of the month, when its staffed by volunteer veterans who worked at various Nike sites around the country.

We got lucky, and the veterans were both hilarious and super interesting. Added bonus: they were also able to operate some of the terrifying machinery, like so:

missileloading

I brought along my little notebook and took copious notes while they were talking (which I've reproduced below).

history

But first I wanted to share a favorite moment.

Near the end of the tour, we were led underground to where they kept the Nike Hercules missiles. Then, one of the veterans pressed a giant yellow button, which opened a metal hatch and began to lift one of the missiles above ground. This was a common procedure for the soldiers - they'd have to run through drills constantly, at a moment's notice.

Meanwhile, as we're watching this gigantic warhead move skyward a hydraulic lift, I can't help but be distracted: Where have I heard these sounds before?

That's when the veteran asked, "Anyone ever seen Star Wars?"

My hand burst into the air like Hermoine's.

Apparently, George Lucas visited the Nike missile site before filming A New Hope, and he found some inspiration for this scene:

trash

This experience now lends more credence to the apocryphal story of how those Oakland shipping container lift thingies became proto AT-ATs for a day-dreaming Lucas.

Anyway, as mentioned, here's what I scribbled down during the tour:

  • Nike is the "goddess of victory"
  • Nike Missile Program

    • 1954 - 1974
    • 233 sites across the USA
    • Billions were spent
    • Obsoleted by ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles)
  • Two types of missiles:

    • (1) Ajax: liquid fuel, very dangerous to handle
    • (2) Hercules: nuclear version
  • Many of the Army operators were ~19 years: "We were kids."
  • Missiles were radar operated
  • No Nike missiles were ever "officially launched" at any enemy
  • Each site had three radars:

    • (1) Friend or Foe?
    • (2) Foe tracker
    • (3) Missile tracker
  • The U.S. strategy for defending our coasts was:

    • (1) Navy will try first,
    • (2) Then the Air Force,
    • (3) Finally, the Army with Nike missiles as a last resort
  • Control operators had five words they could send to an in-flight missile:

    • (1) PITCH
    • (2) YAW
    • (3) ROLL
    • (4) SELF-DESTRUCT
    • (5) EXPLODE (they had to tell the missiles to explode!)
  • Operators went to annual training in New Mexico where they actually fired unarmed missiles
  • Hercules had a 35 mile "kill" diameter
  • There is an electromagnetic pulse during a nuclear explosion, which is why analog radar communication works (vs. digital)

And here are some of the better photos from my phone. If you like old control panels for old computers (like me), then this place is your kind of place!

buttons

controls

dials

missile

parallax

phone

plot

power

secret

sign

squib

test

The almost-never newsletter. I won't spam you, and you can unsubscribe anytime.