Retracing New Mexico's atomic landmarks.
EVER SINCE SPANISH explorers struggled over its harsh terrain, this scorching alkaline flat southeast of Socorro has been known as Jornada del Muerto: Journey of Death. It's an evocative name; even when you cross it by car, this barren landscape can still be intimidating. But the centuries-old name takes on a peculiar and prophetic resonance when you stop and contemplate this site's role as the place where the first atomic bomb was tested.
That test--on July 16, 1945--marked not only a turning point in World War II but the start of the Atomic Age. It was the culmination of work on the Manhattan Project, an amazing technological achievement that began 50 years ago at Los Alamos, northwest of Santa Fe.
At the blast site, a pilgrimage of sorts takes place twice a year when the Army opens up a section of the White Sands Missile Range and allows the public to visit Ground Zero: Trinity Site, the precise spot where the world changed.
Trinity Site even has its own special kind of dirt: an eerie green glassy substance known as Trinitite, produced by the intense heat of the atomic explosion. Most of this radioactive debris has been cleaned up. Except for the twisted stubs of the bomb tower and some broken and charred electrical poles, there's little hint of the blast's immense force.
And yet this spot has an undeniable power and always draws big crowds. With headlights on, cars snake for miles in an orderly single file behind a military escort. To be sure, there are some signs of frivolity: T-shirts for sale; kids playing in the remains of Jumbo, the giant steel vessel originally designed to contain the bomb's precious plutonium for reuse in the event of an unsuccessful test. But, for the most part, the crowd is subdued, with little clowning and occasional tears, as everyone takes turns posing in front of a black obelisk that marks Ground Zero like some historic exclamation mark.
LOS ALAMOS: EPICENTER OF THE MANHATTAN PROJECT
Almost 200 miles north of Trinity Site, scientists and their families at Los Alamos were able to see a bright light from the 18-kiloton blast. To look at the dramatic volcanic terrain around Los Alamos, it's hard to imagine a spot more removed from the conflicts of World War II or with a natural beauty more opposed to a belief in technological solutions. But these very ironies helped lead to the area's selection for this unprecedented military and scientific effort.
The government was searching for a remote spot that met five basic conditions for the Manhattan Project; Los Alamos satisfied all of them and had something else as well. Years earlier, the project's lead scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had visited during a horseback trip from his summer home on the opposite side of the Rio Grande valley. His affection for this land may not have been a deciding factor, but it certainly didn't hurt: Oppenheimer had once written to a friend, "My two great loves are physics and desert country. It's a pity they can't be combined."
Originally, project planners expected the existing buildings of Los Alamos Ranch School to provide enough housing for the 30 project scientists. But it soon became apparent that the Manhattan Project would require considerably more laboratory personnel (eventually 2,500), and in 1943 the instant city of Los Alamos was born.
After reporting to 109 E. Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, project personnel disappeared into what proved to be the world's most cosmopolitan small town. Here, world-famous scientists including Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman lived a secret life in a place that didn't officially exist.
While scientists worked against time, families tried to live as normal a life as possible. For children growing up in wartime, family life in Los Alamos included having a renowned physicist (and spy) like Klaus Fuchs for a babysitter, hearing Native American legends from Pueblo Indian maids, and being shaken by periodic blasts from the lab.
Today in Los Alamos, most of the original lab buildings where Oppenheimer and his colleagues labored are gone. But there are plenty of reminders of its special place in history, whether you find yourself at the corner of Oppenheimer and Trinity drives or inside local museums.
Bradbury Science Museum. A great stop for Los Alamos and Manhattan Project history, this museum blends interactive exhibits with a variety of historic documents, including the letter that Albert Einstein wrote President Franklin D. Roosevelt in support of atomic bomb development. Actual disarmed atomic bombs seem surprisingly small, which makes the physics behind them all the more intriguing. The museum is open 9 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays, 1 to 5 Saturdays through Mondays. Admission is free. For information, call (505) 667-4444.
Los Alamos Historical Museum. A small museum in one of the ranch school's original buildings, this facility offers both local history and exhibits focusing on the Manhattan Project. Be sure to pick up a self-guided tour brochure that takes you past a variety of surviving project buildings, including the houses of Bathtub Row, where Oppenheimer and other leading scientists lived, and Fuller Lodge, a center of activity for the town's wartime residents. The museum is open 9:30 to 4:30 daily except 11 to 5 Sundays. Admission is free. Call 662-6272.
OTHER ATOMIC SITES
National Atomic Museum, Albuquerque. The museum's home, Kirtland Air Force Base, played a secondary but still important role in the development of the bomb. Key project figures like Major General Leslie R. Groves flew into the base, and the actual bomb components used in the August 6, 1945, attack on Hiroshima were flown out of Kirtland. Exhibits at the museum include a B-52 and several generations of weaponry. Admission includes a showing of a classic documentary on the development of the bomb. Entry is through the base's Wyoming Gate; hours are 9 to 5 daily. Admission is free. Call 845-6670 for more information.
Owl Bar and Cafe, San Antonio. Oppenheimer's frequent trips between Los Alamos and Trinity Site often included stops at this now-legendary eatery just off Interstate 25 about 10 miles south of Socorro. History aside, you can't go wrong by ordering a green chile cheeseburger.
Trinity Site, near Socorro. The site's next open house is October 2. In addition to Ground Zero, you can visit the ranch house where the bomb was actually assembled, and get some sense of the weird mix of summer camp and world history that characterized the days leading up to the bomb's detonation. Another open house is scheduled for the first Saturday in April 1994. The site otherwise remains closed to the public.
The site still has radiation; pregnant women and small children are potentially more at risk than the rest of the population, according to the White Sands Missile Range public affairs office. Trinity Site's entrance is 12 miles east of I-25 on U.S. Highway 380, then south 5 miles on Range Road. For information, call the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce at 437-6120 or the missile range at 678-1134.