HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- No mishap should occur, said Gary Young as a tour entered one of the Minuteman III maintenance buildings, "but if you do hear a big, loud bang, just follow me."

Young, a supervisor at Hill's Missile Maintenance area, was showing base officials and a reporter one of the buildings where technicians are working on a project to refurbish all of America's Minuteman III missiles -- more than 600 all together.The project, called the Propulsion Replacement Program, has been planned since 1994. Actual work began last October.

Minuteman III missiles are nearly 60 feet long and 51/2 feet in diameter. Weighing more than 79,000 pounds, each can carry three nuclear warheads 6,000 miles.

In the Hill maintenance building, one of 10 at the Davis County base, one of the mighty intercontinental ballistic missiles lay on tracks where technicians could work on it, the three solid rocket motors separated.

At the head of the tracks was an angled steel device, called an "impaler," which would stop the stage before it could roar into the heavens if accidentally ignited.

During this first year, nine sets of Minuteman III rocket motors are being refurbished. Each set has three solid rocket stages, so that amounts to 27 motors.

According to Col. Ben Overall, program director for the ICBM System Program Office at Hill, the base will process 33 sets of motors in the next fiscal year.

Eventually, production will hum along at 96 sets per year.

The project began with spare motors and rockets. Later, it will shift to Minuteman III missiles now in silos, where they are on alert at all times, prepared for launch in a national emergency.

"There are three space wings that contain ICBMs," Overall said. They are at F.E. Warren Air Force Base near Cheyenne; Malmstrom Air Force Base, near Great Falls, Mont., and Minot Air Force Base, Minot, N.D.

After a Minuteman is removed from a silo at one of the space wings, a refurbished missile will replace it. The missile removed from the silo will then be shipped to Hill, sans its nuclear warheads.

The Minuteman "will come in here to us all assembled," Young said. "We will disassemble it all the way down."

Components like nozzle control units will be removed, as will the metal skirts that go around the connections between stages.

"Then we go down and we start removing the raceway cabling, the flight controls," he said. Raceway cabling, also called the guidance and control cable, feeds information from the missile's guidance section to each motor.

Once disassembled, the motors will be ready to ship.

"We will then deliver all three stages to Thiokol," said Maj. Chris Terry, PRP program manager.

Cordant Technologies' Thiokol Propulsion Division, based in Box Elder County, will wash out aging solid rocket propellant.

Contractors will pour new solid rocket fuel into the casings. Thiokol will pour fuel for the first-stage motors, while the second- and third-stage motors will get new fuel supplied by Chemical Systems Division, San Jose, Calif.

Cabling and flight control equipment will remain at Hill. In the base's back shops, this gear will be overhauled and tested. When the stages return with their fresh fuel, it will be put back on the missiles.

View Comments

"We'll do essentially 607 motor sets, plus a few odd stages, as part of that program," Overall said.

The Propulsion Replacement Program will provide new motors for the 500 Minuteman III's that are on alert, spares, flight test motors and aging test motors, he added.

Young said the project will move missiles quickly once it gets into gear. "We're going to be doing probably somewhere around eight to 10 (missiles) per month," he said.

Hill officials plan to hire 26 new employees because of the increased workload.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.