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A moment of glory

As the Minuteman III missile nears retirement, the knowledge we gain from testing the system has become more important than ever—even when things don’t go as planned.
April 20, 2020
A launched missle creates an arc of light in the night sky.

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM launches from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on February 5, 2020.CREDIT: U.S. Air Force/Clayton Wear

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“There’s nothing cooler than hearing the roar of that missile. It shakes the whole base.”- Nicholas Edwards

By J. Weston Phippen

In the summer of 2018, Major Nicholas Edwards paced as his emotions swung from anxious to excited. The control center at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the southern California coast was dark except for the glow of computer monitors, which silhouetted more than a dozen members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron, who spoke last-minute commands and updates into their headsets.

They were communicating with another team in an underground launch control center (LCC) elsewhere on base. That team would soon flip its switches, turn its keys and send a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) bursting into the clear evening sky.

Edwards was the weapons officer for 576th Flight Test Squadron, the sole group charged with test launching the Minuteman III, the military’s only ground-based nuclear ICBM. These occasional tests, called glory trips, are always done at Vandenberg Air Force Base and are the most exhilarating moments in any missileer’s career. But with so much riding on a successful launch—data, safety, dollars—it’s impossible not to feel racked with stress. Months of preparation had gone into this moment. And now as the countdown neared launch, all Edwards could do to ensure Glory Trip 225’s success was wait. 


A hand preparing to turn a knob from the set position to the launch position.

Before any glory trip, the team that accompanies the Minuteman III from its original base will practice for weeks to launch the unarmed missile. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Christopher Ruano

A glory trip is similar in every way to a real nuclear missile launch, except that the missile’s Los Alamos–designed W78 warhead has been replaced with a joint test assembly (JTA)—also designed and built by the Lab—that replicates a W78 in every way except that it’s filled with sensors, not a nuclear device. The JTA endures the freezing limits of outer space as it exits the atmosphere atop the missile, and after it it has dislodged from the ICBM, it endures the molten heat of fall to Earth like a meteor, all the while relaying important flight information to the control center at Vandenberg.

Now that the Minuteman III system is 50 years old, nearing the end of its shelf life, these tests have become more important than ever. In fact, the government planned to retire the system in 2020, but Congress extended its service for another 10 years, at which point a replacement system will be deployed. So until then, the United States randomly picks four Minuteman III missiles annually to test from its stockpile, then compiles the data to share with the military and the Lab. “These glory trips give us a lot of information we can’t get otherwise, and in that way, they’re very useful,” says Jay Pepin, the W78 Systems Engineering group leader at Los Alamos.

There’s also the national defense angle. “Not only do these tests warn us if there are any issues that need to be addressed with the weapon,” says retired Air Force Colonel Michael Port, a former missileer who’s now director of the Lab’s Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs, “they also show our adversaries that we’re still quite capable of using our Minuteman III system, despite its age.”

In the case of Glory Trip 225, the missile was pulled months earlier from its silo at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base. The maintenance team based there had loaded it onto a truck headed south for the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, where its warhead was removed. Then the missile traveled west to California. The missileers also made the trip to Vandenberg, and as the countdown for the test commenced, they sat two miles from Edwards, 60 feet underground, in the LCC near the missile, waiting for the signal to turn their keys.

Normally, the missileers are based near one of the 45 LCCs buried under windswept plains in Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana. The crews work in 24-hour rotating “on alert” shifts. And because a successful shift means nothing happened, and a successful national nuclear deterrence policy means a missileer will never launch a Minuteman III, a glory trip provides these missileers from up north the rare opportunity to put their training into practice.


People sit behind computers and watch a large screen at the front of the room that shows a missile launch.

Members of the 576th Flight Test Squadron monitor a glory trip at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Michael Peterson

A Minuteman III typically requires two “votes,” or coded signals, one each from two separate crews working from two different control consoles. Both must send a launch code to fire a missile, and it’s this redundancy that adds safety to our nuclear strategy because it prevents any rogue launches. But at Vandenberg, for the test, there’s only one launch console. So, with thirty minutes to go until the launch, just as the team had practiced, two of the missileers flipped their launch switches and turned keys on the control panel. Then they reached for screwdrivers. They removed one console, installed a second one, then prepared to turn their keys once more as the countdown resumed.

Back at the control center, every minute in the six-hour launch window was accounted for, colored green or red on the computer monitors overhead and labeled as “go” or “no-go” minutes. The 576th Flight Test Squadron must account for the movements of every satellite, plane, ship, and train from California to the Marshall Islands, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Add 4,000 miles of weather variables, and a glory trip becomes akin to threading a needle that appears randomly and momentarily.

A hush filled the control center as the countdown neared five… four… three… two… In the LCC, the missileers turned their keys once more, and the ICBM rumbled to life. Edwards watched a screen that showed the silo’s 110-ton cover slide open. The Minuteman III engines burned their solid fuel, fighting gravity with 200,000 pounds of upward thrust. The missile rose and quickly doubled in altitude. It reached 100 feet, then a few hundred. In the dark, all of this appeared as a quickening rooster tail of fire that was suddenly a speck.

“There’s nothing cooler than hearing the roar of that missile. It shakes the whole base,” says Edwards, who is currently working at the Laboratory as an Air Force Fellow.

The control room erupted with cheers. Visiting scientists shook hands with generals and other officers. But Edwards knew better than to relax just yet. A minute later, he says, as everyone watched the ICBM’s progress on the monitors, the room let out a much different noise. “There was a collective, ‘Uh, uh, ohhhhh.’ And for a moment, we were all in shock.”

The missile was spinning out of control.


A missile launches, leaving a cloud of smoke behind.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a developmental test on February 5, 2020, at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Hanah Abercrombie

What’d gone wrong? That was the immediate question growing in the room. And in the back of everyone’s mind was a more ominous possibility: Could this be an isolated issue, or could it now be somehow endemic to all the nation’s Minutemen III missiles because of their age? Before Edwards had time to process that thought, though, the lieutenant colonel in charge pointed to him and said, “Come with me.”

For its age, the Minuteman III is still remarkably effective, especially considering that, besides two major model upgrades, it’s practically the same technology developed at the end of the 1950s.

The Minuteman’s story began on October 4, 1957, as hundreds of thousands of Americans craned their necks to watch the sky, in awe of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. To many people around the world, the Soviet Union’s accomplishment was a marvel. But to some in U.S. government hallways, this triumph was a terrifying manifestation of how far America had fallen behind in the nuclear race.

It wasn’t the satellite that concerned American leaders. It was how the Soviets had placed it into orbit with an ICBM. If the Soviets could use that technology to set a satellite in orbit, it followed that they could deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. In the days after, LIFE magazine ran a headline reading, “Soviet Satellite Sends US into a Tizzy.” The article then quoted a Soviet scientist boasting, “Americans design better automobile tailfins, but we design the best intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

And it was true. In the 1950s, the U.S. ICBM program consisted of the Atlas and the Titan. The Atlas was a lighter version of the Germans’ World War II–era V-2 missile. The Titan was slightly more progressive. It dropped its heavy fuselage once in flight giving it longer range. But like the Atlas, it consisted of about 300,000 unique parts, making it time consuming and costly to build. Meanwhile, the Soviets gloated that they could churn out ICBMs “like sausages.”

On top of that, the liquid propellant America used was corrosive, so it couldn’t be stored in the fuselage. Instead, before launch, crews spent two hours fueling the missiles—not an ideal situation if your country is under nuclear attack.

A few days after Sputnik’s orbit, Colonel Edward Hall, who headed propulsion development for the Air Force, visited the Pentagon to implore the government to build a new missile. What he envisioned would be 65 feet tall (half the size of Titan) and weigh 65,000 pounds (Titan was more than 300,000 pounds). It would be powered with the new, noncorrosive solid-state-fuel technology Hall had studied for years, which would allow the fuel to be stored permanently in the missile. That advancement would also allow the United States to store its missiles underground in silos instead of upright on launch pads because the new fuel provided enough thrust for the ICBM to speed out of its barrel-like enclosure before the flames from its own rockets caused it any damage. As part of a defensive strategy, storing the missiles underground would enable the U.S. fleet to withstand an enemy’s nuclear attack and still return a strike.

Hall got his funding. And a little more than a year later, on February 1, 1960, at 11 a.m., he watched at Cape Canaveral, Florida, as the first Minuteman started with a bang and soared skyward, eventually dropping 4,600 miles away in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Two years later, the Air Force deployed the first Minuteman ICBM at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Within the next year, the United States placed 1,000 more across the lower 48 states. The first-generation Minuteman had a range of 4,300 miles, flew at 15,000 miles per hour, and could deliver a warhead within less than half a mile of a target. Three years later, the military deployed the upgraded Minuteman II. This version was more accurate and could carry a larger warhead, which also reflected a change in American nuclear policy. At the beginning of the Cold War the United States wanted foremost to be able to endure a nuclear strike and still be able to return one anywhere in the world. Later, the United States moved to a controlled response strategy that depended on some ICBM silos being able to survive a nuclear attack, then deliver a measured retaliation instead of unleashing all its warheads. As the Minuteman III was deployed in 1970, the United States had moved to what it called a flexible response strategy, which required a single ICBM to be capable of taking out multiple targets with multiple warheads, making the threat of a single-strike retaliation more effective and also harder for an enemy nation to defend against.

Throughout these changes, the basics of the Minuteman III have remained constant. After 60 seconds of flight, the missile reaches 100,000 feet and drops its first and largest stage. Its flight path flattens until, at 120 seconds, now 120 miles in the sky, it releases the second stage and shortly after, its third. At its parabolic height, the Minuteman III can reach 750 miles above Earth, twice as high as the International Space Station. It has already shed practically everything but its cone-shaped Mk-12A reentry vehicle, which houses the W78 warhead. From there it’s just a long drop to the target.

The entire process—launch to touchdown—takes about half an hour. That’s why, to emphasize this speed, the blast doors of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota bare a painting of a Domino’s pizza box with the words, “World-wide delivery in 30 minutes or less—or your next one is free.”


A man stands next to an upright missile on display.

Los Alamos Air Force Fellow Nicholas Edwards at Vandenberg Air Force Base in February 2020. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Edwards

To be a missileer means not only that you’ve joined a rather obscure group in the U.S. Air Force, but also that you’ve become a member of one of the most selective, vetted forces in the military. “It’s the highest-classification mission you can possibly do,” Edwards says. “You have to be very disciplined.”

Edwards knew from a young age, while growing up in Beavercreek, Ohio, that he wanted to join the Air Force. His father had served as a security forces officer during the era of Strategic Air Command, now called Global Strike Command, and he eventually retired at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. But Edwards also wanted to create his own path. After he enrolled at Purdue University to study mechanical engineering, he enrolled in Air Force ROTC. And as he struggled to choose where he’d serve in the military, he remembered a family friend, a missileer. The more he looked into the career, the more obsessed he became.

Edwards graduated from college in 2008, and after he joined the Air Force, he quickly finished his initial skills training to become a missileer. Then for nine months, he trained in a silo on a rotating 24-hour alert. He tested so well that he was made an instructor early and he discovered a passion for teaching. “There is nothing more rewarding for a young officer than to have someone call you and say, ‘I need your help,’ and to be able to coach that person through a hard situation.”

In 2012, Edwards approached a fork in his career path. He was 28 years old, hoping to advance, and he could either move to the space program and launch satellites, or he could try and join the 576th Flight Test Squadron, the most elite group of missileers. The latter meant attending ICBM weapons school, which is like getting a doctorate, and that meant training for five months, 22 hours a day—twice as long as the Navy’s famous Topgun school. Edwards says, “It took me five seconds to realize what I wanted.”

Edwards graduated weapons school at a time when the Air Force was reorganizing how it trains missileers, and he became the 576th Flight Test Squadron’s first official weapons officer. In that role, he’s overseen several glory trips and pioneered the first ICBM tactics tests to identify non-material solutions to enhance the Minuteman III weapon system.

Eventually, the Minuteman will be replaced by a new ICBM system, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent. Few details are available to the public. But as early as 2024, Edwards says, the 576th Flight Test Squadron could be testing this next-generation ICBM.

Each year, the Lab accepts two Air Force Fellows—one in a senior career position and the other in an intermediate-level position, as with Edwards. Being accepted is no small feat, and Edwards has even run the math. “There were approximately 5,600 Air Force majors eligible for the intermediate position,” he says. “Of those, 6.25 percent were selected for professional military education, and because the Lab accepts only one intermediate-level Air Force Fellow each year, I had a 0.017 percent chance of getting this.”

“I still can’t believe I got here,” Edwards says.

During his Lab fellowship, both he and the scientists at Los Alamos are making the most of each other. “In Edwards’ world,” Pepin says, “the W78 is still, in large part, a black box. So being here allows him to see behind that curtain to what we at the Lab think is important and what things we care about. Then he can take that knowledge back to Vandenberg and share it with his squadron.” And the cycle of knowledge works vice versa for the Lab.

Scientists at Los Alamos may be the brightest in the world at what they do, but they’re essentially building a contained system, then handing it off to become part of another intricate system. Edwards, though, is one of the nation’s leading minds when it comes to how the Minuteman III operates and how the United States would design a nuclear counterstrike operation. That kind of strategizing, combined with the information the Lab gets back from the glory trips, has made the work done by Edwards and the 576th Flight Test Squadron invaluable to the research being done in Los Alamos. “It’s very hard to simulate all the combined environments of exiting and reentering the atmosphere,” Pepin says. “The flight test is really the only way to test all those elements.”

And sometimes, more can be learned when something goes wrong than when it goes right.


A trail of fire and smoke follow behind a launched missile.

An unarmed Minuteman III launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base in March 2015. Photo: U.S. Air Force/Jim Araos

The normal procedure for a glory trip runs something like this: The ICBM launches, and everyone tracks it on the control center monitors. One missileer eyes the yaw and pitch. Another missileer keeps watch downrange for anything that might accidentally cross the flight path. After the first five minutes, when the missile has exited the atmosphere, there’s a moment to breathe easier. Then, 30 minutes from the initial launch, it’s time to stare at another screen. A white dot flashes in the top corner and just as quickly disappears. As the JTA strikes the ocean, a set of sensors triangulate its impact.

Back in the old days, the local crew on the island near the reentry site would celebrate a successful launch at a local bar, where they’d drink from skinny, yard-long glasses until they’d downed in beer the same distance the JTA had landed away from target. (Edwards can’t vouch if this is still current practice.) But at Vandenberg, it’s often 3 a.m. or later, so Edwards heads home to his family for a brief rest before he begins preparing for the next day’s squadron debrief session. But obviously, that was not how things went on Glory Trip 225. 

In the control center, the mission control flight officer sat behind a computer. On the screen before the officer was a digital map with lines that represented the boundary the ICBM had to stay inside. As the ICBM dropped its first stage, the missile began to wobble violently around its center axis, like a spinning top before it falls. No one could predict what the missile would do next, or whether it’d veer suddenly from course into the path of a plane or orbiting satellite. So the flight officer flipped a switch that ignited an explosive cord running the length of the missile. There was a boom, and the ICBM split into its different components—stages one, two, and three, as well as the JTA—and fell from the sky until it splashed into the ocean.

“This was the first time I’d ever seen that,” Edwards says, “and it was the first time since 2011 something like that had happened. It was a moment of pure shock.”

When the lieutenant colonel told Edwards to follow him, rather than despair, fear, or crippling anxiety, a tinge of excitement filled Edwards’ body. In weapons school, Edwards had trained in root-cause analysis, but he’d never used those skills to dissect a failed launch. In the impromptu meeting, the lieutenant colonel, a host of in-house engineers, and Edwards all pieced together a plan. “At first, we were thinking anything could have happened—maybe it’d been a lightning bolt, birds, anything.”

During the next six months, Edwards and the investigation team revisited every piece of technology in the Minuteman III system, every action done preceding the launch—from how the missile was extracted from its original silo to how the ICBM was secured in the silo at Vandenberg. They reviewed the missile’s history, every place it’d been. Perhaps, Edwards thought, the answer to what’d gone wrong could be found in some environmental experience or where it’d been stored, which could then inform the Air Force and the Lab about other ICBMs kept under similar conditions. It was a plodding process. “Eventually,” Edwards says, “we worked it out.”

Rather than a disappointment, Edwards has come to think of Glory Trip 225 as a success—a teachable moment, one that imparted more knowledge to the group than if it’d all gone smoothly. And based on what the team discovered, the Minuteman III weapon system is now all that more reliable, ready to live out its final days defending the nation.

But what exactly did go wrong?

That’s classified, Edwards says.



A man stands in front of museum displays.

Nicholas Edwards at the Laboratory's Bradbury Science Museum.

ABOUT NICHOLAS EDWARDS

Air Force Major Nicholas Edwards grew up in Ohio, graduated from Purdue University, and worked as the assistant director of operations for weapons and tactics for the 576th Flight Test Squadron before coming to Los Alamos. In the year he spends at the Laboratory as an Air Force Fellow, he wants to establish a path for more missileers to visit Los Alamos so they can exchange information with scientists about updates to the Minuteman III and its upcoming replacement missile system.