Visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum

manhattan wgn tv series posterI’m a history buff, and while there are thousands of years of history for civilization, there are only specific periods of time and events that catch my interest. The history of England, Russia in the early 1900s, and both WWII and the Vietnam war are intriguing to me, though the Korean War and the Spanish-American War? Not so much. And World War II fascinates me. Has there ever been a moment in world history where the differences between right and wrong simultaneously were so stark and so muddied?

Thanks to the terrific TV series Manhattan that aired on WGN late in 2014, my interest in the atomic bomb and its development was piqued a few months ago, and since then I’ve corresponded with the people at the Atomic Heritage Foundation, watched a variety of documentaries on the era and its scientists (I recommend The Day After Trinity), and done some related reading. What’s more, just outside of Boulder, Colorado, my home town, is Rocky Flats, a nuclear weapons production facility that closed down in 1989 and remains a controversial site due to the questionable efficacy of the subsequent “super fund” clean-up efforts.

It was therefore a no-brainer that when I came out to Las Vegas for the National Association of Broadcasters / New Media Expo trade shows, I’d want to stop by the National Atomic Testing Museum. It’s close enough to the Las Vegas strip that you can walk it if you’re earnest, it’s on the same road as Bally’s and the Westin, though a taxi or bus might be an easier journey, particularly in the heat of the summer.

This time there was also an entertaining, albeit somewhat amateurishly produced “Area 51” exhibit, that began with a warning that nothing was to be photographed or videotaped in that area:

area 51 exhibit - no photos

In fact it was definitely an adjunct but in no way worth the price of admission, or even its own admission ticket. Still, it highlights some of the conflicting data surrounding various incidents that might or might not have involved unidentified flying objects, notably an incident outside Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947. Are there aliens out there, flying around Earth to see what we’re doing? Maybe. Are they well represented in this exhibit? Not so much. Sorry Agent Mulder.

The main Atomic Testing Museum exhibit is dramatically different, however, a well designed, beautifully presented journey through the early days of the race to create the atomic bomb during WWII, the release of an untested uranium-based atomic bomb by the United States over Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and then, after the Japanese didn’t surrender, another bomb, this one using plutonium as its fissionable material, over Nagasaki three days later.

Should the bombs have been dropped? It’s up for historical debate, as highlighted in the museum, because at that moment there were military estimates of over a million potential casualties if the Allies invaded Japan to force the end of the war. It’s a horrible mathematical equation, but when it’s us versus them, as all wars ultimate reduce to, then it’s always “them” who suffer.

After the atomic bomb hastened the end of the War in the Pacific theater, most everyone involved realized that its incredible destructive power was folly and vowed to “never again” detonate an a-bomb in a populated area. But that was also the spark that lit the cold war: The Russians were allegedly “incredibly close” to having an atomic bomb of their own when we dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Hitler was certainly pushing aggressively for the Germans to figure out the secrets of the atomic bomb before the Axis was defeated in Europe.

During the subsequent years, increasingly sophisticated bombs were developed, including hydrogen bombs 1000x more powerful than either “Fat Man” or “Little Boy” dropped over Japan, and in the height of the madness, Khrushchev and JFK signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the beginning of restoring sanity to a world overrun with nuclear bombs.

All of this is explored in the National Atomic Testing Museum and while it was frustrating that a slow-talking docent clogged up the path with his group, the visit was still time well spent, both informative and intriguing. I recommend this for anyone visiting Las Vegas and anyone with children who are in at least their early teens (younger than that and they’ll have no idea what’s going on or what it all means).

Here are some photos I took during my own visit, with commentary:

mushroom cloud behind las vegas downtown, circa 1965

Watching the a-bomb tests and spotting the clouds on the horizon used to be quite popular for the Las Vegas crowd. Notice the mushroom cloud in the background of the above picture.

Far more frightening were the pictures from the actual detonations, notably this amazing photo from Nagasaki:

nagasaki explosion, 1945

Photo taken of the Nagasaki explosion, August 9, 1945. The bomb instantly killed over 40,000 people.

The so-called Atomic Age also included plenty of civil defense and preparedness in the United States throughout the 50’s and early 60’s as we lived in constant fear that the “Ruskies” would start WWIII by launching its arsenal of a-bombs at the United States.

In response, Civil Defense had children doing drop-and-cover drills under their desks (because a desk is perfectly logical protection from an atomic bomb) and CD issued documents like this alarming manual:

state of nevada operational survival plan book

It actually became rather trendy to have a “bomb shelter” in the basement or backyard as a reaction to the Cold War and the constant fear of nuclear attack, though whether any of those would have been sufficient protection from the explosion and subsequent radiation are questionable.

At the Nuclear Testing Site, workers interspersed the mundane – a bowling trophy – with the alarming – the latest data on plutonium purification tests, as shown in this recreated 50’s era office:

50's era office

Not a single wifi connection in sight, and no charging docks for cellphones. But in addition to the typewriter on the desk, notice the teletype on the left (black with white paper) and the free-standing ashtray for cigarette butts.

Starting in 1963, all above-ground nuclear bomb tests were prohibited (thanks JFK) so underground test technologies needed to be developed. In the museum interior shot below, you can see part of a containment tunnel structure is integrated into the exhibit:

interior shot, national atomic testing museum

As you can see, the museum is very well laid out and darn interesting.

One more photo, a close-up of the 50’s era Defense Nuclear Agency logo:

defense nuclear agency logo

What I find notable about this are the design elements of the nuclear “mushroom” clouds in the background, with a “shield” of arrows superimposed, and a chain surrounding the entire thing. I can just hear a General explaining “peace through armaments”.

The last portion of the museum is an exhibit related to the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, including a portion of a steel I-beam. I’m not sure how that relates to Atomic Testing, but it’s still a sobering reminder that we don’t need massive weaponry to do harm to fellow humans.

All in all, a very good museum, well worth a visit.

The National Atomic Testing Museum, 755 E Flamingo Rd, Las Vegas.

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