Former Cold War Installation Now Serves Another Somber
On February 1, about 100
people who worked on various intercontinental ballistic missile
programs at Cape Canaveral during the 1950s, ‘60s and
‘70s gathered for a reunion at the massive space complex. One
of the tour stops was Complex 31, site of the first Minuteman
launch 45 years before.
Retired Lt. Col. P.J. Wilson and his wife, Roma, of Potomac
Falls, VA were among the attendees. As a first lieutenant assigned
to the 6555th Test Wing here in 1961, his job was to make sure the
launch pad was ready to support that first launch. He also analyzed
telemetry data from the reentry vehicle.
“There was absolute elation with the successful first
launch,” Colonel Wilson said. “The Cold War was on. The
pressure was really great to meet the date.”
As the program was classified, Colonel Wilson
couldn’t tell his wife he was working on a program seen as
vital to maintaining America's stake in the Cold War against the
Soviet Union. He went on to spend 17 years working on the Minuteman
program, culminating with a stint at the Pentagon as the Minuteman
element program monitor in 1972.
“We kept improving it to the point where the Russians
couldn’t keep up with defending it,” Wilson said.
Paul Waite of Viera, FL organized the reunion and was also part
of the launch team for the first Minuteman mission. Now retired, he
worked as a civilian contractor for North American Aviation as the
supervisor of ground equipment.
“I was asked to stand on the roof of Hangar 1 and watch
the launch by the group leader I worked for. He wanted me to
witness the staging events,” Mr. Waite said. “I was so
nervous. My hands and the binoculars shook so badly it was hard for
me to tell when it staged.”
Fortunately, the missile performed flawlessly. After a flight of
4,600 miles, its reentry vehicle landed within the designated
Over the years, three versions of Minuteman missiles were
successfully tested at the Cape. Ultimately, the system went into
operational status and became a mainstay of America’s nuclear
Complexes 31 and 32 were built between July 1959 and July 1960
to support the Minuteman program. Each complex had one blockhouse
and two launch pads. The two "A" pads were constructed as
conventional flat pads, and the two "B" pads were built as
ballistic missile silos.
The sites were modified subsequently to support later versions
of the Minuteman missile. Pad 31A supported the first Minuteman I
launch. Pad 32B supported the first Minuteman II and III launches
on September 24, 1964, and August 16, 1968, respectively.
In all, 92 Minuteman I, II and III missiles were launched from
Cape Canaveral between 1961 and 1970.
The silo at Complex 31 now serves as the burial vault for the
Space Shuttle Challenger.