Nike Missile Site SF-88

Out in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco is the Nike Missile Site Museum.  I had been meaning to visit the museum and Point Bonita Lighthouse during several previous trips but weather and limited hours kept getting in the way.  The Marin Headlands are a mandatory stop whenever I am in San Francisco.

Project Nike began in 1944 with the goal of developing an anti-aircraft defense system to counter the threat of jet aircraft.  It eventually operated over 300 sites in 30 states.  One of the main challenges Bell Labs faced when developing the system was properly aiming the missiles.  Information from 3 radar systems as well as weather, wind, etc. were combined to calculate targeting information.

Missiles were shipped disassembled in a pressurized container and put together by the crew on site.  A wrecker accompanied the shipments in case of breakdowns.

There were two types of missiles developed as part of the Nike program.  Nike Ajax was the first generation of surface to air missile and became operational in 1954.  Nike Hercules missiles eventually replaced the earlier models and are the type seen in my photographs.  The Hercules missile offered increased range, speed, and accuracy along with the potential to support a W-31 nuclear warhead capable of engaging supersonic targets at high altitudes.

One of the things the tour emphasized was the amount of training the missile crews did.  Activation meant an attack on the U.S. was imminent and that responsibility weighed heavily on the crews.  There were accidents.  In May 1958 a Nike Ajax Missile at Site NY-53 in Sandy Hook, NJ exploded outside on its its launcher.  The blast detonated 7 other missiles which were nearby, causing damage to houses for miles around.  10 people were killed.  2 soldiers, Staff Sergeant Joseph W. McKenzie and Private First Class Joseph Abbot in a 20 foot deep pit just a short ways from the missile’s launch pad survived.  After this disaster policy was changed to prevent storage of missiles on launch pads rather that in the underground magazine.

There was very little tolerance for mistakes or poor maintenance at Nike sites and inspections were frequent.  Alert status was rotated between sites in an area to maintain readiness, provide downtime for maintenance, and other activities.  When the site was on 20 minute status, launch of the first missile needed to be completed within 20 minutes of notification.   Two crews rotated every 24 hours, and even the off duty crew needed to be nearby and reachable at all times.   Inspections of Nike sites were numerous, often unexpected, and the standards for passing inspection were very high.  

The tour of the Nike base continued with the underground missile magazine.  The racks the missiles rested on allowed them to be moved very easily by hand.

The magazine was well preserved and looked incredible.  Amazingly, though, the highlight of the museum was that missile handling machinery at the site still works and part of the tour is raising a missile from the magazine up into firing position!

Yes, this is the coolest museum in the entire world.

Two of the radar arrays that would be used by the system were also on site, along with the trailers used to operate the radar.  The bar-shaped radar is the Low-Powered Acquisition Radar (LOPAR) used to track targets.  The round array (with its cover on) was used to track either targets or the Nike missiles themselves after launch.  Here is an excellent diagram of the Battery Control Area and a very detailed explanation of how the system worked.  One of the veterans on site walked visitors through the whole process.  I was very glad that I got to visit the site while the men who worked there are still around to tell their stories, and I highly recommend doing so yourself.  Hopefully, I can get back for another tour again soon.

The original intent of the Nike program was to have the system be mobile.  In practice, sites in the continental U.S. tended to be permanent installations, but radar and battery control functions were still housed in trailers to offer potential mobility.

Absolutely fantastic place to visit.  Great day trip if you are in San Francisco but, honestly, I would make it a point to visit the site while it is open.  The nearby Point Bonita Lighthouse is another worthwhile stop while you are there.