Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site W-83 – Herndon, Virginia - Atlas Obscura

Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site W-83

An out-of-place Air Force radar dome is all that denotes this park as a former missile launch site. 

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One of 13 Nike Missile Sites that were erected around the greater Washington, D.C. area and Baltimore, the Great Falls Nike Missile Site played an integral part in the United States preparations for defense against enemy aircraft during the Cold War.

Built in 1954 and activated in 1955, the Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site was one of many missile launch sites during the Cold War that were strategically constructed in the Washington D.C. area to aid in the defense of a potential attack by air. These facilities included a “Launch Site” and an “Integrated Fire Control Site”, with the latter being located one to three miles downrange from its respective launch area. Like many of the other larger missile sites in the area, the Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site operated first-generation Nike Ajax missiles. Ajax missiles were massive, measuring 34 feet in length and weighing around 2,400 pounds. These missiles had a range of 25 miles and could reach a maximum speed of Mach 2.3. In 1962, both the Great Falls Nike Missile Launch Site and Integrated Fire Control Site would cease operations.

In the following years, the launch site’s buildings and other structures would be left to rot once the site was sanitized of any weaponry or any other potentially harmful instruments. Suburban development in the area during the late 1970s and early 1980s would see the launch site’s buildings torn down and its missile magazine hatches buried. At some point, the former missile launch site was overtaken by the Fairfax County Park Authority and transformed into the Great Falls Nike Park, with a tennis court and two baseball fields located on top of the buried missile magazine hatches. In 1980, Forestville Elementary School was built atop the former lot of the launch site’s barracks.

Today, all that remains of the former Nike missile launch site is the decaying barbed wire fence that surrounded the facility, an earthen berm where the missiles were once fueled, and a United States Air Force gap-filler radar dome. These types of radar domes were used to detect enemy aircraft that could potentially fly low enough to avoid typical longer-range radar networks.  The presence of this dome is peculiar, in that this launch site would’ve never housed any sort of radar dome. It seems to be unknown as to the origins of this radar dome, but it is believed that it potentially came from the former missile launch site’s Integrated Control Fire Site. The dome features panels cut out on each side to allow kids and adults alike to enter and enjoy its rather eerie echo.

Know Before You Go

The park that sits atop the former missile site is located off of Utterback Store Road, right near the intersection of the Leesburg Pike. The radar dome is located right next to the first baseball field to the south of the parking lot. Please be mindful of the elementary school next door.