The fascinating ways in which mankind has harnessed the atom — from restoring health to waging war — are examined at this collection in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
By Bill Montfort, F216177
Since the beginning of civilization, man has sought a bigger stick — to protect his family, keep the belongings that were his, and, on occasion, to take the things that weren’t. This most likely will continue until his time on Earth is finished.
In the early morning of July 16, 1945, in the bleak desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on a site code-named “Trinity,” man found the ultimate ”stick.” With a flash as bright as a thousand suns and an earth-gouging roar, the first atomic weapon was exploded. At last, man had the means to end wars, reshuffle borders, reshape political thinking, and to destroy himself.
In the ensuing years, billions of dollars have been spent — and almost as many brain cells — to refine and hone that original weapon. What began as a single atomic bomb that taxed the lifting capability of the biggest airplane of its day can now be made small enough to be bunched under the wings of a fighter plane. They can be dropped, lobbed, rocketed, buried, shot out of a cannon, or carried in a satchel scarcely bigger than a bowling ball.
It is virtually impossible to escape the consequences of that morning in 1945, and regardless of your politics or leanings, you must admit that nuclear weapons are a part of our everyday lives. Rarely a day goes by that there is not a reference in the media to nuclear weapons, either here or abroad. They are indeed a part of our history and indelibly woven into the fabric of our future.
If “to see a thing is to begin to understand it,” then the place for you to visit to gain some nuclear knowledge is the National Atomic Museum, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Be assured that you do not have to be an aficionado of war, airplanes, and bombs to appreciate what you will see there.
When the museum opened in 1969 at the Kirtland Air Force Base, it was called the Sandia Atomic Museum and was under the administration of the Defense Atomic Support Agency. In 1991, by an act of Congress, it was officially chartered as the official Atomic Museum of the United States, and was made a “central repository of information and items reflecting the Atomic Age.”
On September 11, 2001, at 10:30 a.m., the National Atomic Museum closed to the public. Security concerns at Kirtland Air Force Base made it impossible for the public to enter the compound, and thus, the museum. So, on May 11, 2002, the museum reopened at a new location in Albuquerque’s Old Town historic district.
Because of space configurations and the museum’s overall mission, several exhibits had to be changed. Huge planes and missiles that were displayed outdoors at the Air Force base now are awaiting their new, permanent home at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta grounds. The new museum will be called the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History and is scheduled to open in 2006.
However, the atomic bombs that dominated the exhibits at the museum in the past are still displayed. And now the museum offers more displays that highlight other important uses for radioactive elements.
For example, each day more than 40,000 people benefit from medical nuclear radioisotopes used to help diagnose or treat disease. Many of us owe our lives to the peaceful application of the atom. The museum’s Nuclear Medicine exhibit also proves that maintaining health is not an exact science. On display is a pottery crock from the early 1900s called the “Revigorator” that was lined with radium ore. Users were to fill it each night with water and then drink six or more glasses of it daily. Thankfully, that practice ended in the early 1920s.
An interactive exhibit at the museum called X is for X-Ray was recently on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. It offers insights into how X-ray technology has been used in the past, as well as its current applications.
An exhibit about Marie Curie shows how this one woman shaped and influenced science by her work with radioactive elements. And the ZOOMzone exhibit intrigues children who have inquisitive minds as they try science activities, puzzles, and brain teasers.
At the Mystery Theater, you can watch a variety of films that cover different issues related to nuclear power. A historical black-and-white documentary called Ten Seconds That Shook The World, about the development and test of the first atomic bomb, is presented, as is a newer documentary called Commitment To Peace about the Cold War. Displays chronicling the Manhattan Project are particularly well done, and friendly docents are available to answer any questions.
After being shrouded in secrecy for so long, the shells of many atomic bombs are at the museum, in the open for all to see. Their development is chronologically displayed, beginning with the bulky, terribly heavy devices of the beginning years and culminating in the sleek and sophisticated shapes of today’s bombs. And if you really want small, check out the “Davy Crockett” atomic warhead. It’s 2-1/2 feet long, weighs only 76 pounds, and is not even a foot in diameter. It was retired from U.S. military stockpiles in 1971, which makes one wonder how small such devices could be today.
As you survey the aerial bombs, depth bombs, torpedoes, Army and Navy projectiles, rockets, ICBM warheads, and other devices, the tremendous variety of shapes and sizes of the weapons is apparent. Some were outfitted with parachutes; others had rocket boosters; one had a “cookie cutter” nose. Their design was determined by their application, and the Navy’s needs were different from those of the Air Force, as were those of the Army and Marines. Time, technology, and budgets have changed much of that. In the early 1960s the Navy had at least a dozen specific nuclear weapons; today, the fleet is supposedly equipped only with the Trident submarine-launched missile and the Tomahawk cruise missile.
It’s a bit surprising to see the museum’s exhibit of Russian nuclear weapon technology. The display consists mainly of film and photographs, but it still makes an impression on visitors. A brief film shows Russia’s 1961 detonation of the largest thermonuclear explosion ever set off by man. With a yield of more than 57 megatons, this terrible weapon was never tested again. What’s even more striking, however, is a small photograph of the very first Russian atomic bomb (1949). It is an almost perfect copy of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Spies and intrigue aside, the resemblance is uncanny, all the way down to the paint job.
“Brothers” of America’s first two atomic bombs are on display. These bombs were built at the same time as the original atomic weapons that were used against Japan, and are identical to them, except that they contain no nuclear material. The Hiroshima bomb, dropped on August 6, 1945, strangely enough, was never tested ahead of time. It was a gun-type weapon wherein two separate pieces of fissionable uranium were suddenly brought together. Scientists were so confident that it would explode that it was used first. The bomb, legend has it, was named after President Franklin Roosevelt, who had died several months earlier, and called “Little Boy.” Its much larger cousin, the Nagasaki bomb, was named for Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and nicknamed “Fat Man.” Dropped on August 9, 1945, “Fat Man” was an implosion bomb and was the type first tested at the Trinity test site less than a month previously. The implosion-type warhead is the most common design today.
Obviously, when dealing with highly explosive and radioactive materials, safety is of paramount consideration. Between 1950 and 1980, 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons were reported. Considering the thousands of weapons being handled, trucked, flown, and shipped in those years, the record is not a bad one. Perhaps the worst incident occurred on January 17, 1966, over Palomares, Spain, when a B-52 bomber and its KC-135 tanker collided. The bomber was carrying four “war-ready” Mark 28 thermonuclear weapons. Three bombs fell on land and one was found 80 days later offshore in 2,500 feet of water. Two of the Mark 28s that fell to earth exploded, spreading radioactive contamination over a wide area. The explosions were non-nuclear and involved only the explosive material surrounding the nuclear core. The two salvaged weapons are displayed at the museum.
The museum and its staff have done a wonderful job preparing and explaining the exhibits. You may be left with a final impression as you look upon a highly polished, white, shining thermonuclear weapon with its colorful handling gear and bright red bags hung on its sides. There is almost a beauty in its graceful symmetry; you may well have to remind yourself of the horrible nature of its purpose.
The National Atomic Museum is now located at 1905 Mountain Road N.W. near the historic Old Town Albuquerque district. It is within walking distance of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, as well as other attractions in the Old Town area and is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and youth ages 7 to 18, and free for children 6 and under.
For more information, contact:
National Atomic Museum
P.O. Box 5800, MS 1490
Albuquerque, NM 87185-1490
For more information about attractions in the Albuquerque area, as well as area campgrounds, contact:
Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau
20 First Plaza N.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87125-6866
Fax: (505) 247-9101