The atomic bomb is quite possibly the most significant invention of the 20th century. Its raw, destructive power was almost solely responsible for ending the deadliest war in history. It launched countries into superpower status, set the tone for the Cold War’s massive arms race, and the threat of it defines the strategy of warfare to this day. It opened the door to a new world of progressive technology, from new forms of power to advancements in medicine. And it all started in the remote reaches of New Mexico.
Looking back, New Mexico was the perfect place to build and test the big bomb. It had everything you could want from a nuclear proving ground: vast stretches of barren desert, a plethora of established military bases, and a tiny population that was used to military antics and therefore wouldn’t take special notice of any blasts. So, it’s no surprise that the US government continued to use the Land of Enchantment to blow things up after the wild success of the Manhattan Project. Today, New Mexico is defined by its nuclear past nearly as much as it’s defined by its green chili. No matter where you go within the state’s borders, odds are you’re in striking distance (no pun intended) of a significant atomic sight. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
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The Trinity Site
The Trinity Site is the big kahuna of atomic tourism, the centerpiece of New Mexico’s nuclear sites. It was at this location, hidden deep in the desert wastelands near Socorro (see map), that the first nuclear detonation in the history of the world occurred on July 16, 1945. It’s here that Robert Oppenheimer famously uttered “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” It’s here that the world was irreversibly changed.
The bomb, dubbed “Gadget,” was assembled at a nearby farmstead. General Thomas Farrell, who oversaw the bomb’s final construction, handled its plutonium core and had this to say:
“…I took this heavy ball in my hand and I felt it growing warm, I got a certain sense of its hidden power. It wasn’t a cold piece of metal, but it was really a piece of metal that seemed to be working inside. Then maybe for the first time I began to believe some of the fantastic tales the scientists had told about this nuclear power.”
Once assembled, the warhead was hoisted to the top of a 100-foot tower simply numbered “Zero.” The impact zone was therefore dubbed Ground Zero – this was the first use of the now commonplace term. At 5:30 AM on the 16th, Gadget was dropped. The resulting explosion vaporized the tower and fused the sand at the site into a green glass later named Trinitite. The explosion reportedly felt “like opening up an oven door” as far as ten miles away; the blast broke windows up to 120 miles away and the shock wave could be felt at up to 160 miles. The military, operating under complete secrecy, told the public that an armament warehouse had exploded. The test was awesome in the truest sense of the word, and a huge success. Only 3 weeks later, the US would detonate the second atomic bomb in history. This time, it would be over Hiroshima.
Mushroom Cloud of the Trinity Explosion. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The Trinity Site was off-limits until 1953, when radiation levels at the site dropped enough to allow military personnel to reenter. Currently, the Trinity Site is only open to the public two days per year, in April and October. On these two days, visitors can pay homage to the bomb’s destructive power at the obelisk constructed at ground zero, view the Trinitite that remains to this day on the desert floor, and tour the farm where Gadget was assembled.
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Bradbury Museum, Los Alamos
The Trinity Site test was the result of years of planning, and much of it took place in the mountain town of Los Alamos (see map). In 1942, the only real structure in Los Alamos was a boys’ school, which the government seized for use as a laboratory to develop the atomic bomb. By 1943, Los Alamos had blossomed into a top-secret community – the government went so far as to give the laboratory its own county, which still exists today. Scientists worked around the clock to weaponize the atom, and within 2 years their dream became a reality.
Los Alamos during wartime. Via Wikimedia Commons.
One researcher, Robert Krohn, foresaw the potential historical value of the undertaking and began to quietly collect items related to the Manhattan Project. This collection earned the approval of the lab’s director, Norris Bradbury, and the items were put on display – anyone with the proper security clearance could view them. After the war, the Bradbury Museum was opened to show the public these atomic artifacts. As items became declassified, they would be moved from the military-only display to the public museum.
Today, the Bradbury Museum hosts a variety of exhibits related to the Manhattan Project, from the leaflets dropped on Hiroshima to warn of an impending nuclear attack to replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man themselves. The majority of Los Alamos, however, remains off-limits behind the gates of the still operational National Laboratory.
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Not all of New Mexico’s atomic history is associated with violence. By the late 1950s, the government had authorized Operation Plowshare, which aimed to find peaceful uses for nuclear explosives. Project Gnome was one of the resulting tests. Conducted in a salt-rich area of southeastern New Mexico (see map), its goal was to see if a nuclear explosion could generate steam power. Scientists believed that by detonating an atomic bomb underground, they would superheat the underlying salt deposits, which they could then pipe water through to create steam.
The test was conducted on December 10, 1961, nearly 2,000 feet below the surface. The blast created a massive underground cavern and sent plumes of radioactive steam shooting into the air. When crews entered the cavern six months later, temperatures were still up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and the intense radiation had dyed the salt on the cavern walls vivid shades of blue, green, and purple. However, the explosion had also caused tons of rock to collapse onto the superheated salt, effectively smothering any chance of efficient steam power. Project Gnome was deemed unsuccessful.
Cavern created by Project Gnome. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The remote test site is still accessible, if a little hard to find. All that remains are a few rusting pipes and a plaque marking the event. Still a cool place to visit when you consider what lies below!
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After the failure of Project Gnome, the scientists working on Operation Plowshare turned to another form of energy: natural gas. They believed that in the right conditions, an underground nuclear detonation could create fissures in the underlying bedrock, releasing large quantities of gas. Essentially, Project Gasbuggy was one of the first large-scale fracking tests in the US. Scientists chose a remote location in northwestern New Mexico (see map) for the project, where they knew there were large gas deposits hidden beneath the sandstone. A hole was drilled 4,240 feet below the surface, and a 29-kiloton atomic bomb was dropped in. On December 10, 1967, the explosive was detonated.
The blast knocked people off of their feet up to two miles away, and created a wide depression on the surface that can still be seen today. More importantly, the test yielded a massive amount of natural gas, and was called a resounding success by field researchers. However, much of this gas proved to be too radioactive to use for commercial purposes. Nevertheless, Gasbuggy showed enough promise to pave the way for two similar tests in Colorado. Both of these explosions were plagued with similar radioactivity problems, and by 1975 Operation Plowshare had run out of funding to continue testing. While Gasbuggy eventually ended in failure like its cousin Gnome, it ultimately paved the way for hydraulic fracking, which is still used (and hotly debated) today.
Project Gasbuggy. My own photo.
Like the Project Gnome site, there isn’t much left to see at the Project Gasbuggy site, save for a pair of informational plaques. You can still make out the depression caused by the explosion, and visitors are warned not to dig anywhere in the surrounding area lest they stir up radioactive isotopes. The drive to the site, however, is a stunning meander through the backwoods of the Carson National Forest – the journey makes the destination worth it.
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New Mexico’s final atomic site is an invention which could only have come from the insanity of the Cold War. The idea behind the Atomic Cannon was simple: if you built a big enough cannon, it could fire a nuclear bomb far enough to kill your enemies while also not killing you. The cannon, nicknamed Atomic Annie, weighed a whopping 83 tons and was 85 feet long – nearly 40 feet was dedicated to the massive barrel. The cartoonishly large gun was successfully tested in Nevada in 1953; after the initial test 20 cannons in total were produced.
“Atomic Annie.” Photo by Kelly Michals on Flickr (cc)
The Atomic Cannon’s ridiculousness is highlighted by its range. It could fire a warhead just about exactly 20 miles, its maximum range; any shorter, and the cannon’s operators risked exposure to the fallout from the blast. The weapon was deployed to US bases throughout the world, and was practically obsolete from the moment it was rolled out. After all, why fire an A-bomb from a cannon when you have ICBMs? Still, the humongous gun was a point of pride for the military, and it was therefore not officially retired from active duty until 1963.
Today, only 7 atomic cannons survive, and only 2 have all their original parts. One of these two behemoths can be seen at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque (see map). The museum also has a wide variety of nuclear warheads (disarmed, of course) on display for your viewing pleasure.
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