In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, five men moved into an underground bunker just outside of Wilson, Kansas, a small town in the Smoky Hills. They lived inside the steel walls 24/7, guarded by heavy blast doors built to withstand a nuclear explosion.
The men had everything they needed inside the two-floor, 33.5-by-40 foot space: running water, air filtration, beds, a kitchen, and a doubly locked box that contained the codes to launch a nuclear warhead attached to a rocket toward the Soviet Union.
They had one important job: to be ready at a moment’s notice to launch the nuclear weapon that waited just 40 feet away.
This particular missile complex was an Atlas F model, which was the sixth version of the Atlas complexes. This location, and others like it, was in operation until 1965 when the technology used to run it became obsolete. At the end of the Cold War, the wiring was cut out of the missile bases to appease Russia, and the 180-foot silos that housed the missiles were filled with water. The nuclear warheads were put somewhere safe – no one will say where – and the rockets were sold to NASA to put man on the moon.
And so the missile bases of the long-ended Cold War were left to rust away into history.
But they haven’t.
Photos courtesy of Elise Bauernfeind
Today, missile bases are for sale. They’ve been changing owners since the government sold them off shortly after they were decommissioned. Some are being converted into luxury bunkers by doomsday preppers. A few are scuba sites.
But the one in Wilson isn’t for the elite few, and it isn’t a hub for scuba diving. In fact, it isn’t much more than a campsite Airbnb right now.
But it’s going to be so much more.
A Family Affair
Matthew Fulkerson, now in his late 30s, first learned about missile bases when he was 10 years old and stumbled across one close to his home near Topeka.
After growing up, moving around the world a bit, and earning his degrees in international business and hotel and restaurant management, he returned to Kansas to do custom woodworking with his dad. In 2008, on a visit back to the missile base near his home to visit the owners, who had become his friends, he met the woman who would become his wife, Leigh Ann.
“So she comes walking in, and gives Ed (Peden) and Diana (Ricke-Peden) hugs, and I go, ‘I want a hug, too!” Fulkerson says. “She goes, ‘okay.’ So she hugs me, and then asked if I wanted to stay for dinner.”
Two years later, they were married at the missile base where they met, the same one Matthew had stumbled upon as a boy.
The Fulkersons worked for the Pedens’ company, 20th Century Castles, helping to buy and sell missile bases across the country, further cementing their interest in them.
In 2010, they purchased their own missile base, the Atlas F site located near Wilson.
Ad Astra per Aspera
The Fulkersons, along with their dog, Buddy, are working to develop the missile site into a resort and spa where people can have fun with their families while learning how to implement disaster resilience into their own lives.
Matthew Fulkerson founded a non-profit called the Ad Astra S.T.E.A.M. Institute, and the missile base is going to be the hub. The name stems from the Kansas state motto, “Ad Astra per Aspera,” which means, “to the stars through difficulties.”
“(With) this missile base representing the beginning of the space program, I thought that Ad Astra was quite fitting,” Fulkerson says.
S.T.E.A.M. stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math, which are all elements that Fulkerson wants to include in the experience of a stay at his missile base resort.
The idea is to create a place where people can learn about new technologies used on space missions, then prepare their own homes for a disaster, like a hurricane or earthquake.
“We need to be able to create fresh food, and have pure water, and have clean air, and consistent energy, and health and medical systems, so that you could have a self-sustaining habitat or colony out on Mars or the Moon,” says Fulkerson. “I believe that we can do that here on Earth today.”
Disaster Resilience in 2018
Fulkerson says these technologies can help everyday people incorporate disaster resilience into the home, leading to safer homes and communities.
And he isn’t wrong about the need for disaster resilience training.
As the average global temperature increases each year, so does the intensity of natural disasters.
Research has shown that 2018 Hurricanes Florence and Michael were more damaging because of climate change and rising sea levels. Autumn Lotze, senior resilience specialist at SBP, a non-profit that provides disaster relief and free resilience training to communities, says evidence such as this means disaster resilience is only going to become more important.
“We do not have the capacity and the resources as a country to be able to respond to disasters of increasing magnitude like what we are seeing now without individual households and organizations taking steps on their own to mitigate risks themselves,” Lotze says. “The resources just won’t be there.”
She says this means the burden of being prepared is going to continue to fall more on individual families, which means affordable training and preparation are more important than ever.
In Kansas, where Fulkerson’s missile base is, the worry is more about flooding, tornadoes, and earthquakes than hurricanes. The protective measures built into the base to protect against nuclear strikes, such as suspended floors and lights on springs, are well suited to natural disasters.
“With global climate change happening, we’re going to continue to see some (of) the effects of that,” Fulkerson says. “I believe that we’re probably in for a major earthquake at some point, which could have devastating effects.”
Fulkerson has been trained in emergency management and wants to use his knowledge and resources to help others be prepared.
But the Ad Astra S.T.E.A.M. Institute isn’t just going to be a place to learn how to prepare for a disaster.
Right now, Fulkerson is working to convert the 2,500 square feet of what used to be the launch control center into a home for himself, his wife, and their dog – complete with a kitchen, a library, a bedroom, and an office.
The space will also incorporate sustainable farming. Fulkerson plans an aquaponics center, where fish are raised in water that is growing plants. It’s well suited to being a sustainable source of food underground.
Fulkerson wants to offer an adventure.
“I like adventure tourism, and I have been involved with everything from running obstacle course races on American Ninja Warrior to traveling around the world and exploring cool places,” says Fulkerson. “I want to turn this into a destination where people can get a combination of all that.”
He wants to offer a two to three day course where people can learn about disaster resilience, including modern technology to make their homes safer and the aquaponics method for farming food. But he also wants them to learn about survival. There will be basic search and rescue classes, including triage for medical emergencies.
“I think that this can be an educational experience on multiple fronts, not just on technology that they can implement in the home, but kind of the action-adventure hero type of thing,” Fulkerson says. “I bet all of us can be that if we learn those skills.”
Like at any resort, he is hoping there will be a spa. Leigh Ann Fulkerson is a ketogenic nutrition coach and massage therapist. She plans on teaching nutrition and cooking classes inside the launch control center, and above ground there is a space they want to convert into a massage room, sauna, and hot tub — with a view of the stars, of course.
Fulkerson also wants to create an obstacle course in the style of American Ninja Warrior on the 24 acres of land above the missile base. He hopes to pair up with an obstacle course race or start one of his own.
The land above will also feature a pond and “foodscaping,” or landscaping using plants that produce food.
For now, guests will camp on the land above the missile base while training in the launch control center, but eventually Fulkerson hopes to pump the water out of the missile silo and use the additional 55,000 square feet of space for a 15-floor resort, complete with pools, a rock climbing wall, a shooting range, and guest rooms.
Nearby is Lake Wilson, one of the most pristine lakes in Kansas, and near several Epic-rated bike trails, which Fulkerson says is the perfect place for an adventure.
The Dollar Adventure Club
Right now, the missile silo remains mostly full of water, and the launch control center is home to ripped out wiring and rust. Paint peels from the walls. There’s a dripping sound, and two inches of standing water in front of the tunnel between the launch control center and the missile silo.
Fulkerson has begun to remove the rust and welding from the doors and walls, but it’s slow going with only one person working.
Initially, the Fulkersons had an investor helping to fund the project, but he died a year after the missile base was purchased. Work halted until last year, when Fulkerson realized he needed to get started, with or without funding.
Hoping to use the latest technology, including rebuilding the walls with 3D printing, he has tried to team up with companies in the industries he wants to use, like P-laser to remove the rust from the walls and Freight Farms to create vertical gardens for sustainable food underground, but he has had no luck with investors or collaborators so far.
To fix up the launch control center, Fulkerson needs about $250,000. So he has decided to change his approach to crowdfunding. He and his wife use the site as an Airbnb from April to October each year, and the proceeds from that go toward building the Institute.
But he also has a new plan. It’s called the Dollar Adventure Club, and for $1 a day for a year, people can pay into the project and reserve themselves a spot in the experience.
“For $365, they get to come here, see what they helped build, and also (receive) training and education in all these areas,” Fulkerson says.
His goal right now is to get 1,000 people to join the Dollar Adventure Club. Eventually he’ll need more to fix up the missile silo, which he says will be close to a $20 million project, an estimate based off the cost of remodeling the nearby “Survival Condo.” He hopes his efforts will raise awareness in the minds of investors and companies so he can raise the necessary funding.
Fulkerson thinks he could have the launch control center remodeled by spring 2019, complete with derusting and rebuilding, if he can get the funding to hire workers to help him. He estimates it will take about 18 months to pump the water out of the missile silo and build the resort and guest rooms inside.
Until the funding comes, Fulkerson is slowly but surely working on cleaning out the missile base himself.
“Did you ever see the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams? You know, ‘If you build it, they will come?” says Fulkerson. “That’s how I feel with this. I feel like if I start working, if I clean this place up, if I build it out, people will come.”