Saturday, August 24, 2013

Titan II - Part 3 of 3

I've talked about the Titan II ICBM and the preparation we underwent to operate it.  When we were certified - a process the Strategic Air Command (SAC) took damned seriously - I and a few others of my class went to stand the Cold War watch in the 373d Strategic Missile Squadron. The 373rd’s motto was “Custodes Pacis,” “Guardians of Peace.”  We felt it was a good choice. 

Titan ICBMs had their share of fame, although it usually involved disasters or other bad news.  There were two movies made about Titan missiles.  The made-for-TV Disaster at Silo Seven (1988) was lame but could have been worse.  The 1977 feature film Twilight’s Last Gleaming proved that.  If there was anything remotely accurate in this story of an ex-general commandeering a missile site that appeared vaguely based on Titan I, I missed it.  Titan crews hated the film as passionately as B-52 crews hated 1990’s By Dawn’s Early Light.  (Note the unimaginative use of the same source for the titles.)   Almost as much as everyone in SAC hated the ridiculous War Games.

For a system that should have been retired when I was in grade school, the Titan II still had many years left.  There were often tiny pinhole leaks of fuel or oxidizer, and we had to keep an eye on the warning “sniffers” and other indicators.  We always felt sorry for the Minuteman crews because they almost never saw their missiles.  We went out in person to check over our birds and their support equipment every day.

The Titan II’s age, not surprisingly, meant it developed a few quirks.  I once called Job Control (the maintenance dispatch center) to report I was showing two warning lights indicating bad circuits on the missile or the umbilicals connecting it to the diagnostic equipment.  The appropriate specialist informed me it was impossible to have those two lights on at the same time.  I asked, “Well, would you like me to unscrew one of the bulbs?”  On another occasion, the old van-sized diesel generator in the silo refused to shut down after a test.  It kept going even when the maintenance team shut down all possible fuel sources.  When Job Control asked what additional help I wanted, I wearily said, “An exorcist.”  It eventually turned out a gasket had failed and the machine was consuming its own lubricating oil.

 I was lucky, though.  We never had a serious accident.  Actually, the whole Titan business never had one after 1979.  Things were just too stringent.  Accidentally putting a hand through a maintenance access door into the silo before lowering and securing the work platforms on that level could and did end a career.

It was with some regret we watched the Titans start going off alert.  (Drastic regulations were put in place tro mkae sure none of the important items left the complex as souveniers, even though the sites were going to be blown up under START requirements.  All I have a is an old copy of a laminated locator board used to track visitors and maintenance teams.)
Most of our missiles were still up in 1986, when I headed for a new assignment at Grand Forks in North Dakota.  I left the 308th in 1986, the year before the last missile was taken off alert.  The wing produced a book entitled “End of an Era.”  On the cover, with a Titan II, was a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Titan II, unlike the tyrannosaur, was destined to roar again.  No one had launched a Titan II since 1976, when the supply of test missiles ran out.  While 140 Titan IIs had been built, the 53 in the silos and three spares were all that remained.  Even before  the birds had been pulled off alert and shipped out to California for storage, ways to use this resource for space launch began to surface. 

 Obviously, the Titan II made a very good space launch vehicle.  At least, it did back in the decade it was manufactured.  It took some work to turn it back into one.  In 1986, Martin Marietta Astronautics Group was given a contract to modify and launch up to 14 missiles. 

To turn a Titan II into a space launcher, the second stage needed to be modified for a new payload interface.  A payload fairing was needed, along with adapters for different satellites.  The guidance system was upgraded, and the engines were inspected and reconditioned.  Appropriate command, telemetry, and destruct systems were adapted from hardware designed for other vehicles.

The destination of the reborn Titan IIs was Space Launch Complex-4 West at Vandenberg.   On 5 September 1988, the first new Titan II launch vehicle was fired into space.   The Titan IIs were used mainly for launches to polar orbit.  Their capacity to such an orbit was over 4,000 pounds.  

Lee Brandon-Cremer with Titan II at Norton AFB

And, somewhat surprisingly to those of us who had nervously cared for the Beast, they worked. Perfectly.  Every time. The Titan 23G, as the launch vehicle was called, launched 14 times from 1988 to 1994, always from Vandenberg AFB, where we had received advanced crew training years before.  It orbited weather and scientific satellites and, most significantly, the Clementine lunar probe in January 1994, a brilliantly successful mission that started NASA on the bumpy road of its "better faster cheaper" philosophy.

The Titan II launch complex at Vandenberg, which we always called "Charlie site," is still there and can be visited by escorted public tours. There is no missile, though.  One site at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, is maintained as museum, complete with inert missile.  If you get a chance, don’t miss it.  It's the best way to appreciate the engineering marvel called the Titan II. 
For more information, see David Stumpf’s excellent book, Titan II: A History of a Cold War Missile Program.


SpaceShuttleAlmanac said...

Well thats me (Lee Brandon-Cremer) next to the Titan-II at Norton AFB. Might want to give me some credit there, it was a personal photo.

Matt Bille said...

Lee, I absolutely will give credit. I found it on a USAF site and assumed it was a USAF photo. I'll take it out if you want.