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America's missileers stand ready to launch nuclear weapons -- and pray they won't have

•, By Daniel A. Gross

For 13 days in October 1962 — during the Cuban Missile Crisis — America's nuclear arsenal was kept on high alert. There were nuclear missiles just 90 miles from US soil, in Fidel Castro's Cuba. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could have launched a nuclear strike within minutes.

With the death of Fidel Castro last week, and the recent thaw in diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, the Cold War has receded a little further into history. But in a moment when nine nations control nuclear weapons, and a new US president-elect is preparing to take control of the country's nuclear codes, these stories seem newly relevant.

For Joe Andrew, a retired chief master sergeant in the US Air Force, missiles were a part of life from childhood. "I knew just about every rocket that the US had," he said. Back then, many of America's rockets were pointed at space. This was the era of Sputnik, the Soviet satellite that shocked the United States into expanding its own space program. "We had to keep up with those Russians!" Andrew remembers thinking.

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