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Blast From The Past: Inside Ukraine’s Last Nuclear Missile Base

Under this 121-ton steel door a nuclear missile once stood, aimed at the United States, and ready to launch. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., a newly independent Ukraine agreed to destroy its dozens of nuclear-missile silos. But the commanders of this base near Pervomaysk, some 300 kilometers south of Kyiv, were allowed to leave their silo intact as a museum. Today, the remarkable relic of Cold War brinksmanship is overseen by some of the same commanders once tasked with potentially destroying America.Inside this command center, a tour guide explains, Soviet officers spent years awaiting a command that would have signaled the end of civilization as we know it. A model of the underground command center showing living and working compartments (bottom) under 10 floors of electronics and generators designed to keep the base running for 45 days in the event of nuclear war. Within its massive steel shell, the cylinder was suspended on shock absorbers to insulate the men and equipment inside from the earth-twisting power of a nuclear strike. Deep underground, commanders on duty spent six hours in front of their keyboard, strapped into their seats in case an enemy missile struck. The men were not permitted to eat or drink while in this seat. Local tour guide Olena Smerychevska (who works professionally as Elena Smerichevskaya) sitting at one of the two desks with access to the launch buttons. The nuclear apocalypse would have begun with a direct command from Moscow. Source: Amos Chapplerferl.org

Once the code was entered, the two officers simultaneously needed to turn a key (right), then press the launch button (left). The “four hands” system made it impossible for anyone to launch a missile alone, according to the museum. An SS-18 Satan missile on display at the base. An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fired from Pervomaysk could have hit New York within 20-25 minutes of launch. The targets for this base’s Scalpel ICBM remain a secret, according to the museum. Underneath the control room, a living space for off-duty officers conceals fail-safes described by former commanders. Behind the door at bottom right.

Photo: Amos Chapple / rferl.org

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