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Friday Slide Show: Nike Missile Site Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

4 July 2014

For the ancient Greeks, Nike was the goddess of victory. But when atomic weapons entered the world's arsenal in the Second World War, it became an elusive concept. In the Cold War that followed, bombers armed with atomic weapons and missiles with nuclear warheads were aimed at each other with little hope of victory for either side.

Nike Missile. A relic of the Cold War. Click the image for the slide show.

From 1953 to 1979, the U.S. Army deployed some 265 nuclear missile bases named after the goddess Nike to protect important regions in the U.S. You can visit only one of these Project Nike sites today.

Of the nearly 80 sites in the Bay area, SF-88 is the only site left where you can see a Nike missile and learn about our duel with the Soviet Union. It's located in the Marin headlines, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a short drive from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge.

We visited last week and were treated to an hour-long tour of the facilities that really should have earned us college credit. Ranger Al, a National Parks ranger, reminded us what life was like during the Cold War when classroom fire drills weren't our biggest worry. We also practiced diving under a desk should the country suffer a nuclear attack.

Not that our desks would have saved us, as Ranger Al pointed out.

Our side was concerned about Soviet bombers loaded with nuclear weapons that could attack the continental U.S. How could we stop them? The Nike missile was the answer.

The missiles only had a range of 80 miles. But all they had to do was climb above the bombers and detonate a warhead. Four out of five Nike missiles at each site had nuclear warheads.

And, no, they didn't need the President to authorize the launch. If an attack was immanent, the site had the authority to launch.

Not one of these was ever fired at any bomber squadron.

And a good thing. Because, as Ranger Al pointed out, the closest thing to victory in a Cold War heated up with nuclear weapons would have been mutual assured destruction. The Soviet bomber pilots would not have been going home and detonating nuclear bombs within 80 miles of the Bay area would have needed more than a Spare the Air day to make it habitable again.

Ranger Al takes you through the buildings as he tells you the history of the project, showing off the extensive collection of gear and putting it in terms any kid can understand. A Nike missile, for example, could make it to Sacramento 90 miles away in a minute.

The highlight of the tour is going into one of the two bunkers to see the array of missiles ready to be rolled onto the elevator and from there to the launcher above ground. A slight push by one of the visitors was enough to position the missile on the lift.

Then the alarm goes off, the huge doors open and the missile rises to ground level. We went back up the stairs to see it point upward, as if it were ready to go.

Photographs, like questions, are welcome. But shooting the site isn't easy. With three kinds of lighting and indoor and outdoor exposures, some through glass, we set our Nikon D300 a bit differently than usual.

We shot in Manual mode but it wasn't strictly manual. We fixed the shutter speed to avoid most subject motion blur at 1/125 second and adjusted the aperture depending on what kind of depth of field we wanted but let the ISO fluctuate to compensate.

ISO ran from 200 to 1600, the upper limit we permitted, as we moved from the indoor to the outdoor shots on a very foggy afternoon. The variation in noise isn't apparent at this images size (800 pixels on the long side), so the strategy made sense. It was a little like shooting in Aperture Priority mode with a fixed ISO.

In Lightroom, we had to adjust the white balance on the bunker shots but otherwise we only tweaked Highlights, Shadows and Clarity. We did crop a few, too.

The site is open Thursday through Saturday from 12:30 to 3:30. The guided walk begins from the Testing and Assembly Building at 12:45, 1:45 and 2:30 pm. There's also a special tour with Nike vets on the first Saturday of each month.

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