Unfamiliar Land

Touring the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex

Nekoma, ND


A dark pyramid looms over the farming town of Nekoma. This was once the Missile Site Radar, one part of a cluster of anti-ballistic missile sites that sprawled throughout North Dakota. This complex was known as the Safeguard Program — famously, it was only fully operational for a single day before the House of Representatives voted to have it decommissioned. Today it remains as a monument to military overspending, a museum of Cold War era technology, and potentially a survival bunker for one man and his family at the end of the world.

During the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, Nixon announced an anti-ballistic missile system designed to protect Minuteman nuclear missile silos from enemy attack. This was an evolution of earlier systems built to intercept and destroy incoming threats, giving the U.S. time to launch a retaliatory strike. It was intended to be deployed in three locations, although only one was completed — The Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex, in North Dakota.

Safeguard had three primary systems. At the edge was the Perimeter Acquisition Radar (PAR), which detected incoming ICBMs as they crossed over the North Pole. If a threat was detected, the Missile Site Radar (MSR) took over tracking and directed the four Remote Sprint Launcher (RSL) sites to launch. These sites held silos with short range Sprint missiles. They were one of the most technologically advanced, top-secret weapons of the time. A Sprint missile was able to reach Mach 10 in seconds, a speed so fast the air around it turned to plasma. Each one contained its own nuclear warhead, designed to knock enemy missiles out of the sky.

The MSR and surrounding land were sold at government auction in 2012 to the Spring Creek Hutterite Colony, a religious farming community. They’ve farmed the nearby land, but allowed the structures to fall into decay… a point of contention with the town, where residents took pride in the jobs that were created when Safeguard was built. In 2017 the Cavalier County Job Development Authority purchased a portion of the land that included the MSR and administrative buildings. Their goal is to preserve the site and open a historical center, but it won’t be safe for public tours anytime soon. There’s extensive damage, and the buildings are heavily polluted. For now it sits behind locked gates, under 24 hour video surveillance.

Each of the four Remote Sprint Launcher missile facilities were also sold at auction to private parties. One of these, RSL-3, is now open for public tours — but it’s unlike any other Cold War museum I’ve been to.

RSL-3 is a mix of roadside attraction, living space and decay. Mel Sann purchased the site in 2013. He claims he’s not a prepper, but that was the first thing that came to mind when I met him. Mel isn’t unintelligent or mentally unstable, and his views of the world are based in true facts like climate change and the refugee crises. But where he differs from most people is that he believes these events are just the beginning of the coming apocalypse, and he purchased RSL-3 to protect his family when it happens.

“When you get labeled – I don’t like being labeled liberal, conservative, nothing. I am an American and I stand for freedom,” Sann said. “They put a slant and an angle on it as a category – the reality is we’re here to survive and reproduce. Some people don’t have the foresight to say, ‘You know what? It probably wouldn’t hurt to have five, six months of food on hand.’” — Mel Sann

Mel says he decided to offer public tours after visitors began showing up unexpectedly while he was working, curious about what was there. He’s put a lot of work into them since. The tour begins with a video explaining the history and purpose of Safeguard, including vintage military footage of Sprint missile tests. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the film wasn’t bad. After I watched the 20 minute video, Mel himself took me through the guard room (which doubled as a bedroom), launch control bunker, and the missile field outside.

I was already excited to be there, and the feeling grew as I walked down the underground ramp, past massive blast doors into the bunker. A main corridor runs through the facility, branching off into various rooms. It’s a large structure. Some of the rooms look like they haven’t been touched since the day RSL-3 was decommissioned. They’re covered in rust and flaking paint, with wires ripped out of the wall. Others have been repurposed as storage rooms for half-completed projects. They’re filled with construction materials, gym equipment, bedroom furniture and other objects with no clear purpose.

As we walked Mel explained what each room was originally for. He described top secret targeting computers, the security desk where armed guards were ready to shoot anyone without proper authorization, and the massive shock absorbers that protected the site from a nearby nuclear blast. He’s put up informational signs on each of the doors that gives it the feeling of a museum, but in a haphazard, half-done way.

Once we were back outside, Mel led me through another security fence and into the Sprint missile field. He told more stories, about a farmer on a neighboring plot of land who used to antagonize the base’s security detail by eating his lunch next to the fence, and about a woman who snapped a polaroid of the entrance gate, prompting an investigation by the FBI who showed up at her house later that evening.

There are 16 missile silos at RSL-3. Each one is marked by a steel blast door. One of these has been cleaned and re-painted, so Mel can offer to take your photo for a souvenir while you stand next to it. He explained that while the silos have supposedly been decommissioned, he hasn’t actually been able to open any of them to see what’s inside. That’s one of his next projects.

At the entrance to RSL-3 there’s a life-size replica Sprint missile that Mel had custom made. It cost him $20,000, nearly as much as he paid for the facility itself. When he talked about it there was excitement in his voice. Mel is proud of his museum, and has big dreams for it in the future. And in spite of how weird it is, I had a great time visiting.

Both the MSR and RSL-3 are decaying relics, slightly creepy but exciting to explore. They’re a strange part of history in an otherwise unremarkable part of the midwest. It was hours out of my way to visit, but worth the trip.

# Posted on May 14, 2020 by Marc Charbonneau.