Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Keeping the Gorillas out of Manhattan

Just north of San Francisco in the Marin Highlands, some of the most beautiful terrain in the world, lies the only restored Nike Base. The Nike rockets were set up in the 50's as surface-to-air missile sights to try to "vaporize" incoming formations of Soviet bombers. The Nikes could carry tactical nuclear warheads of 40 kilotons. I'm not sure I understand why you need a nuclear warhead to take out jets, except that you'd get a bigger margin of error, but I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The missiles were guided by a ground-based analog computer system that used radar to track the incoming bombers and the missile and would adjust its path to try to put them in the same place at the same time. It's hard to imagine you could make that work but the guys who have restored this base, and who worked at Nike sights in the fifties, sixties, and seventies claim that in tests the missiles were remarkably accurate.

There were about 300 bases but the Fort Barry site is the only one that's been restored as a museum. The Nike site vets who work as volunteer guides are pretty proud and passionate about the technology and they've obviously spent 1000's of hours in volunteer labor, restoring lift elevators and launch systems.

One of them explained the purpose of the program to me:
It was all about deterrence. It's like the guy standing on a street corner in Manhattan waving his arms around, and someone asks him what he's doing, and he says "Keeping the gorillas away", and the other guy says "there aren't any gorillas around here" and the crazy guy says "see - it's working!"

Yeah, that pretty much sums up the Cold War.

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